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The Laughing Ghost of Limehouse and other Local Ghost Stories

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Limehouse – St Anne’s Church

As a treat for Halloween I have trawled the local history files for tales of the unexpected, Firstly we have a report from a local newspaper of 1827, where a couple in Limehouse are being visited by a ghost with a unusual  sense of humour.

The neighbourhood of Limehouse, like the Highlands, in the good old days of the bogles, has, it seems, been haunted for, some months back, by a most refractory and incorrigible phantom. The facts of this afflicting visitation are simply these:—A Mr. and Mrs. Dickenson took a small house, in October last, at the upper end of Church-street ; but scarcely had they passed the first half of the first night in it, when a sort of a loud chuckling laugh (the very sound which,if you could fancy a grasshopper intoxicated, he would no doubt make,) was heard, proceeding as it seemed from the bedroom  closet. Now, it so happened, that the bedroom of this worthy couple had no closet, whereupon being puzzled to account for the phenomenon they very naturally explored the whole house from top to bottom. Still no explanation was afforded.

The next night, at the same hour, the same fat chuckling laugh was heard, and as it appeared close to Mr.Dickenson’s ear, that much injured individual jumped up, and throwing his inexpressibles indignantly, but with a due regard to decorum, around him, he rushed again into the adjoining, room, where, however, nothing was found that could at all throw light upon the mystery. Meantime, the confounded cachinnations continued, first threeshort, broken winded laughs, then a halt, then a long asthmatic ululation, the whole wound up by a solemn midnight stillness.

The affair now became truly distressing. To think that an attached couple, when absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments on which all married folks set so high a value— to think, we repeat, that an amiable pair thus engaged should be interrupted by the villainous laughter of a ghost; ‘the   bare idea is revolting, and fully justified Mr. Dickenson- in his application to the parochial authorities. ‘This he did ‘on the third night, but alas! what can a beadle, or even a parish clerk avail against the evil one? Every night, albeit a brace of undaunted constables kept watch in Mr. Dickenson ‘s   apartment, the cacophonious interruption continued till the whole set were fairly laughed to scorn. This was some weeks back, but the noises, we should observe, are heard up to the present time, though, as they have appeared more asthmatic of late, it is to be hoped that their fiendship owner may one night break his wind and die. Meanwhile, the house, like Ossian’s dwelling of Moina (only infinitely more touching), is desolate, for Mr: and Mrs. Dickenson have evaporated, and no one has since, been, found at all desirous of being laughed into fits every night, by an ungentlemanly  good-for-nothing goblin. Here the affair rests at present.

Not sure I know what they mean by  “throwing his inexpressibles indignantly,” and “absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments” but altogether a sad sorry tale of  ghostly manic laughing.

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Blackwall Tunnel Entrance

If you thought that such events were a thing of the past, let us move forward in time some 150 years for our next story,  The Case of the  Blackwall Tunnel Ghost

A recent popular story in many Haunted London books and magazines is the story of the Blackwall Tunnel Ghost. The incident is supposed to have happened in 1972 when a motorcyclist picked up a hitchhiker on the Northern Approach to the tunnel at Greenwich. When the motorcyclist picks up the hitchhiker they have a friendly conversation about where the hitchhiker lives. The motorcyclist and his passenger climb aboard the motorcycle which then enters into the tunnel. However when the motorcycle  comes out of the tunnel in Blackwall, the motorcyclist finds that his passenger has disappeared. Fearing that his passenger had fallen off in the tunnel, the motorcyclist returns through the tunnel but can find any trace of the mystery hitchhiker.

The following day the motorcyclist decides to visit the address given to him by the mystery hitchhiker, when he arrives and talks to a woman who lives in the house, he is shocked to find out that the young man had died in a motorcycle accident near the tunnel many years before.

This story has been told so many times in its different versions that it deserves to acknowledged as an Urban Legend. Which is more than can be said for our next story “The Phantom Vicar of Ratcliffe Wharf”.

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Wapping Old Stairs

Once again in the 1970s, a magazine printed the story of a famous ghost that haunted the Wapping and Limehouse riverfront known as the Phantom Vicar of Radcliffe Wharf. He was supposed to have run a seaman’s mission in the 1770s, although respected by the local community for his good deeds , he did however have a nasty sideline of killing his guests for their money and throwing their bodies into the water.

