Home » Literary Life (Page 2)
Category Archives: Literary Life
The Isle of Dogs During World War II by Mick Lemmerman
Last year I reviewed a book called The (Old) Isle of Dogs from A to Z by Mick Lemmerman, I am pleased to say that Mick has just published another book entitled The Isle of Dogs During World War II . Mick with colleagues Con Maloney and Peter Wright are well known for their work on Island history and have been responsible for collecting photographs and documents about the Island and making them widely available on a number of websites. Mick also has his own blog called Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives.
In my time writing this blog I have written about various aspects of the Isle of Dogs in the Second World War. However, Mick has written probably the first comprehensive account of the Island at this time that places the many personal accounts in their historical context. Mick acknowledges his debt for the personal accounts to Island History Trust who collected and published many WWII memories of Islanders.
Mick makes the point that on the eve of the war, the Island was essentially a self contained community little changed in generations, the pubs and the churches were hubs of support and entertainment and work was often available in the docks or other industries.
The book then looks at the preparation for war, it quickly became clear that the docks would be a prime target for German attacks and certain Air Raid Precautions were put into place. However, at the start of the war, there were no purpose-built shelters which would have tragic consequences. Originally trenches were built but were soon seen to be inadequate. The local council allocated public shelters in warehouse basements, church crypts and railway arches, the danger of these approaches would soon become apparent.
Mudchute became the base for a Anti-Aircraft Guns battery and Barrage Balloons became a common sight around the docks. For all the preparations, it was probably the evacuation of the children of the Island community that caused the greatest upheaval. Many parents were aware the docks would be in the front line and sent their children away.
The wisdom of this approach was made clear with the First Night of the Blitz, the book shows in detail the damage sustained and people’s memories of the Blitz and the aftermath. The horror and bravery of the people and services in those dark days are illustrated by the stories of those who had to deal with death and destruction on a daily basis. The Cubitt Town School Disaster and Bullivants Wharf disaster were two of the worst events on the Island with multiple fatalities. After surviving the Blitz, the danger was not over with subsequent raids and the V1 and V2 rockets.
During the war, the Island population fell to around 9,000 , after the war, even with this smaller population, the damage to the housing stock was so severe that Prefabs were built to provide temporary accommodation. This housing shortage had a number of long term effects that would change the character of the Island.
Reading this well written and well researched book underlines the way that the Second World War changed the Island forever, many of the close knit Island community were scattered over London, the country and the world. Many children evacuated never returned to their Island homes but went with their parents to new homes elsewhere. Most of the churches and pubs, formerly hubs of community life were now destroyed. This important historical record pays testament to the courage of those who survived and picked up the pieces to carry on to rebuild their lives and lists the memorials around the Island to those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.
If you would like to find out more or buy a copy, visit the Amazon website here
American writer Ernie Pyle in Docklands – 1941
Recently I came across the book, Ernie Pyle in England and began to read his recollections of visiting London and a number of other cities in late 1940 and early 1941.
Although virtually unknown in the UK, Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist known for his columns in the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. From 1935 to 1945, he was a roving correspondent covering many of the areas of action including North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. He was killed in combat on Iejima during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
In the war, he enjoyed a large following in some 300 newspapers and was among the best-known American war correspondents. Part of his popularity was his laid back and whimsical informal style and his empathy with the people and places he visited.
In the following two pieces you can get a taste of his style as he travels around the heavily bombed dockland areas in 1941.
THIS IS THE WAY OF WAPPING
London, January 1941
This is the way the people of London are. Last night I was standing in the dimly lighted office of the marshal of a big air-raid shelter in the East End.
A bareheaded man with a mustache, a muffler and a heavy overcoat was sitting in a chair tilted against the wall. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.
“Have you been around Wapping?” he asked.
Wapping is a poor, crime-heavy, conglomerate, notorious section of London. Also it has been terrifically bombed, as has all of London’s waterfront.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, “but it’s one place I’d like to see.”
“Well,” said the man, “I’m a policeman and tomorrow’s my day off. I’d like nothing better than to show you around Wapping if you would care for me to.”
Would I care for it! To get around Wapping with a policeman as a private guide— you can’t beat that if you’re out to see London. I jumped at the chance.
