Millwall Postcard 1905
These excerpts are taken from the Book Seven Years Hard written by the Reverend Free in 1904.
In a previous post we read how the Reverend Free tired of tending to well off parishioners decided he wanted to undertake some missionary work in the Isle of Dogs, when he arrives in early 1897 his first impressions are not good and very soon after he gets a not particularly friendly welcome from some of the locals.
A City of Desolation ! ” That was my first fleeting impression of Millwall ; that, more or less, has been my constant impression during my seven years’ residence here. I found the place badly lighted, astonishingly foul, inconceivably smelly, and miserably bare and lifeless. A few wretched lamps shed their fitful gleams on the prevailing filth, and not infrequently, as if tired of trying to make things the least bit cheerful, went out altogether. The streets were, as a rule, abominably dirty, and only doubtfully clean at the best of times. The mud — and oh, heavens, what mud ! — was allowed to remain in the gutters for days and even weeks together, the authorities contenting themselves with sweeping it into miniature mountains and leaving it there to rot. Mighty horses, dragging great drays behind them, plunged through these muck-heaps, scattering them hither and thither until road and sidewalk were impassable without defilement. The smells, which here as pungent and distinct as the forty-and-two of Cologne, were rendered barely tolerable by the vicinity of the river.
It was in this strange land, then, a land of many anomalies and sharp contrasts, that I was appointed to work in the winter of 1896. On January 17th, 1897, I held my first service. It was a day ever to be remembered. In the morning everything passed off quietly; the reason for which, as I subsequently discovered, was that most of the disturbing elements were abed. Our congregation consisted of two women and three children. When the time for the collection came, I remembered that we had no bag, so I accepted a kindly offer of the next best thing; and I shall never forget the depressing effect of the pennies contributed as they fell rattling into the borrowed dinner-plate.
At the evening service, things were not so peaceful. My wife was stationed at the door; and when we were in the middle of the General Confession, she was bombarded by a gang of lads, who demanded admission in less than polite terms.
” ‘Ere, alit o’ that ! ” shouted one.
” Shove ‘er over if she won’t letcher pass ! ” cried another.
” I say, miss,” piped a third, a reedy young man who appeared to be the wit of the party, ” where’s the bloke with the night-gown on ? ”
The joke was received with a tornado of merriment, and in the confusion Mrs. Free tried to explain that the room was open to all who were willing to behave themselves. But nutshells and orange-peel began to be thrown ; and she, growing alarmed, with a deft strategic movement shut and bolted the door. Then began the sensation of the evening. Somehow or other the lads improvised a battering-ram, and with this formidable weapon began to storm our citadel. For a long time the attack went on, incessant and deafening, to an accompaniment of hoarse cries and cheers, while I steadily pursued my way through psalms and prayers, instinctively aware that if I showed the white feather I should have to pay for it. When, at length, the excited crowd broke into the building, and up the flimsy staircase, our little band of worshippers sprang to their feet in dismay. My voice was inaudible, but I kept on. I wanted to conquer, if possible, by a surer weapon than force. The crowd of disorderly fellows rushed in upon us, swarming, as it seemed, one on top of the other, and gathered at the farther end of the room, as uncouth a congregation as ever ” assisted ” at a religious service.
There they betook themselves to jeering and cheering, to jocular conversation and rude remarks, cheerfully cracking nuts and crushing the shells under their feet with loud reports. I prayed for Queen and Royal Family, for Clergy and People, for ” all conditions of men ” ; I offered “most humble and hearty thanks” to God for His goodness, particularly on behalf of ” those who desire now to offer up their praises and thanksgivings for Thy mercies vouchsafed unto them in permitting them to begin this work ” ; and without a break I finished up with the Grace. The hymn before the sermon was terrific. It was mixed up with music-hall songs, catcalls and whistling. But I went through the business to the bitter end ; and sometimes I have thought that I never did anything requiring more resolution. By my sermon register I find that I took no text that evening, perhaps a pardonable omission under the circumstances ; but by the same indisputable authority I also find that on this soul-stirring occasion I spoke on the respective duties of the clergy and the laity !
This was my first experience of rowdyism in Millwall ; it was to be by no means my last. Many, many months were to elapse before the hostility, of which it was but a symptom, died a natural death ; but into particulars of that harassing period I do not purpose entering here. Suffice it to say that for a very long time existence was pretty nearly insufferable. Epithets were flung at me broadcast. Hootings, bowlings, roars of laughter followed mc as I passed up and down the West Ferry Road. The hard thing about it all was that I had to ” smile and smile,” and seem not to mind, although the ” villain ” in me was crying aloud for vengeance.