In the 1970 article written by a Frank Smyth for the  Man, Myth and  Magic  magazine, there were quotes from people who claimed to have seen the ghost of the evil cleric along the desolate riverfront. According to Smyth, local people who worked on the river never went down to the wharf after it got dark.

After the article, other magazines and books often made reference to Phantom Vicar who haunted the riverfront, It was even featured in a TV special.

However in 1975, Frank Smyth who was a staff writer on the magazine  in an interview with Sunday Times confessed that he had invented the story. His motive was that he was so fed up with stories about modern ghosts that he decided to invent a good old-fashioned ghost and the derelict wharves seemed a perfect location for the mythical old vicar.

The reaction to the original story was such, that it soon become accepted that there was a Phantom Vicar and even when Smyth tried to convince some old river workers that it was fantasy, they replied they had heard the story from their Grandfathers when they were boys.

Which perhaps proves that many of us enjoy  a good scary story even if we know it’s not true.

The Monkey’s Paw – W. W. Jacobs

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Entering into Halloween week, I thought it was time to celebrate one of the great horror short stories, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs.

William Wymark Jacobs was born in Wapping in 1863, his father at the time worked at a  wharf in Wapping.

The time he spent in his youth with his father on the Wapping riverfront were the inspiration for a series of stories that Jacobs wrote later in his life that were published firstly in magazines then in books. His generally humorous books, Many Cargoes, The Skipper’s Wooing , Sea Urchins,  Captains All, Sailors’ Knots, and Night Watches, all published in the early 20th Century became very popular.

However it was his horror stories The Monkey’s Paw and the Toll House that really made his name and have been made into plays, films and TV drama’s.

The Monkey’s Paw is a story of three parts and reminds us to be careful what we wish for !

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Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.

“Hark at the wind,” said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.

“I’m listening,” said the latter, grimly surveying the board as he stretched out his hand. “Check.”

“I should hardly think that he’d come to-night,” said his father, with his hand poised over the board.

“Mate,” replied the son.

“That’s the worst of living so far out,” bawled Mr. White, with sudden and unlooked-for violence; “of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this is the worst. Pathway’s a bog, and the road’s a torrent. I don’t know what people are thinking about. I suppose because only two houses in the road are let, they think it doesn’t matter.”

“Never mind, dear,” said his wife, soothingly; “perhaps you’ll win the next one.”

Mr. White looked up sharply, just in time to intercept a knowing glance between mother and son. The words died away on his lips, and he hid a guilty grin in his thin grey beard.

“There he is,” said Herbert White, as the gate banged to loudly and heavy footsteps came toward the door.

The old man rose with hospitable haste, and opening the door, was heard condoling with the new arrival. The new arrival also condoled with himself, so that Mrs. White said, “Tut, tut!” and coughed gently as her husband entered the room, followed by a tall, burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage.

“Sergeant-Major Morris,” he said, introducing him.

The sergeant-major shook hands, and taking the proffered seat by the fire, watched contentedly while his host got out whiskey and tumblers and stood a small copper kettle on the fire.

At the third glass his eyes got brighter, and he began to talk, the little family circle regarding with eager interest this visitor from distant parts, as he squared his broad shoulders in the chair and spoke of wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.

“Twenty-one years of it,” said Mr. White, nodding at his wife and son. “When he went away he was a slip of a youth in the warehouse. Now look at him.”

“He don’t look to have taken much harm,” said Mrs. White, politely.

“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, “just to look round a bit, you know.”

“Better where you are,” said the sergeant-major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.

“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”

“Nothing,” said the soldier, hastily. “Leastways nothing worth hearing.”

“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White, curiously.

“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the sergeant-major, offhandedly.

His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him.

“To look at,” said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”

He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.

“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.

“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”

His manner was so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter jarred somewhat.

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White, cleverly.

The soldier regarded him in the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth. “I have,” he said, quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.

“I did,” said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

“And has anybody else wished?” persisted the old lady.

“The first man had his three wishes. Yes,” was the reply; “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”

His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group.

“If you’ve had your three wishes, it’s no good to you now, then, Morris,” said the old man at last. “What do you keep it for?”

