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A Limehouse Baker and ‘Carey Street’

Clennam (from “Little Dorrit”) in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

Many people overspend and get into debt over the festive period but getting into debt in the early 19th century had more serious consequences including spells in prison. Michael Munoir sent the following which illustrates the case of a local Limehouse baker who was in Newgate prison for debt and wishes to be discharged from prison in 1813.

I John Jones, a prisoner for debt, confined in His Majesty’s gaol of Newgate, and late of St. Ann’s-place, Commercial-road, in the parish of St. Ann, Limehouse, in the County of Middlesex, and using the name and description of John Jones, baker, do hereby give notice, that on the 26th day of October 1821, I presented my petition, schedule, and oath to the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, at No. 6, Carey-street, Lincoln’s-inn, praying to be discharged from custody upon all process, and to have future liberty of my person against the demands for which I am now in custody, and against the demands of all other persons named or specified as my creditors, or as claiming to be my creditors, in my schedule annexed to my said petition ; and the said petition, oath, and schedule have been filed in the said Court: whereupon the said Court hath ordered, that the matter of the said petition shall be heard in the said Court, to be holden at the Guildhall of the City of Westminster, on Tuesday, the 14th day of December next, at the hour of nine in the morning ; and the said Court hath judged fit to dispense with my serving the Assignees of ……

A long list of creditors follows including a number from Limehouse such as Robert Gammon, Narrow-street, Limehouse, coal merchant; Thomas Luens, Ratcliffe Highway, grocer; Elizabeth Gardiner, Ratcliffe Highway, tallow chandler: I. Hawley, Ratcliffe Highway cheesemonger; John Williams, Church-row, Limehouse, coal-merchant; James Roberts, Three-colt-street, Limehouse, butcher;

being the creditors named in my schedule, with notice of my application in manner directed by the Act of Parliament in that behalf; and hath ordered, that notice of the said petition, oath, and schedule, be inserted in the London Gazette, and in the two newspapers called the Morning Post and the Star, of which my said creditors, hereinbefore-named are hereby required to take notice. JOHN JONES

Although we do not know the full story about John Jones, we can see from his long list of creditors that he was in considerable debt. Public notices regarding insolvent debtors and bankrupts, informing creditors about proceedings and applications for release, have appeared in The London Gazette for centuries, as a statutory requirement.

Newgate West View of Newgate by George Shepherd 1784-1862

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was said that more than half of all prisoners were debtors. In London, there were separate prisons for debtors including the Fleet (closed 1842); Farringdon (closed 1846); King’s Bench (closed 1880); Whitecross Street (closed 1870); and Marshalsea (closed 1842).

Execution by hanging, outside Newgate, early 1800s

We can see from the petition that John Jones was a prisoner in Newgate Prison which was one of the most notorious prisons in the capital. Until 1861, only those who bought and sold goods to make a living could be made bankrupt. Others who were unable to pay their debts were referred to as ‘insolvent debtors’. Public executions took place outside the Debtors Door which would not have made our Limehouse baker feel any better.

Newgate Exercise yard by Gustave Dore , from ‘London : A pilgrimage’ by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold 1872

Debtors could be imprisoned indefinitely until the debt was repaid to creditors. This was made more difficult because some prisoners had to pay for their keep in prison which could mean getting into more debt. One of the reasons that debtors were put into prison was because it was expected that the debtors’ families and friends would repay the debt. Imprisonment for debt only ended in 1869, although there were some exceptions.

One of the best known individuals who were imprisoned for debt, was John Dickens, father of author, Charles Dickens. He was incarcerated in Marshalsea in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old. John owed a baker, £ 40 10s, and was committed to prison, where he lived with his family (apart from Charles, who worked in a blacking factory) until he was released three months later.

This episode had a profound effect on Charles Dickens, who featured debtors’ prison in his work. Little Dorrit features a story about a debtor, imprisoned in Marshalsea which is also mentioned in David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers.

In the original petition, many readers would have noticed the address of the court, Carey Street became famous for the saying ‘being on Carey Street’ which indicates you were bankrupt or had serious financial difficulties.

Many thanks to Michael for bringing this fascinating subject to my attention.



In Dickens’ Path by Alfred Gardner

Recently, I was delighted to receive the latest book from Alfred Gardner who is best known for his two books, East End Story and Watch Your Fingers.

The new book is called In Dickens’ Path and is a series of short stories. The first story called ‘In Dickens’ Path’ features a fictional meeting between Charles Dickens and a twelve-year-old Limehouse errand boy called Gideon Woolfe.

Alf had drawn on his own family tree for the character of Gideon Woolfe, Gideon was actually Alf’s mother’s grandfather and was born on the border of Limehouse and Ratcliffe in 1839.