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In the early 80s a number of Television executives created Limehouse Productions with the aim to be an Independent Television company making programmes for BBC , ITV and the newly launched Channel 4 . After securing funding they looked for a site for their new studios.
They eventually decided to renovate an old warehouse in Docklands which had been the original “Canary Wharf”.
This was considered a bit of a coup for the London Docklands Development Corporation who were desperate to regenerate the Docklands area and the company benefited with the grants and loans available for new buildings.
The new building was to use the shell of the warehouse and fit it out with state of the art equipment, well known architect Terry Farrell supervised the project and Limehouse Studios was born.
The newly built Limehouse Studios with hospitality boat outside (photo Martin Hawkins )
In 1983 the studio opened it’s doors and programmes began to be made.
The studios soon gained a reputation for producing high quality shows which included dramas, entertainment shows and innovative shows for channel 4.
Perhaps the most famous show produced here was Spitting Image the satirical show that at its peak was seen by 15 million viewers . The puppets for the show were made in a workshop in the back of the large warehouse.
The Spitting Image Rock Star gallery (how many can you recognise ?)
Spitting Image was really known for its political satire.
Other shows included Who Dares Wins was a forerunner of the Alternative Comedy scene, Rory Mcgrath, Julia Hills, Philip Pope, Jimmy Mulville and a very young Tony Robinson
Yes there was even Cookery Programmes in the 80s – This one made stars of Jilly Gooden and Oz Clarke
Limehouse studios was the scene of a celebrated concert featuring the Rock and Roll legend, Carl Perkins with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Dave Edmunds.
Other notable productions included Drama’s such as Cyrano De Bergerac, Moliere, The Mysteries and Julius Caesar.
Entertainment programmes such as Treasure Hunt , This Is Your Life, Network 7 and Channel 4 Business Daily
Music featured in Rock in the Dock , Queen recorded the video for I Want to Break Free here , other videos made here included ones by Diana Ross, Marc Almond, London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Communards.
Not everything recorded at Limehouse was a success or even saw the light of day. Harry’s Christmas written and performed by Stephen Berkoff (now a local Limehouse resident) was considered too depressing to show at Christmas and was never broadcasted.
However with the studio going from strength to strength the future success seemed assured except the London Docklands Development Corporation who had welcomed the project with open arms now had a company that which wanted to develop the whole Canary Wharf site.
After much discussion Limehouse Studios which was now owned by Trillion sold the site at a large profit and in 1989 the studios was demolished.
Limehouse Studios being demolished (Photo Martin Hawkins )
Many who worked in Limehouse studios at that time have fond memories and pride for the quality of work produced in that period.
Local councillor Gloria Thienel remembers that she had heard from a neighbour that the studios were looking for a receptionist. Gloria applied and was pleasantly surprised when she got the job and so began her connection with the studios.
Gloria remembers the camaraderie amongst the staff “ It was very much a feeling that we were all part of a family” . These views are echoed by many other staff who worked there who enjoyed the idea of working in a small team rather than the larger organisations such as the BBC and ITV.
Gloria also remembers it was a great training ground for the rising stars of Television both in front and behind the camera. Many went on to have highly successful careers in Television and other areas
However it was not all plain sailing as Gloria explains “Most of the performers were great and easy to work with but there was one or two “divas”.
It was also hard work with most staff working long hours to complete tight schedules.
Although the studios life was short , lifelong friendships were made and reunions of the Limehouse staff are still well attended.
Other than Gloria there is still connections to the modern docklands,the famous hospitality boat The Sloop John D that was moored outside the studios was run by caterer Lorna who now runs the Leven restaurant boat in West India Quay.
It is sometimes typical of the Isle of Dogs that some enterprises rise and fall quickly (the London Arena being another example ), however for a very short time in the 1980s, Limehouse Studios in a renovated old warehouse in the middle of a run down docks area was creating its little piece of television history.
With the recent success of Call the Midwife , there has been a surge of interest in East End history and a large number of fiction and non fiction books being written about the East End.
Carol Rivers has been writing novels about the East End in general and the Isle of Dogs in particular for over the last decade.
Her first East End novel was Lizzie of Langley Street published by Simon and Schuster followed by Rose of Ruby Street (retitled East End Jubilee ), Connie of Kettle Street (retitled Cockney Orphan ), Bella of Bow Street, Lily of Love Lane, Eve of the Isle, East End Angel, In the Bleak Midwinter, A Sister’s Shame.
Carol’s gritty and heartwarming East End family dramas have been praised for their realism and have appeared regularly in many Bestseller Charts and have a loyal readership in the UK and increasingly in the United States.
In the following interview I ask Carol to explain more about her inspirations and ask about her connections with the Isle of Dogs.
