Home » Literary Life » Blackwall Stairs – Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

Blackwall Stairs – Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

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Woodcut of the Plague of 1665

It is always fascinating the way that certain places are portrayed in fact and fiction, this is especially the case with the Isle of Dogs which has long been considered remote from the rest of London.

The following passages are taken from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, although written long after the Plague in 1722, the book was allegedly based on Defoe’s uncles Journal. With its meticulous attention to detail and consideration of the effect the plague had on the population it was accepted as fact for many when first published. Even now it is considered a classic of historical fiction, in these passages our narrator has walked out of the City and come upon Blackwall Stairs.

Much about the same time I walked out into the fields towards Bow; for I had a great mind to see how things were managed in the river and among the ships; and as I had some concern in shipping, I had a notion that it had been one of the best ways of securing one’s self from the infection to have retired into a ship; and musing how to satisfy my curiosity in that point, I turned away over the fields from Bow to Bromley, and down to Blackwall to the stairs which are there for landing or taking water.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or sea-wall, as they call it, by himself. I walked a while also about, seeing the houses all shut up. At last I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man; first I asked him how people did thereabouts. ‘Alas, sir!’ says he, ‘almost desolate; all dead or sick. Here are very few families in this part, or in that village’ (pointing at Poplar), ‘where half of them are not dead already, and the rest sick.’ Then he pointing to one house, ‘There they are all dead’, said he, ‘and the house stands open; nobody dares go into it. A poor thief’, says he, ‘ventured in to steal something, but he paid dear for his theft, for he was carried to the churchyard too last night.’ Then he pointed to several other houses. ‘There’, says he, ‘they are all dead, the man and his wife, and five children. There’, says he, ‘they are shut up; you see a watchman at the door’; and so of other houses. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘what do you here all alone?’ ‘Why,’ says he, ‘I am a poor, desolate man; it has pleased God I am not yet visited, though my family is, and one of my children dead.’ ‘How do you mean, then,’ said I, ‘that you are not visited?’ ‘Why,’ says he, ‘that’s my house’ (pointing to a very little, low-boarded house), ‘and there my poor wife and two children live,’ said he, ‘if they may be said to live, for my wife and one of the children are visited, but I do not come at them.’ And with that word I saw the tears run very plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

‘But,’ said I, ‘why do you not come at them? How can you abandon your own flesh and blood?’ ‘Oh, sir,’ says he, ‘the Lord forbid! I do not abandon them; I work for them as much as I am able; and, blessed be the Lord, I keep them from want’; and with that I observed he lifted up his eyes to heaven, with a countenance that presently told me I had happened on a man that was no hypocrite, but a serious, religious, good man, and his ejaculation was an expression of thankfulness that, in such a condition as he was in, he should be able to say his family did not want. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘honest man, that is a great mercy as things go now with the poor. But how do you live, then, and how are you kept from the dreadful calamity that is now upon us all?’ ‘Why, sir,’ says he, ‘I am a waterman, and there’s my boat,’ says he, ‘and the boat serves me for a house. I work in it in the day, and I sleep in it in the night; and what I get I lay down upon that stone,’ says he, showing me a broad stone on the other side of the street, a good way from his house; ‘and then,’ says he, ‘I halloo, and call to them till I make them hear; and they come and fetch it.’

‘Well, friend,’ says I, ‘but how can you get any money as a waterman? Does any body go by water these times?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ says he, ‘in the way I am employed there does. Do you see there,’ says he, ‘five ships lie at anchor’ (pointing down the river a good way below the town), ‘and do you see’, says he, ‘eight or ten ships lie at the chain there, and at anchor yonder?’ (pointing above the town). ‘All those ships have families on board, of their merchants and owners, and such-like, who have locked themselves up and live on board, close shut in, for fear of the infection; and I tend on them to fetch things for them, carry letters, and do what is absolutely necessary, that they may not be obliged to come on shore; and every night I fasten my boat on board one of the ship’s boats, and there I sleep by myself, and, blessed be God, I am preserved hitherto.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘friend, but will they let you come on board after you have been on shore here, when this is such a terrible place, and so infected as it is?’

‘Why, as to that,’ said he, ‘I very seldom go up the ship-side, but deliver what I bring to their boat, or lie by the side, and they hoist it on board. If I did, I think they are in no danger from me, for I never go into any house on shore, or touch anybody, no, not of my own family; but I fetch provisions for them.’

‘Nay,’ says I, ‘but that may be worse, for you must have those provisions of somebody or other; and since all this part of the town is so infected, it is dangerous so much as to speak with anybody, for the village’, said I, ‘is, as it were, the beginning of London, though it be at some distance from it.’

