Read CHAPTER III. A Shipping Parish of London River, free online book, by H. M. Tomlinson, on

What face this shipping parish shows to a stranger I do not know. I was never a stranger to it. I should suppose it to be a face almost vacant, perhaps a little conventionally picturesque, for it is grey and seamed. It might be even an altogether expressionless mask, staring at nothing. Anyhow, there must be very little to be learned from it, for those bright young cultured strangers, admirable in their eagerness for social service, who come and live with us for a time, so that they may understand the life of the poor, never seem to have made anything of us. They say they have; they speak even with some amount of assurance, at places where the problem which is us is examined aloud by confident politicians and churchfolk. But I think they know well enough that they always failed to get anywhere near what mind we have. There is a reason for it, of course. Think of honest and sociable Mary Ann, of Pottles Rents, E., having been alarmed by the behaviour of good society, as it is betrayed in the popular picture Press, making odd calls in Belgravia (the bells for visitors, too), to bring souls to God.

My parish, to strangers, must be opaque with its indifference. It stares beyond the interested visitor, in the way the sad and disillusioned have, to things it supposes a stranger would not understand if he were told. He has reason, therefore, to say we are dull. And Dockland, with its life so uniform that it could be an amorphous mass overflowing a reef of brick cells, I think would be distressing to a sensitive stranger, and even a little terrifying, as all that is alive but inexplicable must be. No more conscious purpose shows in our existence than is seen in the coral polyp. We just go on increasing and forming more cells. Overlooking our wilderness of tiles in the rain we get more than a fair share of rain, or else the sad quality of wet weather is more noticeable in such a place as ours it seems a dismal affair to present for the intelligent labours of mankind for generations. Could nothing better have been done than that? What have we been busy about?

Well, what are people busy about anywhere? Human purpose here has been as blind and sporadic as it is at Westminster, unrelated to any fixed star, lucky to fill the need of the day, building without any distant design, flowing in bulk through the lowest channels that offered. As elsewhere, it is obstructed by the unrecognized mistakes of its past. Our part of London, like Kensington or Islington, is but the formless accretion of countless swarms of life which had no common endeavour; and so here we are, Time’s latest deposit, the vascular stratum of this area of the earth’s rind, a sensitive surface flourishing during its day on the piled strata of the dead. Yet this is the reef to which I am connected by tissue and bone. Cut the kind of life you find in Poplar and I must bleed. I cannot detach myself, and write of it. Like any other atom, I would show the local dirt, if examined. My hand moves, not loyally so much as instinctively, to impulses which come from beneath and so out of a stranger’s knowledge; out of my own, too, largely.

Is that all? Not quite. Where you, if you came to us, would see but an unremarkable level of East-Enders, much like other Londoners, with no past worth recording, and no future likely to be worth a book of gold, I see, looking to the past, a spectral show of fine ships and brave affairs, and good men forgotten, or almost forgotten, and moving among the plainer shades of its foreground some ghosts well known to me. I think they were what are called failures in life. And turning from those shades, and their work which went the way of all forgotten stuff before the inexorable tide of affairs, I look forward from Poplar, unreasonably hopeful (for so we are made), though this time into the utter dark, for the morning that shall show us the more enduring towers of the city of our dreams, the heart of the commune, the radiant spires of the city that shall be lovelier than that dear city of Cecrops.

But for those whose place it is not, memories and dreams can do nothing to transform it. Dockland would seem to others as any alien town would seem to me. There is something, though, you must grant us, a heritage peculiarly ours. Amid our packed tenements, into the dark mass where poorer London huddles as my shipping parish, are set our docks. Embayed in the obscurity are those areas of captured day, reservoirs of light brimmed daily by the tides of the sun, silver mirrors through which one may leave the dark floor of Poplar for radiant other worlds. We have our ships and docks, and the River at Blackwall when night and the flood come together, and walls and roofs which topmasts and funnels surmount, suggestions of a vagabondage hidden in what seemed so arid a commonplace desert. These are of first importance. They are our ways of escape. We are not kept within a division of the map. And Orion, he strides over our roofs on bright winter nights. We have the immortals. At the most, your official map sets us only lateral bounds. The heavens here are as high as elsewhere. Our horizon is beyond our own limits. In this faithful chronicle of our parish I must tell of our boundaries as I know them. They are not so narrow as you might think. Maps cannot be so carefully planned, nor walls built high enough nor streets confined and strict enough, to hold within limits our lusty and growing population of thoughts. There is no census you can take which will give you forewarning of what is growing here, of the way we increase and expand. Take care. Some day, when we discover the time has come for it, we shall tell our numbers, and be sure you will then learn the result. Travelling through our part of the country, you see but our appearance. You go, and report us casually to your friends, and forget us. But when you feel the ground moving under your feet, that will be us.

