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The ship Milverton in Stewart’s Dry Dock, Manchester Road, Isle of Dogs, ca. 1919 Photo (c) William Whiffin
Regular readers will know that I am always on the look out for stories related to the Isle of Dogs and recently came across a humorous short piece by W. Pett Ridge. William Pett Ridge was born at Chartham in Kent 1859, in the 1890s, he began to write humorous sketches for newspapers and magazines and became well known for his ability to write entertaining portraits of working class life. He went on to write a number of novels with Mord Em’ly published in 1898, the most successful. Pett Ridge’s great popularity as a novelist and writer was in the early part of the 20th century and it was at this time that he wrote The Little Brown Bus which involves a character that is familiar to all of us, namely the person who travels on public transport who will not shut up, in this case it is a sailor who meets a variety of characters on the little brown bus.
The Little Brown Bus by W. Pett Ridge (The Sailor’s Voyage to the Isle of Dogs)
East India Dock road is half inclined to put up its shutters, but reluctant to do this-albeit the hour is late-because foreign sailors, much more at sea here than when on the ocean, are still loafing on the edge of the pavement. The shops have everything a sea-going man may desire, from bars of hard yellow soap and fur caps and scarlet pocket handkerchiefs to chromos of smiling young women in hats of the early eighties; the job lots of literature tied up with a boot lace are calculated to satisfy nearly eve’ry taste. Outside the long red Asiatic Home and on its broad steps a few melancholy Chinamen stand, with queues carefully twisted up and pinned under their blue linen caps; this because the Limehouse boy has a weakness for pulling a pig-tail when he sees one, crying, “Shawp!” and running away. Chinamen up Millwall way are carrying round baskets of vegetables yoked over their shoulders. By the side of the tram terminus, and near the red eyed fire station stands the ‘bus. A little brown ‘bus, with yellow wheels, there for the convenience of those whom circumstances compel to go the Isle of Dogs.
Strangers’ Home in the West India Dock Road was also known as the Home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and Others. Date c.1901 ( National Maritime Museum)
THE ‘BUS FOR SINGAPORE
“Right for Singapore, cap’en?” “Jump in,” says the driver from the pavement, making one more attempt to light his pipe. “Change anywheres, cap’en?” “Yes,” replies the driver, curtly; “you’ll have to change a lot ‘fore you get on board your ship.”
“Not ,cross, are you, cap’en?”
“Look here, my lad,” says the driver goaded by this inquiry. “You get into that bloomin’ bus and take your seat and shut your head. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
“I’ve seen your face somewhere before,” says the peak-capped sailor.
“Any relation to old Frank Macey that used to live at Devonport ?”
Sulky reply in the negative. “Then ‘ave a cigar,” says the sailor genially. ” Put your pipe in your hat and have something to smoke. Lor’ bless my soul, I am glad to meet you. How’s the missus?”
Driver, accepting two pale brown cigars from the envelope offered, says that he never had a missus, and expresses a pious hope that, with the help of Providence and his own acuteness, he never may.
A BREEZY ‘BUS FARE
A piano organ starts one of Sousa’s marches, and the sailor, encouraged by the comparative friendliness of the driver, solicits the favor of his hand for a waltz; but the driver draws the line, and with the assistance of a strap cranes himself up into his seat, giving the sailor renewed advice to secure a place inside; which the sailor does, hailing the passengers with a seafaring salutation and lurching into the one vacant seat more by accident than design. The little brown ‘bus turns and goes across the tram lines.
“Well.” says the friendly sailor, “how are we all getting on this voy’ge?” Some of the passengers are sleepy and some are thoughtful; the sailor, closing one eye, selects a quiet, puss-headed Japanese. I’m very’ glad to hear,” he says, laying one hand on the other’s knee, “that me and old Solsbury managed that little affair all right. ‘We’re chums, ain’t we?”
The short Japanese sailor, with N.Y.K. on his collar, smiles and nods. Very well, then!” says the sailor with an injured air, “why not shake hands? Has anybody been telling you anything about me? Because if so–” The Japanese accepts the large hand. “That’s better!” remarks the sailor, restored to good temper. “Now, having gone so fur,
I should like to go a bit further and shake ‘ands with everybody – just to show there’s no ill-feeling.”
A SAILOR’S SONG.
The little ‘bus swerves round between the high walls that border the commencement of West Ferry road.