‘That is true,’ added he; ‘but you do not understand me right; I do not buy provisions for them here. I row up to Greenwich and buy fresh meat there, and sometimes I row down the river to Woolwich and buy there; then I go to single farm-houses on the Kentish side, where I am known, and buy fowls and eggs and butter, and bring to the ships, as they direct me, sometimes one, sometimes the other. I seldom come on shore here, and I came now only to call on my wife and hear how my family do, and give them a little money, which I received last night.’

‘Poor man!’ said I; ‘and how much hast thou gotten for them?’

‘I have gotten four shillings,’ said he, ‘which is a great sum, as things go now with poor men; but they have given me a bag of bread too, and a salt fish and some flesh; so all helps out.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘and have you given it them yet?’

‘No,’ said he; ‘but I have called, and my wife has answered that she cannot come out yet, but in half-an-hour she hopes to come, and I am waiting for her. Poor woman!’ says he, ‘she is brought sadly down. She has a swelling, and it is broke, and I hope she will recover; but I fear the child will die, but it is the Lord—’

Here he stopped, and wept very much.

‘Well, honest friend,’ said I, ‘thou hast a sure Comforter, if thou hast brought thyself to be resigned to the will of God; He is dealing with us all in judgement.’

‘Oh, sir!’ says he, ‘it is infinite mercy if any of us are spared, and who am I to repine!’

‘Sayest thou so?’ said I, ‘and how much less is my faith than thine?’ And here my heart smote me, suggesting how much better this poor man’s foundation was on which he stayed in the danger than mine; that he had nowhere to fly; that he had a family to bind him to attendance, which I had not; and mine was mere presumption, his a true dependence and a courage resting on God; and yet that he used all possible caution for his safety.

I turned a little way from the man while these thoughts engaged me, for, indeed, I could no more refrain from tears than he.

At length, after some further talk, the poor woman opened the door and called, ‘Robert, Robert’. He answered, and bid her stay a few moments and he would come; so he ran down the common stairs to his boat and fetched up a sack, in which was the provisions he had brought from the ships; and when he returned he hallooed again. Then he went to the great stone which he showed me and emptied the sack, and laid all out, everything by themselves, and then retired; and his wife came with a little boy to fetch them away, and called and said such a captain had sent such a thing, and such a captain such a thing, and at the end adds, ‘God has sent it all; give thanks to Him.’ When the poor woman had taken up all, she was so weak she could not carry it at once in, though the weight was not much neither; so she left the biscuit, which was in a little bag, and left a little boy to watch it till she came again.

‘Well, but’, says I to him, ‘did you leave her the four shillings too, which you said was your week’s pay?’

‘Yes, yes,’ says he; ‘you shall hear her own it.’ So he calls again, ‘Rachel, Rachel,’ which it seems was her name, ‘did you take up the money?’ ‘Yes,’ said she. ‘How much was it?’ said he. ‘Four shillings and a groat,’ said she. ‘Well, well,’ says he, ‘the Lord keep you all’; and so he turned to go away.

As I could not refrain contributing tears to this man’s story, so neither could I refrain my charity for his assistance. So I called him, ‘Hark thee, friend,’ said I, ‘come hither, for I believe thou art in health, that I may venture thee’; so I pulled out my hand, which was in my pocket before, ‘Here,’ says I, ‘go and call thy Rachel once more, and give her a little more comfort from me. God will never forsake a family that trust in Him as thou dost.’ So I gave him four other shillings, and bid him go lay them on the stone and call his wife.

I have not words to express the poor man’s thankfulness, neither could he express it himself but by tears running down his face. He called his wife, and told her God had moved the heart of a stranger, upon hearing their condition, to give them all that money, and a great deal more such as that he said to her. The woman, too, made signs of the like thankfulness, as well to Heaven as to me, and joyfully picked it up; and I parted with no money all that year that I thought better bestowed.

I then asked the poor man if the distemper had not reached to Greenwich. He said it had not till about a fortnight before; but that then he feared it had, but that it was only at that end of the town which lay south towards Deptford Bridge; that he went only to a butcher’s shop and a grocer’s, where he generally bought such things as they sent him for, but was very careful.

I asked him then how it came to pass that those people who had so shut themselves up in the ships had not laid in sufficient stores of all things necessary. He said some of them had—but, on the other hand, some did not come on board till they were frighted into it and till it was too dangerous for them to go to the proper people to lay in quantities of things, and that he waited on two ships, which he showed me, that had laid in little or nothing but biscuit bread and ship beer, and that he had bought everything else almost for them. I asked him if there was any more ships that had separated themselves as those had done. He told me yes, all the way up from the point, right against Greenwich, to within the shore of Limehouse and Redriff, all the ships that could have room rid two and two in the middle of the stream, and that some of them had several families on board. I asked him if the distemper had not reached them. He said he believed it had not, except two or three ships whose people had not been so watchful to keep the seamen from going on shore as others had been, and he said it was a very fine sight to see how the ships lay up the Pool.

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