H. M. Tomlinson by Richard Murry 1927 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London
Although Docklands is not known for its literary history, at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century there were a number of well known writers who were born or lived in the area. Arthur Morrison born in Poplar was known for his slum fiction, W W Jacobs born in Wapping was known for his bargee novels and horror stories and Jerome K Jerome moved to Poplar as a boy and spent his formative years there.
Probably one of the most popular writers of his day was Henry Major Tomlinson who was born in Poplar in 1873 and found fame as a journalist and author.
Tomlinson grew up near the Docks and from early childhood developed a fascination with the sea and the ships that sailed into the docks.
After leaving school he got a job as a shipping clerk, but he desperately wanted to travel and secured a job as a journalist and eventually made his first journey abroad by travelling in a expedition on a British Steamer up the Amazon. His first travel book The Sea and the Jungle (1912) was an account of this journey written when he returned back to London.
Although not a great success at the time , it has since been considered a classic travel book , however the book did lead to Tomlinson getting work as a journalist.
He managed to secure a position as an official correspondent for the British Army, in France in World War I . However In 1917 he was relieved of duty for not supporting the government line and went to work with H. W. Massingham on the anti-war newspaper The Nation. He left the paper in 1923, when Massingham resigned because of a change of ownership.
He had considerable success with his novel Gallions Reach (1927), and All Our Yesterdays (1930), but was better known for his travel books especially London River (1921). London River is a series of stories largely based on growing up near the docks towards the end of the tall ships and clipper era. In the following passage Tomlinson explains what makes ‘Docklands’ so unique.
Dockland would seem to others as any alien town would seem to me. There is something, though, you must grant us, a heritage peculiarly ours. Amid our packed tenements, into the dark mass where poorer London huddles as my shipping parish, are set our docks. Embayed in the obscurity are those areas of captured day, reservoirs of light brimmed daily by the tides of the sun, silver mirrors through which one may leave the dark floor of Poplar for radiant other worlds. We have our ships and docks, and the River at Blackwall when night and the flood come together, and walls and roofs which topmasts and funnels surmount, suggestions of a vagabondage hidden in what seemed so arid a commonplace desert. These are of first importance. They are our ways of escape. We are not kept within a division of the map. And Orion, he strides over our roofs on bright winter nights. We have the immortals. At the most, your official map sets us only lateral bounds. The heavens here are as high as elsewhere. Our horizon is beyond our own limits. In this faithful chronicle of our parish I must tell of our boundaries as I know them. They are not so narrow as you might think. Maps cannot be so carefully planned, nor walls built high enough nor streets confined and strict enough, to hold within limits our lusty and growing population of thoughts. There is no census you can take which will give you forewarning of what is growing here, of the way we increase and expand. Take care. Some day, when we discover the time has come for it, we shall tell our numbers, and be sure you will then learn the result. Travelling through our part of the country, you see but our appearance. You go, and report us casually to your friends, and forget us. But when you feel the ground moving under your feet, that will be us.
Tomlinson stresses the point that many who lived in Docklands were tied to the sea and to all points around the globe.
My eyes more frequently go to one place in that high country. In that distant line of warehouses is a break, and there occasionally I see the masts and spars of a tall ship, and I remember that beyond my dark horizon of warehouses is the path down which she has come from the Indies to Blackwall. I said we were not inland. Cassiopeia is in that direction, and China over there.
For my outlook is more than the centre of Dockland. I call it the centre of the world. Our high road is part of the main thoroughfare from Kensington to Valparaiso. Every wanderer must come this way at least once in his life. We are the hub whence all roads go to the circumference. A ship does not go down but we hear the cry of distress, and the house of a neighbour rocks on the flood and is lost, casting its people adrift on the blind tides.
Long ago nearly every home in Dockland treasured a lithographic portrait of one of the beauties, framed and hung where visitors could see it as soon as they entered the door. Each of us knew one of them, her runs and her records, the skipper and his fads, the owner and his prejudice about the last pennyworth of tar. She was not a transporter to us, an earner of freights, something to which was attached a profit and loss account and an insurance policy. She had a name. She was a sentient being, perhaps noble, perhaps wilful; she might have any quality of character, even malice. I have seen hands laid on her with affection in dock, when those who knew her were telling me of her ways.
Tomlinson ‘s hey day was in the 1920s, when he was often compared to Conrad, he still published articles and books into the 1950s but although respected by his peers, his reputation with the public waned possibly because of his anti- war stance till he died in 1958.
In recent times his work is slowly being re-evaluated and some of his travel books especially are considered classics of their kind.
It is ironic that Tomlinson is writing about the passing of the age of sail and when we read him now it is with nostalgia for the passing of the docks themselves and of a way of life which he illustrates with a series of wonderful short stories.