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‘Peter Possum’ visits the Isle of Dogs in 1867

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The Docks night scene. Gustave Dore 1872

In 1860’s  a British born writer Richard Rowe (Peter Possum) who had made his name writing for Australian newspapers and journals returned to Britain and began to write articles which were then sent back to Australia.  Previously I published his impressions of the Thames Tunnel, in this article for the Argosy magazine he turns his attentions on the Isle of Dogs.

But when I wandered through the docks, I had still time upon my hands. A sudden thought struck me – I would explore the Isle of Dogs. The name is a household word to all Cockneys – they have heard it played upon scores of times in punning pantomimes; but how many of them know anything of its local habitation beyond the glimpse that may be got of its fringe from a Gravesend or Margate boat? No one, except on occasion of a great ship-launch, would think of going to the Isle of Dogs for pleasure, and great ship-launches unfortunately do not take place there now.

The artisans who used to swarm to it for business from Poplar and East Greenwich frequent it now in sadly diminished floods. At its busiest time it was a terra incognita to the vast majority of Londoners; now it possesses in addition the painful interest of being comparatively deserted by its  flourishing denizens. I set out for a walk round it, although within earshot of  railway whistles and almost within eyeshot of St. Paul’s, with a prose-dashed feeling of the poetry that must affect a visitant of ruined cities buried in American forests.
On the right rose the dead wall of the West India Docks, with little black hut showing at regular intervals above, furnished with pulley-wheels, as if inhabited by marsh-hermits who so hauled up their supplies. I crossed white drawbridges ridged with high metal flanges to keep crossing waggons in the middle. On the left rolled the almost vacant reach of river; on the right masts rose above brick walls, looking as land-sprung as park-trees; and vessels and timber floated in lanky artificial lochs. I passed “Lloyd’s Proving Range,” a long lofty gallery of rusty corrugated iron, bristled with scolloped pinnacles; and paced the deserted streets of Cubitt Town.

I once heard a humorous Kentish rustic describing a part of Maidstone as a locality which the Creator had “made o’Saturday night, and so he left it unfinished.” I was forcibly reminded of that somewhat bold description whilst wandering through Cubitt Town. The houses are of the normal squat, flimsy, featureless class which finds favour with the “cheap builders” of London; but suddenly every pretence at pavement vanishes, the post of the “doctor’s” red lamp at the corner stands lonely as Eddystone lighthouse, and the street runs into marsh, on which horses, with burs in their manes, are fattening themselves for the knacker’s yard, mud-streaked little pigs are squeakingly complaining of the bites which stray mangy dogs persist in taking at their by no means too plumps behinds, and patriachally-bearded Billygoats, big-uddered Nannygoats, and frisky kids are nosing and vaulting amidst shards of yellow pottery.

In the distance tower truncated pyramids of red and yellow brick, with grey haze wreathing over them. Nearer at hand are wastes of hummocked land, laked with pools of stagnant, scummily-irised water, which the bigger small boys of the place have converted into artillery ranges; more diminutive brethren being the whimpering targets for their hot fire of oyster shells.gustave-dore-1872

