Home » 2015 » March

Monthly Archives: March 2015

Seal and Porpoise Watching around the Isle of Dogs


Over the last 400 years, there have been many reports of marine mammals coming up the Thames. Unfortunately in less enlightened times they were often attacked and killed.
A recent visit of a survey vessel to Wapping offers the intriguing suggestion that porpoises and other marine mammals are far more common in the Thames than people suspect. The RV Song of the Whale is 21 metre long vessel with specialised listening and recording equipment which recently spent several days checking numbers of the population of porpoises in the river’s tidal stretch.


Research into porpoises in the Thames is being undertaken by Marine Conservation Research International (MCR) in partnership with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and local interest groups.

A visit to the Marine Conservation Research website gives plenty of information about the study and other information about mammal species in the tidal Thames.
One section of particular interest was related to public sightings, the  ZSL has been collecting public sightings in the Thames of marine mammals since 2004. In that time they have registered 92 harbour seals, 377 grey seals, 231 harbour porpoises and 11 dolphins in the Thames Estuary.


Sightings between 2012 – 2014

According to their map, looking around the Isle of Dogs, there seem to be a large number of seal sightings but also a smaller number of porpoises and dolphins. These sightings are not just in the river but in the docks as well. But as many people who live on the Island know, we have a resident seal called Sammy that lives at Billingsgate Fish market who is often seen around the docks.


Sammy ( the local Seal celebrity )

In the past two weeks, I have had sightings of seals on the Blackwall and Limehouse stretches which suggests that there are far more seals than we think around the Isle of Dogs or our friend from Billingsgate market gets around the Island more than we suspect.

Hopefully the survey will give us a clearer picture of the marine mammal population and confirm that the Thames is attracting more marine mammals further up the river.

If you have any sightings, add them to the ZSL public sightings here .

Shakespeare’s Comedies at Trinity Buoy Wharf – 11 April 2015 to 25 April 2015


Trinity Buoy Wharf is one of the hidden treasures of the Isle of Dogs, although it has an intriguing history it is also the location of an Art quarter which offers plenty of entertainment all through the year.

I have often featured the Street Art and sculptures that are dotted around the location, however few people might realise that Trinity Buoy Wharf often puts on shows.


It has just been announced that there will be a Shakespeare’s Comedies Season between the
11 April  – 25 April 2015 in the old  Electrician’s Shop.

The site-specific season will consist of three of Shakespeare’s most notable comedies performed in rep.

As You Like It directed by Stephen Sobal (Artistic Director of All In Theatre),

A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Mark Curtis (Small Nose Productions)

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Lazarus Theatre Company’s Ricky Dukes

For times and tickets please click here.


If you cannot make it to the shows, a trip to Trinity Buoy Wharf is full of surprises. It is the scene of the London’s only Lighthouse, an original American Diner and number of installations  including Yoshie Jujioka’s Metal Sculpture Kit, The Ascenda , and the Time and Tide Bell.


A recent addition to the Container City at Trinity Buoy Wharf has just opened,  Clipper House which was  recycled from the 2012 Olympic Broadcasting Studios at Stratford Olympic Park  provides a number of  offices, workspaces and art studios overlooking the River Thames.



The Story of Ariel’s Girdle and the Millwall Extension Railway


Recently, I was explaining how the postcards and pictures sent to the site by Eric Pemberton often leads to unusual lines of research.

To illustrate this point, Eric send a couple of pictures of steam locomotives at stations on the Island in the 19th century. You may think nothing  unusual about that, however one of the locomotives had a quite prestigious history which included being on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851.


The exhibition catalogue  of 1851 gives us the details of the locomotive.

Light locomotive engine for railways, named “Ariel’s Girdle,” on four wheels, coupled to a four-wheeled composite tender; it makes a steady eight-wheeled machine, capable of lateral flexure for sharp curves. The tender contains water beneath the floor, and has a sledge break of peculiar construction, acting with friction on the rails to save the wheels. its handle being within reach of the driver.

Eight-wheeled double railway carriage for first and second-class passengers. The wheels are left free to move laterally by means of swinging links and shackles, which enable the carriage to run round curves of 250 feet radius. A sledge break of peculiar construction is suspended from this carriage. The locomotive engine produced at the Airedale Foundry, Leeds, by  Kitson, Thompson, and Hewitson; the carriage portion produced at Birmingham by  Brown and Marshall.