The soldier shook his head. “Fancy, I suppose,” he said, slowly. “I did have some idea of selling it, but I don’t think I will. It has caused enough mischief already. Besides, people won’t buy. They think it’s a fairy tale; some of them, and those who do think anything of it want to try it first and pay me afterward.”

“If you could have another three wishes,” said the old man, eyeing him keenly, “would you have them?”

“I don’t know,” said the other. “I don’t know.”

He took the paw, and dangling it between his forefinger and thumb, suddenly threw it upon the fire. White, with a slight cry, stooped down and snatched it off.

“Better let it burn,” said the soldier, solemnly.

“If you don’t want it, Morris,” said the other, “give it to me.”

“I won’t,” said his friend, doggedly. “I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don’t blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire again like a sensible man.”

The other shook his head and examined his new possession closely. “How do you do it?” he inquired.

“Hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud,” said the sergeant-major, “but I warn you of the consequences.”

“Sounds like the Arabian Nights,” said Mrs. White, as she rose and began to set the supper. “Don’t you think you might wish for four pairs of hands for me?”

Her husband drew the talisman from pocket, and then all three burst into laughter as the sergeant-major, with a look of alarm on his face, caught him by the arm.

“If you must wish,” he said, gruffly, “wish for something sensible.”

Mr. White dropped it back in his pocket, and placing chairs, motioned his friend to the table. In the business of supper the talisman was partly forgotten, and afterward the three sat listening in an enthralled fashion to a second instalment of the soldier’s adventures in India.

“If the tale about the monkey’s paw is not more truthful than those he has been telling us,” said Herbert, as the door closed behind their guest, just in time for him to catch the last train, “we sha’nt make much out of it.”

“Did you give him anything for it, father?” inquired Mrs. White, regarding her husband closely.

“A trifle,” said he, colouring slightly. “He didn’t want it, but I made him take it. And he pressed me again to throw it away.”

“Likely,” said Herbert, with pretended horror. “Why, we’re going to be rich, and famous and happy. Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can’t be henpecked.”

He darted round the table, pursued by the maligned Mrs. White armed with an antimacassar.

Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said, slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”

“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that ‘ll just do it.”

His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face, somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.

“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.

A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.

“It moved,” he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor.

“As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.”

“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”

“It must have been your fancy, father,” said his wife, regarding him anxiously.

He shook his head. “Never mind, though; there’s no harm done, but it gave me a shock all the same.”

They sat down by the fire again while the two men finished their pipes. Outside, the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three, which lasted until the old couple rose to retire for the night.

“I expect you’ll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed,” said Herbert, as he bade them good-night, “and something horrible squatting up on top of the wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains.”

He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement.’ It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it. His hand grasped the monkey’s paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went up to bed.

II.

In the brightness of the wintry sun next morning as it streamed over the breakfast table he laughed at his fears. There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room which it had lacked on the previous night, and the dirty, shrivelled little paw was pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues.

“I suppose all old soldiers are the same,” said Mrs. White. “The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days? And if they could, how could two hundred pounds hurt you, father?”

“Might drop on his head from the sky,” said the frivolous Herbert.

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said’ his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

“Well, don’t break into the money before I come back,” said Herbert as he rose from the table. “I’m afraid it’ll turn you into a mean, avaricious man, and we shall have to disown you.”

His mother laughed, and following him to the door, watched him down the road; and returning to the breakfast table, was very happy at the expense of her husband’s credulity. All of which did not prevent her from scurrying to the door at the postman’s knock, nor prevent her from referring somewhat shortly to retired sergeant-majors of bibulous habits when she found that the post brought a tailor’s bill.

“Herbert will have some more of his funny remarks, I expect, when he comes home,” she said, as they sat at dinner.

“I dare say,” said Mr. White, pouring himself out some beer; “but for all that, the thing moved in my hand; that I’ll swear to.”

“You thought it did,” said the old lady soothingly.

“I say it did,” replied the other. “There was no thought about it; I had just—- What’s the matter?”

His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed, and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.

She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologized for the appearance of the room, and her husband’s coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit, for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.

“I—was asked to call,” he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. “I come from ‘Maw and Meggins.'”

The old lady started. “Is anything the matter?” she asked, breathlessly. “Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?”

Her husband interposed. “There, there, mother,” he said, hastily. “Sit down, and don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve not brought bad news, I’m sure, sir;” and he eyed the other wistfully.