Your family came from the Isle of Dogs, could you tell me about them?
In the 1920’s my grandparents lived at Gavrick Street in two rooms, bringing up a family of six, my mum, her four sisters and one brother. It was hard going, a tough life, but Nan had been in service to a titled Lady and knew the ropes. When the council moved them to Chapel House Street on the new estate, it was heaven. My grandfather was a deep thinker, a casual in the docks, who despised the Unions and politics in equal measure. He read Russian revolutionary literature, waited on the stones for a pittance if a job came up and was tee-total which alienated him from the dockers. Lashed to a gun-wheel for disobedience in the First World War, he survived the trenches and came home a changed man. My Nan often warned him, “You can’t feed your family on principles, Bill.” Like my family, powerful, rich in spirit and heart-rendingly poor characters populate my novels. Their voice is the one in my head, my Granddad’s especially. His determination not to give in either to man or nature, lasted until his post-war death after being evacuated to Oxford.
How did you begin your writing career ?
I began it as a kid, with my cousins, listening in our camp under the table of our lounge, to the colourful East End parties going on around us. Watching the feet dancing, listening to my mum and her sisters laughing and gossiping, waiting for inevitable eruptions, we never missed a trick. It all came out recycled years later, first in short stories for DC Thompson, then novellas, and finally the true McCoy, East End sagas with Simon & Schuster.
At the moment with the success of Call the Midwife, East End novels are suddenly very popular. When you started writing your novels over 10 years ago, what was the general reaction to the subject matter?
Brilliant. I found an agent for my first story, “Lizzie of Langley Street”. She loved it, ripped it apart, and taught me how to re-write. Then she sold it to Simon & Schuster who loved it, ripped it apart, and I rewrote it. My agent is still with me today, still making me edit. She’s lovely. A lot goes in to the creation of a saleable book – much more than people think.
Your novels generally cover the early 20th century, is there anything about this time that really inspires you?
My family are from Huguenot and Jewish extraction, with a touch of Spanish and Irish thrown in. The 20th century not only gave us two World Wars twenty years apart, they gave us reconciliation, reformation, wonderful music, eclectic populations and strong family values.
Much of the Isle of Dogs has changed beyond all recognition in the last 30 years, do you still come back and visit ?
Not so much now. I have this world in my head that will never go away. It’s sparky, vibrant, smoky, salt-tar smelling, river and street stinks, bagels, pasties, hot dock coffee and well – I could go on forever. All I have to do is write it.
What are your future writing plans ? Do you have any novels in the pipeline?
I deal with three books at a time. The one published in October every year, that I have to correct, revise, often rewrite, then market. The next is the one I’m currently writing, which a year ago, was agreed by my editor. Then last but not least there’s the new outline for the next year’s book, which for me, has to be meticulously plotted, written and agreed/added to/ subtracted from, by my agent, then editor.
Do you ever struggle for ideas for books ?
The “writer’s block” question often crops up, but until I’m too old to use my computer, I can’t see it happening. Books are like maps for me. You have the idea where to go – work out your route, major and minor stops on the way and your destination. It’s a job I do, a wonderful job, but it’s a daily practice and self-discipline. You can’t get writer’s block if you practice every day to meet a deadline. 10% inspiration (initial idea) 90% perspiration (writing).
If you would like to find out more about Carol visit her website by pressing here
Welcome to the Punch
The recent release of Welcome to the Punch highlights the increasing use of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs by film makers.
It is not unusual to see film and TV crews about the Island, however this is not new in the 50s and 60s the docks were used in many movies and people may be surprised how many recent films have had sequences shot here.
Welcome to the Punch is a modern crime movie , however one of the greatest British crime movies the Long Good Friday had sequences shot on the Isle of Dogs back in 1980. A local pub The Waterman Arms now the Great Eastern was the site of one of the key scenes .
Bond made an appearance in the World is not Enough using Millwall Docks where many of the power boat stunts were filmed
In the movie 28 Weeks later the Isle of Dogs is the primary location of the film, being the only quarantined area after a massive epidemic of the “Rage Virus” kills the entire population of Britain.
Sharon Stone kills Stan Colleymore by driving their car into West India Dock in Basic Instinct 2
Other Films that filmed sequences in and around the Isle of Dogs :
28 Days later , Alfie (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Bollywood Queen (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Constant Gardener (2005), Johnny English (2003), Layer Cake (2004), Love Actually (2003), Patriot Games (1992), Revolver (2005), Run Fat Boy Run (2007) Sliding Doors .
