H.M. Tomlinson.

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Garden City, New York
Garden City Publishing Co., Inc
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.






I. The Foreshore

It begins on the north side of the City, at Poverty Corner. It begins
imperceptibly, and very likely is no more than what a native knows is
there. It does not look like a foreshore. It looks like another of
the byways of the capital. There is nothing to distinguish it from the
rest of Fenchurch Street. You will not find it in the Directory, for
its name is only a familiar bearing used by seamen among themselves.
If a wayfarer came upon it from the west, he might stop to light a pipe
(as well there as anywhere) and pass on, guessing nothing of what it is
and of its memories. And why should he? London is built of such old
shadows; and while we are here casting our own there is not much time
to turn and question what they fall upon. Yet if some unreasonable
doubt, a suspicion that he was being watched, made a stranger hesitate
at that corner, he might begin to feel that London there was as
different from Bayswater and Clapham as though deep water intervened.
In a sense deep water does; and not only the sea, but legends of ships
that have gone, and of the men who knew them, and traditions of a
service older than anything Whitehall knows, though still as lively as
enterprise itself, and as recent as the ships which moved on today's
high water.

In a frame outside one of its shops hangs a photograph of a sailing
ship. The portrait is so large and the beauty of the subject so
evident that it might have been the cause of the stranger stopping
there to fill his pipe. Yet how could he know that to those groups of
men loitering about the name of that ship is as familiar as Suez or
Rio, even though they have never seen her? They know her as well as
they know their business. They know her house-flag - it is
indistinguishable in the picture - and her master, and it is possible
the oldest of them remembers the clippers of that fleet of which she
alone now carries the emblem; for this is not only another year, but
another era. But they do not look at her portrait. They spit into the
road, or stare across it, and rarely move from where they stand, except
to pace up and down as though keeping a watch. At one time, perhaps
thirty years ago, it was usual to see gold rings in their ears. It is
said that if you wanted a bunch of men to run a little river steamer,
with a freeboard of six inches, out to Delagoa Bay, you could engage
them all at this corner, or at the taverns just up the turning. The
suggestion of such a voyage, in such a ship, would turn us to look on
these men in wonder, for it is the way of all but the wise to expect
appearance to betray admirable qualities. These fellows, though, are
not significant, except that you might think of some of them that their
ease and indifference were assumed, and that, when trying not to look
so, they were very conscious of the haste and importance of this great
city into which that corner jutted far enough for them. They have just
landed, or they are about to sail again, and they might be standing on
the shore eyeing the town beyond, in which the luck of ships is cast by
strangers they never see, but who are inimical to them, and whose ways
are inscrutable.

If there are any inland shops which can hold one longer than the place
where that ship's portrait hangs, then I do not know them. That comes
from no more, of course, than the usual fault of an early impression.
That fault gives a mould to the mind, and our latest thoughts, which we
try to make reasonable, betray that accidental shape. It may be said
that I looked into this window while still soft. The consequence,
everybody knows, would be incurable in a boy who saw sextants for the
first time, compasses, patent logs, sounding-machines, signalling gear,
and the other secrets of navigators. And not only those things. There
was a section given to books, with classics like Stevens on _Stowage_,
and Norie's _Navigation_, volumes never seen west of Gracechurch
Street. The books were all for the eyes of sailors, and were sorted by
chance. _Knots and Splices_, _Typee_, _Know Your Own Ship_, the _South
Pacific Directory_, and _Castaway on the Auckland Islands_. There were
many of them, and they were in that fortuitous and attractive order.
The back of every volume had to be read, though the light was bad. On
one wall between the windows a specimen chart was framed. Maps are
good; but how much better are charts, especially when you cannot read
them except by guessing at their cryptic lettering! About the coast
line the fathom marks cluster thickly, and venture to sea in lines
which attenuate, or become sparse clusters, till the chart is blank,
being beyond soundings. At the capes are red dots, with arcs on the
seaward side to show at what distance mariners pick up the real lights
at night. Through such windows, boys with bills of lading and mates'
receipts in their pockets, being on errands to shipowners, look
outward, and only seem to look inward. Where are the confines of