To put the story in context, Alf provides some background of both the area and Dickens connection with Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe and Limehouse. As a young boy, Dickens would visit Limehouse to see his godfather, Charles Huffman who was a Limehouse sail maker, rigger and ships chandler. Even when Dickens was a celebrated writer, he was known to travel around the area looking for ideas for his stories and articles.

In Dickens’ Path finds the great writer relying on Gideon’s knowledge of the area and quick wittedness to help him with his enquiries.

The next story, An Indelible Impression carries on the theme of being rewarded for kindness but with a modern twist.

A Surprise Encounter brings together an Army sergeant who used to bully his recruits and one of his victims.

It Tugs at the Heartstrings reflects Alf’s love of opera and A Cottage to Let illustrates a life in the country is not always idyllic.

Bogus Callers is about a couple of nasty confidence tricksters and A Canine Tale follows the adventures of an enterprising Dachshund.

Alf lived in the East End for most of his life until he moved recently to the South coast. His books often exposes the kindness and unkindness of modern life and these short stories provide plenty of interest especially if you are a fan of Charles Dickens and the Limehouse area.

This book of short stories is only available from Alf directly and all profits will go to the Children with Cancer UK charity.

If you would like more information or buy a copy of the book, contact Alf at agardner1941@btinternet.com

A Small Star in the East – The Remarkable Story of Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford


Dr Nathaniel Heckford (I842-71)

Charles Dickens was a great chronicler of London life and towards the end of his life wrote a series of sketches that were published in the book, The Uncommercial Traveller. One of the stories involves Dickens in a quite depressed mood visiting Ratcliff and Stepney, here are a few extracts from the story.

The borders of Ratcliff and Stepney, eastward of London, and giving on the impure river, were the scene of this uncompromising dance of death, upon a drizzling November day. A squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely. They are not skilled mechanics in any wise. They are but labourers,–dock-labourers, water-side labourers, coal-porters, ballast-heavers, such-like hewers of wood and drawers of water.childrens_hospital_from_london_a_pilgrimage_

Women in a children’s hospital by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage 1872

Dickens visits a number of people in their homes and notices that poverty and lack of work was bringing people to the edge of destitution. However, his journey takes him to Ratcliff where he come across an institution that brightens his mood.

Down by the river’s bank in Ratcliff, I was turning upward by a side-street, therefore, to regain the railway, when my eyes rested on the inscription across the road, ‘East London Children’s Hospital.’ I could scarcely have seen an inscription better suited to my frame of mind; and I went across and went straight in.

I found the children’s hospital established in an old sail-loft or storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There were trap-doors in the floors, where goods had been hoisted up and down; heavy feet and heavy weights had started every knot in the well-trodden planking: inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward staircases perplexed my passage through the wards. But I found it airy, sweet, and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look: but I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged; I heard the little patients answering to pet playful names, the light touch of a delicate lady laid bare the wasted sticks of arms for me to pity; and the claw-like little hands, as she did so, twined themselves lovingly around her wedding-ring.

A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use, and have quietly settled themselves in it as its medical officers and directors. Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house-surgeon of a great London hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera.

With every qualification to lure them away, with youth and accomplishments and tastes and habits that can have no response in any breast near them, close begirt by every repulsive circumstance inseparable from such a neighbourhood, there they dwell. They live in the hospital itself, and their rooms are on its first floor.

The dispenser of medicines (attracted to them not by self-interest, but by their own magnetism and that of their cause) sleeps in a recess in the dining-room, and has his washing apparatus in the sideboard. Their contented manner of making the best of the things around them, I found so pleasantly inseparable from their usefulness!


‘Turn him out, Ratcliff.’ Men are packed into the half open door lit by the interior of the home. Illustration from Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore, ‘London, a Pilgrimage’, published in 1872.

When this hospital was first opened, in January of the present year, the people could not possibly conceive but that somebody paid for the services rendered there; and were disposed to claim them as a right, and to find fault if out of temper. They soon came to understand the case better, and have much increased in gratitude.

Insufficient food and unwholesome living are the main causes of disease among these small patients. So nourishment, cleanliness, and ventilation are the main remedies. Discharged patients are looked after, and invited to come and dine now and then; so are certain famishing creatures who were never patients. Both the lady and the gentleman are well acquainted, not only with the histories of the patients and their families, but with the characters and circumstances of great numbers of their neighbours–of these they keep a register.

An affecting play was acted in Paris years ago, called ‘The Children’s Doctor.’ As I parted from my children’s doctor, now in question, I saw in his easy black necktie, in his loose buttoned black frock-coat, in his pensive face, in the flow of his dark hair, in his eyelashes, in the very turn of his moustache, the exact realisation of the Paris artist’s ideal as it was presented on the stage. But no romancer that I know of has had the boldness to prefigure the life and home of this young husband and young wife in the Children’s Hospital in the east of London.

