Home » Literary Life » Thomas Burke visits the Isle of Dogs 1915

Thomas Burke visits the Isle of Dogs 1915

Photo Jas Harbert Millwall Docks 1915

Thomas Burke was a writer who at the turn of the 20th Century wrote a series of books about London.

He was fascinated by everyday life and his books were often a mixture of anecdotes and travelogues  and became very popular just before and after the first World War.

He knew Poplar and Limehouse very well and often made an excursion to the Isle of Dogs.

Here is an excerpt from his book Nights in London from a chapter called A Workers Night (Isle of Dogs).

I am not of those who share the prevailing opinions of the Isle of Dogs: I do not see it as a haunt of greyness and distress. To the informed mind it is full and passionate. Every one of its streets is a sharp-flavoured adventure. Where others find insipidity I find salt and fire. Its shapes and sounds and silences and colours have allured me from first acquaintance. For here, remember, are the Millwall Docks, and here, too, is Cubitt Town…. Of course, like all adorable things, it has faults. I am ready to confess that the cheap mind, which finds Beauty only in that loathly quality called Refinement, will suffer many pains by a sojourn in its byways. It will fill them with ashen despair. In the old jolly days it was filthy; it was full of perils, smelly, insanitary, crumbling; but at least one could live in it. To-day it has been taken in hand by those remote Authorities who make life miserable for us. It is reasonably clean; it is secure; the tumbling cottages have been razed, and artisans’ dwellings have arisen in their stead. Its high-ways—Glengall Road, East Ferry Road, Manchester Road—are but rows of uniform cottages, with pathetically small front gardens and frowzy “backs,” which, throughout the week, flap dismally with the most intimate items of their households’ underwear. Its horizon is a few grotto-like dust-shoots, decorated with old bottles and condensed-milk tins.

It is, I admit, the ugly step-child of parishes; but, then, I love all ugly step-children. It is gauche and ridiculous. It sprawls. It is permanently overhung with mist. It has all the virtues of the London County Council, and it is very nearly uninhabitable. Very nearly uninhabitable … but not quite.

And the colour…. There is nothing in the world like it for depth and glamour. I know no evenings so tender as those that gather about the Island: at once heartsome and subdued. The colour of street and sky and water, sprinkled with a million timid stars, is an ecstasy. You cannot name it. You see it first as blue, then as purple, then lilac, rose, silver. The clouds that flank the high-shouldered buildings and chimneys share in these subtle changes, and shift and shift from definite hues to some haunting scheme that was never seen in any colourman’s catalogue.

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