The ship Milverton in Stewart’s Dry Dock, Manchester Road, Isle of Dogs, ca. 1919 Photo (c) William Whiffin
Regular readers will know that I am always on the look out for stories related to the Isle of Dogs and recently came across a humorous short piece by W. Pett Ridge. William Pett Ridge was born at Chartham in Kent 1859, in the 1890s, he began to write humorous sketches for newspapers and magazines and became well known for his ability to write entertaining portraits of working class life. He went on to write a number of novels with Mord Em’ly published in 1898, the most successful. Pett Ridge’s great popularity as a novelist and writer was in the early part of the 20th century and it was at this time that he wrote The Little Brown Bus which involves a character that is familiar to all of us, namely the person who travels on public transport who will not shut up, in this case it is a sailor who meets a variety of characters on the little brown bus.
The Little Brown Bus by W. Pett Ridge (The Sailor’s Voyage to the Isle of Dogs)
East India Dock road is half inclined to put up its shutters, but reluctant to do this-albeit the hour is late-because foreign sailors, much more at sea here than when on the ocean, are still loafing on the edge of the pavement. The shops have everything a sea-going man may desire, from bars of hard yellow soap and fur caps and scarlet pocket handkerchiefs to chromos of smiling young women in hats of the early eighties; the job lots of literature tied up with a boot lace are calculated to satisfy nearly eve’ry taste. Outside the long red Asiatic Home and on its broad steps a few melancholy Chinamen stand, with queues carefully twisted up and pinned under their blue linen caps; this because the Limehouse boy has a weakness for pulling a pig-tail when he sees one, crying, “Shawp!” and running away. Chinamen up Millwall way are carrying round baskets of vegetables yoked over their shoulders. By the side of the tram terminus, and near the red eyed fire station stands the ‘bus. A little brown ‘bus, with yellow wheels, there for the convenience of those whom circumstances compel to go the Isle of Dogs.
Strangers’ Home in the West India Dock Road was also known as the Home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and Others. Date c.1901 ( National Maritime Museum)
THE ‘BUS FOR SINGAPORE
“Right for Singapore, cap’en?” “Jump in,” says the driver from the pavement, making one more attempt to light his pipe. “Change anywheres, cap’en?” “Yes,” replies the driver, curtly; “you’ll have to change a lot ‘fore you get on board your ship.”
“Not ,cross, are you, cap’en?”
“Look here, my lad,” says the driver goaded by this inquiry. “You get into that bloomin’ bus and take your seat and shut your head. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
“I’ve seen your face somewhere before,” says the peak-capped sailor.
“Any relation to old Frank Macey that used to live at Devonport ?”
Sulky reply in the negative. “Then ‘ave a cigar,” says the sailor genially. ” Put your pipe in your hat and have something to smoke. Lor’ bless my soul, I am glad to meet you. How’s the missus?”
Driver, accepting two pale brown cigars from the envelope offered, says that he never had a missus, and expresses a pious hope that, with the help of Providence and his own acuteness, he never may.
A BREEZY ‘BUS FARE
A piano organ starts one of Sousa’s marches, and the sailor, encouraged by the comparative friendliness of the driver, solicits the favor of his hand for a waltz; but the driver draws the line, and with the assistance of a strap cranes himself up into his seat, giving the sailor renewed advice to secure a place inside; which the sailor does, hailing the passengers with a seafaring salutation and lurching into the one vacant seat more by accident than design. The little brown ‘bus turns and goes across the tram lines.
“Well.” says the friendly sailor, “how are we all getting on this voy’ge?” Some of the passengers are sleepy and some are thoughtful; the sailor, closing one eye, selects a quiet, puss-headed Japanese. I’m very’ glad to hear,” he says, laying one hand on the other’s knee, “that me and old Solsbury managed that little affair all right. ‘We’re chums, ain’t we?”
The short Japanese sailor, with N.Y.K. on his collar, smiles and nods. Very well, then!” says the sailor with an injured air, “why not shake hands? Has anybody been telling you anything about me? Because if so–” The Japanese accepts the large hand. “That’s better!” remarks the sailor, restored to good temper. “Now, having gone so fur,
I should like to go a bit further and shake ‘ands with everybody – just to show there’s no ill-feeling.”
A SAILOR’S SONG.
The little ‘bus swerves round between the high walls that border the commencement of West Ferry road.
“There!” Now you can all say you’ve shook hands with a honest seafaring man.”
“I shan’t brag about it,” remarks a stout woman opposite.
“Oh mother! protests the sailor, tearfully. “Don’t be so harsh with your blue-eyed boy.”
‘Blue-eyed nuisance,” amends the stout woman.
“There’s a nice parent for you ! Bring up a mother in the way she should go, and when she grows old.
Anybody got any objection to my singing a song?”
“Yes,” says the other passengers with unanimity, “we have.”
“You ain’t so fond of me as you used to be,” remarks the sailor, regretfully: “Ever since that affair out at Valp’raiso you all seem different somehow. ‘Oh, thou ‘ast changed, my darling,’ ” sings the sailor; ” Thou smilst no more at me, Thou ‘ast no word of fond farewell, As I put out to-Way–ho!’ ”
The little ‘bus rattles across a wooden bridge separating the docks from the river; the passengers find coppers and hand up their pennies through a hole in the roof to the driver.
THE THIN LADY’S MOTTO
Some want change and this makes for conversation. One spare, melancholy woman who has been marketing with a shining black bag, the lock of which has long since refused to perform any of the duties of a lock, deplores the price of bread, and says with determination that she has really made up her mind if it goes much higher ,well (despairingly), she does not know what she shall do.
From which the conversation goes by a rapid stage to the difficulty that the thin lady has with her youngest boy, who has lately been going to theatres; the other beats this with a deplorable story of her Uncle John, who went in for religion.
“It all goes to show,” says this lady, as she pulls the strap and prepares to alight at Glengall road, “that it’s a mistake to go to either extreme; the ‘appy mejum’s my motto. Good night, all! Don’t be late in the morning.”
The Japanese also descends here to disappear in the meagrely-lighted streets, and on the talkative sailor who has been asleep, discovering this, he weeps, and declares that he has not a friend left in the world; that he is forsaken and alone; for two pins he would –
WANTED A WIFE
If only he had some one to love him! if only some, tidy, respectable woman, with a bit put by in the savings bank, would come to him and say, “Jim Allwright, give up seafaring life and settle down on shore and keep an eye on the shop and entertain your friends with a glass now and then,” why, then he would say, “Done with youz” and give the old ship the chuck without the least hesitation.
“I’m the most reasonable, good tempered man alive,” remarks the sailor contentedly. “Nothing ever upset me. I take everything as it comes. What you all getting out for?”
“Because,” explains one of the descending passengers politely, “because we can’t go any further. That’s why!”
“And a dashed good reason, too,” cries the sailor agreeably. “Goo’ ni’ everybody. Goblessye.”
The spare, thin old woman stands on the edge of the pavement watching him as he goes. The driver of the little brown ‘bus announces his intention of utilising the minutes of waiting before the return journey by going into the tavern in order to get the right time; the bystanders ignore the hint, and he goes alone.
“I used to have a son that was that way inclined,” says the thin woman, rather wistfully, “only, he was never funny with it.