A spring for the locomotive engine, formed of patent ribbed steel; the rib, working in a corresponding hollow of the adjoining plate, reduces the friction and preserves the parallelism of the plates.

How Ariel’s Girdle went from Great Exhibition to the Millwall Extension railway is a bit of a mystery but three years after the photograph was taken, the engine was scrapped.


The other locomotive on the South Dock is a four wheels coupled tank, No 3.


We know much less about this locomotive, however it does illustrate  how these  small locomotives  were used on the line.

Scan0326 - Copy

One mystery still to be solved is the photographs themselves, although clearly stamped as Whiffen Photograph Collection, the dates on the back would confirm they were not taken by the famous William Whiffen, the Poplar photographer who was born in 1878 but possibly taken by his photographer father also called William who was born in 1851 and died in 1937.

Although the locomotives are interesting, the Millwall Extension Railway has a story of its own.

In 1863, the London and Blackwall Railway Company proposed a line down the middle of the Isle of Dogs from a junction at Limehouse. However the proposed line was vigorously opposed by the East and West India Dock Company and rejected by Parliament in 1864 because it was considered it would be adverse to business and a fire risk to the many ships in the dock.
Eventually the dock companies agreed to compromise and allow a Millwall Extension Railway  and allow light engines on a route from Millwall Junction to South Dock, then Millwall Docks ending at North Greenwich to enable passengers to catch the ferry to Greenwich. The terminus was actually in Cubitt Town and the use of North Greenwich seemed to be only used to make it seem a little bit more upmarket.


A full passenger service began in 1872,  the line also had a freight and a workmen’s service.
Initially steam trains were not allowed to power themselves through the docks and tram cars were horse drawn between Millwall Junction and Millwall Docks from where a steam locomotive pulled carriages to the terminus at North Greenwich.

Full steam haulage on the branch only started in 1880, for a variety of reasons, the line was never very popular with passengers except when Millwall Rovers Football club were playing at home. During WW1 the service was reduced with many of the passengers using the local bus service. Passenger services eventually closed in 1926, freight traffic continued until 1927.

Although the Millwall Extension Railway  was closed, when the DLR  developed it used much of the old railway line.  The Island Gardens branch turned south at Poplar before running through the Canary Wharf  down to South Quay and then to Crossharbour which was close to the site of the old Millwall Docks Station and then it followed the course of the Millwall Extension Railway across the Millwall viaduct to Island Gardens which was built roughly on the site of the former North Greenwich terminus.

Although not used now,  Millwall Viaduct  is the only remaining evidence of the Millwall Extension Railway.


Millwall Junction 1956

Millwall Junction carried on being used into the late 20th century , The station buildings were demolished in 1965 but the platforms remained into the 1980’s and were finally removed during the construction of the Docklands Light Railway.



The Changing Face of the Isle of Dogs


Walking around Canary Wharf and Marsh Wall gives the impression that the top of the Isle of Dogs is one big building site.


Heron Quays

The work on Heron Quays and Wood Wharf are part of the Canary Wharf group masterplan that will include the first residential housing on the estate.


Wood Wharf

On Marsh Wall , there are already a couple of tall residential buildings with the Landmark and Pan Peninsula developments, other construction is being carried out at the new Novotel hotel on Marsh Wall and the Baltimore Tower in Millwall Dock area.


A report last week by an Architecture survey indicates this is just the beginning of a move to build tall buildings all over London but particularly in Tower Hamlets and the South of the river.

The New London Architecture (NLA) and GL Hearn released the results of their annual London Tall Buildings Survey. The survey highlighted  12 months ago , 236 tall buildings were planned for the capital. However the new data finds 263 tall buildings over 20-storeys proposed, approved or under construction within Greater London. This figure includes 76 proposed or in the planning system, 117 with planning approval , and 70 under construction.

62 of the 70 towers currently under construction are residential and 80% of all 263 towers in the pipeline have a primary residential use.

Tower Hamlets was at the centre of the tower boom last year and will see the most activity this year, with 18 tall buildings under construction, 27 with planning approval and 14 in planning.

The dominance of Tower Hamlets is reflected in the status of tall building proposals  the borough has the most approved towers (27 or 23%) and the most proposed towers (22 or 29%).  Tower Hamlets also has the highest number development projects under construction with 18 proposals (26%).


Riverside development

Regular readers will know that I often relate how often these big schemes never get off the ground and are often mothballed for years,the Riverside development is one such example.