If you would like a walk around some of the locations there is a Movie Map walk produced by Tower Hamlets , Press here
Blackwall 1840s ( National Maritime Museum)
In a previous couple of posts I have published excerpts from Charles Dickens Exploring Expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s.
It is time for another classic piece of Dickens in which our guide enters the world of Whitebait suppers, shipbuilding and a geriatric horse called Old Hob in Blackwall.
In the nineteenth century there developed a custom that Cabinet Ministers attended an annual Whitebait Supper at Greenwich or Blackwall, at the height of its popularity in the first part of the nineteenth large numbers of people followed the tradition. To cater for these people a number of inns were built in Blackwall on the riverfront The most popular were the King’s Arms, Coach and Horses, Britannia, Plough, Artichoke and the George. By the 1880s the tradition had all but died out.
Unfortunately when the Blackwall tunnel was built, most of the Inns were pulled down and virtually nothing exists from the time Dickens wrote this piece.
Upward and upward we bend our steps until Blackwall begins to take the place of Millwall.
Strype says that Blackwall was so named ” because it is a wall of the. Thames, and distinguished by the additional term ‘black,’ from the black shrubs which grew on it” a theory which strikes us as being rather a sorry one.
However, to Blackwall we do at length come ; and here we find that the Plough, and the Artichoke, and the Brunswick taverns present a degree of smartness which eclipses the other Isle of Dogs’ taverns – they tell of whitebait dinners.
An embarrassing thought now presents itself. Why do Cabinet Ministers eat whitebait ? And why do they eat them at the close of the parliamentary session in a tavern at Blackwall or Greenwich ?
Whitebait, being fish, are cold-blooded animals ; but is there on this ground any analogy between them and Cabinet Ministers ? It is a phenomenon both ichthyological and topographical, this whitebait eating in the Isle of Dogs. Let us see whether Mr. Yarrell’s description of a whitebait will furnish any clue to this subject :
The whitebait, then, is a little fish, something like the young of the shad, varying from two to six inches in length. From the beginning of April to the end of September it is caught in the Thames, seldom higher than Woolwich or Blackwall, at flood-tide. The fishery is of rather a peculiar nature. The mouth of the net has about three square feet of area, with a very small mesh or bag-end. The boat is moored in the tide-way, where the water is from twenty to thirty feet deep, and the net with its wooden framework is fixed to the side of the boat. The tail of the hose, swimming loose, is from time to time handed into the boat, the end untied, and its contents shaken out. The wooden frame forming the mouth of the net does not dip more than four feet below the surface of the water. The further the fishermen go down towards the mouth of the river, the sooner they begin to catch whitebait after the flood-tide has commenced. When fishing as high as Woolwich, the tide must have flowed from three to four hours, and the water become sensibly brackish to the taste, before the whitebait make their appearance. They return down the river with the first of the ebb-tide ; and all attempts to preserve them in well boats, in pure fresh water, have failed.A few whitebait are caught near the Isle of Wight, and in the Firth of Forth ; but they are very little known except in the Thames.
So far, there is very little analogy or apparent connexion between a Cabinet Minister and a whitebait. We will therefore see whether M. Soyer’s account of the method of cooking this fish will elucidate the matter.
” This very delicate little fish,” says the great Gastronomic regenerator, ” is cooked in the most simple manner. Dry them in a couple of cloths, shake the cloths at the corner, but do not touch the fish with your hands ; then have ready an equal quantity of bread-crumbs and flour in a dish, throw the fish into it, toss them lightly over with the hands, take them out immediately, put them in a wire basket, and fry them in very hot lard. One minute will cook them ; turn them out on a cloth, sprinkle a little salt over them, dish them on a napkin, and serve them very hot.” The same authority tells us, that ” these lilliputian.fishes never can be had at home in the perfection you get them at Greenwich or Blackwall, where they are obtained as soon as caught, and dressed by persons in constant practice.” All very nice ; but what about the Cabinet Ministers ? They (the whitebait, not the Ministers) are served up with cayenne and lemon-juice, and eaten with brown bread and butter ; the savoury morsel being washed down with iced punch. Still we do not see the connexion. And if we take the view topographical instead of the view ichthyological,we are not certain of enlightenment ; for we do not see how the vicinity of ship-yards, chemical-works, and iron-works, with a wafting of pungent odours when the wind doth blow, can improve the flavour of whitebait to a legislative stomach. There seems evidently to have been a rise of fashion in this matter ; for Pennant, after speaking of the whitebait fishery, says, that it ” occasions during the season a vast resort of the lower order of epicures to the taverns contiguous to the places where they are taken.” Lower order of epicures, indeed !