“There!” Now you can all say you’ve shook hands with a honest seafaring man.”
“I shan’t brag about it,” remarks a stout woman opposite.
“Oh mother! protests the sailor, tearfully. “Don’t be so harsh with your blue-eyed boy.”
‘Blue-eyed nuisance,” amends the stout woman.
“There’s a nice parent for you ! Bring up a mother in the way she should go, and when she grows old.
Anybody got any objection to my singing a song?”
“Yes,” says the other passengers with unanimity, “we have.”
“You ain’t so fond of me as you used to be,” remarks the sailor, regretfully: “Ever since that affair out at Valp’raiso you all seem different somehow. ‘Oh, thou ‘ast changed, my darling,’ ” sings the sailor; ” Thou smilst no more at me, Thou ‘ast no word of fond farewell, As I put out to-Way–ho!’ ”
The little ‘bus rattles across a wooden bridge separating the docks from the river; the passengers find coppers and hand up their pennies through a hole in the roof to the driver.
THE THIN LADY’S MOTTO
Some want change and this makes for conversation. One spare, melancholy woman who has been marketing with a shining black bag, the lock of which has long since refused to perform any of the duties of a lock, deplores the price of bread, and says with determination that she has really made up her mind if it goes much higher ,well (despairingly), she does not know what she shall do.
From which the conversation goes by a rapid stage to the difficulty that the thin lady has with her youngest boy, who has lately been going to theatres; the other beats this with a deplorable story of her Uncle John, who went in for religion.
“It all goes to show,” says this lady, as she pulls the strap and prepares to alight at Glengall road, “that it’s a mistake to go to either extreme; the ‘appy mejum’s my motto. Good night, all! Don’t be late in the morning.”
The Japanese also descends here to disappear in the meagrely-lighted streets, and on the talkative sailor who has been asleep, discovering this, he weeps, and declares that he has not a friend left in the world; that he is forsaken and alone; for two pins he would –
WANTED A WIFE
If only he had some one to love him! if only some, tidy, respectable woman, with a bit put by in the savings bank, would come to him and say, “Jim Allwright, give up seafaring life and settle down on shore and keep an eye on the shop and entertain your friends with a glass now and then,” why, then he would say, “Done with youz” and give the old ship the chuck without the least hesitation.
“I’m the most reasonable, good tempered man alive,” remarks the sailor contentedly. “Nothing ever upset me. I take everything as it comes. What you all getting out for?”
“Because,” explains one of the descending passengers politely, “because we can’t go any further. That’s why!”
“And a dashed good reason, too,” cries the sailor agreeably. “Goo’ ni’ everybody. Goblessye.”
The spare, thin old woman stands on the edge of the pavement watching him as he goes. The driver of the little brown ‘bus announces his intention of utilising the minutes of waiting before the return journey by going into the tavern in order to get the right time; the bystanders ignore the hint, and he goes alone.
“I used to have a son that was that way inclined,” says the thin woman, rather wistfully, “only, he was never funny with it.
London Graving Dock (photo Dr Bob Carr)
In a previous post I told the story of the London Graving Dock with the help of a writer who worked there in the 1950s. The writer David Carpenter sent me some of his memories of the area at the time and it is my pleasure to publish the first part of his reminisces . David’s memories remind us that the Docks were foremost a busy and sometimes a potentially dangerous place to work.
Memories of the Isle of Dogs by David Carpenter
Today, anyone who lived and worked in the vicinity of London’s Isle of Dogs during the middle of the last century would find it hard to recognise the area as it is today.
Gone are the fine ships and infrastructure that made the area such an interesting and exciting place to work. The magnificent Victorian architecture that survived the Second World War has virtually all disappeared. This has been replaced by futuristic looking glass fronted megaliths that are inhabited during normal working hours by the upwardly mobile office personnel who have no conception of how important the area was in the past. Fortunately the sugar warehouse stacks on West India Docks North Quay, designed by George Gwilt has been preserved and are now home to the Museum of Docklands. How different the skyline is today compared to the 1950’s when ships funnels and a network of dockside cranes dominated it.