However, even if only a percentage  are built it is going to drastically change the face and the character of the Island. It is fair to say that the building of Canary Wharf and the large apartments around the edge of the Island were generally built on old industrial sites. The new developments are still clustered around the top of the Island but there is evidence of steady encroachment into the centre which will impinge on the many residential areas.

With a planning stage of generally eight months and then  around six years for completion, the full picture of these developments will not really been seen for 6 to 10 years. By that time this once neglected piece of London will have some of the most expensive property in London.

A quick survey of some of the schemes on the Island shows the state of play for many of the developments.



Designed by Horden Cherry Lee Architects and developed by Canary Wharf Group.

This 60-storey tower is currently In planning.

Quay House, 2 Admiral Way

Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and developed by Investin.

This 68-storey tower is currently Refused.
Cuba Street Tower 2

Designed by 3D Reid / Gultekin Architecture and developed by Talya (was Agaoglu Group).

This 57-storey tower is currently Proposed.
City Pride

Designed by Squire and Partners and developed by Chalegrove Properties.

This 75-storey tower is currently Approved.


Novotel Canary Wharf ,40 Marsh Wall,

Height: 124m | Floors: 39 | Architect: BUJ Architects | Developer: Accor

Current status: Under Construction

Millharbour Village

Designed by Rolfe Judd and developed by Docklands Centre Ltd .

This 50-storey tower is currently In planning.

Angel House, 225 Marsh Wall

Designed by Jacobs Webber and developed by The Angel Group.

This 43-storey tower is currently Approved.

1-18 Dollar Bay Court

Designed by Ian Simpson Architects and developed by Mount Anvil.

This 31-storey tower is currently Under construction.

Lincoln Plaza (previously Indescon Court Phase 2)

Designed by BFLS and developed by Galliard Homes (was Oracle).

This 32-storey tower is currently Approved.

Glengall Bridge

Designed by and developed by Tameric Investments.

This 45-storey tower is currently Proposed.

1 Park Place

Designed by Horden Cherry Lea Architects and developed by Canary Wharf Group Plc.

This 33-storey tower is currently In planning.

151 East Ferry Road

Designed by Town and Beach and developed by Asda Stores Ltd/Ashbourne Beech.

This 21-storey tower is currently Approved.


Designed by TP Bennett and developed by Telford Homes .

This 23-storey tower is currently Approved.

The Woodward – Fishers of Limehouse


Some months ago, I wrote a post about Dorothea Woodward- Fisher who featured in a 1972 BBC documentary called Mother Thames OBE. The post was based on a magazine article about the show because any chance of finding a copy of the documentary seemed unlikely.
However through the persistence of Trevor Wayman who lived near the Woodward – Fisher yard in the 1960s, a copy of the programme has been obtained.


The theme of the documentary was the decline of the docks and river traffic in the 1970s and how this had affected the business of the redoubtable Dorothea Woodward- Fisher.


The Woodward Fishers had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher and her husband Billy  ran a lighterage business on the Thames and in their heyday  had around 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs.

When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher took over the business as well as undertaking her considerable charity work and raised much of the money to build clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club.
In the programme she recalls that although she went to Cheltenham Ladies College, she was a bit of a rebel in her youth and the decision to marry a lighterman did not go down very well with her family. However with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds, she and her husband started their business which carried on until 1973.


The Woodward Fisher company closed on her 79th birthday, when Mrs Woodward- Fisher took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. In the documentary the lines of barges are a sad reminder of the decline of river traffic and idle cranes along the river and docks add to the desolate scene.


Mrs Woodward- Fisher was an amazing personality, dressed in pinstripe suit, bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and high-heeled crocodile shoes, she is often shown smoking her cigarette and swigging back a occasional large brandy.

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in Lewisham was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar.


Towards the end of the programme, she asks the question do we want a working river or a river flanked by apartments with just leisure boats going up and down ?

Over 40 years after the programme, the answer seems be the second option. The 1970s were the end of an era and the end of river trade that went back hundreds of years. When the programme ends with rows of barges sitting idle in the river and Mrs Woodward Fisher lamenting on the state of shipping in London, it is not difficult to understand that this demise was not just the loss of jobs but for many people the loss of a way of life.


