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The History of Canning Town

Charles John Canning (1812-1862), 1st Viceroy of India, may have been the one who gave the name Canning Town to the district. In 1836 he was the MP for Warwick and the following year he became Viscount Canning and worked in various ministries under Peel and Palmerston before he was promoted to Indian Governor. He received an Earldom in 1859 a year after he became 1st Viceroy. Although Canning had no connections to West Ham, Charles J Mare may have given the name as a mark of political respect. Charles Mare was the pioneer who founded the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company on the river Lea in 1846.

An area north of Canning Town station, previously called Barking Road station, was called Canning Town ward and the town was built after the opening of the station in 1847. It was helped by the opening of the railway, a branch of the Great Eastern railway, which reached North Woolwich from Stratford in 1847. The Royal Victoria Dock opened in 1855 and many houses were built to house the workers. The housing development spread across Plaistow marsh between Barking Road and the Dock. Originally called Plaistow New Town the whole area became Canning Town by 1868.

The housing was squalid, built cheaply by inexperienced builders and by landlords that were not around to oversee it. There was no mains drainage and the sewage was thrown into the same rivers that the drinking water was taken from. Unsurprisingly there was a cholera epidemic and in 1855 a Board of Health enquiry was so shocked by the disgraceful and miserable conditions that a year later a local Board of Health was set up to remedy the situation.


The Royal Docks were the first to build an internal railway that carried large numbers of passengers and cargo. The whole area had massive job opportunities and this encouraged the migration of Irish, Scots, Germans, East Europeans, and some of the earliest West Indians to settle here. The poor social conditions bred discontent and the trade union activity caused Union agitation, which by 1889 had affected Beckton Gasworks and the Docks

The Beckton gasworks’ agitation originated in Canning Town where most of the workers were living. This union became the General, Municipal and Boilermakers Union that managed to get the gas workers an 8hour day. During August and September 1889 the Dockers’ Tanner strike was fought for a 6d an hour with 2/- a day minimum pay and to abolish 'piece work’. They won certain pay rises but the way the workers were taken on each day remained the same. The men had to wait each day hoping for employment and often fighting each other for it.

In addition to the gasworks and the docks there were some smaller factories. The Ceylon Mill made coconut matting and opened in 1890, the printing ink and varnish works and the glass bottle works were opened in 1890 and the Paragon Papermaking Works opened in 1893. The Paragon Works was the largest of these factories and was the pioneer of office stationary making chequebooks, typewriter ribbons, loose-leaf binders and other stationary items. The factory grew over the years and by 1936 was employing several hundred people.