Hemmed in by the whitebait taverns, is Green’s ship-yard. A notable old place this ; more so, than any other private shipyard,perhaps, in this country. It is no small thing that, for a period of two hundred years, there has been little if any cessation in the making of foothooks and keelsons, bowsprits and sternposts, ribs and beams, decks and masts, in this identical spot ; and all for and by private owners. First, there was a Sir Henry Johnson, who, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, was owner of this yard, and who it seems to have been a great benefactor to the neighbouring village of Poplar. Then, throughout the reigns of Charles the Second, James the Second, and William and Mary, the shipyard maintained its importance, under the ownership, first of one Sir William Johnson, and then of another. Strype tells us about a horse which was owned by the elder Sir William, and which was evidently a knowing old blade. The horse, we are told,was ” wrought there thirty-four years, driven by one man ; and he grew to that experience,that at the first sound of the bell for the men in the yard to leave off I work, he also would cease labouring, and could not by any means be brought to give one pull after it ;and when the bell rang to work, he would as readily come forth again to his labour, which was to draw planks and pieces of timber from one part of the yard to another.” Honour to the tough old horse, who insisted on the proposition, that ” property has its duties as well as its rights.” Old Hob was his name ; and there was formerly a public-house in the neighbourhood which derived its sign from this name nay, not merely was, but is, in Brunswick Street, near the entrance to the yard. Old Hob’s master, and the next Sir William, are said to have built no less than fifteen men-of-war for the Government before the time of Queen Anne. The second Sir William’s daughter married the Earl of Strafford ; and then occurs a blank in the annals of the yard and its industry until a period about a century ago, when Mr. Perry became the owner. In the family of the Perrys the property remained for half a century, during which many vessels of war were built there for the Government.
Mr. Perry built within his estate the Brunswick Dock, the first dock (we believe) which London could boast. Here he had water space for thirty large ships and double that number of smaller ones, cranes for landing guns and heavy stores, conveniences for the shipment of cavalry, warehouses for whalebone and blubber from whale-ships, coppers for boiling down the blubber, a mast-house to aid in masting ships the same venerable black old ugly building which is still a wonderment to those who view Blackwall from a distance.
Mast House Blackwall (National Maritime Museum)
But at the beginning of the present century the merchants became dock mad ; they built docks, as thickly as we now build railways ; and Mr. Perry’s Brunswick Dock was bought up for, and enclosed by, and incorporated with,the East India Docks. The shipyard, however,remained private property ; and during the long war the stocks and slips were constantly occupied by war-ships being built for the Government, as well as by East India ships and other merchant ships of large size ; for this yard never, until late years, had an equal in importance in any other part of the kingdom. It is among the records of the yard that no less than ten ships of war were launched here during the single year 1813.
In the years of comparative peace which have since followed, the names of Wigram and of Green have been associated with the construction of a vast number of fine vessels. It is only by a little stretch of geography that the Isle of Dogs can be said to contain this Brunswick shipyard ; but, even if it were for the sake of old Hob that true-born British horse we will entice the yard into our island.
At and around the point which may be deemed the eastern “vanishing-point” of the Isle of Dogs, is that strange congeries of buildings, in which the Blackwall railway, the Brunswick pier, the East India Dock, and Green’s ship-yard, all meet in brotherhood.
How the railway ferrets out a path for itself is a marvel. You are conscious that it is near at hand, for the locomotive-whistle betrays it ; but if you look at this point, there is the lofty wall of the Docks ; if at that, there is a road leading to one of the whitebait taverns ;if at the other, there is one of Mr. Green’s ships poking its nose over the wall. There is, in fact, a struggle for place, but a struggle in which the railway wins, as it generally does uow-a-days. The metropolis here comes to its last legs ; here is the end of all things .the ” ultima Thule ” is reached. Here, is the tavern which forms the final stopping-place of the Blackwall omnibuses, after having worked their long and weary way from Knightsbridge.
Here, or hereabouts, are the last ship-yards on the north bank of the Thames. Here, is the last of our docks until the new Victoria Docks in the Essex marshes are formed.
Here, is the last station of the Blackwall railway. Here, is the last struggle of Middlesex for existence : Bow Creek being the only barrier between it and Essex. Here, is the last bend and quirk of the river Lea, before it adds its humble driblet of water to the Thames. And here, is the last and final limit to the metropolis, beyond which, for some miles, we have little else than low-lying swampy ground. Taken altogether, a curious little nook this, lying just outside the Isle of Dogs proper, but connected with it by many ties of relationship.
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The one and only Charlie Brown
In the 1890s an ex boxer and sailor Charlie Brown took over the Railway Tavern in Limehouse and over the next 40 years built a reputation that bought him local, national and international fame.