The husband and wife in question were Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford and their largely unknown story is one of sacrifice and commitment to the children of the 19th century East End.

In 1866, Nathaniel Heckford was working as a surgeon and doctor at the London Hospital. When the cholera epidemic developed he volunteered to help a friend, Dr Woodman, who was in charge of the Wapping District Cholera Hospital. It was there he met his future wife, Sarah who was a student of medicine who had gone to the hospital as a volunteer nurse .

In 1867, Sarah was married to Mr Heckford and most people thought that Nathaniel who had won gold medals for surgery and medicine in his student days would begin a career of a consulting surgeon in the West End. However, he believed that he would use his talents in the East End to help to deal with some of the area’s health problems. Both Nathaniel and Sarah decided to start a Children’s Hospital, eventually they found premises in two old warehouses at Ratcliff Cross, close to the river.

Initially the hospital had ten beds for children and was called the ” East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women ” and in January 1868, on the first anniversary of  their wedding day, the hospital was opened.

Demand was high with large numbers of ” in ” and ” out ” patients, the hospital became the first in London to admit children under two years old.

The article by Charles Dickens bought in badly needed funds which enabled the hospital to expand its number of beds and staff. However the success of the hospital was tainted by the realisation that Nathaniel had consumption, with time now limited, plans were developed to hand the hospital over to a committee and provide funds for a new purpose-built hospital . Nathaniel’s health deteriorated and he was ordered abroad to recuperate, the couple realising they were living on borrowed time decided to come back to England to finalise plans for the new hospital. Eventually Nathaniel succumbed to the disease and died in 1871 aged only 29 years of age.


East London Hospital for Children about 1900

Nathaniel may have died but his dream carried on and in the summer of 1875, the foundation stone of the new hospital was laid and in autumn of the following year the new building was finished and the tablet placed in the hall. It said

In Memory of

Nathaniel Heckford, M.D., M.R.C.S.

Born in Calcutta, April, 1842

Died 14th December, 1871

Aged 29

He Founded this Institution

At His Own Cost

In a Warehouse at Ratcliff Cross

January 28, 1868

He Lived For It

And Died

A Few Days After The Site

Of This Building was

Purchased by the

Committee of Management of the


The new hospital in Shadwell was called the East London Hospital for Children The original 180 beds were later in 1881 increased by the addition of a further floor. This voluntary hospital continued to thrive and gradually acquired an international reputation. In 1932 the name was changed to the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children and later in 1942 this hospital was amalgamated with the Queen’s Hospital, Hackney Road, to form the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

lady trader

This is not quite the end of the story, the remarkable Sarah Heckford may have come from a wealthy background and been inconvenienced by some disabilities from  a childhood disease but she still travelled alone to India and Italy, before in 1880 travelling alone by horseback across the Transvaal of South Africa and became an itinerant trader facing considerable dangers which she wrote down about in the her book, A Lady Trader in the Transvaal. In more recent times, her incredible life has been  she has been the subject of other essays and books  including a biography by Vivien Allen.

Although the exploits of the Heckfords have largely been forgotten, in the area near to Ratcliff Cross stairs  is Heckford Street that is named after the couple.

Many thanks to local writer, Alfred Gardner who bought this story to my attention.

E14 Book Launch at George Green’s School – 30th May 2015


Part of the task of writing a blog like Isle of Dogs Life is to undertake a great deal of research and to read many of the fascinating stories associated with the Isle of Dogs. It is through the stories of people’s experiences that allows you  to gather insights about the past.

Recently I was made aware of a project that seeks to develop people’s storytelling skills by helping them to get know their community; its history, its achievements and the issues that matter most to people.

The project has been developed by Queen Mary, University of London as  a leadership development program for people who live, work, or study in the E14 postcode of Tower Hamlets. The program was open for everyone regardless of ages, nationalities, cultures and backgrounds.

Part of the project was to produce a book of some of the stories the group had gathered. The book is titled E14: Our Stories (Stories of hope from an East London Postcode). The launch of this book celebrating the achievements and local heroes of communities from the E14 postcode of Tower Hamlets will take on Saturday 30th May  at George Green’s School from 12-1:30pm.

The launch is an  opportunity to  learn about the project, meet some local heroes and enjoy food and drink from different cultures. There will also be copies of the book available to take away on the day.

The scope of the project  includes the personal development of the participants but looks at ways to make positive change in the local community.