So Mr Ian Rubin, London bobby, and I walked six miles around Wapping. We did back alleys and dark places, burned warehouses and wrecked churches, block after block of empty flats. We did Wapping with a finetooth comb. And so I’m in a position to say that as far as Wapping is concerned there almost isn’t any Wapping any more.
Wapping is one part of the big borough of Stepney. Today its population is a mere few hundred. The entire ward was compulsorily evacuated in that first awful week of the blitz. They put people on boats and took them down the Thames. Those who have come back are mostly men.
In normal times Wapping would be a swarming, noisy mass of humanity, a population as dense as in our Lower East Side in New York. Today I walked block after block and met only half a dozen people. There was no sound in the streets. The place was dead. It was like a graveyard.
We walked into the big inner courtyard of a square of tenement flats. Rear balconies on each floor formed the walls of a square. The windows were all out; the walls were cracked; abandoned household belongings lay where they had been thrown. In the balconies above, no faces peeped over the railings. There was no sound, no movement, no life in the whole block. It was the terrible silence of that Wapping courtyard that got me.
Policeman Rubin and I walked on. We went into the station of a demolition squad— the men who pull down dangerous walls before turning over the general job of demolition to others. These are brave men. Five of them, in workmen’s clothes, were sitting before a crackling fireplace. There was nothing for them to do today— but there might be any time. They were very friendly, but I could barely understand their Cockney speech. One of them asked me if it was possible to write a letter to San Francisco. One of his fellow workers answered for me. “Sure, you dummy,” he said. “You can write anywhere you want.” Everyone of these men had been bombed out of his flat, one of them three times. Their wives have been evacuated, but they stayed on to work— a part of London’s great civilian army.
We stood now in a vacant lot where until last September there had been a five-story block of flats. It was fully occupied when a bomb hit. On the wall of a building across the alley you can still see the handprints of a man who was blown from his flat and smashed to death against the wall. We stood amid the wreckage of a church, in which Policeman Rubin himself had toiled all night helping to reach a mother superior who had been buried in the debris. She was dead when they found her.
We went to see the Church of St. John of Wapping, well known to American tourists. Only the steeple was left, and it was being torn down for safety’s sake.
We passed a pub where in the old days pirates and smugglers used to gather from the ends of the world to sell their illicit goods. It has been boarded up since September. We passed an undamaged warehouse, where big sacks of East Indian spice were being loaded onto drays, and the smell was sweet and wonderful. ,
We came to a street sign that said, “Danger. Unexploded Bomb.” So we walked around it. Policeman Rubin showed me where a time bomb fell at the edge of a school. They couldn’t get it out, so it lay there nine days before blowing the school to smithereens. The wreckage of the school still lay there in a heap.
I saw firemen damping down the inside of a warehouse in which a small new blaze had sprung up after months of smoldering. I saw great mounds of burned newsprint paper, and other mounds of scorched hemp. I saw half walls with great steel girders hanging, twisted by explosion and fire. But I saw whole warehouses, too; for Hitler didn’t get them all. We wandered back and forth through dead, empty streets, and looked at hundreds of ground floor apartments where rubble-covered furniture stood just as it had been left. The owners probably will never come back for it. We walked for another hour, Policeman Rubin and I, and then suddenly we came upon a small store with the wallboard front and little show-window center which are today the badge of a bombed establishment that’s still doing business. And when I saw that window it dawned on me that in a solid hour of walking this was the first open store window I had seen. Every other doorway and window in an entire hour of walking through the heart of a city district was a doorway or a window into a room that no longer held human beings or goods.
That is the way in Wapping today. There will have to be a new Wapping when this is all over.
THE PYNTED AWL London,
We got on a bus, a friend and myself, to see more of London’s devastated East End, where the poor people live, London buses are double-deckers, and you can smoke on the top deck, so we sat up there. You don’t just pay a flat fare in London. The conductor comes around and sells you a ticket to wherever you want to go. But we weren’t sure just where we
wanted to go, not knowing London well.
“I think we’d like to go around the Isle of Dogs,” I told the conductor. So he told us where to change buses.
While waiting for the second bus we bought four apples (thirty cents) and ate them. This second bus took us only a short way, and we had to get off and walk two blocks, for the street had been blown up. A big group of men in workmen’s clothes stood waiting for the next bus.
“Is this where we get a bus to the Isle of Dogs?” we asked.