Dockland – Gustave Dore 1872

The grey-stone church, the red and yellow brick schools, are almost the only wholesome-looking building in the town. Most of the houses look like decaying mushrooms. There is an appalling proportion both of private dwellings and of shops “To Let;” the lower windows of the former being roughly boarded up to exclude gratuitous tenants. Public-houses are plentiful, but the dinginess which previous thronging custom has brought upon them stands out with dismal prominence in their present desolation. Workmen who can get no work, unshorn and clad in dirty duck and greasy corduroy, lounge about in knots of three and four, drearily moping, still more drearily joking at to the probabilities of the passing stranger’s standing an eleemosynary pint. The puff of a steam-engine, the rattle of a hammer, are sounds as rare as welcome. Again and again the road is fringed with a long range of workshops, through the starred holes of whose broken windows no bustle can be seen, no clank of tools, no hum of voices comes. Broad, white-lettered black boards above their portals announce “These Desirable Premises to be Sold or Let on lease.”
Between two such establishments a narrow street runs down to a deserted pier. The green grass is fast covering the black clinkers with which it is paved. At the bottom a glimpse may be got of a deserted shipyard. It is a forest of bare poles. On the pebbly “hard” into which it slopes lies a dismasted black barge – her cracked, sprawling sideboard looking like the broken fin of a dead, stranded whale. That may be taken as the type of the shipyards of the Isle of Dogs at present. I saw only two vessels shored up for repairs; abnormal quiet reigns even in the ship-breaker’s yard, littered with sea-greened copper, fractured spars, sun-blistered planks, and noseless, armless figure-heads. Other trades, however, seem still to thrive in the Isle of Dogs and perfume its atmosphere with a strange medley of malodour. Were it not for the penetrating scent of abundant tar, the nose would collapse under the infliction of the horribly mingled stinks of rancid grease, bilge-water, and mysteriously anonymous “chemicals.” “Family Night Lights” have a great factory all to themselves in Millwall. As you follow the river’s curve, you pass all kinds of works – some of them so big that their buildings have to be linked on to one another with rhubarb-coloured bridges running above the roadway. Boeotian fatness broods in the air around this oil mill. The steam corn mill next to it is furred with flour in streaks like rain-furrowed whitewash. Above this wall peeps a chaos of blighted-pumpkin-like boilers and pipes carefully wrapping in filthy, shaggy swathing. Through the wall runs a hose, swelling like an angry snake as the stream which the turncock in mufti has just supplied from the plug outside rushes through it. Just inside that wall a lofty chimney-stalk springs up like a blasted Californian pine, seemingly quite cut off from the works to whose ill-humours it gives vent. The smoky, dumpy cones of a pottery come next, pitched higgledy-piggledy amongst ash-heaps, rain-pools, clay-piles and avalanches of smashed pipkins. The pottery cones are cracked, but they seem to be chuckling over the thought that if they tumble, they will not have so far to fall as their tall neighbours, some of which are also cracked, and others prophylactically hooped like barrels – a precaution which gives them the aspect of vastly-magnified bamboos. In the midst of the fuming chimney-stalks, rumbling wheels, and panting engines, is interposed the cool, quiet contrast of a stone-yard, with moist numbered blocks piled one upon another and arranged in avenues, like “Druidical remains.”
I have said that no one would dream of going to the Isle of Dogs for pleasure; but nevertheless, I found “villas” there; enclosed in smart palisades, skirted with grass-plats and fringed with little trees and shrubs. Apparently their builder soon repented of his enterprise, for one of the small number can only boast of a basement, and moulders a ready-made ruin above its shaggy lawn. Noble Greenwich Hospital opposite, backed by its wooded hill, looks pityingly across at the pretentious row that dares, perched on the margin of a marsh, to assume Cockney architectural airs in face of its time-mellowed domes and colonnades.
In spite of its frill of works, the Isle of Dogs still looks a marsh. Blind alleys between the works are blocked with river-wall: where little lanes open on the river, the island seems to have sprung a leak, and one expects the water to rush in. Mist hangs about the flat, creeping hither and thither like visible ague: the houses look as if they had caught cold through not changing their wet stockings. The one omnibus which has come to an irresolute stand-still in the miry main street of Millwall, “like one who hath been led astray,” seems to have wandered from some slug-haunted old yard in which superannuated “buses” are laid up in mildewed ordinary. The two policemen look equally blue-mouldy, and pine for the far-off beats in which more fortunate brethren behold cooks’ faces beaming like rising suns between area rails. The hobbydehoy roughs who loaf out amongst the puddles have something alligator-like in their moist lankiness. The cheap periodicals in the one or two little shops, which satisfy the island’s thirst for literature, appear damper than when they came fresh from the press a month ago. “Champagne Charley” and the “Three Jolly Dogs” droop along-side them in lugubriously limp coarse woodcuts, hydropathically cured of all their fastness. Jolly Dogs in the Isle of Dogs seem as much out of their element as Clown, Harlequin, and Pantaloon at a Methodist class-meeting.

The 1850s was a boom time for the Isle of Dogs, the building of Brunel’s Great Eastern and other shipbuilding  on  the Island had attracted workers from all over the United Kingdom. However by 1866 there was a financial crash that devastated the shipyards which caused great distress among thousands of workers. This distress continued unabated for the next three years putting considerable strain on local authorities and charities to provide relief. Although Peter Possum wrote whimsical pieces, the article does give some illustration of the state of the Island at the time.

