To mark Halloween, I am posting the following tale of dastardly deeds on the Isle of Dogs in the 18th century when it was largely uninhabited and had quite a sombre reputation due to the hanging of pirates in gibbets at certain locations on the Island. The story was written by Edwin F. Roberts, in a little publication, entitled ‘Christmas stories round the sea-coal fire’ in the 1840s.
The narrator is an old sea-captain who likes to ‘spin a yarn’ sitting in his chair at the Ferry House Tavern which still survives , being one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Island.
Once upon a time, and many a generation ago, there used to be a good deal of contraband going on in this quarter. Schnaps and laces, Dutch waters and Nantz brandy and the like, were landed in the creeks, of which there were plenty, and what with the shallows which required good pilotage to avoid, and the boggy treacherous surface of the soil, which could only be traversed by those well acquainted with its nature, and what with the known desperate character of baggy-breeched Hollanders, the crews of light French luggers, and the boat men, or rather river-pirates of the district, a roaring trade — despite the daring and vigilance of the revenue officers — continued and throve.
Nothing could be better adapted for landing keg and bale than the hundred hiding places offered by clumps of pollards, willows, poplars, and the dense brushwood that covered the opening of the numerous holes and small estuaries formed by the tidal waters, the ditches, and streams of the marshes. Dark nights easily favoured any light skiff or wherry that might have, taken in cargo miles below, and ‘ Bugsby’s Hole’ was a place for a length of time especially favoured by these visitors, till the occurrence I am about to relate drew attention to it, and forced the lawless adventurer to find out other outlets. As a matter of course the inhabitants of the neighbourhood favoured these proceedings, and when night had fallen, groups like phantoms, might be seen stealing across the dusky flats, defying-if not detection— at least all chances of present capture. In this very house— the old Ferry-House— as it was then called, many a jovial rouse has been held, and drowsy, drinking songs from Scheldt, love-lays of Normandy, and roaring English ballads trolled out, over as many a can and cup. You see it was no uncommon thing for a numerous but somewhat rough company to meet here at nightfall and hold revel. Broad and bulky Dutchmen, jabbering, lively fellows from Havre and Dieppe, might have had a little business, either over or to begin, three or four lads in for a spree, might come ashore by boat from some craft in the river, and the house itself being so lonely and isolated on this particular side, where there was neither road nor traffic, save in the day time, for passengers, cattle, and the like, making for the opposite ferry— besides not having the very best of good names in the world— all this would bring a wild and motley assemblage together.
Mercy on me what I have heard tell of these rouses they used to have. Half a puncheon, no less, for a bowl as would swamp the largest wherry on the water, and as there was many a can that never paid— but never mind, we’ll take that for granted. It isn’t all the likker that’s drunk, nor the baccy that’s smoked, that pays what they ought to pay, mind that. Well they used to carry on tremen-jous, that they must, if only half be true what’s told, and if, as often happened, a bit of a rumpus, a sort of brotherly pitching-in to one another affair took place, why, nobody but themselves was the wiser, for they could keep it without any interference of any kind, for the deuce a one was there to stop ’em. You may guess what a lawless, jolly, uproarious sort of night one might have spent here. If that had been the worst, however, perhaps, no great harm was done, but the knife was used as often as the fist — for them foreign chaps have them out in a crack — and when the blood is up and blazin, why out in course it must come, yours or mine.