The Railway Tavern or Charlie Brown’s as it become known was a favourite port of call for sailors from all over the world and Charlie’s hospitality and generosity became legendary. Charlie was also a collector of antiques and acquired a large collection of objects which he proudly had on show at the pub.
To illustrate how famous Charlie became, I have selected a couple of contemporary newspaper articles. The first is from the Milwaukee Journal of 1929 written by American journalist I Wentworth Day.
Charlie Brown ,Limehouse King runs the strangest pub in the world.
Down in Limehouse, Charlie Brown is king, but that is merely by the way. You really begin to realise exactly what he means when you meet a man at the Gezeira club in Cairo or up river on a Perak rubber plantation. You mention Charlie Brown. “Oh! dear old Charlie!” explodes the stranger.
“Why, the last time I saw him was in- let me see, one night in 1908. We all went there for a drink. Now I’ll tell you a tale about old Charlie – “
Charles Brown of the Railway Tavern, West India Dock Road, is a connoisseur and collector of antiques and curios, student of human nature, friend of cabinet ministers and able seamen alike, is one of the most vivid, remarkable and unaffected men in London.
He is 69 years of age and for over 40 years he has been collecting things of beauty.
He is known all over the world, wherever sailors meet and he has a friend in every port. He has sailed most of the seas himself and he has gathered together the “most astounding collection of objects, beautiful and odd, under a private citizen’s roof.
Charlie has never gone out of London to find his treasures. The pigs and birds and bows and arrows have been gifts from sailor friends; but things of ivory beauty are his own finding. He has never bought one piece at a public auction and he has never asked or questioned the questioned the price when he has bought.
I will not attempt to guess the value of Mr Brown’s treasures, because he never sets a price on them himself and does not like to talk about their value; but it is enough to say that in that small room are five Ming vases 2,500 years old, an 800 year old Chinese ebony cabinet, a magnificent Louis XIV cabinet inlaid with enamel and Ivory, Waterford and Bristol glass, Chinese and Japanese ivories and more china, silver and pictures and bronzes.
Also there is a visitors book in which are the names of the world’s famous men and women. Mr Brown does not ask for autographs and he does not travel miles to get them. They come to him.
Downstairs there is an ivory casket covered with minute figures carved in bas and full relief. Three generations of a Japanese family lived and died to make that casket. Then there is a Louis group of card players in ivory, cornelian, silver and crystal, which is one of the many gems of the collection, and a Joan of Arc in ivory and Damascus steel armour.
Above the bar door hangs Marshal von Hindenburg’s own pet pipe, over a yard long, with an ivory horse and an enamel of the Kaiser on its stem.
But of all the queer and wonderful treasures Mr Brown likes best the Chinese goddess of the sea, and the ivory princess who stands upstairs on the mantelpiece in her jewelled robe, as beautiful and inscrutable as when she was fashioned eight centuries ago.
There is a brooding beauty in these two figures which no words can convey. They are instinct with an art that were old when Confucius was young. Lidded eyes and rounded cheeks, the tiny fingers and the fall of the folds of the robes, the outline of the body and the grace of poise – all these are near perfect; but there is more in these ivory figures than mere perfection of craftsmanship – they have personality.
In contrast to this antique and eastern beauty downstairs in a big room behind the bar the walls are hung with every odd and curious freak of natural and unnatural history which the sailor friends of Charlie could collect in foreign lands.
There is a double headed calf with six legs, an albatross, snakes in bottles and something which is horribly like a pickled baby, skulls of beasts, assegais and arrows, eggs and birds, fish and alligators.
Round the room sits sailors and stokers, Swedes and Germans, Italian and Poles, fireman and donkey-men, able seaman and his majesty’s guardsman – each with his girl. Some of these are English, fair of skin and rosy of cheek; some are slim and almond eyed, with all the allure of the east. All are pretty. I have never seen an ugly girl in Charlie’s. There are none in Limehouse anyway.
The piano plays, the hands clap, the heels drum, the smoke thickens, glasses clink, all the tongues of the world mingle, the girls laugh and the room rings back the echoes. Suddenly it is closing time.
“Watch em “ says Charlie. No one calls “ time!” The bartender just lifts his finger, the pianist stops, the barmaids glance at the clock – and the sailors and soldiers and the sweating stokers, with their girls put on their hats and coat and say “Goodnight Charlie !” in 14 different languages and pass out into the night.
In two minutes the room is clear and the potman is piling the chairs.
Limehouse may mean Chinamen, fan-tan, opium, knives, murder and mystery to the novelist, but in plain fact it is one of the most law abiding districts in London. Charlie Brown sees to that.
“How do you do it?” I asked . “They know we keep big hammers in the cellars!” Charlie replied.