One little stoop-shouldered fellow with yellow teeth and a frazzled coat said, “Just where do you want to go?”
We said we didn’t know. He laughed and said, “Well, this bus will take us there.”
So we all got on, and after a while a big man who was with the little fellow moved back and said he and the little fellow were going to walk through a tunnel under the Thames and would we like to get off and go with them. We said, “Sure.”
It was a foot tunnel, not big enough for cars. These two men work on barges carrying freight up and down the Thames. They leave home one morning and don’t return until the next afternoon. They were carrying tin lunch boxes now. The big fellow had been to New York six times, before the first World War, working on ships. He told us about it as we walked through the tunnel.
At the other end we came out into what is known as Greenwich. The two men walked us past Greenwich College, which is very old. We stopped before some iron gates and peered through them at some far domes.
“Now that there,” said the little fellow, “that’s the fymous pynted awl.”
“The what?” I said.
“The pynted awl,” he said. “You know, doncha, the fymous pynted awl— the pynted ceilin’, you know.”
And then I realized he was saying “painted hall.” So we looked appreciatively.
“All American tourists knows it,” he said. “The artist he lyed on his back in a ‘ammock for twenty years pyntin’ that ceilin*, and when he got through he found a mistyke in it and he went cracked worryin’ about it.
Nobody else to this d’y has ever been ayble to find the mistyke. You tell the Americans the bombs heynt touched the pynted awl.”
We came to the little fellow’s corner, so we shook hands and said good-bye. The big fellow got on a double decked trolley with us, and do you know that this cockney, a complete stranger, insisted on paying our fare and him as poor as a church mouse! He said people had been nice to him in New York. But that was twenty-five years ago.
After a while we said good-bye to him and got on another bus. It took us down into Blackwall Tunnel, back under the Thames. Then we got out and walked down into the neighborhood of the great West India docks. They won’t let you onto the docks, but we could peep through.
It was raining now and very cold, and it was getting dark. We walked amid wreckage and rubble and great buildings that stood, wounded and empty. It was ghostlike and fearsome in the wet dusk. Poor, pitiful East End! True, Londoners say the slums should have been knocked down long ago, but this is a grievous way to go about it.
The (Old) Isle of Dogs from A to Z by Mick Lemmerman
Photo Cover, (Peter Wright)
Regular readers to the blog will know that I often refer to another Isle of Dogs blog called Isle of Dogs Past Life, Past Lives run by Mick Lemmerman, Mick (who was born in Whitechapel, but moved to the Island when he was eight) with colleagues Con Maloney and Peter Wright have been responsible for collecting photographs and documents about the Island and making them widely available on a number of websites. Mick has recently started to collate all this information and now has produced a book that gives a comprehensive view of the people, firms, schools, churches, buildings, streets and landmarks on the Isle of Dogs.
As well as concise descriptions and interesting nuggets of information, there are a large number of historical photographs of people and places. For example many Islanders remember the Glass Bridge, the book gives the following history.
Photo Glass Bridge, Jackie Wade (nee Jordan)
Glass Bridge When the dock company stated at the end of the 1950s its intention to close the Glengall Rd. bridge over Millwall Docks, protests and support from the council lead to the construction of a high-level footbridge across the docks, very quickly referred to as the Glass Bridge due to its glass enclosure.
The bridge became a target for vandals and pedestrians were so intimidated that few used it. Severe damage to the glass and the lifts in 1975–6 caused the bridge to be closed and it was demolished by the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1983.
One aspect of the Isle of Dogs is that it is always changing and the book lists many of the streets, buildings and landmarks that have disappeared over time. The ever changing nature of the Island is especially noticeable when considering the Island pubs, many now a distant memory but fondly remembered by many. One of my favourite illustrations is the ill fated actress Jayne Mansfield serving a pint in the George, which is still with us but pubs like the Anchor and Hope are in a sorry state awaiting demolition.
Photo Anchor & Hope, (Peter Wright)
The book also offers some original photographs of well known Isle Of Dogs landmarks such as Mudchute.
Photo Mudchute, (Mick Lemmerman)
Mudchute (aka Muddy) The name derives from it being the former dumping ground for mud dredged from the Millwall Docks which had to be regularly dredged to prevent silting up. A novel, pneumatic device was employed which pumped the liquefied mud through a pipe over East Ferry Rd. (close to the George pub), dumping it on the other side.