From my high window in central Dockland, as from a watch tower, I look out over a tumbled waste of roofs and chimneys, a volcanic desert, inhabited only by sparrows and pigeons. Humanity burrows in swarms below that surface of crags, but only faint cries tell me that the rocks are caverned and inhabited, that life flows there unseen through subterranean galleries. Often, when the sunrise over the roofs is certainly the coming of Aurora, as though then the first illumination of the sky heralded the veritable dayspring for which we look, and the gods were nearly here, I have watched for that crust beneath, which seals the sleepers under, to heave and roll, to burst, and for released humanity to pour through fractures, from the lower dark, to be renewed in the fires of the morning. Nothing has happened yet. But I am confident it would repay society to appoint another watcher when I am gone, to keep an eye on the place.

Right below my window there are two ridges running in parallel jags of chimneys, with a crevasse between them to which I can see no bottom. But a roadway is there. From an acute angle of the window a cornice overhangs a sheer fall of cliff. That is as near the ground as can be got from my outlook. Several superior peaks rise out of the wilderness, where the churches are; and beyond the puzzling middle distance, where smoke dissolves all form, loom the dock warehouses, a continuous range of far dark heights. I have thoughts of a venturesome and lonely journey by moonlight, in and out of the chimney stacks, and all the way to the distant mountains. It looks inviting, and possible, by moonlight. And, indeed, any bright day in summer, from my window, Dockland with its goblin-like chimneys might be the enchanted country of a child’s dream, where shapes, though inanimate, are watchful and protean. From that silent world legions of grotesques move out of the shadows at a touch of sunlight, and then, when you turn on them in surprise, become thin and vague, either phantoms or smoke, and dissolve. The freakish light shows in little what happens in the long run to man’s handiwork, for it accelerates the speed of change till change is fast enough for you to watch a town grow and die. You see that Dockland is unstable, is in flux, alters in colours and form. I doubt whether the people below are sensitive to this ironic display on their roofs.

My eyes more frequently go to one place in that high country. In that distant line of warehouses is a break, and there occasionally I see the masts and spars of a tall ship, and I remember that beyond my dark horizon of warehouses is the path down which she has come from the Indies to Blackwall. I said we were not inland. Cassiopeia is in that direction, and China over there.

For my outlook is more than the centre of Dockland. I call it the centre of the world. Our high road is part of the main thoroughfare from Kensington to Valparaiso. Every wanderer must come this way at least once in his life. We are the hub whence all roads go to the circumference. A ship does not go down but we hear the cry of distress, and the house of a neighbour rocks on the flood and is lost, casting its people adrift on the blind tides.

Think of some of our street names Malabar Street, Amoy Place, Nankin Street, Pekin Street, Canton Street. And John Company has left its marks. You pick up hints of the sea here as you pick old shells out of dunes. We have, still nourishing in a garden, John Company’s Chapel of St. Matthias, a fragment of a time that was, where now the vigorous commercial life of the Company shows no evidence whatever of its previous urgent importance. Founded in the time of the Commonwealth as a symbol for the Company’s men who, when in rare moments they looked up from the engrossing business of their dominant hours, desired a reminder of the ineffable things beyond ships and cargoes, the Chapel has survived all the changes which destroyed their ships and scattered the engrossing business of their working hours into dry matter for antiquaries. So little do men really change. They always leave their temples, whether they lived in Poplar or Nineveh. Only the names of their gods change. The Chapel at Poplar it was then, when this shipping parish had no docks, and the nearest church was over the fields to Stepney. Our vessels then lay in the river. We got our first dock, that of the West India Merchants, at the beginning of last century. A little later the East India Dock was built by John Company. Then another phase began to reshape Dockland. There came a time when the Americans looked in a fair way, sailing ahead fast with the wonderful clippers Donald McKay was building at Boston, to show us a tow rope. The best sailers ever launched were those Yankee ships, and the Thames building yards were working to create the ideal clipper which should beat them. This really was the last effort of sails, for steamers were on the seas, and the Americans were actually making heroic efforts to smother them with canvas. Mr. Green, of Poplar, worried over those Boston craft, declared we must be first again, and first we were. But both Boston and Poplar, in their efforts to perfect an old idea, did not see a crude but conquering notion taking form to magnify and hasten both commerce and war.