It is remarkable the way that the interest in local history and history in general has grown in recent years.  There is many reasons for this, however you usually find in times of rapid changes there is a tendency to look back to make sense of where we are going. Looking into a history of a particular location also tends to give you a sense of perspective, for those who think times on the Island are bad now, may want to read about the Distress of the 1860s or the experiences of those who survived the Blitz.

It is also worth remembering that Charles Dickens wrote about his visit to the Isle of Dogs, Joseph Conrad wrote about the docks, more recently Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have featured the area,  the E14 group are following a long tradition of storytellers to want to tell the story of this fascinating piece of East London.

If you would like to find out more about the book and the project, why not attend the launch on Saturday 30th May from 12-1:30pm at George Green’s School, Manchester Road, Isle of Dogs, E14 3DW

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.


Queen Victoria visits the SS Great Britain in Blackwall 1845

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

SS ‘Great Britain’ at Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall by Richard Barnett Spencer
National Maritime Museum – Date painted: mid-19th C

Some weeks ago, I told the story of the SS Great Eastern that was built and launched on the Isle of Dogs. It was argued that the stress and strain of that launch led to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s early death.

However several years earlier in 1845 , Brunel had an altogether more pleasant experience when his then new ship  SS Great Britain was sailed to Blackwall to enable Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to come aboard and inspect the ship. The following entertaining report by the Illustrated London News records in detail the Queen’s reaction to the ship, it appears she was frequently “astonished” by the size of the ship, and gratefully accepted a gift of a golden propeller.

(From the Illustrated London News)

On Tuesday afternoon her Majesty and Prince Albert paid their intended visit to this extraordinary vessel. The day was remarkably fine, and many thousands of persons assembled, both at Greenwich and Blackwall, to await the arrival of the Royal party.

A Board of Admiralty, consisting of Lord Haddington and Capt. Gordon, had previously arrived at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, to receive her Majesty, and accompany her on board the Dwarf.
The Greenwich Pensioners were drawn out in array and loudly cheered her Majesty as she embarked. Carpets were laid down the whole length of the distance from where her Majesty alighted to the water’s edge.
Her Majesty arrived at Greenwich at about twenty minutes past three o’clock, and immediately proceeded on board the Dwarf.
The Lord Mayor, attended by the usual civic functionaries, left London-bridge in the City State barge, a few minutes after one o’clock, and’ was towed to Greenwich by the” Watermen’s steamer No. 10, to attend upon her Majesty, in his official capacity as Conservator of the Thames. Upon her Majesty’s embarkation, the Lord Mayor, in the state barge, still in tow of the steamer, preceded the royal yacht to Blackwall.

Several of the river steamers, completely crowded with spectators, accompanied the yacht on her passage to the Great Britain, and the river in the neighbourhood of Blackwall was teeming with small boats filled with people. Two or three of the vessels of the Royal Thames Yacht Club were present, among which were the Mystery, Lord Seaham, and the Dolphin, Mr Perkins, which latter vessel manned her yards as soon as the yacht hove in sight. A platform was fixed alongside , the Great Britain, on which the accommodation-stairs, to enable her Majesty to get on board, were rigged. Both the platform and Stairs were covered with carpets. The height of the platform was so arranged that it should , be equal with the deck of the Dwarf, so that her Majesty should have no difficulty in getting on board, but be enabled at once to step  from the steamer on to the platform.

 As the Royal yacht neared the Great Britain, she slacked her speed, and proceeded slowly round her from the starboard quarter and under her bows to her port beam, by which means her Majesty was afforded a excellent opportunity  of viewing the exterior-of the vessel , upon the Queen’s ‘arriving on board the Great Britain, her commander, Lieutenant Hosken, R.N. was presented to her Majesty by Lord Hawarden, and that officer conducted the Royal party through the vessel.’

Her Majesty appeared quite amazed at the enormous length of the ship, which, is one-third longer than any line-of-battle ship in the service, being 322 feet in length, while the Queen, which her Majesty visited when at Spithead, is not above 210. In order to obtain a full fore and aft view of the length of the ship, her Majesty and Prince Albert, accompanied by Captain Hosken, went right aft and stood by the wheel, and then proceeded forward to the bows, viewing the vessel from the raised forecastle.