The Hades Hotel – A Night in the Thames Tunnel 1860

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Thames Tunnel – William Tombleson (19th Century)

In a previous post I related the idea of the time that the Blackwall Tunnel was considered the 21st Wonder of the World, however when the Thames Tunnel open in 1843 it was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The excitement about the tunnel was well founded for it was the first tunnel  constructed successfully under a navigable river, and it was the first use of a tunnelling shield technology invented by Thomas Cochrane and Marc Isambard Brunel that would revolutionise Tunnel Building around the world.
However for all its technical brilliance, the tunnel was an economic disaster. The tunnel was created to enable the safe transfer of cargo from the north at Wapping to the south of the river at Rotherhithe.
However by the time the Tunnel opened in 1843, there was insufficient money to build the shafts to enable horse and carts to descend into the tunnel.
Therefore originally the Tunnel became primarily a tourist attraction where people paid a penny each to enter, gradually shops began to appear in the many arches and entertainments were laid on for the large number of people who walked through the tunnel.
It was estimated up to 1 million people used the tunnel in the first ten weeks.
However when the “Tunnel Mania” died down, the tunnel began to gain a more unsavoury reputation as a haunt for criminals and prostitutes.
In 1860 a British born writer Richard Rowe (Peter Possum) who had made his name writing for Australian newspapers and journals returned to Britain and began to write articles which were sent back to Australia. The following article illustrates another use for the tunnel, namely a night shelter especially in Winter. “Peter Possum” is kicked out of his lodgings in Deptford and is down to his last penny when he decides to get out of the freezing cold and descend into the “Hades Hotel”.

“With all my worldly wealth I did endow the sleepy janitor. The metal turnstile jerked with a jar upon its pivot ; one arm of its Maltese cross gave way before me, another propelled me smartly into the interior of the extinguisher-like building that caps the shaft. I stayed not to admire the seedy works of art -damp-stained and peeling from the plaster-which decorate the walls, but hastened down, down, down the swollen belfry tower, eager for the comfort of the crypt.

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Passengers were ascending the opposite staircases. I pitied their misfortune in having to issue into the bitter outside night, but their merry voices proved that they had homes to go to ; and then I pitied myself, with that unmixed compassion which even our Howards and Miss Nightingales, I think, reserve for personal distress.

Cramp had tied knots in my calves by the time I had reached the bottom of the well-when you are very, very tired, going down stairs is almost as wearisome as going up-but here, thank God, was my dormitory, and shaking the snow off me, as a dog shakes water, I prepared to make the best of my long bedroom. The right-hand roadway was blocked up with boards ; the other, it’s nearly circular strong arches growing less and less in the perspective, stretched on and on to a horizon of dim distance. A gas-jet in the centre of each arch of the dividing wall cast a bilious light upon the pavement and the opposite pie-crust coloured masonry. The stall-keepers had long since departed. Are they colliers’ relatives, I wonder, or “Puseyite penitents, those melancholy pale-faced women, who keep those ever gas lit stalls ? No music-drearier there, than ‘the sound of subterranean winds’, now echoed along the bald, vaulted corridor.

I thought it was quite deserted,…. when I carne upon a party of gesticulating Frenchmen, crowing over their English cicerone  to the genius of their illustrious compatriot, ‘ Sir Brunel.’ ‘ De Tunelle,’ they asserted with much emphasis, ‘ vos de von only leetle ting in veech Londres bate Paris, and dat had been made by a Frenchman.’
They passed on, and presently a clatter of clogs on the stairs behind me announced that my Lancashire friend was coming. His Evelyn-street potations had evidently taken a powerful effect upon him. Hideously did he howl as he staggered along like a collier-brig under press of sail ; hideously did the low roof reverberate his howl. I prudently gave him a wide berth. The poor little Frenchmen scattered like seething foam before him, when he floundered into their previously self-complacent throng.
Again there  was silence, broken only by the footsteps of rare driblets of passengers from either side. Longing, and yet not liking to lie down, until I should have the tunnel to myself, I patrolled its fatiguing length, quickening my foot-sore pace when I saw any one coming, in order to impress him with the belief that my passengership was no more permanent than his. I had done this three or four times, when I fancied that I had seen the face of a man who crossed me, at least once before. The look-half-shamedfaced, and half-I’m-as-good-as-youish-with which he returned my scrutinising glance, convinced me that I was right. He, like myself, was going to make a night of it in the Tunnel.