As well  as being an extremely talented painter, Trevor Wayman is an exceptional model maker and often builds small sets on a particular theme. Above is his Limehouse 1965 which celebrates the Woodward- Fisher yard and the boats berthed in front.

Paintings of Limehouse

(c) Margaret Thomas; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Limehouse Reach, London by Margaret Thomas
(Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge) 1949

Limehouse covers a relatively  small area in London’s East End, however it has been often portrayed in paintings and books. One of the reasons for this is that it occupies an important stretch of the riverfront before the sweep around the Isle of Dogs.

It was this  riverfront that was first developed in the 17th  century  and  from the Prospect of Whitby down to South West India Dock (Impounding) entrance lock  was known as Limehouse Hole or Limehouse Reach. From the 17th century the area became dominated by shipping enterprises including shipbuilders, barge-builders, boat-builders, ropemakers, sailmakers, mastmakers, blockmakers, ship-chandlers and general wharfingers.

Little of these enterprises remain but to give an idea of the area I have bought together a number of paintings that illustrate its connection with the river and the sea.

One of the earliest drawings of the riverfront in detail was done by John Boydell in 1751.


Already at this time, there were a number of substantial houses  and  a busy waterfront. By the 19th Century, shipbuilding had began to develop and the next picture is of Fletcher’s Yard on 1840.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Fletcher’s Yard, Limehouse by Charles Deane (National Maritime Museum) c.1840

Fletcher had set up a shipbuilding business at Shadwell in the eighteenth century. They moved to Limehouse in 1818. As Fletcher, Son and Fearnall, they became pioneering steamship builders, but eventually  switched to ship repairs.

Later in the 19th century, Barge builders tended to dominate the waterfront and two pictures by Charles Napier Hemy show workers aboard the barges.


London River, the Limehouse Barge-Builders by Charles Napier Hemy (South Shields Museum and Art Gallery)  1877

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Limehouse Hole by Charles Napier Hemy (Glasgow Museums)  1910

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was  a time when this picturesque stretch of water became popular with artists.


James McNeill Whistler, ‘Limehouse’
Etched 1859, printed and published 1871
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Whistler was one of a number of artists from overseas that were fascinated by the riverfront and its various activities.

(c) Stephen Bartley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation The Lower Pool and Limehouse Reach, London by Arthur James Wetherall Burgess
(Bank of England)

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Limehouse Reach by Edmund Aubrey Hunt
(National Maritime Museum)

A more  unusual view was painted by the well known First World War painter Christopher Nevinson.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Limehouse by Christopher Nevinson (Atkinson Art Gallery Collection) 1913

The line of early Georgian terraces on Narrow Street are one of the few reminders of the character of this small stretch of riverfront that had inspired artists for hundreds of years.

The Steamship Service between Millwall Docks and St Petersburg 1904

eric postcard 1

Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often sends  interesting local postcards to the website to share with our readers. Now and again, Eric sends a postcard that is unusual and gives us some indications of the lesser known history of the Isle of Dogs. Last week, Eric sent one such postcard that informs us that there was once a regular steamboat service between Millwall Docks and St Petersburg in Russia.

The service was run by Bailey & Leetham, a company that was started in 1854 by two ship captains, William Bailey and William Leetham. The  partnership began to  operate cargo and passenger services from Hull to Baltic ports. In 1864 services were expanded to Lisbon, Capetown and Portuguese African colonies  delivering mail services for the Portuguese Government until . By 1871 ships were operating from London and Newcastle as well as Hull concentrating on the Mediterranean and Baltic ports. From 1870 the fleet had fluctuated between 20 and 30 ships, towards the late 19th century many of these ships bought Jewish emigrants from Russia and the Baltic states to London.

The funnel marking of Bailey & Leetham ships was unusual, consisting of a black funnel with a broad vertical white stripe rounded at the top, which gave rise to the nickname of the “Tombstone Line”.

b&l Bailey and Leetham funnel markings (The Tombstone line)

In the early 1900s the line became known for a particular innovation, a newspaper report of 1903 gives us the details.

Talking about sea travel, reminds one that a novel departure has been made on the Bailey and Leetham steamers running ‘between Millwall and’ St. Petersburg. Only stewardesses wait at the table. There is but one male in the purser’s department, and ‘he is the cabin steward. The experiment is said to have proved most successful and the gentlemen passengers are said to appreciate the novelty of being waited up on by a staff of trim-capped, white aproned, smiling girls. The lady passengers are not so enthusiastic, and the wives, who are left at home when the husbands go on business to Russia, are dead against the innovation.