However looking through the book it is noticeable that many of the streets on the Island have changed almost beyond recognition. Cuba Street being a prime example.
Photo Cuba St, (Peter Wright)
Cuba St. Name changed from Robert St. (after Robert Batson) in 1875. As with other streets in the area, it was named after places in the West Indies (a major source of sugar imports into the West India Docks).
This book would appeal to people who have lived in the area all their life and to the new residents who want to find out more about one of the most interesting parts of East London. It will also appeal to anyone with an interest in the area and the people and would like to find out more. Even those of us who think we know a bit about the Island will find in the book a number of genuine surprises.
Mick has provided a valuable resource to the many people and amateur historians interested in the Island. This together with the Island Trust books are invaluable for understanding the amazing history of the Island.
If you would know more about the book or would like to buy a copy in either print or eBook , visit the Amazon store here
Tales from the Isle of Dogs : The Fiddler and his Dog
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.
Carol Rivers – Together for Christmas
Some months ago, the blog featured an interview with Carol Rivers, the best selling author who usually locates her stories on the Isle of Dogs.
Her books are usually based in the first half of the twentieth century and have been widely praised for their historical accuracy and gritty realism.
Carol has just released her latest book ‘Together for Christmas’ which follows the destinies of three friends faced with realities of the first world war. Although the book is fiction, it was the experiences of Carol’s Grandfather in the Great War that have been influential in her writing career. How influential is explained by Carol herself who contributed the following piece.
“Home is Where the Heart is.”
A saying that perhaps the troops often used to console themselves as they struggled for survival in the deploring conditions of the mud caked, flooded and rat infested trenches of the Great War, 1914-1918. Shell-shock, trench fever, dysentery, gangrene, hypothermia and dozens more diseases were their daily companions. As a small child, my Granddad, a volunteer veteran from Chapel House Street on the Isle of Dogs where we lived in East London, told me of his experience tied to a gun wheel. Disorientated by the ear-splitting shelling, he was accused of being a deserter. He wasn’t executed but flogged and sent to a field hospital as, close to death, he slipped into delirium. It was during this time that he woke to the sight of a soldier gazing in through the hospital window. Granddad knew this man had died and was passing over his strength in those few seconds of intimacy. Granddad recovered. But mentally he was scarred and rarely talked of his ‘angel’ for fear of being ridiculed. So sharing his other-worldly moment with a child, was a gift to us both for it released his secret shame and triggered the inner life of my creativity. Unaware of all this at the time, I remember asking him what the man looked like. Granddad replied that his ‘angel’ wore the mask of every soldier dying on the battlefield. This is a vision that has never left me. The vision is where my own story began. My home and my heart are my books, telling the stories that perhaps might not have been told, had Granddad not confided in me. I am returned every day to the Isle of Dogs as it was in the first half of the 20th century. I write ‘ghosts’ who are living, breathing and fiercely alive. The Island has never meant more to me than it does now in this Centenary year, when I am able to honour The Fallen with my book, TOGETHER FOR CHRISTMAS. And rightly so, as many of us now would not be here today, if it wasn’t for them.
TOGETHER FOR CHRISTMAS paperback by Carol Rivers
published by Simon & Schuster 23rd October 2014
August 1914, London. Britain has just declared war on Germany, and the whole country holds its breath. Flora, Hilda and Will, who grew up together in St Boniface Orphanage sit in the sunshine in Hyde Park on a rare day off, discussing the impending war and the changes it might bring to their lives. Will means to go off to fight, Hilda hopes to better her current lot in life as a maid at the charitable institute, Hailing House, but Flora is content with her job as assistant to the Isle of Dogs’ kindly Doctor Tapper. Taking a vow, they pledge to always be there for each other, come what may. Little do they know that the conflict will not be over by Christmas as supposed by the government and each one of the three friends are drawn terrifyingly into the turmoil of war.
TOGETHER FOR CHRISTMAS can be purchased at Amazon and most online stores, supermarkets and bookshops.
If you would like to buy a copy of the book, it is available here
And if you would like more information on the Carol’s books at Simon & Schuster, you can visit the publisher’s website here
The Isle of Dogs by Andrew Harris
Over the last couple of years I have attempted to convey how the Isle of Dogs to many residents and visitors is a special place which is full of history and mysteries.
