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Dickens visit to Terra Incognito


Picture from Greenwich Maritime Museum

We cannot enter into the christmas period without a contribution by Charles Dickens, however we will forego his more popular works and concentrate on his exploring expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s. Although there may be an element of tongue in cheek , Dickens is probably correct that many people would be more familiar with the continent than Terra Incognito.

We have a theory that, if among the metropolitans resident westward of Temple Bar, all those who have travelled to the Rhine were collected into one group, and all those who have explored the Isle of Dogs were to form another, we have a theory, we say, that the former group would constitutethe larger of the two. For this mythical Isle has very much the character of a terra incognita. There is a vague supposition that it lies somewhere opposite Greenwich; but, even whether it be an island, is not by any means well known. If from the top of Observatory Hill we have a penny peep through a pensioner’s telescope, and direct it towards a greenish-looking spot on the Middlesex shore,we may learn that this is the Isle of Dogs ; but neither dogs nor men are to be seen there, and we wonder how on earth such an uninhabited island came to be pitched down between busy Blackwall and busy Limehouse. On further examination we find it to be a low, level, marshy field, fringed with factories and taverns, and inhabited by a few cows. There may possibly be half a dozen trees on this island of “the blessed.” but we will not positively assert it as a fact. Nevertheless, as Robinson Crusoe’s island was found on examination to contain objects of some interest to  that admirable explorer, so, we hope, will the Isle of Dogs be found not altogether a desolate and profitless island.

 The reader has, of course, been in Waterman number twelve, and has probably heard orders given to ease her (the Waterman), and stop her (the Waterman), and put her (the Waterman) a-starn, at Limehouse pier. He is then on the western confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be returning from a review at Woolwich, in the Dryad, and may be listening to the same mysterious instruction concerning easing her, and stopping her, and putting her a-starn, at Blackwall. He is then on the eastern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be travelling over the chimney-pots from Fenchurch Street” to Blackwall, and may have a magnificent view of the sugar-warehouses belonging to the West India Docks. He is then a little beyond the northern or land-ward margin of the Isle of Dogs. Or, lastly, he may cross the river by the ferry for Greenwich, to take that smallest of all metropolitan omnibusesfrom Millwall to Limehouse. He is then (at the Millwall Ferry House) on the southern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Thus have we, on the true principles of a geographical Primer, marked out the limits and boundary of the Isle of Dogs, as determined by the four cardinal points.

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