It may be possible that Miss Griffin was one of these stewardesses and Walter a member of the crew.

eric postcard2

However, although the postcard shows Bailey and Leetham clearly marked at the top and with their address , in fact the company’s fleet of 23 vessels had been sold to the Wilson Line in 1903.

In some ways it may have fortunate to sell at this time due to the increasing problems in Russia, protests against the Tsar and the Russian/Japanese war made sailing  in the Baltic and Mediterranean waters a dangerous experience. In wartime, the Russian merchant navy became a volunteer navy carrying out military functions. A newspaper report from 1904 shows that this was not always welcomed.

London. August 15. 1904

Some Russian cruisers are still doing police duty in the Mediterranean. One of them stopped and overhauled near Gibraltar the British steamer Ronda, 1941 tons, belonging to Bailey and Leetham Limited, Hull, and the steamer Goorkba, 6287 tons, of the Union Castle line. Nothing contraband was found on them, and they were allowed to proceed.
The Times referring to the panic which the action of the volunteer cruisers created amongst shipping companies trading to the Far East, says that there is a growing feeling that the British steamers were withdrawn prematurely. They ought to compete with the vessels of other countries, and then if they were unfairly treated the Government could act on a clear issue. It is significant that insurers in Germany are asking less than half the premium which is demanded in Great Britain for vessels going out to the Far East.

The ship that Miss Griffin and Walter were travelling on to St Petersburg was the ss Zara one of the ships that was transferred to the Wilson Line, sadly in 1917 it was torpedoed near Norway by a German U Boat and sunk with a  loss of 27 lives.

The postcard also shows that passengers could travel from London (Fenchurch Street) down to Millwall Docks train station.


This 1908 maps shows that the station was very near the present day Crossharbour station. The Millwall Docks station was between South Dock and North Greenwich stations on the Millwall Extension Railway branch of the London and Blackwall Railway .  It opened in December 1871  serving the Millwall Docks, however passenger use of the station was limited and eventually closed to passenger services in 1926, , though goods services continued until the 1970s.

It really is remarkable how one postcard can provide us with so much information about a long forgotten aspect of the Millwall Docks.  It also illustrates that what at the time would have been of little importance and mundane can provide lots of interest for the following generations.

Once again many thanks  to Eric Pemberton for sharing the postcard.


The Opening of the West India Docks 1802


Quite often I walk pass the plaque in the West India Docks that commemorates  the laying of the foundation stone at the new docks in 1800.

Reading the plaque closely it seems to contain some  rather odd turn of phrases.

Of this Range of BUILDINGS

Constructed together with the Adjacent DOCKS. At the Expence of public spirited Individuals
Under the Sanction of a provident Legislature.
And with the liberal Co-operation of the Corporate Body of the CITY of LONDON.
For the distinct Purpose
Of the complete SECURITY and ample ACCOMMODATION
(hitherto not afforded)
To the SHIPPING and PRODUCE of the WEST INDIES at this wealthy PORT.
On Saturday the Twelfth Day of July, A.D. 1800,
The two former conspicuous in the Band Of those illustrious Statesmen,
Who in either House of Parliament, have been zealous to promote,
The two latter distinguished among those chosen to direct
Which under the favour of GOD, shall contribute

A newspaper report of the times gives more details of the opening ceremony.

The ceremony of laying the First Stone of the buildings of this magnificent undertaking was performed on Saturday the 12th of July, 1800, the anniversary of the day on which the act of parliament for carrying the same into effect received the royal assent. The company assembled at the London Tavern at one o’clock, and moved in the following procession to the Isle of Dogs:

The directors of the West India Dock Company; and, in the last of their carriages, the chairman and deputy chairman ; then the lord chancellor, earl Spencer, Lord Hawkesbury, the right honourable William Pitt, the right honourable Henry Dundas, the right honourable Dudley Ryder, the right honourable Thomas Steele, the right honourable Silvester Douglas, Sir Joseph Banks, bart. K. B. Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, bart. and a numerous train of members of parliament, including those of the select committee of the House of Commons for the improvement of the port of London. Soon after two o’clock the procession arrived at the works, where Lord Carrington and many other distinguished personages of both sexes had assembled to be present at the ceremony, which was conducted in the following manner:

The stone had been previously prepared to receive two glass bottles, one of which contained the several coins (gold, silver, and copper) of his present majesty’s reign and in the other, the following inscription, and translation thereof in Latin, were placed:

The bottles being deposited in the recesses made to receive them, and also a plate with the directors’ names engraved thereon ; Mr Tyrrel, the clerk and solicitor to the West India Dock Company, read the inscription, and the four noble and honourable personages named for that purpose raised the stone (by means, of four rings fixed thereto), and laid it in the proper situation. The spectators then gave three times three hearty cheers, and declared their best wishes for the success of the undertaking.

milligan Statue in West India Quay

Robert Milligan  was the man considered largely responsible for the construction of the West India Docks. He was a wealthy West Indies merchant and shipowner, when he returned to London  from Jamaica he was upset at the losses due to theft and delays due to theft and delays along London’s riverside wharves.

Milligan with a  group of powerful and influential businessmen including George Hibbert, proposed the creation of a wet dock circled by a high wall for added security. The businessmen lobbied Parliament to allow the creation of a West India Dock Company. The Docks were authorised by the West India Dock Act 1799 – the first parliamentary Act for dock building.

The plaques reference to ‘ For the distinct Purpose – Of the complete SECURITY and ample ACCOMMODATION (hitherto not afforded)’ clearly states the intention that the Docks would be very secure.


W Daniell  1802 The new Docks and the City Canal on the left.

The creation of the Docks in the next couple of  years culminated in what was considered one of the most magnificent docks in the world. The size of the complex amazed visitors to the site.

The first ship into the dock in 1802 was the newly built Henry Addington and newspaper reporters were there to record its grand entrance.

West India Docks, Poplar, London, 1802. Artist: Peltro William Tomkins

Tomkins 1802

The grand and magnificent work was on the 27th of August last opened for the reception of vessels; when the Henry Addington, one of the finest ships in the West-India trade, was conducted through the locks into the grand dock, amidst the shouts of the multitude, and the discharge of cannon. Nothing could surpass the beauty of the scene; the ship was dressed out from stem to stern in the colours of all the maritime Nations, and the whole passed in review before the Directors of the Plan, and the first and most distinguished characters in the country. The accommodation these Docks must afford our Commerce is an object of universal admiration, inasmuch as they promise to become of the first national importance.

Unfortunately the commercial success of the docks was tainted by the West India Docks company’s association with the slave trade. Up to the abolition of slavery in 1807, both Milligan and Hibbert had been heavily involved in the trade as were many of the merchants involved in the company.

The Docks themselves were in use for 178 years until they closed in 1980, in that time thousands of ships came in and out of the dock picking up and discharging cargo and the complex  provided work for thousands of  workers.  Now few of office workers and visitors who sit at the bars and restaurants in West India Quay would realise that there are historical reminders of the dock  all around them.

A Rainy Day on “The Euphrates” by Charles Dickens 1852

1849 624x544mallacca

Blackwall  1849

It seems quite a while since I have included anything from  Charles Dickens, to remedy this oversight, I  will bring to your attention  an unusual piece of journalism by the great author.


Blackwall railway station 1840s

‘A Rainy Day on The Euphrates’ finds Dickens standing at Blackwall Train station in 1852.

 The 13th of January, 1852, was a decidedly wet day. You, reader, as a shadow, not affected by the weather ; I, as a motionless, damp substance, under the porch of the Blackwall Railway station, looking up at the immense wet slate in . the sky, and down at the few human sponges whom fate urged, for some motive or other, to a run across the puddles on the pier. The river before us had a languid, sickly look, as if it had just come from swallowing a sewer. As for the opposite shore, utterly flat, it seemed to be depressed entirely, on account of the uncomfortable aspect of the morning.

It was our fancy to come down to Blackwall half-an-hour before the time appointed for embarkation on board the steamer which was to carry us alongside an emigrant ship.

I now ” hold in my hand ” (because I have just pulled out of my pocket) an Occasional Paper, published by the Committee of the Female Emigration Fund, containing specimens of letters recently received from emigrants sent out by them. While we await the arrival of the train which is to bring our young friends of today, we may profitably spend the little time we have in gossiping about the Home Talk of their predecessors. As for the Fund itself, to be sure there are some wise people who complain of the small scale on which an operation of this kind has to be conducted ; who complain that it can exert no influence upon the aspect of our social system, and that by favouring a few women who are sent away in peace, it becomes unjust to those equally deserving objects of compassion.