At first, I felt irate at having a witness of my poverty ; but remembering that he must be a sharer in it, I soon mastered the feeling, and determined to accost him as a brother in misfortune. His clothes, of a clerical cut, and faintly suggesting the clerical colour, but the slimy gleam of the poor man’s gloss, how different from the bloom of the rich man’s broadcloth  creating the fancy that he generally slept in gardens with snails crawling over him. His muddy stockings budded from his heelless boots. His face was witheredly red and nose was like a galled leaf in autumn ; his eye was watery wild; his forceless lips hung limp ; he smelt of gin.

It was almost unnecessary for him to tell me his history, which, however, with the easy, egotistic openness of his class, he did begin to tell me before I been five minutes in his company, as we snuggled beneath a piece of tarpaulin in one of the stall-recesses, jamming our shoulders together to increase our warmth, or rather  decrease the cold. He was a Cambridgeshire man, and had been a London curate. His love for liquor soon lost him his cure ; and then he had been a tutor and a bookseller’s buck; but his irregularities soon deprived him of these employments also, and now he was what is euphemistically called an ‘ occasional reporter for the press ‘ -that is, a penny-a-liner ; getting drunk when his “flimsey ” was accepted, roaming about roofless when his pocket was bare. He had just been carousing on the proceeds of an inquest, found, when he came to himself, that, strange to say, he had a penny left in the corner of his waistcoat, whither it had slipped through the tattered lining ; and being in Shadwell, had turned his steps to the Tunnel, an old sleeping-place of his he called it his Hades Hotel.

I had just fallen asleep, and was dreaming that I was a whale compelled to swallow one of those loathsome lures, when I was awakened by feet scurrying past my covert, I peeped out and saw a woman’s garments whisking from side to side to side as their owner rushed towards Wapping, whilst from the opposite direction came two pursuers, one with an open bull’s-eye in his hand, which shot out an expanding triangle of light, like arms extended to stop the quarry, should she double. The heavy boots of the policeman, and of a seafaring man with him, clumped echoing along the corridor, I taking care to keep well within my curtain as they went by me, and in a minute the fugitive was overtaken.

Then shrillest shrieks that had a most infernal sound down there and hysterical protestations that she had never so much as seen the fellow’s watch ; she didn’t believe the cowardly fellow had one, startled the stillness of the night ; and then she flings herself upon the ground, kicking and screaming like a passionate child, and swearing that they shall carry her then ; what time the policeman waits in ruthless stolid patience-a sort of Dutch Erinnys, until she shall be tired, finding that there is not much chance of this, he loses his patience, shakes her roughly, pulls her from the pavement, and, in a gruff voice, bids her hold her noise and come along, they’ve had enough of that there nonsense.

The trio repass me on their way to the Surrey side’ in company-the girl alternatively striving to propitiate the policeman by appeals to his gentlemanliness  and gallantry, and vowing that she will have her accuser’s heart out ; the sailor, now that he has recovered his property, desirous to release the sobbing and vindictive thief, but prevented from yielding to his cowardice or kindness by the constable, who sternly tells him that he’ll be no party to ” crumplymising a felony.”
“When next I wake, my clerical companion is gone, and workmen, with tool-baskets at their backs, and swinging little tin coffins of bread-and-butter over wind-mills of coffee, are passing from both sides to their doily toil, With teeth clinking like castanets, and the rheumatism gnawing with icy teeth at every bone, I creep from my kennel, saddest of sad dogs. The world is all before me where to choose, but where or whatever   i may choose, I feel I cannot get a breakfast. ” The Way Out, says the zinc-plate on the finger-rubbed Wapping shaft-door, with the pitiless imperativeness of a policeman’s “Move on ! ” The morning outside air gives me the spiteful, Miss Murdstone-like peck of a kiss which it always gives to those who meet it before they have washed. Broad-wheeled waggons are already crunching the nights snow into a viscous slush. Disconsolate indeed, I am standing at an open-air ” coffee” stall in the neighbourhood of the Docks, covetously sniffing its fumes of scalding decoction of chicory, when whom do I see but the rosy little mate of the vessel in which I sailed from Australia ! Something stronger than coffee puts life into me in the cabin of the good ship Burra Burra  and the loan that I obtain secures me “-at all events., for a week to come, from having to pass another night in the Tharnes Tunnel” .

The days of the “Hades Hotel” did not last for long because in 1865 the tunnel was converted for use to be part of  the underground railway system.

To find out more about the Thames Tunnel and events at the Brunel Museum based above the tunnel , go to the Brunel Museum website press here