Opposite Poverty Corner there is, or used to be, an archway into a
courtyard where in one old office the walls were hung with half-models
of sailing ships. I remember the name of one, the _Winefred_.
Deed-boxes stood on shelves, with the name of a ship on each. There
was a mahogany counter, an encrusted pewter inkstand, desks made secret
with high screens, and a silence that might have been the reproof to
intruders of a repute remembered in dignity behind the screens by those
who kept waiting so unimportant a visitor as a boy. On the counter was
a stand displaying sailing cards, announcing, among other events in
London River, "the fine ship _Blackadder_ for immediate dispatch,
having most of her cargo engaged, to Brisbane." And in those days,
just round the corner in Billiter Street, one of the East India
Company's warehouses survived, a sombre relic among the new limestone
and red granite offices, a massive archway in its centre leading, it
could be believed, to an enclosure of night left by the eighteenth
century, and forgotten. I never saw anybody go into it, or come out.
How could they? It was of another time and place. The familiar Tower,
the Guildhall that we knew nearly as well, the Cathedral which
certainly existed, for it could often be seen in the distance, and the
Abbey that was little more than something we had heard named, they were
but the scenery close to the buses. Yet London was more wonderful than
anything they could make it appear. About Fenchurch Street and
Leadenhall Street wagons could be seen going east, bearing bales and
cases, and the packages were port-marked for Sourabaya, Para, Ilo-Ilo,
and Santos - names like those. They had to be seen to be believed. You
could stand there, forced to think that the sun never did more than
make the floor of asphalted streets glow like polished brass, and that
the evening light was full of glittering motes and smelt of dust, and
that life worked itself out in cupboards made of glass and mahogany;
and suddenly you learned, while smelling the dust, that Acapulco was
more than a portent in a book and held only by an act of faith. Yet
that astonishing revelation, enough to make any youthful messenger
forget where he himself was bound, through turning to follow with his
eyes that acceptance by a carrier's cart of the verity of the fable, is
nowhere mentioned, I have found since, in any guide to London, though
you may learn how Cornhill got its name.

For though Londoners understand the Guildhall pigeons have as much
right to the place as the aldermen, they look upon the seabirds by
London Bridge as vagrant strangers. They do not know where their city
ends on the east side. Their River descends from Oxford in more than
one sense. It has little history worth mentioning below Westminster.
To the poets, the River becomes flat and songless where at Richmond the
sea's remote influence just moves it; and there they leave it. The
Thames goes down then to a wide grey vacuity, a featureless monotony
where men but toil, where life becomes silent in effort, and goes out
through fogs to nowhere in particular. But there is a hill-top at
Woolwich from which, better than from Richmond, our River, the
burden-bearer, the road which joins us to New York and Sydney, can be
seen for what it is, plainly related to a vaster world, with the ships
upon its bright path moving through the smoke and buildings of the
City. And surely some surmise of what our River is comes to a few of
that multitude who cross London Bridge every day? They favour the east
side of it, I have noticed, and they cannot always resist a pause to
stare overside to the Pool. Why do they? Ships are there, it is true,
but only insignificant traders, diminished by sombre cliffs up which
their cargo is hauled piece-meal to vanish instantly into mid-air
caverns; London absorbs all they have as morsels. Anyhow, it is the
business of ships. The people on the bridge watch another life below,
with its strange cries and mysterious movements. A leisurely wisp of
steam rises from a steamer's funnel. She is alive and breathing,
though motionless. The walls enclosing the Pool are spectral in a
winter light, and might be no more than the almost forgotten memory of
a dark past. Looking at them intently, to give them a name, the
wayfarer on the bridge could imagine they were maintained there only by
the frail effort of his will. Once they were, but now, in some moods,
they are merely remembered. Only the men busy on the deck of the ship
below are real. Through an arch beneath the feet a barge shoots out
noiselessly on the ebb, and staring down at its sudden apparition you
feel dizzily that it has the bridge in tow, and that all you people on
it are being drawn unresisting into that lower world of shades. You
release yourself from this spell with an effort, and look at the faces
of those who are beside you at the parapet. What are their thoughts?
Do they know? Have they also seen the ghosts? Have they felt stirring
a secret and forgotten desire, old memories, tales that were told?
They move away and go to their desks, or to their homes in the suburbs.
A vessel that has hauled into the fairway calls for the Tower Bridge
gates to be opened for her. She is going. We watch the eastern mists
take her from us. For we never are so passive and well-disciplined to
the things which compel us but rebellion comes at times - misgiving that
there is a world beyond the one we know, regret that we never ventured
and made no discovery, and that our time has been saved and not spent.
The gates to the outer world close again.