Dickens  is referring to  sixty poor girls who have been selected to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand. This is the twentieth and largest party of the needlewomen and  domestic servants sent out by the Right Honourable Sidney Herbert’s Female Emigration Fund. The whole number of emigrants despatched by this Fund, on the nineteen previous occasions, has been six hundred and thirty-seven ; so, including the present set, about seven hundred poor girls had emigrated.

Whilst Dickens refers to letters from emigrants who had made a good life for themselves and  often got married in the first year aboard, he is dismayed that Britain had failed the young women and no matter how hard they tried their prospects were poor if they stayed.

The girls go from Blackwall down to the ‘Euphrates’ in Gravesend on a steamer called the Meteor.  After a meal on board the ‘ Euphrates ‘ , it is time for Dickens, family and friends to leave and return on the Meteor. Dickens describes the scene as the girls prepare to say goodbye:

 The steamer is alongside, and the unfinished food is left, and all the girls, heedless of rain and uubonneted, are upon deck for the last accents of farewell. Pleasant it is to see the matron made a prisoner of love, unable to get free of the fingers which fond girls put out to her, who had given them perhaps the first sense of home comfort. A stout girl, clinging resolutely to a sister who must go on board the steamer, is standing on the plank and blocks the way ; she is warned off not gruffly, far from it. And, though she holds her place, and clings about her sister, caring most for the few minutes left for that embrace, and little for all the world else just then, (though she tries to make way for the other passengers,) nobody warns her off again. We all contrive to pass without disturbing her. At length the steamer has put off, the emigrant girls climb to where they can get the last look of the friends whom they may see no more. There are attempts at parting cheers, in which they seem to choke ; there is a mutual waving of handkerchiefs and hats : a mutual and complete goodwill. The sailors, who have all gathered in the bow of the ship, give three cheers of a louder sort to the departing steamer, and tomorrow morning early the Euphrates will set sail.


Typical emigrants ship accommodation 1852

Although this is where the Dickens piece ends, the story can be taken up by a fellow emigrant to the girls called  Emily Anne Wilson who wrote a record of the journey in a journal. Here are a few extracts:

I am told I shall have to rough it as the same vessel takes out about sixty female emigrants, some from Ireland (to whom Miss Hall is appointed matron) and that I must enter one of the classes or “messes”. This I do not mind and I am resolved not to murmur. I feel quiet and subdued on leaving my home. I parted from my brothers and sisters on Saturday afternoon, from my dear father on Sabbath afternoon, from my beloved mother on Monday afternoon, and yesterday morning from my brother Philip, who came to see me off. There was a good deal of weeping about us, but I struggled to be quiet and tho my spirits are saddened, the sky clouded and the rain falling in abundance, I will not droop. I am full of hope.

Unfortunately Emily’s hope did not last long, a few days later and she began to feel homesick.

I have been, and still am, rather low spirited. I have never felt the loss of a mother’s care and attention so much as I have done the last few days. I never felt so helpless. I could not move hand or foot. I have several times regretted coming but as I feel it is all for the best I have prayed (and I hope, fervently) to God to help me and strengthen me for the voyage. I was very low spirited on Sunday evening and cried very much. Miss Hall came and talked to me very kindly, and so did Teresa.

She cheers up a little and begins to get involved more in the ship’s activities until she has a really bad toothache. The Doctor offers Emily some interesting drugs to take.

April 4th. I was so bad last night Mr Brown was obliged to give me a ginger and laudanum poultice, and some opium to take. I had just got to sleep when the noise of the Irish girls awoke me and frightened me very much. The opium did me more harm than good.

Whether she was now in a opium induced state, she seems to develop some unusual tastes in food.

On Thursday, I saw a porpoise caught. I tasted it cooked several ways. It was delicious. It belonged to one of the sailors.

Eventually, they reach Sydney and the start of a new life for Emily and the girls.

May 24th. On one side of us we can see a vessel and on the other the shore of Sydney, the long wished for land. Although I was neither glad nor sorry that we were so near, my heart beat as I gazed on the land of my adoption.

Emily finds work as a governess but within a few months she decides to get married.

Blackwall was famous for centuries as a embarkation point for emigrants going to many different destinations. Dickens standing on a wet Blackwall train station watching these drama’s give us a little insight of what was once, a common sight of men, women and children looking to start  a better life aboard.