“I’m sorry—” began the visitor.

“Is he hurt?” demanded the mother, wildly.

The visitor bowed in assent. “Badly hurt,” he said, quietly, “but he is not in any pain.”

“Oh, thank God!” said the old woman, clasping her hands. “Thank God for that! Thank—”

She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s perverted face. She caught her breath, and turning to her slower-witted husband, laid her trembling old hand upon his. There was a long silence.

“He was caught in the machinery,” said the visitor at length in a low voice.

“Caught in the machinery,” repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, “yes.”

He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting-days nearly forty years before.

“He was the only one left to us,” he said, turning gently to the visitor. “It is hard.”

The other coughed, and rising, walked slowly to the window. “The firm wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in your great loss,” he said, without looking round. “I beg that you will understand I am only their servant and merely obeying orders.”

There was no reply; the old woman’s face was white, her eyes staring, and her breath inaudible; on the husband’s face was a look such as his friend the sergeant might have carried into his first action.

“I was to say that Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility,” continued the other. “They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.”

Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.

Unconscious of his wife’s shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.

III.

In the huge new cemetery, some two miles distant, the old people buried their dead, and came back to a house steeped in shadow and silence. It was all over so quickly that at first they could hardly realize it, and remained in a state of expectation as though of something else to happen —something else which was to lighten this load, too heavy for old hearts to bear.

But the days passed, and expectation gave place to resignation—the hopeless resignation of the old, sometimes miscalled, apathy. Sometimes they hardly exchanged a word, for now they had nothing to talk about, and their days were long to weariness.

It was about a week after that the old man, waking suddenly in the night, stretched out his hand and found himself alone. The room was in darkness, and the sound of subdued weeping came from the window. He raised himself in bed and listened.

“Come back,” he said, tenderly. “You will be cold.”

“It is colder for my son,” said the old woman, and wept afresh.

The sound of her sobs died away on his ears. The bed was warm, and his eyes heavy with sleep. He dozed fitfully, and then slept until a sudden wild cry from his wife awoke him with a start.

“The paw!” she cried wildly. “The monkey’s paw!”

He started up in alarm. “Where? Where is it? What’s the matter?”

She came stumbling across the room toward him. “I want it,” she said, quietly. “You’ve not destroyed it?”

“It’s in the parlour, on the bracket,” he replied, marvelling. “Why?”

She cried and laughed together, and bending over, kissed his cheek.

“I only just thought of it,” she said, hysterically. “Why didn’t I think of it before? Why didn’t you think of it?”

“Think of what?” he questioned.

“The other two wishes,” she replied, rapidly.

“We’ve only had one.”

“Was not that enough?” he demanded, fiercely.

“No,” she cried, triumphantly; “we’ll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again.”

The man sat up in bed and flung the bedclothes from his quaking limbs. “Good God, you are mad!” he cried, aghast.

“Get it,” she panted; “get it quickly, and wish—Oh, my boy, my boy!”

Her husband struck a match and lit the candle. “Get back to bed,” he said, unsteadily. “You don’t know what you are saying.”

“We had the first wish granted,” said the old woman, feverishly; “why not the second?”

“A coincidence,” stammered the old man.

“Go and get it and wish,” cried his wife, quivering with excitement.

The old man turned and regarded her, and his voice shook. “He has been dead ten days, and besides he—I would not tell you else, but—I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?”

“Bring him back,” cried the old woman, and dragged him toward the door. “Do you think I fear the child I have nursed?”

He went down in the darkness, and felt his way to the parlour, and then to the mantelpiece. The talisman was in its place, and a horrible fear that the unspoken wish might bring his mutilated son before him ere he could escape from the room seized upon him, and he caught his breath as he found that he had lost the direction of the door. His brow cold with sweat, he felt his way round the table, and groped along the wall until he found himself in the small passage with the unwholesome thing in his hand.

Even his wife’s face seemed changed as he entered the room. It was white and expectant, and to his fears seemed to have an unnatural look upon it. He was afraid of her.

“Wish!” she cried, in a strong voice.

“It is foolish and wicked,” he faltered.

“Wish!” repeated his wife.

He raised his hand. “I wish my son alive again.”

The talisman fell to the floor, and he regarded it fearfully. Then he sank trembling into a chair as the old woman, with burning eyes, walked to the window and raised the blind.

