Other than the shipyards, Blackwall in the 19th century was known for its Whitebait taverns and being a major embarkation point for people travelling by boat to destinations all over the world.
A humorous article by Robert Smith Surtees bring these two elements together in 1835.
Robert Smith Surtees (1803-64) trained to be solicitor, but turned his hand to a literary career as contributor to the Sporting Magazine. He bought out his own magazine the New Sporting Magazine where he invented the celebrated Mr Jorrocks, the Sporting Cockney Grocer who enjoyed country pursuits. The first books about Mr Jorrocks were illustrated by “Phiz” who later became famous for illustrating many books by Charles Dickens.
Jorrocks became very popular with the public for his satirical humour but also for the social observations. Many people believed that Charles Dickens in Mr Pickwick borrowed heavily from the Jorrocks character.
Mr Jorrocks and his family
In this piece Jorrock’s friend Sims has asked him to dine at one of the Blackwall Whitebait Taverns, Jorrocks is always ready for a meal but is dismayed to find a rag tattle army ready to depart from Blackwall to Spain. (the unusual spellings were part of Surtees humour)
Sims asked if I would toddle down to the Isle of Dogs with him and see the chaps wot were going out to raise the price of Spanish, and dine at Blackwall after — Agreed. Set off about three, and walked to the Dogs expecting to see a fine army of soldiers, with Evans in a cocked hat and feather, strutting about like a turkey- cock, at their head, instead of which found nothing but three or four hundred regular lousy, house breaking, pick-pocket-looking little fellows, some in ragged coats and hats like extinguishers, and many without either hats or coats, lounging about the old steam washing company’s premises opposite Greenwich.
Was amazed ! It will be ” look to your pockets” when they land. — One chap had chalked on the wooded wall at the back, ” a citizen of the City of Lushington is going to Spain.” Was very glad to getaway from among them without being hustled and robbed.
Walked on to the ” Plough” at Blackwall. — Have never missed dining there for the last twenty years. — Capital ouse and much improved of late. — Have made a new coffee-room below. — Three fine dishes o’ fish, Eels, Sounders, white bait, with weal cutlets, and all sorts o’ wegitables for 3s. a head — Port and punch after — Both superb.
Lord Nelson, as I calls the old Water Bailiff, and a lot o’ City chaps dining next door, at the Heartichoke — Werry merry — Had the barge down, all red and gold, with sixteen men in red breeches to row them.
Blackwall’s a beautiful place — The sun always shines there, and the Kentish-hills all werdant with trees, and Greenwich Ospital opposite, and the steamers passing every five minutes, and the green sedgey banks with the white posts opposite and the large ships sailing majestically down, like the swans in St. James’s-park, all make it werry, werry lovely. — Think they have perhaps destroyed the romance of the place by taking away the pirates wot used to hang in chains on the gibbets at the sweep of the river.
The rag tattle army were the recruits of the British Auxiliary Legion assembled prior to embarkation to Spain, the majority of the Army had no fighting experience and had been recruited amongst the poor in London, their poor appearance led them to be called the “Isle of Doggians”.
Out of the almost 10,000 men sent to Spain, a quarter died and many returned within three years, their commanding officer Sir George De Lacy Evans was an experienced Army officer who had fought in the United States and at Waterloo.
Sir George De Lacy Evans in 1855
He was also an Member of Parliament for Rye and Westminster.
The reference to the pirates in the gibbets was because in 1834, legislation was passed to prevent the use of gibbets next to the river.
Jorrocks Statue at East Croydon by John Mills (who also created the River Man on Marsh Wall)