Cutty Sark in Millwall Dry Dock 1951
I started my apprenticeship with The London Graving Dock Company in 1955. Their yard was adjacent to the Blackwall Basin, all that now remains of this premier ship repair firm is the remnants of the dry dock, now nothing more than an ornamental duck pond, bordered by unaffordable housing. I spent two years in the huge machine and fitting shop before going ‘outside’ to work on ships in the various dock systems on the Thames. I regularly worked on vessels berthed at Canary Wharf, the North and South Quays and Monkey Island which was the quay between South Quay and Canary Wharf.
During my time in the fitting shop, my lunch times were divided between the P.L.A. canteen, which was situated just inside the West India Dock on the east side of the entrance locks. Kate’s Café, known as Auntie Kate’s, which was adjacent to the West side of the locks and accessed via a ‘secret’ removable section of the dockside railings, and then there were ‘Harriet Lanes ‘, which was a pie stall almost opposite the entrance to the Graving Dock in Preston’s road that was named after a woman who fell into the machinery of a Chicago meat works.
Together with other apprentices I often visited Poplar Baths for a lunch time swim via a short cut on the north Quay and across the railway shunting yards that now accommodate the new Billingsgate Fish Market.
As apprentices we also had to attend Poplar College one day and one evening a week. On these occasions I used to have my meals in the Farinas Café just to the left of the Blackwall Tunnel entrance and opposite the entrance to the East India Dock. The food there was excellent , the steak and spaghetti bolognaise could not be bettered , it was always thought to be horse meat, probably illicitly obtained from the West India Dock where the huge carcasses were to be seen hanging in rows awaiting shipment. They were always dyed with a green substance to make sure they were not used for human consumption. We often wondered if it was this that gave the meat its unique flavour!
During my spell in the fitting shop I occasionally had to go up to ‘Davy’s ‘the ships chandlers at the top end of West India Dock Road for odd bits and pieces. This necessitated a walk through the huge open sided timber storage sheds, then across the swing bridge at the top of Blackwall Basin and up the North Quay to the main gate at the bottom of West India Dock Road.
Wood Wharf 1950s (photo Museum of London)
George the charge hand always used to say, “Watch your step and mind how you go “.
It was good advice! As it could prove very dangerous, after walking around Junction Dock (now filled in) I had to dodge through the timber sheds with the steam cranes swinging bulks of timber onto waiting lorries, then over the bridge to the north quay where there was usually four or five foreign registered tramp ships unloading a variety of cargoes, such as fish meal and animal hides.
After the sweet smelling timber sheds, the stench in this area was appalling, then further up the quay came the pungent aroma of molasses from the sugar warehouses.
Sugar at West India Docks North Quay 1961 (photo Museum of London)
Once out of the dock gates and past Charlie Brown’s pub, I had to negotiate through China Town with its rich and appetizing smells drifting out of the numerous restaurants and cafes. On top of this there was the continuous business like noise emanating from the whole area, the quick sharp sound of tugs whistles as they signalled to each other, then the shrill sound of the whistles from the hatch masters as they signalled to the crane drivers as to where they lowered their gear into the ships holds, added to this was the continuous rattle of the steam winches coming from nearby ships as they swung their derricks outboard discharging goods from all parts of the world into waiting lighters (barges ) destined for upriver warehouses. Then there was the sound of high pressure steam escaping from the safety valves high up on the ships funnels as their engineers worked to keep their boilers ‘on the blood’ endeavouring to keep the winch men satisfied. Mixed with this was the clatter of railway goods wagons as they were shunted around the sidings that covered the area between the North Quay and Poplar High Street.
To the ship enthusiast, Davy’s was an Aladdin’s cave of nautical treasure, immediately on entering you were hit by an intoxicating aroma of tar, hemp, and paint and a visual impact of polished brass. It was a truly magnificent establishment.
In the 1950’s I was a dedicated follower of fashion , I always had my suits made to measure in Phil Segals at 225 East India Dock Road, where Phil and his son, Stan tailored the finest suits in the East End and probably the whole of London. This stretch of the East India Dock Road was full of tailor’s shops, if you stopped to admire their window displays you would be immediately accosted by the proprietor with tape measure in hand, ready to measure you up and at the same time ushering you to his threshold in a condescending manner.
David Carpenter has published a humorous and informative account about the his time working in the London Graving Dock in the book ‘Dockland Apprentice’.
In his later book, Below The Waterline follows the Author through his experiences from the end of his apprenticeship in 1961 with The London Graving Dock Co. on the Isle of Dogs to his time in the Merchant Navy as an engineer.