There, where that ship vanished, is the highway which brought those
unknown folk whose need created London out of reeds and mere. It is
our oldest road, and now has many bypaths. Near Poverty Corner is a
building which recently was dismissed with a brief, humorous reference
in a new guide to our City - a cobbled forecourt, tame pigeons, cabs, a
brick front topped by a clock-face: Fenchurch Street Station. Beyond
its dingy platforms, the metal track which contracts into the murk is
the road to China, though that is, perhaps, the last place you would
guess to be at the end of it. The train runs over a wilderness of
tiles, a grey plateau of bare slate and rock, its expanse cracked and
scored as though by a withering heat. Nothing grows there; nothing
could live there. Smoke still pours from it, as though it were
volcanic, from numberless vents. The region is without sap. Above its
expanse project superior fumaroles, their drifting vapours dissolving
great areas. When the track descends slightly, you see cavities in
that cliff which runs parallel with your track. The desert is actually
burrowed, and every hole in the plateau is a habitation. Something
does live there. That region of burnt and fissured rock is tunneled
and inhabited. The unlikely serrations and ridges with the smoke
moving over them are porous, and a fluid life ranges beneath unseen.
It is the beginning of Dockland. That the life is in upright beings,
each with independent volition and a soul; that it is not an amorphous
movement, flowing in bulk through buried pipes, incapable of the idea
of height, of rising, it is difficult to believe. It has not been
believed. If life, you protest, is really there, has any purpose which
is better than that of extending worm-like through the underground,
then why, at intervals, is there not an upheaval, a geyser-like burst,
a plain hint from a power usually pent, but liable to go skywards? But
that is for the desert to answer. As by mocking chance the desert
itself almost instantly shows what possibilities are hidden within it.
The train roars unexpectedly over a viaduct, and below is a deep hollow
filled with light, with a floor of water, and a surprise of ships. How
did that white schooner get into such an enclosure? Is freedom nearer
here than we thought?

The crust of roofs ends abruptly in a country which is a complexity of
gasometers, canals, railway junctions, between which cabbage fields in
long spokes radiate from the train and revolve. There is the grotesque
suggestion of many ships in the distance, for through gaps in a
nondescript horizon masts appear in a kaleidoscopic way. The journey
ends, usually in the rain, among iron sheds that are topped on the far
side by the rigging and smoke-stacks of great liners. There is no
doubt about it now. At the corner of one shed, sheltering from the
weather, is a group of brown men in coloured rags, first seen in the
gloom because of the whites of their eyes. What we remember of such a
day is that it was half of night, and the wind hummed in the cordage,
and swayed wildly the loose gear aloft. Towering hulls were ranged
down each side of a lagoon that ended in vacancy. The rigging and
funnels of the fleet were unrelated; those ships were phantom and
monstrous. They seemed on too great a scale to be within human
control. We felt diminished and a little fearful, as among the looming
urgencies of a dream. The forms were gigantic but vague, and they were
seen in a smother of the elements; and their sounds, deep and mournful,
were like the warnings of something alien, yet without form, which we
knew was adverse, but could not recall when awake again. We remember,
that day, a few watchers insecure on an exposed dockhead that projected
into a sullen dreariness of river and mud which could have been the
finish of the land. At the end of a creaking hawser was a steamer
canting as she backed to head downstream - now she was exposed to a
great adventure - the tide rapid and noisy on her plates, the reek from
her funnel sinking over the water. And from the dockhead, in the
fuddle of a rain-squall, we were waving a handkerchief, probably to the
wrong man, till the vessel went out where all was one - rain, river,
mud, and sky, and the future.

