This important road has the distinction of having borne during the past hundred years a volume of traffic of the heaviest sort greater than any other in the world. It was made in 1803 as the means of direct communication between the new docks at Blackwall and the City, and soon afterwards it was followed by the making of the East India Dock Road and, a few years later, by that of Barking Road. The completion of the old Iron Bridge over the River Lee caused the Commercial Road westwards of Limehouse Church to become not only the thoroughfare to and from the docks but the main highway between London and Tilbury.
Previous to the nineteenth century the route usually taken by the small amount of traffic from the City to Limehouse was either by Rosemary Lane (Royal Mint Street), Cable Street, Brook Street, and White Horse Street, or by Ratcliff Highway, Broad Street, Butcher Row into White Horse Street, proceeding onward through Rose Lane. All these streets were narrow, and in many ways ill-adapted for the passage of the merchandise that would be unloaded at the docks.
At the instance of the East India Company, an Act of Parliament was obtained for the making of a new wide road beginning at the West India Dock Gate, communicating with Church Lane, Whitechapel. To have continued it beyond would have meant the purchase and demolition of house property, which was prohibitive on account of its cost. Twenty-six years later, in 1828, when another Act enlarging the powers of the original was passed, the occasion was taken to increase the facilities of access into Aldgate by the way of Little Alie Street; but it was not until May 1870 that the extension of the Commercial Road from Church Lane to the well-known Gardiner's Corner was opened, the work having been undertaken by the Metropolitan Board of Works as a public improvement.
In laying out the road the line eastwards more or less followed that of a lane - the longest in the vicinity of the Metropolis - which extended from Goodmans Stile at the back of Whitechapel Church to Ratcliff. It was called White Horse Lane. Just before reaching the Halfway House, now the George Tavern, where another lane (now Charles Street) branched off towards the Parish Church, stood Derans Row, consisting of about a dozen houses, at the end of which was the site of a sometime windmill. After passing here, White Horse Lane took a sudden bend to the south-east at a spot, which may be indicated as lying between Sutton Street and Lucas Street, where there was a plot of ground styled in old maps "Hangman's Acre." The origin of this description is obscure, but the late Sir Walter Besant was pleased to see in the name the identification of "the place beyond East Smithfield" referred to by Stow, where certain pirates were hanged on high ground so that they could be seen from the river.
The lane having turned again to the east (Steele's Lane is a surviving part of it), the Commercial Road, which took a straight course, again came into it at the corner of what is now Albert Square, that space being then occupied by a large pond. The lane, which had gone through marshy fields, entered into the region of houses on reaching Stepney Causeway, and having passed Ratcliff Square (now renamed Ratcliff Cross Street), the old Market Place, it came to an end in the middle of White Horse Street, where, a few yards south, the way onward to Limehouse was continued through Rose Lane. The White Swan public house then faced this lane, and the wide space that forms a feature of its modern frontage to the Commercial Road represents a portion of the yard and garden of the old inn. To form the new approach to Limehouse a cutting was made through White Horse Street, leaving the two parts as they are to-day on either side of the road. The Regent's Canal basin was not yet made, and the way to the docks crossed open land, past the Church into Pennyfields and Blackwall Marsh.
Among the powers authorised by the Commercial Road Act was that of raising the necessary capital required for the undertaking by public subscription on shares secured by mortgage on the revenue to be derived from the tolls payable in respect to the transport of all sorts of vehicles, beasts of burden, cattle, lambs and swine. The control of the road was vested in an appointed body of Trustees, fourteen in number, who had the right in the event of a vacancy occurring of filling it by a fit and proper person with the particular qualification of being possessed of a personal estate to the value of five thousand pounds, or being heir to such an estate, or having an equivalent income so derived. To this body was given the responsibility of the upkeep, the paving, lighting and cleansing of the road, the cost of which was to be met by the rates levied on the occupiers of premises which would be assessed as they were built along it. Until the passing of the Police Act, the watchmen appointed were sworn as constables. The parochial boards had no part in the administration of its affairs, as the Trustees were constituted the statutory authority: they were, in fact, an arbitrary, if not an autocratic, body.