But they were worth doing, those clippers, and worth remembering. They sail clear into our day as imperishable memories. They still live, for they did far more than carry merchandise. When an old mariner speaks of the days of studding sails it is not the precious freight, the real purpose of his ships, which animates his face. What we always remember afterwards is not the thing we did, or tried to do, but the friends who were about us at the time. But our stately ships themselves, with our River their home, which gave Poplar’s name, wherever they went, a ring on the counter like a sound guinea, at the most they are now but planks bearded with sea grass, lost in ocean currents, sighted only by the albatross.

Long ago nearly every home in Dockland treasured a lithographic portrait of one of the beauties, framed and hung where visitors could see it as soon as they entered the door. Each of us knew one of them, her runs and her records, the skipper and his fads, the owner and his prejudice about the last pennyworth of tar. She was not a transporter to us, an earner of freights, something to which was attached a profit and loss account and an insurance policy. She had a name. She was a sentient being, perhaps noble, perhaps wilful; she might have any quality of character, even malice. I have seen hands laid on her with affection in dock, when those who knew her were telling me of her ways.

To few of the newer homes among the later streets of Dockland is that beautiful lady’s portrait known. Here and there it survives, part of the flotsam which has drifted through the years with grandmother’s sandalwood chest, the last of the rush-bottomed chairs, and the lacquered tea-caddy. I well remember a room from which such survivals were saved when the household ship ran on a coffin, and foundered. It was a front parlour in one of the streets with an Oriental name; which, I cannot be expected to remember, for when last I was in that room I was lifted to sit on one of its horsehair chairs, its seat like a hedgehog, and I was cautioned to sit still. It was rather a long drop to the floor from a chair for me in those days, and though sitting still was hard, sliding part of the way would have been much worse. That was a room for holy days, too, a place for good behaviour, and boots profaned it. Its door was nearly always shut and locked, and only the chance formal visit of respect-worthy strangers brought down its key from the top shelf of the kitchen dresser. That key was seldom used for relatives, except at Christmas, or when one was dead. The room was always sombre. Light filtered into it through curtains of wire gauze, fixed in the window by mahogany frames. Over the door by which you entered was the picture of an uncle, too young and jolly for that serious position, I thought then, with his careless neckcloth, and his cap pulled down over one eye. The gilt moulding was gone from a corner of the picture the only flaw in the prim apartment for once that portrait fell to the floor, and on the very day, it was guessed, that his ship must have foundered.

A round table set on a central thick leg having a three-clawed foot was in that chamber, covered with a cloth on which was worked a picture from the story of Ruth. But only puzzling bits of the latter were to be seen, for on the circumference of the table-cover were books, placed at precise distances apart, and in the centre was a huge Bible, with a brass clasp. With many others my name was in the Bible, and my birthday, and a space left blank for the day of my death. Reflected in the pier-glass which doubled the room were the portraits in oils of my grandparents, looking wonderfully young, as you may have noticed is often the case in people belonging to ancient history, as though, strangely enough, people were the same in those remote days, except that they wore different clothes.