He sat until he was chilled with the cold, glancing occasionally at the figure of the old woman peering through the window. The candle-end, which had burned below the rim of the china candlestick, was throwing pulsating shadows on the ceiling and walls, until, with a flicker larger than the rest, it expired. The old man, with an unspeakable sense of relief at the failure of the talisman, crept back to his bed, and a minute or two afterward the old woman came silently and apathetically beside him.

Neither spoke, but lay silently listening to the ticking of the clock. A stair creaked, and a squeaky mouse scurried noisily through the wall. The darkness was oppressive, and after lying for some time screwing up his courage, he took the box of matches, and striking one, went downstairs for a candle.

At the foot of the stairs the match went out, and he paused to strike another; and at the same moment a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.

The matches fell from his hand and spilled in the passage. He stood motionless, his breath suspended until the knock was repeated. Then he turned and fled swiftly back to his room, and closed the door behind him. A third knock sounded through the house.

“What’s that?” cried the old woman.

“What’s that?” cried the old woman, starting up.

“A rat,” said the old man in shaking tones—”a rat. It passed me on the stairs.”

His wife sat up in bed listening. A loud knock resounded through the house.

“It’s Herbert!” she screamed. “It’s Herbert!”

She ran to the door, but her husband was before her, and catching her by the arm, held her tightly.

“What are you going to do?” he whispered hoarsely.

“It’s my boy; it’s Herbert!” she cried, struggling mechanically. “I forgot it was two miles away. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door.

“For God’s sake don’t let it in,” cried the old man, trembling.

“You’re afraid of your own son,” she cried, struggling. “Let me go. I’m coming, Herbert; I’m coming.”

There was another knock, and another. The old woman with a sudden wrench broke free and ran from the room. Her husband followed to the landing, and called after her appealingly as she hurried downstairs. He heard the chain rattle back and the bottom bolt drawn slowly and stiffly from the socket. Then the old woman’s voice, strained and panting.

“The bolt,” she cried, loudly. “Come down. I can’t reach it.”

But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in. A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door. He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey’s paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish.

The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back, and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.

Storm hits the Isle of Dogs

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Millharbour

Strong winds are not unusual on the Isle of Dogs, however the storm this morning was stronger than normal and caused a certain amount of damage around the Island.

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Marsh Wall

For most of the morning Marsh Wall has been closed due the dangerous state of scaffolding on a roadside building site.

Most of the other damage on the north end of the Island was due to falling trees or wooden fencing collapsing.

Fortunately there are no reports of injuries at the moment.

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Near Westferry Circus

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Heron Quays

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South Dock

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South Quay

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Cuba Street

An East End Story – An Interview with Alfred Gardner

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Recently Fonthill Media have republished Alfred Gardner’s book An East End Story, this tale of friendship in the 1950s and 60s East End recalls some of the characters and places of the time. When it was first published in 2002 it quickly gained a reputation as an authentic account of an East End that was on the brink of enormous change.

Matthew Parris in the Spectator reviewed the book.

Reviewers talk of being ‘gripped’ by books. I was not so much gripped by A Tale of Friendship — an East End Story by Alfred Gardner as gently and consistently engaged. Without meaning to I read it from cover to cover, always curious to find out what happened next.

Recently I was fortunate to interview Alfred who has been an Isle of Dogs resident from the 1980s and ask him a few questions about the new version of his book.

I understand your family originally came from the East End, can you tell me a little bit about your background ?

My family were nearly all East Enders mainly from the Limehouse and Ratcliffe area who gradually moved a little north to live near St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. It was in Stepney that my parents lived until the War but then my mother and my sisters were evacuated to Norfolk , Somerset then  Buckinghamshire where I was born.

In 1943 we returned to Stepney, but when the V1 and V2 rockets began to strike the East End in June 1944 (78 V1s and 19 V2s) we were evacuated to West Hartlepool.  After the War ended we came back to Stepney, and lived in our old one bedroom flat. In May 1947 we moved to a much older three bedroom  terrace house in Jane Street.

 At the end of the 50s, Stepney Council undertook a slum clearance programme which resulted in many local families being offered new housing in Poplar and Bow. In August 1960 my family moved to the Lansbury Estate in Poplar where I stayed until the early 1980s before settling on  the Isle of Dogs.