Her Majesty frequently expressed her astonishment at the extraordinary length of the ship. The singular appearance of the six masts, so out of the ordinary mode in which ships are rigged, also attracted her Majesty’s attention, and formed a subject of comment. From the forecastle the Royal party descended into the forward saloon and state rooms, which, having inspected, her Majesty returned on deck.
A model of the midship part of the ship, and a working model of the engines, with the screw, were then shown to her Majesty, and Mr Brunel explained its mode of working and the manner in which the screw propelled the vessel, und how they were enabled to back astern. After having inspected this model, her Majesty and Prince Albert went down into the engine-room, to view the engines. These were shown to her Majesty by Mr Guppy, the constructor both of the vessel and the engines. Her Majesty expressed her admiration of their workmanship, and inquired their power, and was informed that they were of 1000 horse-power. The immense chain which turns the screw shaft seemed particularly to engage her Majesty’s attention, which was described to her to revolve at the rate of twenty five miles per hour. After leaving the engine-room her Majesty next inspected the after promenade saloon and stateroom, and expressed her astonishment at the size of the dining-room. At the extremity of this apartment there were three models of different screws, one with six blades, similar to the screw with which the Great Britain is now fitted ; another with four blades, which is to be used as a reserved screw for the ship, and a third model, with only three blades.

Whilst the Royal party were inspecting these models, Mr T. P. Smith, the inventor and patentee of the screw-propeller, was presented by Lord Hawarden to her Majesty and Prince Albert as the inventor. Mr Smith presented a very appropriate model in gold, in an appropriate case, of the propeller that he has recently applied to her Majesty’s new tender yacht Fairy, which  recently obtained such a rapid speed as to surpass all other steamers on the river. Her Majesty was graciously pleased to accept the model, which was handed over to Lord Hawarden.


SS Great Britain in Blackwall

Captain Claxton presented her Majesty with two copies of the description of the Great Britain, which her Majesty was also graciously pleased to accept. Her Majesty while in the dining-room sat down on one of the chairs, which was placed in such a position that enabled her to see the effect of the mirrors, which made this extensive apartment appear almost boundless.
Her Majesty, just previous to her departure, addressed Capt Hosken, and said, ” I am very much gratified with the sight of your magnificent ship, and I wish you every possible success on your voyages across the Atlantic.”
Prince Albert asked when it was intended to start on the voyage, and upon Captain Hosken informing his Royal Highness that it would be either the latter end of July, or the beginning of August, the Prince remarked, he supposed that Capt. Hosken wished to save the equinox. Captain Hosken replied that that was not so much the object as to make one or two voyages as speedily as possible, in order that the public may be perfectly convinced of the safety of the ship.

After remaining on board about three quarters of an hour, the Royal party returned to the Dwarf.
Previous to the departure of the Dwarf, his Royal Highness called Captain Hosken to him, and requested him to convey to Mr Smith her Majesty’s thanks for the model of his screw.
No extra ornamental work had been done to the ship on the occasion of her Majesty’s visit, but it was shown to her in its ordinary state, with the exception that the decks had been cleaned and holystoned, and the carpets were laid down in the saloons and on the staircases leading to them and to the engine-room.
The band of the first Life Guards was on board, and played some of the national airs during her Majesty’s stay.
The Dwarf, upon leaving the Great Britain, returned to Greenwich,.
Her Majesty disembarked at Greenwich, and immediately left for Buckingham Palace, escorted by the detachment of Dragoons which had accompanied her down.

The Great Britain was dressed out in colours, as also every vessel in the vicinity of Greenwich and Blackwall.
Immediately after her Majesty’s departure the ship was thrown open again to the inspection of the public, and in a short time was completely thronged.
Her Majesty has expressed her great satisfaction at her visit.

The ship was built at  Bristol, when  she was launched in 1843 she was twice the tonnage of any previous ship.Unlike the Great Eastern which was broken up, The Great Britain was restored and is now on show in a dry dock in Bristol.

We might smile at the formal nature of the visit but was clearly a important event for many locals who flocked to see the ship and the Queen.


Chinese Junk – Keying

Three years later , the Queen and Prince Albert visited another ship in Blackwall, but this could not be more different from the Great Britain. They came to visit the Keying a large Chinese Junk that had been sailed from China against the express wishes of the Emperor himself.


Museum of London

Sailed first to America , the ship reached Blackwall in 1848 and became a major attraction, as well as the royal couple , the Duke of Wellington, Charles Dickens and many thousands of people came to view the novelty of a large Chinese ship.

However by 1853, the novelty had worn off and the junk was towed to Liverpool where she was broken up.

Jorrocks and the Isle of Doggians 1835

hepburn157 hadley cross

Mr Jorrocks

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)

The Fishing Smack Tavern in Coldharbour – A History and a Mystery


Charles Napier Hemy, R.A., R.W.S. (1841-1917) Cold Harbour, Blackwall 1896

Coldharbour in Blackwall is one of the most unusual streets in Docklands, it was once part of the old Blackwall that followed the river until it reached Trinity Buoy Wharf.

However the construction of the West India Docks and the City Canal in the early years of the 19th Century effectively cut off Coldharbour from the rest of Blackwall.

