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Even Thames Armada and sheep couldn’t stop Docklands invasion of Isle of Dogs

PUBLISHED: 15:38 02 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 02 October 2017

1985 Protest Armada sails up the Thames to the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Mike Seaborne

1985 Protest Armada sails up the Thames to the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Mike Seaborne

Mike Seaborne

The transformation of Docklands into the Canary Wharf world-class commercial hub more than 30 years ago didn’t go without mass protest from the community, a touring exhibition this week reveals.

1985 Islanders waiting for boat to join ‘Docklands Armada’ flotilla of decorated boats protesting against redevelopment. Picture: Mike Seaborne1985 Islanders waiting for boat to join ‘Docklands Armada’ flotilla of decorated boats protesting against redevelopment. Picture: Mike Seaborne

A heard of sheep let loose and a ‘battle’ armada up the Thames to Parliament was part of a long-running campaign against the developers in the 1970s and 80s.

The exhibition of photographs and posters from those controversial years and what happened to the community that was there before is currently touring the Isle of Dogs—which was at the centre of the protest movement.

It includes audio testimonies from the time that brings to life the biggest transformation east London has ever known.

Sheep hearded by protesters to disrupt Bank of England Governor Robert Pemberton speaking at Docklands Deverlopment Corporation meeting. Picture: Mike SeaborneSheep hearded by protesters to disrupt Bank of England Governor Robert Pemberton speaking at Docklands Deverlopment Corporation meeting. Picture: Mike Seaborne

The old London, Millwall and Royal docks were closing down to the cargo trade which hit hard the communities along the Thames waterfront. For every job lost in the docks, four more were lost in service industries. Unemployment rocketed.

A Joint Docklands Action group was set up in 1973 working with the Docklands Forum of east London boroughs to protect the working-class communities.

But control was taken out of their hands when the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up under the Thatcher government in 1981 with unlimited powers to transform Docklands.

1986 Islanders dress in black mourned death of the community by developers and property speculators, taking coffin round Isle of Dogs with mock ‘funeral’ at Canary Wharf, proposed site of new financial centre. Picture: Mike Seaborne1986 Islanders dress in black mourned death of the community by developers and property speculators, taking coffin round Isle of Dogs with mock ‘funeral’ at Canary Wharf, proposed site of new financial centre. Picture: Mike Seaborne

“There was no local accountability,” exhibition coordinator Rachel Oakes recalls.

“Social housing was replaced by luxury apartments. Families felt neglected or ignored.

“The new jobs, it seemed, would not be jobs for them. The shiny new skyscrapers were not for them and expensive new housing was out of their reach.”

1985 It's all over... Millwall Docks are sold off and Canary Wharf business district is about to take over the Isle of Dogs. Picture: Mike Seaborne1985 It's all over... Millwall Docks are sold off and Canary Wharf business district is about to take over the Isle of Dogs. Picture: Mike Seaborne

Many felt powerless and protested. Rebel Tower Hamlets councillor Ted Johns pronounced “UDI” for the Isle of Dogs in 1970, or ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ like the rebel Rhodesia crown colony fiver years before, which was a mass protest that blocked off the island for a day.

Memorable protests included the ‘Armada to Parliament’, the ‘Death of a Community’ march with coffins through the streets and the ‘sheep and bees’ protest that disrupted a Docklands Development Corporation meeting.

The exhibition has opened this week at George Green’s School in Manchester Road, Cubitt Town, and moves onto St John’s Community Centre in Glengall Grove on Saturday until October 20. An ‘eyewitness’ discussion between those who were there at the time is held at St John’s centre on October 18, at 7.30pm.

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