Victorian London - Districts - Isle of Dogs

ISLE OF DOGS. A low marshy tract on the left bank of the Thames, facing Deptford and Greenwich, encircled on its east, west and south side by a bend of the river, giving it the form of a peninsula, but converted into an island within the present century by the West India Dock Canal, which cuts across it from Limehouse to Blackwall. In 1830 it was nearly uninhabited; since that time it has been gradually assuming the aspect of a great colony of manufactures. Several large iron-ship-builders' yards, chemical works, &c., have been erected on it.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 3 - Social and Domestic Life - The Isle of Dogs

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THE books that under a variety of titles have been written on "London life" would, in point of number, form in themselves a respectable library. We have had works descriptive of London by day, London by night, London in ancient times, and London in modern times; of London in all its aspects of wealth and luxury, poverty and crime, of its noble charities and hideous profligacy, of London, in short, in all those many phases of life, action and passion, which, as the wealthiest and most densely-populated city in the world, it must present. But, notwithstanding all that has been written about it, the subject of London life is an ever fresh one, since, practically speaking, it is inexhaustible, for the chances and changes that must inevitably occur, and the life dramas that are being constantly enacted in "the city of extremes," will always afford matter for contemplation and remark to the observant mind.
    But however much may be written and read upon this subject, no one person will ever be able to thoroughly comprehend the infinitely varied modes of existence which go to make up that gigantic aggregate called London life. Strictly defined, the name London is applicable only to the City, but in point of fact, and in the general acceptation of the word, London is the generic name for all places embraced within the postal district of London and twelve miles round, and in that area are localities which, save by name, and by [-250-] their immediate inhabitants, the policeman on the beat, and a few individuals of an exploring turn of mind, are as little known as the interior of Africa. An interesting volume might be written on the manners and customs appertaining to these localities, and added to the already extensive literature of London life. These localities are chiefly those which may he called the manufacturing districts of London-districts which are to manufacturing industry what Paternoster Row and Fleet Street are to the bookselling trade-districts in which are made many of the articles which are taken to the remotest parts of the civilized world, and which we daily see and use, without thinking that the ingenuity and labour employed upon them have materially assisted in making England great among the nations of the earth. As there are no public buildings or places of holiday resort in these districts, they offer no attractions to the general or pleasure-seeking visitor, and owing to the absence from them of any portion of that "high life" accessible only to "the upper ranks of society," and those interesting phases of low life, which can only be safely studied under the guidance of a police inspector, they afford very little opportunity for "smart" or sensational writing, and hence they remain comparatively unknown.
    One of the most interesting, and in many respects representative of these little known districts, is the Isle of Dogs. "The island," as it is familiarly called - although properly speaking it is a peninsula - is not very pleasant in its physical features. It is situated about six miles below London Bridge, and lies considerably lower than the level of the river, which is only prevented from overflowing it by strong embankments. As owing to its exceedingly low level [-251-] it cannot he efficiently drained, it is very marshy; broad ditches of filthy water running on each side of its main road. To a casual observer it would appear that a visit to the island could only be interesting to persons who wished to study a peculiar style of dwelling- house architecture, the effect of which is that a dissolution of partnership takes place between the woodwork and brickwork of the lower stories before the upper ones are built; or to antiquarians desirous of seeing what the roads of England were like before Macadam was born or commissioners of paving created. And while its slushy, ill-formed roads, its tumble-down buildings, stagnant ditches, and tracts of marshy, rubbish-filled waste ground make the outward appearance of the island unpleasant to the sight, chemical works, tar manufactories, and similar establishments render its atmosphere equally unpleasant to the olfactory sense. Nevertheless, there is much that is interesting in the Isle of Dogs. I have somewhere seen this district described as the Birmingham of London; but I think that the "Manchester of London would convey a much more accurate idea of the kind of place the Isle of Dogs really is.
    The mere mention of Birmingham in connexion with manufacturing art conjures up visions of imitation jewellery and small ware goods made expressly to sell their purchasers - of gimcrack goods manufactured in the cellars and attics of private houses by "the piece," of glass beads, idols, and harmless rifles for the African market - in short, visions of all that is most glittering and least real in that class of manufactured goods known under the comprehensive head of hardware. But in the Isle of Dogs, as in Manchester, the articles manufactured are large, important, and of an eminently utilitarian character. On "the island" is centred the iron ship-[-252-]building and marine engineering of the Thames. There are more than a dozen ship and marine engine building establishments upon it, amongst them being the gigantic one in which the operations of the Millwall Iron Works Company are carried on, and in which the Great Eastern, the large Government armour-plated ram Northumberland, and many other of the largest merchantmen and vessels of war afloat have been built. Here, too, a great portion of the armour-plate with which our own and foreign nations are encasing their ships of war, and with which the coast defences and other fortifications of Russia are being strengthened, is manufactured. The works of this company alone employ on an average 4000 men and boys, and the other ship and marine engine works on the island employ from 2000 to 100 men each. It would be within the mark to say that the shipbuilding and marine engineering of the Isle of Dogs gives employment to 15,000 men and boys; and, in addition to these shipbuilding establishments, there are on the island tar, white-lead, chemical, candle, and numerous other factories, which afford employment to a large number of men. There are two townships on the island-namely, Cubitt Town and Millwall, and it is in the latter place that a major portion of the manufactories of the island are situated; and Millwall is the place usually indicated when "the island" is spoken of by the inhabitants of the locality.