There has been buildings on the site since the 17th Century, but two of the better known is the Gun public house which still exists and another tavern called the Fishing Smack which has been demolished but had a curious history.

There had been a tavern on the site since the 1760s, firstly called the Fisherman’s Arms before changing its name in the early 19th Century to the Fishing Smack. We know it was called the Fishing Smack in 1808 due to the following report in The Gentleman’s Magazine

As a young woman, a servant in the FishingSmack public-house, Cold Harbour, Blackw’all, was standing on the steps leading to the River, she was so much alarmed by a flash of lightning , that she fell in the river and was unfortunately drowned.

The change of name probably reflected the arrival of Fishing Smacks from Great Yarmouth who frequented this spot when selling their catches in London. This trade and the area was known to Charles Dickens who had written about the other Taverns in Blackwall such as the Artichoke and Plough that were known for their Whitebait dinners. Although Dickens did not write directly about the Fishing Smack, he did use characters in his books that could have had their origins in this  area.

George Haw recalls walking around this area in 1907 with well known local MP Will Crooks and having the following conversation with some old characters that used to work this stretch of the river.

“Ah!” exclaimed the other, fetching a sigh; “but don’t you remember that old Yarmouth fisherman who used to bring his smack round here from the Roads and sell herrings out of it on this very Causeway?”

“Remember! What do you think? That was the old man who would never keep farthings. In the evening, when he’d got a handful in the course of the day’s trade, he would pitch them in the river for the boys to find.”

“Likely enough,” interposed Crooks. “I mudlarked about here myself as a lad.”

The eldest of the ancient watermen would have it that this old boy from Yarmouth was the original of Mr. Peggotty, and that it was at Blackwall Dickens first made his acquaintance. He said he had often seen Dickens himself about those parts.

We ventured a doubt.

“Why, bless my life!” he cried; “ain’t I talked to him at the Causeway here many a time?”

This, of course, was unanswerable, so we asked what Dickens did when there.

The ancient waterman thought a moment.

“What did Dickens do?” he ruminated. “Now, let me see. What did Dickens do? I know: Dickens used to go afloat!”

The other declared that Dickens did more than that: he would often go into the fishing-smack.

We immediately assumed that it was the fishing-smack of the old Yarmouth salt that was meant. We were wrong. It was another “Fishing Smack,” one of the quaint old taverns by the river still standing in Coldharbour.

Mr Peggotty of course was a character from David Copperfield  and it was not impossible  that Dickens could have met some of the old Yarmouth fisherman at this very spot.

Although the old tavern was rebuilt with a frontage onto Coldharbour in the  early 20th Century, it did not regain its glory days and was eventually demolished after the Second World War.

And that leaves us with a mystery for although Coldharbour  has escaped much of the recent developments of the Docklands, there has been modern developments.

However standing at Number 9 Coldharbour  is a line  of brown shiny bricks that seem strangely out of place with the well attended houses nearby.

This line of bricks is the last remains of the Fishing Smack tavern , but why is it still there ? A local writer recalls being told that the last owner of the pub sold the land but demanded that a small part of the old pub must remain.

Whether this is true or not, nearly 70 years later we still have a strange small reminder of the historic tavern.


The only remains of the Fishing Smack


Dickens and the Blackwall Whitebait Suppers


Blackwall 1840s ( National Maritime Museum)

In a previous couple of posts I have published excerpts from Charles Dickens Exploring Expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s.

It is time for another classic piece of Dickens in which our guide enters the world of Whitebait suppers, shipbuilding and a geriatric horse called Old Hob in Blackwall.

In the nineteenth century there developed a custom that  Cabinet Ministers attended an annual Whitebait Supper at Greenwich or Blackwall, at the height of its popularity in the first part of the nineteenth large numbers of people followed the tradition. To cater for these people a number of inns were built in Blackwall on the riverfront  The most popular were the King’s Arms, Coach and Horses, Britannia, Plough, Artichoke and the George. By  the 1880s the tradition had all but died out.

Unfortunately when the Blackwall tunnel was built, most of the Inns were pulled down and virtually nothing exists from the time Dickens wrote this piece.

Upward and upward we bend our steps until Blackwall begins to take the place of Millwall.

Strype says that Blackwall was so named ” because it is a wall of the. Thames, and distinguished by the additional term ‘black,’ from the black shrubs which grew on it” a theory which strikes us as being rather a sorry one.

However, to Blackwall we do at length come ; and here we find that the Plough, and the Artichoke, and the Brunswick taverns present a degree of smartness which eclipses the other Isle of Dogs’ taverns – they tell of whitebait dinners.

An embarrassing thought now presents itself. Why do Cabinet Ministers eat whitebait ? And why do they eat them at the close of the parliamentary session in a tavern at Blackwall or Greenwich ?