I have often sat on the chair, and when patience had inured me to the spines of the area I occupied, looked at the reflections in the mirror of those portraits, for they seemed more distant so, and in a perspective according to their age, and became really my grandparents, in a room, properly, of another world, which could be seen, but was not. A room no one could enter any more. I remember a black sofa, which smelt of dust, an antimacassar over its head. That sofa would wake to squeak tales if I stood on it to inspect the model of a ship in yellow ivory, resting on a wall-bracket above. There were many old shells in the polished brass fender, some with thick orange lips and spotted backs; others were spirals of mother-o’-pearl, which took different colours for every way you held them. You could get the only sound in the room by putting the shells to your ear. Like the people of the portraits, it was impossible to believe the shells had ever lived. The inside of the grate was filled with white paper, and the trickles of fine black dust which rested in its crevices would start and run stealthily when people walked in the next room. Over the looking-glass there hung a pair of immense buffalo horns, with a piece of curly black hair dividing them which looked like the skin of our retriever dog. Above the horns was the picture of “The Famous Tea Clipper Oberon, setting her Studding Sails off the Lizard”; but so high was the print, and so faint for the picture, too, was old that some one grown up had to tell me all about it.

The clipper Oberon long since sailed to the Isle-of-No-Land-at-All, and the room in which her picture hung has gone also, like old Dockland, and is now no more than something remembered. The clipper’s picture went with the wreckage, when the room was strewn, and I expect in that house today there is a photograph of a steamer with two funnels.

Nothing conjures back that room so well as the recollection of a strange odour which fell from it when its door opened, as though something bodiless passed as we entered. There was never anything in the room which alone could account for the smell, for it had in it something of the sofa, which was old and black, and of the lacquered tea-caddy, within the lid of which was the faint ghost of a principle indefinably ancient and rare; and there was in it, too, something of the shells. But you could never find where the smell really came from. I have tried, and know. A recollection of that strange dusky fragrance brings back the old room on a summer afternoon, so sombre that the mahogany sideboard had its own reddish light, so quiet that the clock could be heard ticking in the next room; time, you could hear, going leisurely. There would be a long lath of sunlight, numberless atoms swimming in it, slanting from a corner of the window to brighten a patch of carpet. Two flies would be hovering under the ceiling. Sometimes they would dart at a tangent to hover in another place. I used to wonder what they lived on. You felt secure there, knowing it was old, but seeing things did not alter, as though the world were established and content, desiring no new thing. I did not know that the old house, even then, quiet and still as it seemed, was actually rocking on the flood of mutable affairs; that its navigator, sick with anxiety and bewilderment in guiding his home in the years he did not understand, which his experience had never charted, was sinking nerveless at his helm. For he heard, when his children did not, the premonition of breakers in seas having no landmark that he knew; felt the trend and push of new and inimical forces, and currents that carried him helpless, whither he would not go, but must, heartbroken, into the uproar and welter of the modern.

I have been told that London east of the Tower has no history worth mentioning, and it is true that sixteenth-century prints show the town to finish just where the Dock of St. Katherine is now. Beyond that, and only marshes show, with Stebonhithe Church and a few other signs to mark recognizable country. On the south side the marshes were very extensive, stretching from the River inland for a considerable distance. The north shore was fen also, but a little above the tides was a low eminence, a clay and gravel cliff, that sea-wall which now begins below the Albert Dock and continues round the East Anglian seaboard. Once it serpentined as far as the upper Pool, disappearing as the wharves and docks were built to accommodate London’s increasing commerce. There is no doubt, then, that the Lower Thames parishes are really young; but, when we are reminded that they have no history worth mentioning, it may be understood that the historian is simply not interested enough to mention it.

So far as age goes my shipping parish cannot compare with a cathedral city; but antiquity is not the same as richness of experience. One remembers the historic and venerable tortoise. He is old enough, compared with us. But he has had nothing so varied and lively as the least of us can show. Most of his reputed three hundred years is sleep, no doubt, and the rest vegetables. In the experience of Wapping, Poplar, Rotherhithe, Limehouse, and Deptford, when they really came to life, there was precious little sleep, and no vegetables worth mentioning. They were quick and lusty. There they stood, long knee-deep and busy among their fleets, sometimes rising to cheer when a greater adventure was sailing or returning, some expedition that was off to find further avenues through the Orient or the Americas, or else a broken craft bringing back tragedy from the Arctic; ship after ship; great captain after great captain. No history worth mentioning! There are Londoners who cannot taste the salt. Yet, no doubt, it is difficult for younger London to get the ocean within its horizon. The memory of the Oberon, that famous ship, is significant to me, for she has gone, with all her fleet, and some say she took Poplar’s best with her. Once we were a famous shipping parish. Now we are but part of the East End of London. The steamers have changed us. The tides do not rise high enough today, and our shallow waters cannot make home for the new keels.

