Colman's Wharf History

    This page provides some information about the history of Colman's Wharf and the Spratts Site

Early History - The Spratt's Dog Food Years

In the early twentieth century the Spratt's Works was the largest dog food factory in the world (Illustrated Kennel News, February 12th 1909).

The Spratt's factory was built in the late Victorian period (1887) to make dog food (biscuits). Colman's Wharf was built in 1899 as a delivery warehouse (South end of building), seed packing (middle of building) and grain warehouse (North end of the building). Lime House Cut housed grain warehouses, meal grinding, sand and grit, bakery no 2 and veterinary medicine & laboratory stores. Foundry House housed the power house, bakery no 1, bank and delivery warehouse. Patent House had another delivery warehouse, biscuit packing, another grain warehouse, blacksmiths & wire workers, saw mills, kennel & box makers and the advertising department. The Fawe Street Studios had another grain warehouse, bakeries no 3 & 4 and a flour warehouse (source Illustrated Kennel News, February 12th 1909). Below is a line drawing of the site dated 1909 from the Illustrated Kennel News showing how massive it was then! (For a larger picture click on the image.)

An article in the East London Advertiser (27th January 1994) described how James Spratt set up his business in 1860 and soon his business was "a howling success" (Nick Lipley, 1994). By the time the Spratt's Works (Poplar) was opened besides producing dog biscuits it made ships' biscuits and other pet food (including bird seed).  Under the brand name Poplar" it packed pulses (butter beans, lentils and peas) and traded in live animals (horses, foxes and monkeys) around the world! It supplied biscuits to the troops and Polar explorers

At the end of World War 2 "The impression of inscrutability conveyed by the gaunt impressive is cancelled out by the feverish activity inside" (East London News, May 20th 1949). Besides biscuits, the works was also producing dogs', cats' and birds' medicines, dog shampoos and toilet requisites for animals. Also, at that time, there was a dog-show department - something that, perhaps, related back to James Spratt's  initial 14 year old assistant - the future dog show founder Charles Crufts.

But despite the enthusiasm shown by the East London News, an article in the East London Advertiser (28th July 1950) stated that the Morris Road factory "suffered sever damage as a result of enemy air action" and "the damage to the factory and working machinery made it almost impossible to carry on the work". However, looking at the buildings today, it seems that the damage done was overstated.

The material cited in this early was obtained from the Local History Library and Archives at the Bancroft Library.

Recent History - the Studio Years

In the mid 1980s buildings on the Spratt site including Colman's Wharf were split into studio workshops (live-work units) and sold by Keith Reeves (a sculptor-turned-developer) as empty shells for to leaseholders to fit out  (source Back to the workhouse, Sunday Times 19th February 1989 and my own purchase).

At that time the Spratt's Works was "a hard-working colony whose residents include artists, photographers, the Queen's tapestry restorer, a packaging firm, Spitting Image man Roger Law, and Elizabeth Fritch, a top ceramicist" (Sunday Times, 9/02/1989).

In the beginning, planning permission and the lease restricted the live (residential) accommodation to no more than 50% of the space (the rest up to 100% had to be for business use). In the 1990s, as it became progressively more difficult to get mortgages for properties of this type, the majority of the units changed to become 100% residential.

Each unit was originally sold as a shell with utilities (water, electricity, gas, phone, television and entry phone cables run to the unit but not within the unit). It was up to the leaseholder to fit out the unit - building walls, running utility lines etc. Although it was up to the leaseholder to design his or her own unit, a building regulations necessity was to include a fire lobby. Also, this means that the cabling, walls etc. within each unit are the property of and responsibility of the leaseholder - an important factor to consider when taking out insurance.

Each leaseholder has a share in Colman's Wharf Management Limited - the company responsible for the common areas, lift maintenance, building insurance etc. In the 1990s Colman's Wharf Management Limited bought the freehold of the building. The day-to-day management of the common areas of the building is done by a Managing Agent overseen by several leaseholders acting as unpaid, volunteer directors.

Over this time, the area around Colman's Wharf has changed dramatically with surrounding industrial buildings being progressively replaced by residential blocks and improvements to the Limehouse Cut canal, improved transportation (with the opening of the Langdon Park DLR station) and, some, improvements to Chrisp Street Market.

The information provided in this section is based on my recollections over the last 21 years.

Jeremy J. S. B. Hall,
15th September 2010