Whitebait, being fish, are cold-blooded animals ; but is there on this ground any analogy between them and Cabinet Ministers ? It is a phenomenon both ichthyological and topographical, this whitebait eating in the Isle of Dogs. Let us see whether Mr. Yarrell’s description of a whitebait will furnish any clue to this subject :

The whitebait, then, is a little fish, something like the young of the shad, varying from two to six inches in length. From the beginning of April to the end of September it is caught in the Thames, seldom higher than Woolwich or Blackwall, at flood-tide. The fishery is of rather a peculiar nature. The mouth of the net has about three square feet of area, with a very small mesh or bag-end. The boat is moored in the tide-way, where the water is from twenty to thirty feet deep, and the net with its wooden framework is fixed to the side of the boat. The tail of the hose, swimming loose, is from time to time handed into the boat, the end untied, and its contents shaken out. The wooden frame forming the mouth of the net does not dip more than four feet below the surface of the water. The further the fishermen go down towards the mouth of the river, the sooner they begin to catch whitebait after the flood-tide has commenced. When fishing as high as Woolwich, the tide must have flowed from three to four hours, and the water become sensibly brackish to the taste, before the whitebait make their appearance. They return down the river with the first of the ebb-tide ; and all attempts to preserve them in well boats, in pure fresh water, have failed.A few whitebait are caught near the Isle of Wight, and in the Firth of Forth ; but they are very little known except in the Thames.

So far, there is very little analogy or apparent connexion between a Cabinet Minister and a whitebait. We will therefore see whether M. Soyer’s account of the method of cooking this fish will elucidate the matter.

” This very delicate little fish,” says the great Gastronomic regenerator, ” is cooked in the most simple manner. Dry them in a couple of cloths, shake the cloths at the corner, but do not touch the fish with your hands ; then have ready an equal quantity of bread-crumbs and flour in a dish, throw the fish into it, toss them lightly over with the hands, take them out immediately, put them in a wire basket, and fry them in very hot lard. One minute will cook them ; turn them out on a cloth, sprinkle a little salt over them, dish them on a napkin, and serve them very hot.” The same authority tells us, that ” these lilliputian.fishes never can be had at home in the perfection you get them at Greenwich or Blackwall, where they are obtained as soon as caught, and dressed by persons in constant practice.” All very nice ; but what about the Cabinet Ministers ?  They (the whitebait, not the Ministers) are served up with cayenne and lemon-juice, and eaten with brown bread and butter ; the savoury morsel being washed down with iced punch. Still we do not see the connexion. And if we take the view topographical instead of the view ichthyological,we are not certain of enlightenment ; for we do not see how the vicinity of ship-yards, chemical-works, and iron-works, with a wafting of pungent odours when the wind doth blow, can improve the flavour of whitebait to a legislative stomach. There seems evidently to have been a rise of fashion in this matter ; for Pennant, after speaking of the whitebait fishery, says, that it ” occasions during the season a vast resort of the lower order of epicures to the taverns contiguous to the places where they are taken.” Lower order of epicures, indeed !

Hemmed in by the whitebait taverns, is Green’s ship-yard. A notable old place this ; more so, than any other private shipyard,perhaps, in this country. It is no small thing that, for a period of two hundred years, there has been little if any cessation in the making of foothooks and keelsons, bowsprits and sternposts, ribs and beams, decks and masts, in this identical spot ; and all for and by private owners. First, there was a Sir Henry Johnson, who, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, was owner of this yard, and who it seems to have been a great benefactor to the neighbouring village of Poplar. Then, throughout the reigns of Charles the Second, James the Second, and William and Mary, the shipyard maintained its importance, under the ownership, first of one Sir William Johnson, and then of another. Strype tells us about a horse which was owned by the elder Sir William, and which was evidently a knowing old blade. The horse, we are told,was ” wrought there thirty-four years, driven by one man ; and he grew to that experience,that at the first sound of the bell for the men in the yard to leave off I work, he also would cease labouring, and could not by any means be brought to give one pull after it ;and when the bell rang to work, he would as readily come forth again to his labour, which was to draw planks and pieces of timber from one part of the yard to another.” Honour to the tough old horse, who insisted on the proposition, that ” property has its duties as well as its rights.” Old Hob was his name ; and there was formerly a public-house in the neighbourhood which derived its sign from this name nay, not merely was, but is, in Brunswick Street, near the entrance to the yard. Old Hob’s master, and the next Sir William, are said to have built no less than fifteen men-of-war for the Government before the time of Queen Anne. The second Sir William’s daughter married the Earl of Strafford ; and then occurs a blank in the annals of the yard and its industry until a period about a century ago, when Mr. Perry became the owner. In the family of the Perrys the property remained for half a century, during which many vessels of war were built there for the Government.