But to the old home now the last of the sailing fleet is loyal. We have enough still to show what once was there; the soft gradations of a ship’s entrance, rising into bows and bowsprit, like the form of a comber at its limit, just before it leaps forward in collapse. The mounting spars, alive and braced. The swoop and lift of the sheer, the rich and audacious colours, the strange flags and foreign names. South Sea schooner, whaling barque from Hudson’s Bay, the mahogany ship from Honduras, the fine ships and barques that still load for the antipodes and ’Frisco. Every season they diminish, but some are still with us. At Tilbury, where the modern liners are, you get wall sides mounting like great hotels with tier on tier of decks, and funnels soaring high to dominate the day. There the prospect of masts is a line of derrick poles. But still in the upper docks is what will soon have gone for ever from London, a dark haze of spars and rigging, with sometimes a white sail floating in it like a cloud. We had a Russian barquentine there yesterday. I think a barquentine is the most beautiful of ships, the most aerial and graceful of rigs, the foremast with its transverse spars giving breadth and balance, and steadying the unhindered lift skywards of main and mizzen poles. The model of this Russian ship was as memorable as a Greek statue. It is a ship’s sheer which gives loveliness to her model, like the waist of a lissom woman, finely poised, sure of herself, in profile. She was so slight a body, so tall and slender, but standing alert and illustriously posed, there was implied in her slenderness a rare strength and swiftness. And to her beauty of line there went a richness of colour which made our dull parish a notable place. She was of wood, painted white. Her masts were of pine, veined with amber. Her white hull, with the drenchings of the seas, had become shot with ultramarine shadows, as though tinctured with the virtue of the ocean. The verdigris of her sheathing was vivid as green light; and the languid dock water, the colour of jade, glinting round her hull, was lambent with hues not its own. You could believe there was a soft radiation from that ship’s sides which fired the water about her, but faded when far from her sides, a delicate and faery light which soon expired.

Such are our distinguished visitors in Dockland, though now they come to us with less frequency. If the skipper of the Oberon could now look down the Dock Road from the corner by North Street, what he would look for first would be, not, I am sure, what compelled the electric trams, but for the entrance of the East Dock and its familiar tangle of spars. He would not find it. The old dock is there, but a lagoon asleep, and but few vessels sleeping with it. The quays are vacant, except for the discarded lumber of ships, sun-dried boats, rusted cables and anchors, and a pile of broken davits. The older dock of the West India Merchants is almost the same. Yet even I have seen the bowsprits and jib-booms of the Australian packets diminish down the quays of the East Dock as an arcade; and of that West Dock there is a boy who well remembers its quays buried under the largess of the tropics and the Spanish Main, where now, through the colonnades of its warehouse supports, the vistas are empty. Once you had to squeeze sideways through the stacked merchandise. There were huge hogsheads of sugar and hillocks of coconuts. Molasses and honey escaped to spread a viscid carpet which held your feet. The casual prodigality of it expanded the mind. Certainly this earth must be a big and cheerful place if it could spread its treasures thus wide and deep in a public place under the sky. It corrected the impression got from the retail shops for any penniless youngster, with that pungent odour of sugar crushed under foot, with its libations of syrup poured from the plenty of the sunny isles. Today the quays are bare and deserted, and grass rims the stones of the footway, as verdure does the neglected stone covers in a churchyard. In the dusk of a winter evening the high and silent warehouses which enclose the mirrors of water enclose too an accentuation of the dusk. The water might be evaporating in shadows. The hulls of the few ships, moored beside the walls, become absorbed in the dark. Night withdraws their substance. What the solitary wayfarer sees then is the incorporeal presentment of ships. Dockland expires. The living and sounding day is elsewhere, lighting the new things on which the young are working. Here is the past, deep in the obscurity from which time has taken the sun, where only memory can go, and sees but the ineffaceable impression of what once was there.