The transformation of the road into a populous neighbourhood began with the establishment of sugar refineries in St. George's-in-the-East, which led to the erection of small houses in mean streets for the accommodation of the workmen, many of whom were of German birth, employed in that industry. Towards Stepney a successful endeavour was made to form an attractive residential district for, comparatively speaking, the well-to-do. There were built better class houses in groups styled "Terraces" and "Places," with imposing names such as Hardwicke and Albany, and streets as Portland and Grosvenor. For a generation all went well, and the appearance of the shops betokened the general prosperity.
In many a home hereabouts the picture of a fine, tall vessel in full sail, the coral in the case, the curious shells, the vases from India and the Far East told their story to the folk in mid-Victorian days, who daily saw conveyed along the road the great bulk of merchandise from distant ports, whose names were as familiar as household words to the wives and families of those who went down to the sea in ships and saw the wonders of the deep.
The generation that saw the Commercial Road in its brightest days passed away, and another followed that found it no longer attractive as domestic life in the locality became less and less associated with the sea. The character of the population altered, the parochial mind changed from one of pride and interest to one of indifference. In the course of years, the road having been numbered in 1874, the "Terraces" and "Places" lost their identity except to the few remaining inhabitants.
The heavy traffic had increased to such an extent that in 1829-30 a stoneway was laid along the southern side of the road. It was formed of blocks of granite eighteen inches wide and twelve inches thick in the manner of a tramway over which the huge vans could be drawn with ease from the docks. A toll was charged for the use of this advantage in addition to the ordinary rate.
The Metropolitan Management Act transferred at Christmas 1855 the responsibility of paving and lighting of the footways to the respective local boards in charge of the districts intersected by the road. The Trustees, however, otherwise continued their authority over it until Saturday, 5 August 1871, when the toll was abolished, the cost of its maintenance became a charge on the rates, and its control passed to public administration : whereupon the road which was in a bad condition was reconstructed.
The fleeting impressions of the Commercial Road about seventy years ago are recorded by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller as a visitor: "Pleasantly wallowing in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare and greatly enjoying the huge piles of buildings belonging to the sugar refiners, the little masts and vanes in small back gardens in back streets, the neighbouring canals and docks, the India vans lumbering along their stone tramway, and the pawnbrokers' shops where hard-up mates had pawned so many sextants and quadrants that I should have bought a few cheap if I had the least notion how to use them."
Another reference by the same author is to be found in Dombey and Son, where it is related that on a dead wall in the Commercial Road "Captain Cuttle bought the ballad of considerable antiquity, which set forth the courtship and nuptials of a promising young coal-whipper and a certain 'lovely Peg.'"
In the illustration [left] is shown the Commercial Road in 1851 spanned at Stepney Station, which was then in Rose Lane, by a bow-string bridge eighty feet in length. At the time it was said that, "notwithstanding the great length of the viaduct and the material [iron] of which it was constructed, it has a light and picturesque appearance." On account of its narrowness it was replaced by a wider bridge in 1874-6 (the work taking two years) and afterwards re-erected across a ravine in Switzerland. The arches of the Blackwall Railway are to be seen passing along side the Regent's Canal Basin where, as a precaution taken in the fear that the sparks from a locomotive should set afire the shipping, the track is hooded. The Commercial Road as here depicted is not quite like what may reasonably have been expected, for indeed it does not convey the idea of much animation, for besides the hearse-like vehicle (an "India" van) progressing along the stone tramway, the Blackwall omnibus taking up passengers, the cabriolet and the gig, there is little to support its reputation of being a busy thoroughfare. It will be further observed that the sides of the road are used for west-bound traffic, and the middle for that going in the opposite direction. The original intention was that the stoneway should be on both the sides, but had it been carried out there would not have been a passage for vehicles for which the stoneway was unnecessary, unless upon payment of the excess toll.
In coming to an end of these brief references to the early years of the Commercial Road, may the prospect to all readers be that its destiny will be more favourable than its present and greater than its past.
by Sydney MaddocksReprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.