It is not that, It is the personality of this very odd little gentleman of nearly 70, who can quell a street brawl with one flash of his brown eyes, who can terrify a drunken Lascar with a look and who is so loved by his neighbours that he and his treasures sleep secure.
In 1932 Charlie died, and tributes arrived from all over the world and up to 16,000 people lined the route to his final resting place in Bow Cemetery.
One of the tributes was an article in the Singapore Free Press in 1932.
All the World Knew Him
A Last Look at Charlie Brown’s
Charlie Brown is dead. Soon the news will be told on the waterside at Rio and in the speak-easies by the quays of New York; it will reach the sailorman walking ashore at Colombo and Martinque and Fernando; on the bridge and fo’c’ale of ships on the high seas it will set the tides of memories flowing.
Charlie Brown is dead, and in the ports of the world they will say that London can never be quite the same again.
For to the sailorman Charlie Brown’s tavern was London.
What was his secret ? the secret was Charlie Brown himself.
I think it was the honest friendliness of the man and the way he had of making you feel he was expecting you for months.
He has heard so many secrets, since he first went to Limehouse nearly 40 years ago, but would never talk about them.
Live and let live was his motto; that, and has he once said to me “Never do a dirty trick to anyone.”
And he would always help you if you were down on your luck. And he would always be annoyed if you told anyone about it.
After Charlie’s death, the Railway Tavern was taken over by Charlie’s daughter, whilst his son Charlie Jnr moved into a pub opposite called the Blue Posts, both pubs were known as Charlie Brown’s.
In the Second World War the Railway Tavern relived some of its past glories by being the regular haunt of servicemen from all over the world, no doubt attracted by its past fame.
After the war its fame diminished but still struggled to survive until the 1980s when it was demolished to make way for the Docklands Light Railway.
Charlie Brown Jnr
Charlie Brown Jnr left the Blue Posts in the 30s to run a pub at Woodford called unsurprisingly Charlie Brown’s, this pub was demolished in the 1970s. However a local roundabout was named Charlie Browns in its honour.
In recent times, many people may be familiar with the name but the legend of Charlie Brown has been largely forgotten.
This is a shame for there was no doubt that Charlie Brown was a real East End hero loved by locals but renown worldwide for his hospitality, generosity and philanthropic works.
At the end of the 1890s the Reverend Richard Free and his wife decided to forego their relatively prosperous lifestyle to open a mission in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs. After seven years in the mission the Reverend Free decided to write a book of their experiences called Seven Years Hard.
Over a hundred years later, the book gives a fascinating insight into late 19th century London and the East End in particular.
The attempts of the Reverend Free to convert the locals is comical and tragic in parts and leads the Reverend to question his own beliefs.
Over the next few months i will publish excerpts from the book. We start at the beginning when the Reverend goes to visit the local bishop with a request to leave the more affluent parts to London to do some more worthwhile work.
” I am tired of preaching to silks and satins,” I said ;” rags and tatters would be a welcome change.”
The Bishop lifted grave, kind eyes, in which lurked more than a suspicion of amusement.
” I see. The conventionality of civilised society palls on you ; you want something more “
” Real ! ” I cried with conviction. The word gave me a feeling of bodily and mental vigour such as I had not known for many a long month. ” Real ! That’s it. I want to get at the foundation of things, to see human nature without its paint and gewgaws ; I want to face up to it, understand it, learn my lesson from it.”
Looking back over the seven years that have passed since these words were uttered, it seems to me that I was very young then ; and it also seems to me, as I write, that I am quite old now. For, if experience ages us, then twenty years have passed since that memorable day on which I sat in a dim little study in the heart of the City, and gazed on the scholarly face of George Forrest Browne, Bishop of Stepney.
The suspicion of amusement in the Bishop’s eyes deepened. He paused awhile, as if weighing something in his mind. Then he said, with the peculiar force and directness so characteristic of him —
” You want an unconventional sphere of labour ; you can have it. You want to see human nature in its primitive condition ; your wish can be gratified. At this very moment I need a man for pioneering missionary work. It will be rough ; it will be hard ; it will be discouraging. There is no house to live in ; there is no church to worship in ; there is no endowment, or fund, or anything of that kind to draw upon for workingexpenses. I think I can secure you a stipend of £150 a year, and I know I can put my hand on money forbuilding purposes. Well?”
I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. The study suddenly grew gloomy, the air chilly. The Bishop spoke again —” Of course, you know the Isle of Dogs ? “
Yes. At least, I had heard of the Isle of Dogs. To tell truth, a vision of flannels, a light outrigger, broiling summer sun, and a purling stream emerged from somewhere at the back of my mind, recalling halcyon days of another period.
