Last Updated on January 10, 2022 by CanaryDevelopmentAdmin

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Naming Canary Wharf


How the docklands area got its name

Canary Wharf is a household name. Primarily known for finance, the area is now well-connected, home to some of the UK’s tallest buildings, and renowned for its high salaries!

But it hasn’t always been this way. The Isle of Dogs has a long and winding history, but the upper portion of docklands area only became known as Canary Wharf relatively recently.

Here’s the backstory to how Canary Wharf got its name, and a brief overview of the area’s history.


When did the area become known as Canary Wharf?

Canary Wharf officially took its name in 1937 — a result of 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 2900 km away, we need to go back through a very brief overview of the areas history.

A brief history of the docklands

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 : Flooded marshland
  • 1700s – 1800s : Farmland alongside windmills on the tops of the western embankments, hence the name Mill Harbour
  • 1800s – 1960s : Commercial docklands
  • 1980s – present day : Global financial centre and residential hub
canary-wharf-construction-site-late-1970s-why-is-canary-wharf-called-canary-wharf
Remnants of the three main docks before Canary Wharf began Construction. Late 1970s

In the present day, the area is well known for its financial status. However, arguably the Canary Wharf area’s most famous period was its time as a commercial docklands.

  • Docklands activity peaked in London throughout the 1800’s, at the height of the British Empire.
  • As the boats got bigger and bigger, docks moved further away from the congested centre of London towards the Thames Estuary.
  • The first docks on the Isle of Dogs were opened on 22nd August, 1802.
  • In the late 1800s, the construction of Royal Albert dock was completed, making the area now known as Canary Wharf, the largest dock in the world.

A connection to 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 plenty of unsuccessful — attempts to settle there.

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 plenty of unsuccessful — attempts to settle there.

coloured-streets-of-canary-islands-why-is-canary-wharf-called-canary-wharf
The colourful streets of Gran Canaria seem a world away from Canary Wharf

Horatio Nelson famously lost his arm in a battle over Tenerife in 1797.

There have been attempts to conquer the islands by the Spanish: French, Italians, British and the Portuguese amongst others!

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

How did the Canary Islands, become intertwined with London, and Canary Wharf? The connection lies in their location, and its longstanding ties to international shipping routes.

  • Due to their location — off the northwestern coast of Africa — and temperate climate, the Canary Islands provided an ideal point for acclimatisation and restocking in the Age of Discovery.
  • 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.
  • Later, the islands became a hub for Spanish ships stopping to restock before the arduous journey to the New World across the Atlantic.
  • This strategic location meant that in the 1940s the Canaries remained a key point for refuelling coal powered steam ships before journeys across the Atlantic.

The 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.

With the East London docks one of the largest in the world throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s — a shipping period that required stops at the Canary Islands enroute — the connection between the Canary Islands strengthened.

There are countless articles on the naming of the Canaries Islands, with two commonly repeated themes:

  • The Canary Islands are named after giant dogs
  • The Canary Islands are named after Canary birds

In truth, the exact naming of the Islands is heavily debated. While many argue that Canary Islands were named after the brightly coloured Canary birds found there, some think that Canary birds took their name from the Canary Islands. There are entire lists 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 Canarians raised on the islands.

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

Why it became known as Canary Wharf

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

  1. The Canary Islands, as an important refuelling point for coal fired ships, had not only plenty of passing boats, but dedicated coal transport ships to restock the Island’s coal stocks.
  2. The Islands also had a climate ripe for growing exotic fruit and vegetables, and with the shipping links already in place, began to export these cash crops back to the UK.
  3. Initially the import of bananas started as a means to fill the empty restocking boats returning from the Canaries.
  4. 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.

Nautical themed names

Keeping the docklands history alive is popular with developers of new-build and renovation projects alike.

As a result, many of the newest developments in the Isle of Dogs area still sport names dating back to their original docklands usage!

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 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.

In addition, 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 often also referred to as Quays. As examples, South Quay and West India Quay — now both sporting flagship local developments — 1 West India Quay and South Quay Plaza.

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