It is afterwards that so strange an ending to a brief journey from a
City station is seen to have had more in it than the time-table,
hurriedly scanned, gave away. Or it would be remembered as strange, if
the one who had to make that journey as much as thought of it again;
for perhaps to a stranger occupied with more important matters it was
passed as being quite relevant to the occasion, ordinary and rather
dismal, the usual boredom of a duty. Its strangeness depends, very
likely, as much on an idle and squandering mind as on the ships, the
River, and the gasometers. Yet suppose you first saw the River from
Blackwall Stairs, in the days when the windows of the _Artichoke
Tavern_, an ancient, weather-boarded house with benches outside, still
looked towards the ships coming in! And how if then, one evening, you
had seen a Blackwall liner haul out for the Antipodes while her crew
sang a chanty! It might put another light on the River, but a light, I
will admit, which others should not be expected to see, and if they
looked for it now might not discover, for it is possible that it has
vanished, like the old tavern. It is easy to persuade ourselves that a
matter is made plain by the light in which we prefer to see it, for it
is our light.

One day, I remember, a boy had to take a sheaf of documents to a vessel
loading in the London Dock. She was sailing that tide. It was a hot
July noon. It is unlucky to send a boy, who is marked by all the omens
for a City prisoner, to that dock, for it is one of the best of its
kind. He had not been there before. There was an astonishing vista,
once inside the gates, of sherry butts and port casks. On the
flagstones were pools of wine lees. There was an unforgettable smell.
It was of wine, spices, oakum, wool, and hides. The sun made it worse,
but the boy, I think, preferred it strong. After wandering along many
old quays, and through the openings of dark sheds that, on so sunny a
day, were stored with cool night and cubes and planks of gold, he found
his ship, the _Mulatto Girl_. She was for the Brazils. Now it is
clear that one even wiser in shipping affairs than a boy would have
expected to see a craft that was haughty and portentous when bound for
the Brazils, a ship that looked equal to making a coast of that kind.
There she was, her flush deck well below the quay wall. A ladder went
down to her, for she was no more than a schooner of a little over one
hundred tons. If that did not look like the beginning of one of those
voyages reputed to have ended with the Elizabethans, then I am trying
to convey a wrong impression. On the deck of the _Mulatto Girl_ was
her master, in shirt and trousers and a remarkable straw hat more like
a canopy, bending over to discharge some weighty words into the hatch.
He rose and looked up at the boy on the quay, showing then a taut black
beard and formidable eyes. With his hands on his hips, he surveyed for
a few seconds, without speaking, the messenger above. Then he talked
business, and more than legitimate business. "Do you want to come?" he
asked, and smiled. "Eh?" He stroked his beard. (The Brazils and all!
A ship like that!) "There's a berth for you. Come along, my son."
And observe what we may lose through that habit of ours of uncritical
obedience to duty; see what may leave us for ever in that fatal pause,
caused by the surprise of the challenge to our narrow experience and
knowledge, the pause in which we allow habit to overcome adventurous
instinct! I never heard again of the _Mulatto Girl_. I could not
expect to. Something, though, was gained that day. It cannot be
named. It is of no value. It is, you may have guessed, that very
light which it has been admitted may since have gone out.