Now about the fiddler. It so happened one beautiful bleak night— a regular night for business, with neither moon nor stars aloft for to use as the song says, a lot of rough-looking, brown-faced, bushy-whiskered fellows, speaking every tongue, Dutch, French, Spanish, Lingua franca, and a few tough, bulldog English, were met to have a rouse at this old house , and by the lights blazing at one time in every window, you might have fancied it was in a conflagration. Business rather than pleasure, however, seemed to have called them there together this night, for the shutters were soon closed and the last boat crossing the ferry had now come in, and brought half-a-dozen lasses and their jolly young watermen, to meet half a dozen others, and their sailor chaps, and with them in the bargain, lame little Peter Cremona, the fiddler of the whole district for a whole generation past. The bushy-whiskered boys looked glum and lowering enough at this, as thinking that there were a few too many among them. The moment Peter, however, made his appearance in the tavern, those who knew him greeted him with a jovial and hearty welcome. ‘ Peter, (so the story goes,) was liked by everybody. He was a kind-hearted, chirping, contented little body, and would play for the children by the hour together, without expecting a groat and a fiddler you see, is always welcome to a sailor as to a landsman if he’s merry. In fact, Peter topped all his good qualities by playing the fiddle like an angel and therefore, Peter’s presence was the signal for clearing the decks, or rather the floors, at once. All this time the foreigners were looking as black as a thunder cloud, but did not think it necessary to take any exceptions , so they sat in a group on one side of the fireplace, smoking and drinking, and talking in under tones among themselves. As they either were not known or only guessed at, nobody interfered with them, and the fun for a time went on. Peter after having been crammed with meat and drink, was lifted, up to his usual chair of honour, and the fiddle set to work in style, in fact the old boy was in his glory and looked it. Presently the dust flew about, the timber creaked, and the house, rather substantially built to, reeled under the vigorous footing of the hornpipe and double shuffle, while the dancers on the floor, when they grew tired, were as instantly replaced by others.
But the night grew late, and the landlord knew there was a time for everything. The grog was ladled out , little Peter dead beat, found his pockets heavier with coppers and silver bits than they had lately been. Even the poor doggie was not forgotten — sailors love dogs you know — and Tray was fed and petted to an extent that might have spoiled his nature only that, he was a sensible, sharp-eyed, keenish chap of a terrier— and so he knew that there was soon an end to every favour, and bore all as philosophically as the purser does his abuse on payday, or as he used to do.
So as it grew late, and the landlord had given his guests a broad hint, they very reluctantly began to separate, some across to Deptford and Greenwich., some to their vessels in the river, some to their homes at Limeh0use or Poplar, until at last only poor Peter, half nodding over his pipe by the fire, with poor Tray between his feet, and the bushy whiskered fellows, were left, until they, at last, went too and Peter who was to attend a wedding at Stratford le Bow in the morning, and had to cross the melancholy tract stretching far away ; but which from long habit he knew well, was left alone — alone with his poor old dog. Peter was enjoying his last glass and his last pipe with the greater relish, that he knew he must soon start and breast the keen bitter north easter, that was moaning and wailing over the flats and as the landlord now joined him and proposed a glass extra for their two selves, the warm pleasant fireside was more difficult to leave , but Peter who was married, for all his wandering life, and consequently henpecked, had no choice, sooner or later he must make his way, and the sooner the quicker said Peter, though every moment’s delay made the night later, and it was by no means pleasant to turn out.
The night continued to be very dark, one of first-rate value for the bushy-whiskered chaps that had last made sail, and the wind was heard coming in fitful moaning gusts, accompanied now and then by a sharp rush of rain. His way lay across the eastern end of the island, where a rude bridge stretched across the Limehouse gut, and communicated with the Middlesex shore, in the vicinity of the Lea, from whence the road was plain and practicable enough, though the worst of it now lay before him. Having given a last tune to the lasses at the old ferry, bagged his fiddle, emptied his glass, and roused up Tray who seemed very much to enjoy his present lodgings, Peter finally set forth, tolerably well primed, but by no means shaky, his head being too well seasoned to leave; a single sheet even fluttering in the wind. His queer old-fashioned coat was buttoned up to his ‘ nose, and his old cocked hat lashed down with a lanyard under his chin and with Tray feebly wagging his funny worn out tail, he was soon lost in the darkness.