The main theme of your book East End Story is your friendship with David Upson, when did you first meet him?

I was about 18 and working in the clothing trade, late one night  I was coming home from evening classes, I was near the Lord Nelson pub in Commercial Road when I noticed a women lying motionless on the pavement. I  immediately raced towards the nearby phone box to phone an ambulance when a man suddenly appeared in front of me who went in the phone box and called the ambulance. I recognised the man, he was employed at a local handbag factory where several of my friends worked. After waiting for the ambulance and making sure the woman was alright, I got into a conversation with the man and we decided to go for a drink at a local pub. .

Although from very different backgrounds we had similar interests :  girls, enjoyed local pubs and having a good time. We also had an interest in working at sea, David had been a fisherman and worked in the Merchant Navy whilst I was determined to leave my life in the East End clothing factories by joining the Merchant Navy to fulfil my dream of travelling around the world.

In due course I did spend three months working on a P and O liner travelling to Australia, however I was desperate to get back to London and enjoy the “Swinging Sixties.”

When I got back I met up again with David and  we carried on with our friendship   which lasted until he passed away in 1996.

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Postcard (Courtesy of Eric Pemberton)

Another theme of the book is describing an East End world that has all but disappeared  ? 

Looking back the  East End of that time, especially the riverside area of Wapping and Limehouse were very interesting areas. Especially in Dockside pubs such as the Prospect of Whitby, Charlie Brown’s and the Eastern Hotel it seemed that the whole world was coming to London . Therefore there was no need to travel  outside the area to the West End because all your entertainment was here. The Prospect always had an interesting mix of people ranging from film stars to the men who worked on the Thames, Because the pub was not too far from the  London Hospital it was very popular with the nurses and other medical staff.

We did go further afield at times, when Daniel Farson opened the Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs we went along to watch the old Music Hall acts, we also went in the City Arms pub which built up a reputation  for the Drag acts that appeared there. There were the more rougher areas we used to frequent near the West India Dock gates in Limehouse and the red light area in Cable Street but although fights were not unknown, if you kept a low profile you tended to be alright.

What inspired you to write the book ?

When David passed away in 1996, his sister Barbara asked me to go through his papers, I knew he kept a diary but was surprised by the amount of paperwork that he had accumulated especially from his life before he arrived in the UK.

I was determined to transcribe his papers into a readable form with the idea of sending the record of his war experiences to the Documents Department of The Imperial War Museum. I was also going to keep a copy for myself and a copy for Barbara.

Although quite difficult, I enjoyed the writing process and when I had finished my girlfriend Linda said why don’t you write a book about your friendship with David ?

Although I had done some writing in the past I realised a book was a different proposition but eventually working from the well-known adage “of writing about what you know about “ I began to write the book.

It took me about a year to write and then I was faced with sending the book to publishers. Although there was some interest, nobody wanted to publish the book, so I resolved to self-publish 1000 copies and sell them myself.

This I managed to do by selling to local bookshops, I also had bookstalls at East End fetes and Tower Hamlets Local History Library bought several copies for their book selling department. Another of my activities was asking East London newspapers to review the book.

It was hard work but gradually the book became quite well-known and I am still receiving requests for information from all over the world.

Unusually for a self-published author, you managed to get your original book reviewed in the Spectator, how did that come about?

Well part of my bookselling activities was delivering leaflets which advertised my book, one of the areas I leafleted was Limehouse.  Matthew Parris who lives in Limehouse, received one of the leaflets, he ordered a  copy of the book and enjoyed reading it and then told me he would  like to review it in the Spectator.

I was acquainted at this time, with another writer who had written a book about the area in the 1950s and I asked Matthew if he would read it. The author’s name was Jennifer Worth and the book was called Call the Midwife, Mathew enjoyed the book and decided to review the books together.

What are you working on at the moment

Other than promoting the book, I have been asked recently for some input into the new To Sir with Love stage play . I have just finished a film script about a notorious North London criminal from the 1950s which I hope will be picked up in the near future. I have also written a few short stories and I am hoping to begin work on a stage play script.

I am also keen to produce a booklet of the various articles which I wrote about the great Swedish Tenor Jussi Bjorling.