There is a notable building in our Dock Road, the Board of Trade offices, retired a little way from the traffic behind a screen of plane trees. Not much more than its parapet appears behind the foliage. By those offices, on fine evenings, I find one of our ancients, Captain Tom Bowline. Why he favours the road there I do not know. It would be a reasonable reason, but occult. The electric trams and motor buses annoy him. And not one of the young stokers and deck-hands just ashore and paid off, or else waiting at a likely corner for news of a ship, could possibly know the skipper and his honourable records. They do not know that once, in that office, Tom was a famous and respected figure. There he stands at times, outside the place which knew him well, but has forgotten him, wearing his immemorial reefer jacket, his notorious tall white hat and his humorous trousers short, round, substantial columns with a broad line of braid down each leg.

His face is weather-stained still, and though his hair is white, it has the form of its early black and abundant vitality. As long ago as 1885 he landed from his last ship, and has been with us since, watching the landmarks go. “The sea,” he said to me once, “the sea has gone. When I look down this road and see it so empty (the simple truth is it was noisy with traffic) I feel I’ve overstayed my time allowance. My ships are firewood and wreckage, my owners are only funny portraits in offices that run ten-thousand-ton steamers, and the boys are bones. Poplar? This isn’t Poplar. I feel like Robinson Crusoe only I can’t find a footprint in the place.”

It is for the young to remember there is no decay, though change, sometimes called progress, resembles it, especially when your work is finished and you are only waiting and looking on. When Captain Tom is in that mood we go to smoke a pipe at a dockhead. It will be high tide if we are in luck, and the sun will be going down to give our River majesty, and a steamer will be backing into the stream, outward bound. The quiet of a fine evening for Tom, and the great business of ships and the sea for me. We see the steamer’s captain and its pilot leaning over the bridge, looking aft towards the River. I think the size of their vessel is a little awful to Tom. He never had to guide so many thousand tons of steel and cargo into a crowded waterway. But those two young fellows above know nothing of the change; they came with it. They are under their spell, thinking their world, as once Tom did his, established and permanent. They are keeping easy pace with the movement, and so do not know of it. Tom, now at rest, sitting on a pierhead bollard, sees the world leaving him, going ahead past his cogitating tobacco smoke. Let it go. We, watching quietly from our place on the pier-head, are wiser than the moving world in one respect. We know it does not know whence it is moving, nor why. Well, perhaps its presiding god, who is determined the world shall go round, would be foolish to tell us.

The sun has dropped behind the black serration of the western city. Now the River with all the lower world loses substance, becomes vaporous and unreal. Moving so fast then? But the definite sky remains, a hard dome of glowing saffron based on thin girders of iron clouds. The heaven alone is trite and plain. The wharves, the factories, the ships, the docks, all the material evidence of hope and industry, merge into a dim spectral show in which a few lights burn, fumbling with ineffectual beams in dissolution. Out on the River a dark body moves past; it has bright eyes, and hoots dismally as it goes.

There is a hush, as though at sunset the world had really resolved, and had stopped moving. But from the waiting steamer looming over us, a gigantic and portentous bulk, a thin wisp of steam hums from a pipe, and hangs across the vessel, a white wraith. Yet the hum of the steam is too subdued a sound in the palpable and oppressive dusk to be significant. Then a boatswain’s pipe rends the heavy dark like the gleam of a sword, and a great voice, awed by nothing, roars from the steamer’s bridge. There is a sudden commotion, we hear the voice again, and answering cries, and by us, towards the black chasm of the River in which hover groups of moving planets, the mass of the steamer glides, its pale funnel mounting over us like a column. Out she goes, turning broadside on, a shadow sprinkled with stars, then makes slow way down stream, a travelling constellation occulting one after another all the fixed lights.

Captain Tom knocks out his pipe on the heel of his boot, his eyes still on the lights of the steamer. “Well,” says Tom, “they can still do it. They don’t want any help old Tom could give aboard her. A good man there. Where’s she bound for, I wonder?”

Now who could tell him that? What a question to ask me. Did Tom ever know his real destination? Not he! And have I not watched Dockland itself in movement under the sun, easily mobile, from my window in its midst? Whither was it bound? Why should the old master mariner expect the young to answer that? He is a lucky navigator who always finds his sky quite clear, and can set his course by the signs of unclouded heavenly bodies, and so is sure of the port to which his steering will take him.