To illustrate its effect on people, a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Andrew Harris of Brisbane who visited the Island and endured a very cold, winter holiday in 2011 but the memory of the location stayed with him on his return to Australia. It was this memory that inspired him to compose the following poem.
The Isle of Dogs
The boats are port to starboard, cheek by jowl
At the Isle of Dogs, nosing and nudging the wall
Of the dock, held like a pod of pet whales
Ten deep, blunt-snouted and barnacle-edged
Waiting for the sweep of some invisible hand
To free them to the gravy brown of the open river
Who sits so still at the far galley window, bearded,
grey, his eye drawn by the lights on Blackheath Hill
A house he once held, a man upright and purposeful
Now hunched and mole-like, moving along the boat,
Wedging into the space between the table and bench,
Tap of spoon against saucepan’s side, stirring, staring
Fuel lamp flares and the hill recedes behind
The cool condensation of the rounded window
Now only to be seen through the binoculars formed
From cupped hands slowly sliding on the wet glass
Was it a face that held him, a face pressed
Against a casement window, straining to pick
His boat among the flotilla of forgotten, forkless fathers
At the harbour of the home broken; or do the eyes
That once sparkled and danced now narrow at
The mention of his name, a re-ringed hand drawing
The curtain across the snow dappled pane
Estuary birds ruffle and puff their feathers, balanced
On an upturned broken crate, becalmed as a thin
Toffee-crisp frost blotches the water’s skin
Winter bites the houseboats and socked feet protrude
From under too short a blanket, half a fathom
Above the still, chilled surface of the Thames
Andrew and his wife were both born in England but emigrated to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. Andrew was bought up in Beccles, Suffolk but his wife Emma has local connections with East and South London.
Her father was a boat and barge builder on the Thames in the late 1950s, and despite spending most of his life in Australia retains his London accent and his affinity for the river and its history.
The Isle of Dogs by Thomas Wright 1867
Workers in a Isle of Dogs Foundry mid 19th century
Thomas Wright (12 April 1839 – 19 February 1909) was an English author who wrote predominantly about the working conditions in England.
What made him unusual was he was a working man himself, travelling around finding work as a labourer in a engineering firm. Even when he became a writer he was known as the ‘The Journeyman Engineer ‘.
He was mostly self taught and had a number of books published, his most popular being Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes (1867), The Great Unwashed (1868), and Our New Masters (1873).
The following essay is from Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes when he visits the Isle of Dogs and describes the industries and the considerable Scottish influences.
Building the Millwall Docks 1867
One of the most interesting, and in many respects representative of these little known districts, is the Isle of Dogs. “The island,” as it is familiarly called – although properly speaking it is a peninsula – is not very pleasant in its physical features. It is situated about six miles below London Bridge, and lies considerably lower than the level of the river, which is only prevented from overflowing it by strong embankments. As owing to its exceedingly low level it cannot he efficiently drained, it is very marshy; broad ditches of filthy water running on each side of its main road. To a casual observer it would appear that a visit to the island could only be interesting to persons who wished to study a peculiar style of dwelling- house architecture, the effect of which is that a dissolution of partnership takes place between the woodwork and brickwork of the lower stories before the upper ones are built; or to antiquarians desirous of seeing what the roads of England were like before Macadam was born or commissioners of paving created. And while its slushy, ill-formed roads, its tumble-down buildings, stagnant ditches, and tracts of marshy, rubbish-filled waste ground make the outward appearance of the island unpleasant to the sight, chemical works, tar manufactories, and similar establishments render its atmosphere equally unpleasant to the olfactory sense. Nevertheless, there is much that is interesting in the Isle of Dogs. I have somewhere seen this district described as the Birmingham of London; but I think that the “Manchester of London would convey a much more accurate idea of the kind of place the Isle of Dogs really is.
But in the Isle of Dogs, as in Manchester, the articles manufactured are large, important, and of an eminently utilitarian character.