If you would like to buy a copy of the book An East End Story press here

Master of Suspense – Alfred Hitchcock in Limehouse

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Alfred Hitchcock

Many people may be aware that Alfred Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone in 1899, however he moved from there when he was about six and then moved to Limehouse.

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Salmon Lane 1900s

The Hitchcock’s moved from Leytonstone to 175 Salmon Lane and open a shop selling fresh fish, later Alfred’s father purchased 130 Salmon Lane and opened it as a fish and chip shop. It was above the shop at 175 Salmon Lane that the young Alfred lived, at this time Salmon Lane was home to one of London’s most bustling markets catering for the cosmopolitan population that lived in the area.

One of the problems of looking at Hitchcock’s  childhood is to separate fact and fiction, later in life Hitchcock would tell stories about his childhood which often exaggerated certain points. One of his most famous stories was that as a child he was sent to the local police station with a note which the policeman read and locked him a cell for a few minutes and then said “this is what we do with naughty boys”, from this Hitchcock  said he developed a life long fear of the police.

However he never makes clear where the police station was and his age changes in different interviews. He also gives the impression he was a solitary child, but although quite a bit younger than his siblings he came from quite a large extended family which he continued to visit  and socialise  with even after he became famous.

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Howrah House Poplar

Hitchcock’s schooling is also difficult to unravel, there is no doubt he was taught at home, however there is evidence that he attended Howrah House in Poplar for a time. Howrah House was a convent run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus . It was essentially a Girls School, although boys were admitted occasionally. The house was previously the residence of shipping magnate, Duncan Dunbar who owned the Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse. Later Hitchcock attended the St. Ignatius College in Stamford Hill.

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One fact we do know is true is that when he left school at 15 he enrolled in London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation which was located in the High Street Poplar. It is now part of Tower Hamlets College.

When asked why he went to the college he said his parents had asked him what he wanted to do when he left school and he had said ” like many boys I said I wanted to be an engineer, and my parents took me seriously. ”

He also said that lessons about  force, motion and electricity at the College was useful later when he started making films.

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Henley’s Electric Cables

It was around this time that his father died and he decided to get a job, he quickly secured a position with Henley’s  a firm that specialised in insulated wires and cables  whose head office  was located  in Blomfield Street near Liverpool Street Station. Hitchcock stayed at Henley’s eventually working in the Advertising department for six years before getting his first job working in the film industry.

As someone who was famous for observing life and trying to found out what made people tick, there is no doubt that Hitchcock would have been have been aware of an East End  around him that was in turmoil. Industrial strikes, Women’s suffrage , anarchism and general unrest  were commonplace, if this was not enough the start of the First World War saw Zeppelin bombing raids.

Another influence on Hitchcock was his fascination with murders , other than Jack the Ripper, the cases of Dr Crippen and Adelaide Bartlett were followed closely.  Quite often he would travel to the Old Bailey to watch murder trials. Like many other Londoners he developed a macabre sense of humour when talking about gruesome murders.

The influence of these events on Hitchcock was shown in some of his early films, The Lodger was based on Jack the Ripper,  and The Man Who Knew Too Much  included events such as the Sidney Street siege  which in 1911 took place only about a mile away from Limehouse.

His film Blackmail released in 1929 is given the distinction of being the first British “talkie”.

When he went to live and work in America, Hitchcock became a celebrity and often painted his childhood as a little Dickensian, however the Hitchcock’s although not rich were certainly well off compared to many they lived amongst and Alfred as the youngest of the family was generally supported in his enterprises.

It is safe to say that he never forgot his roots although was often evasive about certain parts of his childhood. Towards the end of his career it was as if he had come full circle  when he came back to London in 1972 to film Frenzy, which was about a serial killer loose in London.

When he died in 1980 he was considered one of Britain’s greatest film directors and was widely acclaimed all over the world. Even over 30 years after his death there is still considerable interest in his work and of his origins in Leytonstone and Limehouse.

Super Yacht Odessa II in West India Dock

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Following on from the visit of the Sea Owl Super Yacht, we now have an even bigger Super Yacht  Odessa II visiting the West India Dock.

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The 73 metre (240 ft) Super Yacht was launched earlier this year at Nobiskrug in Germany.

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The Odessa II was due to be part of a five ships order, however due to the financial crisis only two were built, The Odessa II (or project 422 as it was known) and her sister ship Plan B (or project 423).

