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Early foundations[]

Canary Wharf was built at the start of the 19th century as part of the West India Docks, this was to import sugar, rum and coffee from Caribbean plantations, and was funded in part by profits from slavery. Robert Milligan, was the driving force behind the docks, which were designed to make the import of slave-grown goods more efficient.[1]


Canary Wharf, from a high-level walkway on Tower Bridge

In 1984 the restaurateurs the Roux Brothers were looking for several thousand square feet of space to prepare pre-cooked meals. The late Michael von Clemm, chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) and also chairman of Roux Restaurants, was invited for lunch by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) on the boat Res Nova moored alongside Shed 31 at Canary Wharf, to promote the idea of this food packaging factory being based on the Isle of Dogs. Von Clemm came from Boston and when he looked through the porthole at Shed 31, a simple brick-concrete infill, he commented that it reminded him of the warehouses in Boston harbour which had been converted into back offices and small business premises. Reg Ward, at the time LDDC Chief Executive, remembers him suddenly leaning back and saying: "I do not know why we do not go for a shed like 31 as a 200,000 sq ft (20,000 m2) back office."

This led on to discussions at CSFB's offices, during which their American property adviser G Ware Travelstead, said: "We're asking ourselves the wrong question. Of course we can take Shed 31 and convert it into a back office, but we have spent the last five years courting at the Court of the City of London for a new site for a new configuration of building without success. The question is: 'Can we move our front office to the Isle of Dogs?'."

This idea came from a basic need. The Big Bang deregulation of financial services in London had radically changed the way merchant banks operated. Instead of the small, corridor and office based buildings occupied in the traditional square mile, the demand was now for large floor-plate, open plan space which could be used as a trading floor. The Corporation of the City of London had been resisting such development, preferring instead to conserve its historical architecture and views. So banks like CSFB had spent years trying without success to locate suitable space close to the financial heart of London.

At the meeting, Travelstead's idea provoked dissent. Reg Ward, however, agreed with Travelstead and pointed out that Citibank had successfully moved into mid-town New York and had also moved from the central business district in Hong Kong, drawing other users with it. (Eventually it would do the same in Docklands, constructing its own building, Citigroup Centre at Canary Wharf). So Von Clemm and Travelstead decided to take this idea on, committing CSFB to both fund and occupy the new development, and persuading another US Bank with the same issues about space, Morgan Stanley, to join them.

Travelstead managed to persuade the LDDC and the Government of Margaret Thatcher that a new financial services district of ten million square feet, located at the old West India Docks, was viable. He was the first to propose a single main tower, which later became One Canada Square. He proposed building the project as part of a consortium led by his own company The Travelstead Group, together with CSFB and Morgan Stanley. He also brought in Canadian developer Olympia and York, who had recently completed the World Financial Center and Battery Park developments in New York. However, Travelstead was unable to fund his project and in late 1986, CSFB and Morgan Stanley pulled out of the consortium, effectively pulling the plug. However, they remained interested in occupying the development if someone else were to build it.

On 17 July 1987, Olympia and York Canary Wharf Investments and the LDDC signed the Master Building Agreement for a (1.2 million sq.m (12.2 million sq ft) £3 billion international financial centre. The price paid for the 20 acres (81,000 m2) of the 71-acre (290,000 m2) site which the LDDC owned was equivalent to £1 million an acre of which £8 million was payable in cash and £12 million was represented by the developer's commitment to various site works of public benefit.

The idea of a new financial services district was not popular with local residents or their representatives on the Isle of Dogs. Residents' groups including the Association of Island Communities led by individuals such as Ted Johns did not feel that they had been part of the consultation process and did not see that local people would gain any benefit from the development. The expectation was that the development would provide no local jobs or transport improvements. However, over the course of the development relations with the local community have improved and more than 7,000 local (Tower Hamlets) residents now work at Canary Wharf. During a bitter campaign against the LDDC's plans, the residents made their voices heard and gained concessions. One memorable stunt took place at the ground-breaking ceremony for Canary Wharf. With dignitaries and government ministers in attendance the developers were launching their plans. Local campaigners released a flock of sheep from Mudchute Farm into the audience, followed by thousands of live bees. The result was dramatic and local residents' demands were given attention. In 1997, some residents living on the Isle of Dogs launched a lawsuit against Canary Wharf Ltd. which reached the House of Lords (Hunter v. Canary Wharf 1997 AC 665). They sued for private nuisance because the tower caused interference with television signals from the BBC transmitter in Crystal Palace until a relay transmitter was built to overcome these problems. The court found against the appellants (Hunter and others) as private nuisance generally lies for things emanating from a land, not the blocking of something.

