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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.