Mr. Perry built within his estate the Brunswick Dock, the first dock (we believe) which London could boast. Here he had water space for thirty large ships and double that number of smaller ones, cranes for landing guns and heavy stores, conveniences for the shipment of cavalry, warehouses for whalebone and blubber from whale-ships, coppers for boiling down the blubber, a mast-house to aid in masting ships the same venerable black old ugly building which is still a wonderment to those who view Blackwall from a distance.


Mast House Blackwall (National Maritime Museum)

But at the beginning of the present century the merchants became dock mad ; they built docks, as thickly as we now build railways ; and Mr. Perry’s Brunswick Dock was bought up for, and enclosed by, and incorporated with,the East India Docks. The shipyard, however,remained private property ; and during the long war the stocks and slips were constantly occupied by war-ships being built for the Government, as well as by East India ships and other merchant ships of large size ; for this yard never, until late years, had an equal in importance in any other part of the kingdom. It is among the records of the yard that no less than ten ships of war were launched here during the single year 1813.

In the years of comparative peace which have since followed, the names of Wigram and of Green have been associated with the construction of a vast number of fine vessels. It is only by a little stretch of geography that the Isle of Dogs can be said to contain this Brunswick shipyard ; but, even if it were for the sake of old Hob that true-born British horse we will entice the yard into our island.

At and around the point which may be deemed the eastern “vanishing-point” of the Isle of Dogs, is that strange congeries of buildings, in which the Blackwall railway, the Brunswick pier, the East India Dock, and Green’s ship-yard, all meet in brotherhood.

How the railway ferrets out a path for itself is a marvel. You are conscious that it is near at hand, for the locomotive-whistle betrays it ; but if you look at this point, there is the lofty wall of the Docks ; if at that, there is a road leading to one of the whitebait taverns ;if at the other, there is one of Mr. Green’s ships poking its nose over the wall. There is, in fact, a struggle for place, but a struggle in which the railway wins, as it generally does uow-a-days. The metropolis here comes to its last legs ; here is the end of all things .the ” ultima Thule ” is reached. Here, is the tavern which forms the final stopping-place of the Blackwall omnibuses, after having worked their long and weary way from Knightsbridge.

Here, or hereabouts, are the last ship-yards on the north bank of the Thames. Here, is the last of our docks until the new Victoria Docks in the Essex marshes are formed.

Here, is the last station of the Blackwall railway. Here, is the last struggle of Middlesex for existence : Bow Creek being the only barrier between it and Essex. Here, is the last bend and quirk of the river Lea, before it adds its humble driblet of water to the Thames. And here, is the last and final limit to the metropolis, beyond which, for some miles, we have little else than low-lying swampy ground. Taken altogether, a curious little nook this, lying just outside the Isle of Dogs proper, but connected with it by many ties of relationship.

Other Posts you may be interested in

Dickens visits Terra Incognito

Dickens and the Isle of Dogs – Where did the name come from ?

Dickens and the Isle of Dogs – where did the name come from ?


Just before Christmas I published a piece by Charles Dickens which described his exploring expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s, here is another excerpt  in which Dickens discusses an issue that is still debated today namely how did the Isle of Dogs get its name ?

But, now a grave difficulty stops our way. Why is the Isle of Dogs called the Isle of Dogs?

What have the dogs to do with it ? Was it formed originally by or for dogs, or is it going to the dogs ? There appear to be two different theories among antiquaries learned in these matters. One of them, in Strype’s Stow, is to the effect that the Isle of Dogs is ” a low marshy ground near Black-wall, so called, as is reported, for that a waterman carried a man into this marsh, and there murdered him. The man having a dog with him, he would not leave his master ;but hunger forced him many times to swim over the Thames to Greenwich ; which the waterman who plied at the bridge (probably a sort of pier or jetty) observing, followed the dog over, and by that means the murdered man was discovered. Soon after the dog swimming over to Greenwich, where there was a waterman seated, at him the dog snarled and would not be beat off; which the other waterman perceiving (and knowing of the murder) apprehended this strange water-man ; who confessed the fact, and was condemned and executed.”

A doleful theory this, and not so pleasant to think upon as that propounded by Dr. Woodward, who tells us that ” the fertile soil of the marsh, usually known as the Isle of Dogs, was so called because when our former princes made Greenwich their country seat, and used it for hunting, the kennels for their dogs were kept on this marsh ; which usually making a great noise, the seamen and others there upon called the place the Isle of Dogs.” The hunting theory being more pleasant than the murder theory, and both resting (for aught we see) on equally trustworthy evidence, we will adopt the former.