Launch of the Northumberland 1866
On “the island” is centred the iron ship building and marine engineering of the Thames. There are more than a dozen ship and marine engine building establishments upon it, amongst them being the gigantic one in which the operations of the Millwall Iron Works Company are carried on, and in which the Great Eastern, the large Government armour-plated ram Northumberland, and many other of the largest merchantmen and vessels of war afloat have been built. Here, too, a great portion of the armour-plate with which our own and foreign nations are encasing their ships of war, and with which the coast defences and other fortifications of Russia are being strengthened, is manufactured. The works of this company alone employ on an average 4000 men and boys, and the other ship and marine engine works on the island employ from 2000 to 100 men each. It would be within the mark to say that the shipbuilding and marine engineering of the Isle of Dogs gives employment to 15,000 men and boys; and, in addition to these shipbuilding establishments, there are on the island tar, white-lead, chemical, candle, and numerous other factories, which afford employment to a large number of men. There are two townships on the island-namely, Cubitt Town and Millwall, and it is in the latter place that a major portion of the manufactories of the island are situated; and Millwall is the place usually indicated when “the island” is spoken of by the inhabitants of the locality.
Any person having a practical acquaintance with the construction of iron ships would naturally expect to find a sprinkling of Scotchmen among the inhabitants of the island; for the mechanics who learn their trade in the shipbuilding establishments of the Clyde are among the most proficient workmen in “the trade,” and the wages paid to this class of mechanics being as a rule considerably higher in England than in Scotland, it follows as a natural consequence that many Scotch mechanics come to London. The expectation to meet with the Scottish element in the Isle of Dogs is more than realized, for one of the first things that strikes the visitor is the preponderance of this element, as manifested by the prevalence of the Scottish dialect and Christian names. “Do ye no ken sting’n the wee boy, ye ill-faur’d limmer, ye?” were the first words that greeted my ears on landing on the island on the occasion of my first visit to it, the exclamation having been uttered by a pretty little Scotch lassie about eight or nine years of age, who was in pursuit of a wasp under the impression that it was the same one that had on the previous day stung a “wee boy” whom she had been nursing. As I journeyed into the interior of the island the striking, distinctly-marked Scotch accent and phraseology continued to strike on my ear at almost every step; for owing to the sharp ringing noise caused by the riveting hammers which are at work in all parts of the island for many hours in the day, the inhabitants acquire a habit of speaking very loud when in the streets. And thus the broadly-accented “How are ye?” and the “Brawly, how are ye?” which the gude wives exchange when they meet, and the invitations to come awa’ in (to a public-house) and have “twa penny-worth,” or “a wee drap dram,” reach my ears. During meal hours, and the early part of the evening, when the workmen are passing through the streets, the ascendancy of the Scottish tongue is still more apparent, and Sandy, Pate, and Andrew are the names that are most frequently exchanged as the men from the various workshops salute each other while passing to and from their work. At these times a good deal of chaffing goes on among the workmen, and in this species of encounter, the dry humorous Scotchmen have very much the best of it. But as the burly Lancashire men on whom the Northern wit is chiefly exercised, are as good- tempered as they are big, and the dapper, sprightly Cockneys who occasionally join in the encounter are unable to realize the idea that they are getting the worst of a contest of wit with countrymen, the unpleasant consequences to which chaffing often leads are obviated here.
Of course, in a locality so favoured by Scotland’s children, there is a kirk, and a very comfortable little kirk it is, and equally of course the patriotism of the “whisky” drinkers is appealed to by such public-house signs as “The Burns” and “The Highland Mary;” and it must be confessed that on the island the public-houses are a much greater success than the kirk.