Both books are available here
David has kindly offered a 10% discount if you mention Isle of Dogs Life.
Other posts you may find interesting
Perhaps one of the most popular books about the Thames is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, however It may be a surprise to many people to know that Jerome spent much of his childhood living in Poplar. His father had a business in Narrow Street in Limehouse and rented a house in Sussex Street (now Lindfield Street). Jerome was about four when he moved from the Midlands to live in Poplar. His initial memories were not particularly happy being targeted by the local children.
My recollections are confused and crowded of those early days in Poplar. As I grew older I was allowed to wander about the streets a good deal by myself. My mother was against it, but my father argued that it was better for me. I had got to learn to take care of myself.
I have come to know my London well. Grim poverty lurks close to its fine thoroughfares, and there are sad, sordid streets within its wealthiest quarters. But about the East End of London there is a menace, a haunting terror that is to be found nowhere else. The awful silence of its weary streets. The ashen faces, with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost. It was these surroundings in which I passed my childhood that gave to me, I suppose, my melancholy, brooding disposition. I can see the humorous side of things and enjoy the fun when it comes; but look where I will, there seems to me always more sadness than joy in life. Of all this, at the time, I was of course, unconscious. The only trouble of which I was aware was that of being persecuted by the street boys. There would go up a savage shout if, by ill luck, I happened to be sighted. It was not so much the blows as the jeers and taunts that I fled from, spurred by mad terror. My mother explained to me that it was because I was a gentleman. Partly that reconciled me to it; and with experience I learned ways of doubling round corners and outstripping my pursuers; and when they were not actually in sight I could forget them. It was a life much like a hare must lead. But somehow he gets used to it, and there must be fine moments for him when he has outwitted all his enemies, and sits looking round him from his hillock, panting but proud.
As he grew older he loved to walk around the area and often had many adventures which included a meeting with Charles Dickens in the nearby Victoria Park. This was one adventure when he was walking near the East India Docks that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
There was a strange house I came upon one afternoon, down by the river. It was quite countrified; but how I got there I could never recollect. There was an old inn covered with wisteria. A two-horse ‘bus, painted yellow, was drawn up outside. The horses were feeding out of a trough, and the driver and conductor were drinking tea—of all things in the world—on a bench with a long table in front of it. It was the quaintest old house. A card was in the fanlight, over the front door, announcing “Apartments to let.” I was so interested that I concocted a story about having been sent by my mother; and asked to see the rooms. Two little old ladies answered me. All the time they kept close side by side, and both talked together. We went downstairs to a long low room that was below the ground on the side of the road, but had three windows on the other, almost level with the river. A very old gentleman with a wooden leg and a face the colour of mahogany rose up and shook me warmly by the hand. The old ladies called him Captain. I remember the furniture. I did not know much about such things then, but every room was beautiful. They showed me the two they had to let. In the bedroom was a girl on her knees, sweeping the carpet. I was only about ten at the time, so I don’t think sex could have entered into it. She seemed to me the loveliest thing I had ever seen. One of the old ladies—they were wonderfully alike—bent down and kissed her; and the other one shook her head and whispered something. The girl bent down lower over her sweeping, so that her curls fell and hid her face. I thanked them, and told them I would tell my mother, and let them know.
I was so busy wondering that I never noticed where I walked. It may have been for a few minutes, or it may have been for half an hour, till at last I came to the East India Dock gates. I never found the place again, though I often tried. But the curious thing is, that all my life I have dreamed about it: the quiet green with its great chestnut tree; the yellow ‘bus, waiting for its passengers; the two little old ladies who both opened the door to me; and the kneeling girl, her falling curls hiding her face.
If Jerome’s first impression of the East End was not favourable as he got older her returned more and more to find inspiration for his stories especially Paul Kelver his autobiographical novel.
They say a man always returns to his first love. I never cared for the West End: well-fed, well-dressed, uninteresting. The East, with its narrow silent streets, where mystery lurks; its noisome thoroughfares, teeming with fierce varied life, became again my favourite haunt. I discovered “John Ingerfield’s” wharf near to Wapping Old Stairs, and hard by the dingy railed-in churchyard where he and Anne lie buried. But more often my wanderings would lead me to the little drab house off the Burdett Road, where “Paul Kelver” lived his childhood.