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West India Docks : An Ever-changing Pageant by J. R. P. Taylor (1928)

London, West India Dock (Import), 1837. Engraved by FW Topham after a picture by R Garland.

Visiting the Warehouse 1 exhibition at the Museum of Docklands gave me the impetus to write something about the West India Docks. Fortunately I came across the following article which was written by J. R. P. Taylor in the P.L.A Monthly in 1928. The  P.L.A Monthly often carried interesting articles about the river and the docks and this one mentions the filling in of the Limehouse Basin in 1928 and the writers memories of the great days of sail in the docks in the late 19th century.


The Limehouse Basin was two-acre basin that was at the west end of the West India Docks, It was built slightly later than the Import Dock and Blackwall Basin and was not completed until 1803. When the Limehouse entrance lock closed in 1894 the basin was little used. The Limehouse Basin was filled in 1927–8, to increase storage space, it was filled in using material from the excavations for the Millwall Passage.


West India Docks: View eastwards across the Limehouse entrance basin in March, 1928. The process of filling the dock with rubble has begun.Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)

Smugglers’ “Black Ditch”

During the past century and a quarter, the area containing the East and West India Docks has been the scene of industry’s ever-changing pageant (writes J. R. P. Taylor In the “P.L.A Monthly,” the magazine of the Port of London Authority). Old works, like old men, must sooner. or later be replaced, so let the first picture be of Limehouse Basin, soon to be no more, as the one and a quarter acres of water space are now being filled in with the material from tho new cuttings in various parts of this dock system. The old basin, however, and its solid oak bollards with deep ropeworn chines is just as it was originally constructed and it is clear that the West Indiaman of, say, 1820, was quite a pigmy compared with her successors, such as, for example, the S.S Inanda.


West India Docks: Filling the old Limehouse entrance basin with rubble, March, 1928. Note the old crane still in position on the quayside. Photo by A. G Linney (Museum of London)

These vessels used to enter to the accompaniment of good old shanties and lay by waiting for a berth, while the tars, whose lusty voices matched their physique, soon clambered to shore with their sea chests and dirty bags containing the essentials, of their calling, such as palm and needles, fid, grease cup, and such-like. True to tradition, these children of the sea would hug the shore, and when Poplar and Llmehouse had absorbed their money would very soon be outward bound again.

Prior, to the building of the West India Docks (and, indeed, for forty years thereafter) smugglers used the “Black Ditch” at night to run their goods. This stream, now filled in, gave access to the river and ran past where the London Salvage Corps station now stands, and was really, only a cess drain serving the cottages reached via Dingle Lane and the houses along Poplar High Street. One of the commodities that city merchants used to journey down to purchase cheap was Irish linen.

Protruding from the walls of Nos. 1 and 11 warehouses are still to be seen thick Iron rings, which were used during the sixties and seventies, when the Fiery Cross and other famous China tea clippers brought their valuable cargoes, and throughout the season the intervening space, now known as “The Square,” was roofed with canvas.


West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1885

Two long masts were guyed to these rings, and then a huge marquee was run up, and the unlucky servants of the company were then “In for It,” as they were required to be at the scales at six in the morning and work until eight at night, when those whose homes were at a considerable distance were allowed to sleep in the “Dead House,” a building situated near Limehouse Basin, and used then, as now as a mortuary for the bodies recovered from the Dock.

Old customs seem to die harder here than elsewhere, and many strange characters have been produced who would doubtless have been immortalised by Dickens had he been their contemporary. Not so long ago It was the custom of all warehouse keepers and first-class clerks to wear top hats and long-tailed coats. The latter practice survives, although it only needs the fingers of one hand to count the devotees, For the “snuffers,” however, both hands are needed, but, on account of their age, a few years must see their eclipse, and their boxes will be relegated to the class of curios. I have one which was handed down from father to son, and In turn to his son, a lately deceased first-class clerk.

1880 nmm

West India Dock ( New South Dock) National Maritime Museum 1880

Up to tho advent of the Boer war, the decks of windjammers provided during lunch time an admirable parade for the dock staff, whilst messenger-boys, undeterred by Jacob’s ladder, climbed the rigging and sunned themselves, lying flat on the yards.

The opportunities of seeing these survivors of the glorious days of sail are getting rarer each year, but it is a consolation to record that as long as they last one can count on seeing an occasional representative in the East and South-West India Docks, for it is here that they discharge and stack, mountain high, cargoes of cut box timber. One very interesting arrival during August last was the Loch Linnhe, formerly of the Australian wool fleet and her log showed that it had taken her 25 days to struggle and ghost over from Sweden, owing to the lack of fair wind, and during the whole time no rain was met. Her usual time is about nine or ten days compared with a steamer’s six days.

Remarkably, sailing ships still occasionally frequent West India Dock, which gives us some insight of how the dock would have looked in its glory days with row after row of sailing ships.

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.

Dickens visit to Terra Incognito


Picture from Greenwich Maritime Museum

We cannot enter into the christmas period without a contribution by Charles Dickens, however we will forego his more popular works and concentrate on his exploring expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s. Although there may be an element of tongue in cheek , Dickens is probably correct that many people would be more familiar with the continent than Terra Incognito.

We have a theory that, if among the metropolitans resident westward of Temple Bar, all those who have travelled to the Rhine were collected into one group, and all those who have explored the Isle of Dogs were to form another, we have a theory, we say, that the former group would constitutethe larger of the two. For this mythical Isle has very much the character of a terra incognita. There is a vague supposition that it lies somewhere opposite Greenwich; but, even whether it be an island, is not by any means well known. If from the top of Observatory Hill we have a penny peep through a pensioner’s telescope, and direct it towards a greenish-looking spot on the Middlesex shore,we may learn that this is the Isle of Dogs ; but neither dogs nor men are to be seen there, and we wonder how on earth such an uninhabited island came to be pitched down between busy Blackwall and busy Limehouse. On further examination we find it to be a low, level, marshy field, fringed with factories and taverns, and inhabited by a few cows. There may possibly be half a dozen trees on this island of “the blessed.” but we will not positively assert it as a fact. Nevertheless, as Robinson Crusoe’s island was found on examination to contain objects of some interest to  that admirable explorer, so, we hope, will the Isle of Dogs be found not altogether a desolate and profitless island.

 The reader has, of course, been in Waterman number twelve, and has probably heard orders given to ease her (the Waterman), and stop her (the Waterman), and put her (the Waterman) a-starn, at Limehouse pier. He is then on the western confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be returning from a review at Woolwich, in the Dryad, and may be listening to the same mysterious instruction concerning easing her, and stopping her, and putting her a-starn, at Blackwall. He is then on the eastern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Or, he may be travelling over the chimney-pots from Fenchurch Street” to Blackwall, and may have a magnificent view of the sugar-warehouses belonging to the West India Docks. He is then a little beyond the northern or land-ward margin of the Isle of Dogs. Or, lastly, he may cross the river by the ferry for Greenwich, to take that smallest of all metropolitan omnibusesfrom Millwall to Limehouse. He is then (at the Millwall Ferry House) on the southern confines of the Isle of Dogs. Thus have we, on the true principles of a geographical Primer, marked out the limits and boundary of the Isle of Dogs, as determined by the four cardinal points.