Life in the Isle of Dogs commences at a very early hour, and that “horrid example” in sluggards who always wanted a little more sleep, would have had great difficulty in obtaining it after five o’clock in the morning, had it been his fate to live on the Isle of Dogs. At that hour a sound of hurrying to and fro begins, heavily nailed shoes patter over the pavement, windows are thrown up, and shouts of ” Can you tell us what time it is, mate?” or “Do you ken what time it is, laddie?” are answered by other shouts conveying the required information; while knockers are plied by those who are “giving a mate a call” with extraordinary energy and persistence. By a quarter-past five the sound of footsteps has increased until it resembles the marching of an army, and from that time till ten minutes to six it continues unabated. It then rapidly decreases and becomes irregular. At five minutes to six the workshop bells ring out their summons, and then those operatives who are still on the road change their walk into a run. In the midst of all this bustle rise shrill cries of “Hot coffee a ha’penny a cup,” “Baked taters, all hot,” and “Cough no more, gentlemen, cough no more,” this latter being the trade cry of the vendors of “medicated lozenges.” Before the hubbub raised by “the gathering of the clans” of workmen has fairly subsided, the sharp ringing of the riveting hammers, and the heavy throbbing sound of working machinery commences; and by half-past six life on the island is in full swing. At half-past eight the workmen come out to breakfast; and at that time the gates of the various large workshops are surrounded by male and female vendors of herrings, watercress, shrimps, or whatever other breakfast “relishes” are in season. The instant the breakfast bells ring the workmen rush out through the workshop gates, some hastening to their homes, and others into the numerous coffee-shops in the immediate neighbourhood of the yards. A good breakfast of coffee, bread and butter, and an egg, can be got here for fourpence-halfpenny. Forty minutes are allowed for the discussion of the morning meal. During dinner hour, which is from one till two, and from half-past five till half-past six in the evening (in the workshops that are closed at one on Saturdays the men work till six in the evening on the other five working days of the week, in those where they work till four on Saturdays they leave off work on other days at half-past five), the streets of the island are again alive with the crowds of hurrying workmen. But during working hours the streets are comparatively deserted, save by children, and the numerical force of the juvenile section of the inhabitants of the island does great credit to the papas and mammas, for though the island is generally considered a very unhealthy place, the children as a rule appear to be robust.
Boris Akunin,The Winter Queen and the Isle of Dogs
Over the past year or so, I have tried to show that the Isle of Dogs although widely considered a bit of literary wasteland has featured in a number of works by authors. Carol Rivers tends to base most of her novels on the Island and she is in a long line of writers who have featured this small piece of London in their writing.
However I have recently come across a book that surprisingly features the Island, why surprisingly ? because it was written by a Russian author Boris Akunin which is the pen name for Grigory Chkartishvili, a Russian writer, academic and translator.
The book is called the Winter Queen (although originally called Azazel in Russia) and features a young police detective called Erast Fandorin, the book first published in 1998 is incredibly popular in Russia where it has sold 15 million copies.
The Winter Queen is the first novel of the Erast Fandorin series of historical detective novels and is based in Moscow in the 1870s. The story begins with the apparent suicide of a wealthy university student, he leaves his large fortune to the newly opened Moscow orphanage of Astair House, an international network of schools for orphan boys founded by an English noblewoman, Lady Astair.
The open-and-shut suicide case is given to the inexperienced 20-year-old detective Erast Fandorin who begins to suspect that things are not quite what they seem.
Fandorin begins to suspect that a glamorous femme fatale Amalia is involved and follows her to the Winter Queen Hotel in London. When he confronts her there is a struggle and his gun goes off and Amalia lies on the floor apparently dead.
Fandorin panics and runs away and finally ends up on the Isle of Dogs.
On the Isle of Dogs, in the maze of narrow streets behind Millwall Docks , night falls rapidly. Before you can so much as glance over your shoulder the twilight has thickened from grey to brown and one in every two or three of the sparse street lamps are already glowing . It is dirty and dismal , the Thames ladens the air with damp, the rubbish tips adding the scent of putrid decay. The streets are deserted , with the only life , both disreputable and dangerous, teeming around the shady pubs and cheap furnished lodgings.
It is safe to say that his first impressions were not great and the guesthouse he selects is not much better.
The rooms in the “Ferry Road” guesthouse are home to decommissioned sailors ,petty swindlers and ageing port trollops.
The landlord is known as Fat Hugh who is always on his guard because ” The clientele here is a mixed bunch and you never know what they might be getting up to.”
Ferry House Pub
Obviously the Ferry Road guesthouse is likely to based on the Ferry House pub, the oldest pub on the Island and already over a hundred years old even in 1876 when the story is based.
Fandorin lies low and consider what to do next , but things begin to move quickly, he is kidnapped and tied up in a sack and dropped from a pier into the Thames. The ever resourceful Fandorin escapes and leaves the Isle of Dogs to return to Moscow.
Although there are mention of Millwall Docks and Ferry Road there are no other clues to other locations on the Island but that has not stopped fans of the book from making a pilgrimage to the Island to follow the footsteps of their fictional hero.
The book is an exciting adventure mystery and Fandorin a bit of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones with a Russian twist, but the real mystery is why a Russian based author with no obvious connections to London would set part of his novel in a not widely known part of East London.
Remembering the London River by H. M. Tomlinson
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.
Jorrocks and the Isle of Doggians 1835
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)