Well, nobody who has ever surprised that light in Dockland will be
persuaded that it is not there still, and will remain. But what could
strangers see of it? The foreshore to them is the unending monotony of
grey streets, sometimes grim, often decayed, and always reticent and
sullen, that might never have seen the stars nor heard of good luck;
and the light would be, when closely looked at, merely a high gas
bracket on a dank wall in solitude, its glass broken, and the flame
within it fluttering to extinction like an imprisoned and crippled moth
trying to evade the squeeze of giant darkness and the wind. The narrow
and forbidding by-path under that glim, a path intermittent and
depending on the weight of the night which is trying to blot it out
altogether, goes to Wapping Old Stairs. Prince Rupert once went that
way. The ketch _Nonsuch_, Captain Zachary Gillam, was then lying just
off, about to make the voyage which established the Hudson's Bay

It is a path, like all those stairs and ways that go down to the River,
which began when human footsteps first outlined London with rough
tracks. It is a path by which the descendants of those primitives went
out of London, when projecting the original enterprise of their
forbears from Wapping to the Guinea Coast and Manitoba. Why should we
believe it is different today? The sea does not change, and seamen are
what they were if their ships are not those we admired many years ago
in the India Docks. It is impossible for those who know them to see
those moody streets of Dockland, indeterminate, for they follow the
River, which run from Tooley Street by the Hole-in-the-Wall to the
Deptford docks, and from Tower Hill along Wapping High Street to
Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs, as strangers would see them. What
could they be to strangers? Mud, taverns, pawnshops, neglected and
obscure churches, and houses that might know nothing but ill-fortune.

So they are; but those ways hold more than the visible shades. The
warehouses of that meandering chasm which is Wapping High Street are
like weathered and unequal cliffs. It is hard to believe sunlight ever
falls there. It could not get down. It is not easy to believe the
River is near. It seldom shows. You think at times you hear the
distant call of a ship. But what would that be? Something in the
mind. It happened long ago. You, too, are a ghost left by the
vanished past. There is a man above at a high loophole, the topmost
cave of a warehouse which you can see has been exposed to commerce and
the elements for ages; he pulls in a bale pendulous from the cable of a
derrick. Below him one of the horses of a van tosses its nose-bag.
There is no other movement. A carman leans against an iron post, and
cuts bread and cheese with a clasp-knife. It was curious to hear that
steamer call, but we knew what it was. It was from a ship that went
down, we have lately heard, in the War, and her spectre reminds us,
from a voyage which is over, of men we shall see no more. But the call
comes again just where the Stairs, like a shining wedge of day, hold
the black warehouses asunder, and give us the light of the River and a
release to the outer world. And there, moving swiftly across the
brightness, goes a steamer outward bound.

That was what we wanted to know. She confirms it, and her signal, to
whomever it was made, carries farther than she would guess. It is
understood. The past for some of us now is our only populous and
habitable world, invisible to others, but alive with whispers for us.
Yet the sea still moves daily along the old foreshore, and ships still
come and go, and do not, like us, run aground on what now is not there.

II. A Midnight Voyage

Our voyage was to begin at midnight from near Limehouse Hole. The hour
and the place have been less promising in the beginning of many a
strange adventure. Where the voyage would end could not be said,
except that it would be in Bugsby's Reach, and at some time or other.
It was now ten o'clock, getting towards sailing time, and the way to
the foreshore was unlighted and devious. Yet it was somewhere near.
This area of still and empty night railed off from the glare of the
Commercial Road would be Limehouse Church. It is foolish to suppose
you know the Tower Hamlets because you have seen them by day. They
change. They are like those uncanny folk of the fables. At night,
wonderfully, they become something else, take another form, which has
never been more than glimpsed, and another character, so fabulous and
secret that it will support the tales of the wildest romanticist, who
rightly feels that if such yarns were told of 'Frisco or Timbuctoo they
might get found out. Was this the church? Three Chinamen were
disputing by its gate. Perhaps they were in disagreement as to where
the church would be in daylight.

At a corner where the broad main channel of electric light ended, and
perplexity began, a policeman stood, and directed me into chaos.
"Anywhere," he explained, "anywhere down there will do." I saw a
narrow alley in the darkness, which had one gas lamp and many cobbled
stones. At the bottom of the lane were three iron posts. Beyond the
posts a bracket lamp showed a brick wall, and in the wall was an arch
so full of gloom that it seemed impassable, except to a steady draught
of cold air that might have been the midnight itself entering Limehouse
from its own place. At the far end of that opening in the wall was

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Online LibraryH.M. TomlinsonLondon River → online text (page 1 of 11)