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If this sounds a little bit James Bond, the mystery continues with the owner not known at this time.

We also do not know why the ship is visiting London and when she is likely to depart.

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What we do know is the exterior was designed by Focus Yacht Design and the interior was designed by H2 Yacht Design, there is luxury accommodation for up to 12 guests.

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Odessa and Sea Owl

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The Ship that Wouldn’t Die – The City of Adelaide Clipper

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City of Adelaide awaiting renaming ceremony in Greenwich

The appearance of the City of Adelaide being towed on a barge up the Thames for its renaming ceremony at Greenwich will no doubt be of interest to  many maritime fans, however  its extraordinary story deserves a much wider audience.

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The City of Adelaide was built-in 1864 by William Pile, Hay and Co. in Sunderland, England, and was launched on 7 May 1864. This makes the ship the world’s oldest surviving clipper ship some five years older than the Cutty Sark who she is currently berthed nearby.

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Like the Cutty Sark she is a composite clipper which means its was made of a construction of timber planking on a wrought-iron frame. This enable a great sailing speed especially on the long voyages between England and Australia. Between 1864 and 1887 the City of Adelaide made 23 return voyages between Britain and Australia transporting passengers and goods such as wool and copper.

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However on one of these voyages disaster struck , in 1874 the ship run aground on Kirkcaldy Beach near Adelaide. Fortunately the passengers were saved and the ship re-floated and taken into Adelaide for minor repairs.

In 1887 the ship’s fortune took a turn for the worse by being  sold to a Dover coal merchant and was used to carry coal from Newcastle to Dover. A year later she was sold to Belfast based timber merchants to be used to carry timber from North America.

In a return to one of the ships former uses, she  was used to take a large number of migrants from Britain to North America and then carried the timber on its return journey.

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City of Adelaide Hospital Ship

By 1893 the ship ended its sailing days and was purchased by Southampton Corporation to serve as a floating isolation hospital.

In 1923 the ship had a new career when she was purchased by the Admiralty and towed to Irvine, Scotland, to be converted into a training ship. It was at this time that her name was changed as there was already a cruiser in the Royal Navy called Adelaide, therefore the old clipper was renamed HMS Carrick.

After the Second World War, ship was scheduled to be sent to the breakers yard but the ship was saved and presented to the Scottish RNVR club who fitted the ship out as club rooms and berthed her in Glasgow where she become a familiar sight on the Clyde until the 1980s when the club could not continue to maintain the ship and looked at ways of securing its future. However whilst plans for its preservation was being considered, two events occurred that almost meant the ship was lost forever.

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Firstly in 1989 the ship was flooded when it was trapped beneath a wharf, and more seriously in 1991 the vessel sank at it moorings. It was not without irony that a ship that had sailed through some of the most dangerous waters in the world and survived should suffer the ignominy of sinking in what should have been a safe berth.

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This really looked like the end because the ships owners the Clyde Ships trust was already in debt and had no funds for the salvage. Eventually money was found and the ship was salvaged by the Scottish Maritime Museum and moved to Irvine, back to the slipway it had occupied in 1923. It was generally expected that it would be restored and the ship became part of the UK National Historical Core Collection.

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But things would not be that simple for the funds allocated for this restoration were then taken away when Scotland gained its own parliament and funding resources. In 2000  the Scottish Maritime Museum applied to demolish the ship, there was numerous objections from organisations all over the world and in 2001 The Duke of Edinburgh set up a conference in Glasgow to find a long-term solution for the ship. Due to the lack of funding at the Scottish Maritime Museum it was proposed that the vessel be transported to another location to enable restoration to be carried out. Since then two groups the Sunderland Maritime Heritage and the City of Adelaide groups have both tried to raise funds to secure the ships future.

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In 2010 the City of Adelaide group was considered the favoured bidder and over the last three years have made plans to  take a large cradle to Irvine and  loading the ship  for transportation, this plan came to fruition  in September  2013 and the ship was towed down to Chatham.

The Duke of Edinburgh who has taken close interest in the ship for a number of years will be attending the renaming ceremony in Greenwich,  after the ceremony the ship will be taken away and be fumigated until ready to be loaded onto another ship and taken to Australia to be restored. However recent political events in Australia has raised questions whether the funding offered by the previous government will be met by the new administration.