Why is it called Canary Wharf?

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canary-wharf-view-greenwich-park

Naming Canary Wharf


A view from Greenwich Park

When did the area become known as Canary Wharf?

Canary Wharf took its name in 1937, due to the areas docklands history and its close links with the Canary Islands.

To find out why this small area of East London is associated with a collection of 8 tiny Islands 2900km away, we need to go back through a very brief overview of the areas history.

The docklands brief history

This part of East London has had its fair share of change over the years:

  • Up until the 1200s : Uninhabited marshland
  • 1200s – 1400s : Arable farmland
  • 1400s – 1700s : Periods of flooded marshland again
  • 1800s – 1960s : Commercial docklands

The area eventually settled on, and is most famous for becoming, a commercial docklands. In the late 1800s with the construction of Royal Albert dock it was the largest dock in the world.

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Remnants of the three main docks before Canary Wharf began Construction. Late 1970s

Why the Canary Islands?

The Canary Islands are found off the coast of north Africa, and have their own colourful history. Over the years the islands have been embroiled in many successful and less successful attempts to settle there.

Horatio Nelson famously lost his arm in a battle over Tenerife in 1797, and there has been attempts to conquer the islands by the Spanish: French, Italians, British and the Portuguese amongst others!

However, the islands officially became, and remain, Spanish territory after becoming part of the house of Castile in 1490.

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The colourful streets of Gran Canaria seem a world away from Canary Wharf

Since the 1940s the Canary Islands have been used as an important sailing port due to their location, with Spanish ships stopping there to restock before the arduous journey to the New World across the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus used one of the smallest of the 8 islands, La Gomera, as his final stop before journeying across the Atlantic to explore the Americas.

The Canary Islands remained an important staging post for crossing the atlantic for several hundred years. Ships continued to restock, first on food supplies, and as they advanced into the steamer age, coal supplies, for their journey.

Why it became known as Canary Wharf

Fast forward to the early 1900s, and the connection between the Canary Islands and this area of the London Docklands, now know as Canary Wharf, finally begins.

The Canary Islands, with their climate ripe for growing exotic fruit and vegetables, began to export these cash crops back to the UK.

Initially the import of bananas started as a means to fill the empty restocking boats returning from the Canaries. Later, as the reliance on coal waned, and stopping at the Canary Islands before crossing the Atlantic no longer became necessary, the import trade continued in its own right.

This booming import business with a continuous supply of fruit ships arriving into the docks at Londons docklands, now called South Quay, prompted the fruit ship unloading dock to be referred to as the Canary docks.

Allegedly in 1937, when the import business “Let to Fruit Lines Limited” took over one of the docks full time, the Canary Wharf name became official.

A modern tribute to the crops imported from the Canary Islands and all over the world, can be seen at Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf’s crossrail station. Planting representing a selection of the cash crops brought to the docks has been created in the roof garden, a great free to visit public space in Canary Wharf.

Why are they called the Canary Islands?

Having read countless articles on the Canaries, there are three things that are commonly repeated:

  • The Canary Islands are named after giant dogs
  • The Canary Islands are not named after the giant dogs!
  • Canary birds are named after the Islands, not the Islands after the birds

There is an entire list of possible reasons for the naming of the Canary Islands. However, the most commonly repeated explanation is that the Islands were named after the giant dogs, Presa Canarias that native Canarian’s raised on the islands.

Gran Canaria presa Canario dog
Gran Canaria, the island of giant dogs : Presa Canarios

Why is Canary Wharf called a Wharf?

Some people make references to wharf being related to the warehouses themselves, and there are plenty of warehouse conversions along the shore all called wharves. There is also an urban myth that wharf is an acronym for “warehouse at river front”, but it doesn’t really stack up.

Wharf, quay, pier, and dock, are all seemingly interchangeable. They are all describing a man-made structure where boats are unloaded.

Besides, due to the complete overhaul in the 1980s the Canary Wharf estate is one of the few places in the docklands area that doesn’t really have any original warehouses that remain. Those warehouses that do remain are also quite often also referred to as Quays. As examples, South Quay and West India Quay.

So as to why the modern area is now called Canary Wharf? Luck really, it could quite easily have been possible for the area to be known as Canary Quay.