    Any person having a practical acquaintance with the construction of iron ships would naturally expect to find a sprinkling of Scotchmen among the inhabitants of the island; for the mechanics who learn their trade in the shipbuilding establishments of the Clyde are among the most proficient workmen in "the trade," and the wages paid to this class [-253-] of mechanics being as a rule considerably higher in England than in Scotland, it follows as a natural consequence that many Scotch mechanics come to London. The expectation to meet with the Scottish element in the Isle of Dogs is more than realized, for one of the first things that strikes the visitor is the preponderance of this element, as manifested by the prevalence of the Scottish dialect and Christian names. "Do ye no ken sting'n the wee boy, ye ill-faur'd limmer, ye?" were the first words that greeted my ears on landing on the island on the occasion of my first visit to it, the exclamation having been uttered by a pretty little Scotch lassie about eight or nine years of age, who was in pursuit of a wasp under the impression that it was the same one that had on the previous day stung a "wee boy" whom she had been nursing. As I journeyed into the interior of the island the striking, distinctly-marked Scotch accent and phraseology continued to strike on my ear at almost every step; for owing to the sharp ringing noise caused by the riveting hammers which are at work in all parts of the island for many hours in the day, the inhabitants acquire a habit of speaking very loud when in the streets. And thus the broadly-accented "How are ye?" and the "Brawly, how are ye?" which the gude wives exchange when they meet, and the invitations to come awa' in (to a public-house) and have "twa penny-worth," or "a wee drap dram," reach my ears. During meal hours, and the early part of the evening, when the workmen are passing through the streets, the ascendancy of the Scottish tongue is still more apparent, and Sandy, Pate, and Andrew are the names that are most frequently exchanged as the men from the various workshops salute each other while passing to and from their work. At these times a good deal of chaffing goes on [-254-] among the workmen, and in this species of encounter, the dry humorous Scotchmen have very much the best of it. But as the burly Lancashire men on whom the Northern wit is chiefly exercised, are as good- tempered as they are big, and the dapper, sprightly Cockneys who occasionally join in the encounter are unable to realize the idea that they are getting the worst of a contest of wit with countrymen, the unpleasant consequences to which chaffing often leads are obviated here.
    Of course, in a locality so favoured by Scotland's children, there is a kirk, and a very comfortable little kirk it is, and equally of course the patriotism of the "whisky" drinkers is appealed to by such public-house signs as "The Burns" and "The Highland Mary;" and it must be confessed that on the island the public-houses are a much greater success than the kirk. 
    Life in the Isle of Dogs commences at a very early hour, and that "horrid example" in sluggards who always wanted a little more sleep, would have had great difficulty in obtaining it after five o'clock in the morning, had it been his fate to live on the Isle of Dogs. At that hour a sound of hurrying to and fro begins, heavily nailed shoes patter over the pavement, windows are thrown up, and shouts of " Can you tell us what time it is, mate?" or "Do you ken what time it is, laddie?" are answered by other shouts conveying the required information; while knockers are plied by those who are "giving a mate a call" with extraordinary energy and persistence. By a quarter-past five the sound of footsteps has increased until it resembles the marching of an army, and from that time till ten minutes to six it continues unabated. It then rapidly decreases and becomes irregular. At [-255-] five minutes to six the workshop bells ring out their summons, and then those operatives who are still on the road change their walk into a run. In the midst of all this bustle rise shrill cries of "Hot coffee a ha'penny a cup," "Baked taters, all hot," and "Cough no more, gentlemen, cough no more," this latter being the trade cry of the vendors of "medicated lozenges." Before the hubbub raised by "the gathering of the clans" of workmen has fairly subsided, the sharp ringing of the riveting hammers, and the heavy throbbing sound of working machinery commences; and by half-past six life on the island is in full swing. At half-past eight the workmen come out to breakfast; and at that time the gates of the various large workshops are surrounded by male and female vendors of herrings, watercress, shrimps, or whatever other breakfast "relishes" are in season. The instant the breakfast bells ring the workmen rush out through the workshop gates, some hastening to their homes, and others into the numerous coffee-shops in the immediate neighbourhood of the yards. A good breakfast of coffee, bread and butter, and an egg, can be got here for fourpence-halfpenny. Forty minutes are allowed for the discussion of the morning meal. During dinner hour, which is from one till two, and from half-past five till half-past six in the evening (in the workshops that are closed at one on Saturdays the men work till six in the evening on the other five working days of the week, in those where they work till four on Saturdays they leave off work on other days at half-past five), the streets of the island are again alive with the crowds of hurrying workmen. But during working hours the streets are comparatively deserted, save by children, and the numerical force of the juvenile [-256-] section of the inhabitants of the island does great credit to the papas and mammas, for though the island is generally considered a very unhealthy place, the children as a rule appear to be robust.