Above, all was of a murky hue, while a thin line of semi-lurid light on the edge of the horizon, broke by ragged trees and other obstructions served as a sort of landmark for the belated fiddler and as the wind come moaning and shrieking over the long level flats which seemed now and then to yield to his feet, chirping merrily to himself, he trudged on beside a deep ditch, or rather water course, till he had almost attained the worm-eaten bridge which was flung across beside Bugsby’s Hole, when the flashing of a torch some distance below, drew his attention, and deviating from his road through a more perilous and boggy portion of the marsh, he came under the shadow of a small headland which, aided by a clump of pollards, formed a capitally screened hiding place. Peeping down from this, he beheld a large flat-bottomed boat drawn up, half-filled with kegs, partially covered with a huge tarpaulin, and the bushy whiskered fellows, in their great boots, fishing jackets, and Kilmarnock caps, busy in passing the tubs and packages from one to another till they reached some carts on the opposite shore, which just at this moment, being well loaded, were silently driven away.
Perfectly up to the work that was going on, and feeling that he had no right to interfere, even if he had the inclination, he was on the point of turning quietly away, when the poor dog, who dreamed of no harm, wandered in the midst of the truculent villains, and thus betrayed him. With many an outlandish oath, the unfortunate fiddler was dragged away, and after that night became — lost — he was never after seen alive.
The merry harmless old man who was so universal a favourite with all, was missing, and in a few days the whole district was in a ferment about his absence. Days went by and at a part of the island not often frequented, some people passing remarked that they beheld on a certain spot, a poor half-famished dog, whining and shivering, which was recognised as having belonged to the lost fiddler. The spot in question was on the edge of a deep black ditch, over which a hideous and ragged old willow tree spread its ghastly arms. No persuasion could get the dog away, but when any one approached he would set up a long melancholy howl and even after he was captured by a good-natured fellow who took him home, and fed him, the next day he had escaped and was found uttering his long sad, sorrowful wail on the very same spot beneath the very same willow, on the verge of the dismal ditch ; and this at the last, coupled with Peter’s unexplained absence, began lo awaken suspicion in the slow brains of the people in the neighbourhood.
This awakened suspicion, and at last several men examined the place, and out of the foul ditch the body of the ‘ Lost Fiddler,’in a very shocking condition, was carried to the Ferry House, where on examination and a coroners inquest, a fractured skull and a deep stab with a knife, told the dark story. The body happened to be laid in this here room It strangely happened also, that some of the bushy whiskered fellows visited the house that day, and were observed to turn pale, to look agitated, hurried, and anxious to depart when they heard that the corpse of the poor fiddler was in the next chamber to them. They were going forth, and passing by that door to the head of the stairs, which was partially open, when in an instant, the miserable, worn out, half famished dog, who would never leave his master, rushed forth and seized hold upon one man with the ferocity of madness. The wretch shook and beat him off with curses and cries of horror, but Tray was on him again like a small tiger. The man drew his knife and stabbed at him, but the dog persisted in the attack, filling the house with yells and deep snorting barks, mingled with the man’s cries. The latter at last slipped in a pool of the bravo brute’s blood, and the terrier now fastened on to his throat, and in a perfect frenzy of terror and helplessness the assassin confessed his guilt, and was in due time properly hung at Execution Dock for more misdeeds than one. The dog who had thus avenged his master lay dead of a dozen wounds. So you see it was not because the king once kept his hounds on the island that this was called the Isle of Dogs, but because a poor fiddler’s dumb brute, who was faithful until death, associated himself with this identical spot. And now my yarn’s over, and the bowl is empty.
What is interesting about this story is that it is a version of a similar story that had been known for at least a century before. Charles Dickens refers to the story when he visits the Island in the 1850s and notes that it is mentioned by Strype the historian in 1720. Although it is doubtful the story is the reason the Island is called the Isle of Dogs , the fact the story survived for such a long time might indicate that it might be based on some incident in the dim and distant past.