Construction of Canary Wharf began in 1988, with phase one completed in 1991. Critically, Olympia and York agreed to meet half the cost of the proposed Jubilee Line extension, seen as vital to the long-term viability of the project. When topped out in 1990, One Canada Square became the UK's tallest building and a powerful symbol of the regeneration of Docklands. The other buildings completed in Phase one include those around Westferry Circus and Cabot Square, and two either side of One Canada Square, now housing the Financial Services Authority and Thomson Reuters. The London commercial property market collapsed in the early 1990s, and Olympia and York Canary Wharf Limited filed for bankruptcy in May 1992. Tenant demand evaporated despite the availability of special rent concessions for early occupiers and Jubilee Line work had not started yet, leaving the development accessible only by the under-specified Docklands Light Railway. The scheme went into administration.

Rescue and recovery[]

Canary Wharf construction in October 2000

In December 1995 an international consortium, backed by the former owners of Olympia & York and other investors, bought the scheme. The new company was called Canary Wharf Limited, and later became Canary Wharf Group, which listed on the London Stock Exchange and later rose to become one of the UK's largest property companies. Paul Reichmann became Chairman again. At the time Canary Wharf came out of administration, its working population was around 13,000 and well over half the office space was empty.

However, recovery in the property market generally, coupled with continuing demand for high floor-plate grade A office accommodation, slowly improved the level of interest in the estate. A critical event in the recovery of Canary Wharf was the much-delayed start of work on the Jubilee Line, which the government wanted ready for the Millennium celebrations. In 1998 the Financial Services Authority moved to Canary Wharf, signalling a shift in the centre of gravity within the financial services sector.

From this point on tenants and workers began to see Canary Wharf as an alternative to traditional office locations. Not only were the remaining phases completed, but new phases were built. From 15,000 in 1999 just before the opening of the Jubilee Line, its working population in 2004 had more than quadrupled to 63,000. Around this time Canary Wharf Group, the scheme's owner became, briefly, the UK's largest property company. In March 2004 Canary Wharf Group plc was taken over by a consortium of investors led by Morgan Stanley using a vehicle named Songbird Estates. Songbird is now listed on the London Stock Exchange's AIM rather than on the Main Market.

n 22 April 1991, two Docklands Light Railway trains collided at a junction on the West India Quay bridge during morning rush hour, requiring a shutdown of the entire system and evacuation of the involved passengers by ladder.[2] One of the two trains was travelling automatically, operating without a driver, while the other was under manual control.[3] The West India Quay Footbridge was designed by Anthony Hunt Associates (now part of SKM) with Future Systems (now Amanda Levete Architects), joint winners of a design competition. Opened in 1996 at a cost of £1.7m, it was fabricated by Littlehampton Welding.[4] Part of the original dock buildings were converted for use as the Museum of London Docklands in 2003.[5]

Entry to the shopping mall

Canary Wharf tenants include major banks, such as Credit Suisse, HSBC, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Northern Trust, and Barclays, law firms such as Clifford Chance, as well as major news media and service firms, including Thomson Reuters, and the Daily Mirror. It has some technology companies, too, including Infosys. It has also gained more tenants from the public sector including the Financial Services Authority and 2012 Olympic Games organisers LOCOG and the ODA.


At the end of 2006 the official number of people employed on the estate was 90,302, of whom around 25% live in the surrounding five boroughs. Increasingly Canary Wharf is becoming a shopping destination, particularly with the opening of the Jubilee Place shopping centre in 2004, taking the total number of shops to more than 200 and increasing employment in retail to around 4,500. About 500,000 people each week shop at Canary Wharf.

On 8th May 2018, bar and restaurant group, Drake & Morgan, opened The Bothy in Canary Wharf as part of its strategy to build a significant, multi-brand bar and restaurant portfolio.[6]

Cllr Ehtasham Haque, who has represented Labour in the Blackwall & Cubitt Town ward since 2018, has started a petition to have the Statue of Robert Milligan removed in 2020. His statue was erected in 1813 and was moved to its current location at the entrance of the Museum of London Docklands in 1997.[7]