” Yes, I may say I know it,” I continued eagerly. ” Up river ? Twickenham way ? “
Back went the Bishop’s head, as that lurking suspicion of a smile broke at last into audible laughter.
” Oh dear, no ! Miles away from Twickenham and all that Twickenham means. Nothing so attractive, I assure you. Limehouse ! Millwall ! That’s much nearer the mark.”
I sat still. It was rather sudden. ” Limehouse ” conjured up a picture of an impure stream bounded by dirty streets ; ” Millwall ” suggested river mud and long levels of decaying vegetation. The Twickenham picture was blotted out,
” Well ? ” The Bishop looked at me keenly.
” I’ll go.”
At that moment I was conscious of something like a call. I realised that this thing had come to me uninvited, unexpected, I wanted work ; work presented itself. Not, it is true, in the way I had anticipated, but perhapsin a far better way. Another Will than mine seemed to be in the business.
” Yes, I’ll go,” I repeated with conviction,
“Perhaps you would like to think it over?”
” No. Thank you — but. No, My resolution is taken.
God helping me, I’ll do what I can,”
Two minutes later I was in St, Paul’s Churchyard,looking up at the dome in a dazed way, and vaguely conscious that I had entered upon a new phase of my life, A sense of elation, hard to define, filled me to overflowing. I was sensible of the pressure of the Bishop’s hand closing over mine in a farewell grip ; I was sensible of still another pressure, less tangible, even more real, that seemed to be driving me into new activities.
Many intelligent people, as I now know, are every whit as ignorant of the whereabouts of the Isle of Dogs as I was in the autumn of 1896. They have confounded it with the Island of Sheppey, with Isleworth, with the Isle of Man, and with the Isle of Wight. But, in more senses than one, the Isle of Dogs is far removed from any of these places. It lies close to the centre of London, it is true, snugly ensconced, as it were, in the bosom of the Thames between Ratcliff and Blackwall.As the crow flies, the cottage in which I live, grandilo-quently named St. Cuthbert’s Lodge, is as nearly as possible two miles from the Tower. The crow would be able to take in the position at a glance. He would perceive this house, so near to and yet so far from the heart of things, in a tangle of masts and chimneys, and, being a bird of parts, would doubtless chuckle at the thought that his strong wings could bear him, in a few delicious moments, over a space that takes the human biped a painful hour to traverse. He would see that from the Tower Bridge the Thames flows for a half-a-mile or so in a fairly straight line, trending very slightly to the south, but that below Wapping Old Stairs, at the entrance to the Pool immortalised by Mr. Cole, it slowly rises for a good mile and three-quarters, drops due south again, gracefully curves away to the east, and finally flings up to its original level. The space thus enclosed, measuring, roughly, a mile and a-half from north to south and a mile from east to west, is known as the Isle of Dogs. Anciently, when it formed part of Stepney Marsh, it was not even a peninsula ; but now it is an island indeed, ” entirely surrounded by water,” the West India Docks enclosing it on the north and the river closely hugging it on the other three sides.
The Isle of Dogs lies near to the heart of the great city, yet in many respects it is more remote from it than the remotest of suburbs. The difficulty of getting to it is almost incredible. Not merely must the ambitious traveller struggle with ‘bus and train, discovering to his horror that the one never by any possible chance fits in with the other — such ills are normal : human flesh is heir to them everywhere ; but he must reckon with theswing bridges, which isolate the Island like the draw-bridges of a mediaeval castle. He may be within a stone’s throw of his destination, he may have a most important engagement ; yet he must possess his soul in superhuman patience while some great liner passes by at a snail’s pace, its mighty bulk towering high above him, its outlandish name in glittering letters silently declaring the unknown country whence it comes. It is true that the law provides that the ambitious traveller shall not be tried above that he is able, and that the opening of the swing bridges shall be strictly regulated ; but because there are few people in the Isle of Dogs who care, and fewer still who have the courage to complain, the law is flouted, and men bursting with business are kept hanging about the quays, kicking their heels because the dock authorities are not available.
Nor may the ambitious traveller escape by taking to the railway. His very ticket officially informs him that the various companies ” do not hold themselves responsible for any delays which may arise in the docks through the necessary opening of the swing bridges ” ;and so the tiny primitive train, drawn by the tiny primitive engine locally known as the ” Dustbin,” whose energy is in inverse proportion to its size, may find itself stranded on the edge of the dock, snorting weak defiance, while some lordly tyrant of ten thousand tons slips from her berth with maddening deliberation, and steals down to the waiting river.
Other posts you may find interesting.
T’ is the season to be jolly