    There is no place of amusement on the island, but in the winter months popular lectures are delivered in the dining-hall attached to the establishment of the Millwall Iron Works Company, and these lectures are generally pretty well attended. As the islanders are, almost to a man, admirers of muscular Christianity, much of their leisure time during the summer months is occupied in practising or promoting boat -racing, foot-racing, and other athletic sports. Their muscular sympathies extend also to pugilism, for an appeal to "honour the brave" - that is, to take a ticket for the benefit of Dan Bosher, the Metropolitan Crusher; Bill Burker, the Birmingham Buster; or some other idle ruffian - generally meets with a liberal response from the islanders. There is a public reading-room on the island, but it is scarcely so well attended as might be expected, when it is considered that so many of the inhabitants are of "the intelligent artisan" class; but this is to a certain extent accounted for by the fact that great numbers of the men take in the cheap daily newspapers.
    There are a great number of boys employed in the various workshops on the island, and the diversions of these young gentlemen have a decided tendency to the boisterous, and lean slightly to the predatory. They are great in the performance of intricate shuffles and break-down dances, and are noted for the early acquirement and energetic singing of the popular melody of the hour. A number of the bright particular stars among them, who are known as the Peep o' Day Boys, levy black mail from those who are trying [-257-] to sell their goods in the roads near the workshops. "Give us something to leave you alone," they will say to the proprietor of a stall; and if he is wise he does not refuse. It may be asked, why not set the police upon these young scamps? The question is one I do not presume to answer. In the course of my visits to the island I have seen divers street and public- house rows, but ii have never seen a policeman.
    From time to time (generally once in from five to seven years) a disastrous change comes o'er the aspect of the island and the fortunes of its inhabitants. A long run of brisk trade results at length in the overstocking of the ship market, or commercial crises or money panics arise, and one or a combination of these causes brings about what is known as "a slap of dull trade" in the shipbuilding business. Orders do not come in to replace the work completed or nearing completion, and employers begin to discharge "hands," and this sometimes goes on till there are not hundreds employed, where thousands were before. Large numbers of men are then to be seen lounging idly about the streets, at hours when in busy times only women and children were visible. At first they are pretty well dressed, and are healthy and comparatively cheerful, as they are in hope that things will soon take a turn; but things only take a turn for the worse, and the hopes and means of the men alike fail them. Those who are members of trade unions are in these cases the most favourably circumstanced, but even they are great sufferers. Their "do." (donation) from the union will certainly keep a roof over the heads of themselves and families, and with careftul management, and perhaps a little occasional assistance from previous savings, will keep them from absolute starvation; but still, ten shillings per week is not [-258-] much for the support of a family. It should be borne in mind, too, that there is a good deal of the "I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed" principle involved in the position of a mechanic out of work. There is a certain understood dignity and exclusiveness of caste pertaining to the artisan class which every individual of it is practically compelled to respect and support. A mechanic when out of employment can scarcely take work as a labourer, even if it is offered to him. If he were to do so, labourers would strongly object to his being brought amongst them. "Here," they would say, "is a fellow with a trade in his fingers, and yet he is coming to take the bread out of the mouths of us poor labourers;" and then the men of his own craft would say, "Here's a pretty character for you; he had his share of work when trade was good, and he has his club money, and now he's degrading himself and the trade by working as a labourer." In this matter the mechanic, when out of work, is in a far worse position than the labourer, for the latter can seek employment in any trade, and if unable to obtain regular work can generally pick up something in the way of odd jobs; the mechanic must, as a rule, work at his trade or not at all. But the out-of-work pay of a trade union, though comparatively small, enables the men entitled to it to tide over the dull time with much less of suffering than is endured by men who are not members of unions.
    When the dull time has fairly set in, when ship after ship is launched, while none are laid down, and it becomes evident even to the most hopeful that things will be worse before they are better, the unemployed islanders naturally lose heart and begin to look anxious and careworn. Their little savings, however carefully handled, are soon expended, and small shopkeepers, [-259-] however long-suffering, cannot go on giving credit for ever. The time inevitably comes when a little ready money must be raised; and then spare clothing and articles of furniture are parted with; next, necessary clothing, bedding, and furniture have to go, and want and misery sit down in the once comfortable home. When reduced to this strait, those who have friends able and willing to give them shelter, go to those friends. Many of the Clyde men return to Scotland, and numbers of the Lancashire and Staffordshire operatives tramp down home, where - if, as is generally the case with the iron trade mechanics of those counties, they can turn their hand to general work - they often find employment. But for the islanders who have not these resources, there is nothing left but to "hang on." They manage to live, as they say themselves, "God knows how;" the man, when knocking about in the hope that he may possibly "hear of something," occasionally meets with old mates who are in work, and who give him a shilling or two, or take him home to dinner with them. The wife manages to get a limited supply of bread upon credit; and other wives, whose husbands are among the fortunate few who are in work, make excuses for asking her to tea with them occasionally, and the little ones frequently come in for "pieces" when playing about the doors. And so in one way and another they contrive to exist till the turn of trade comes; for the longest period of dull trade, as well as the longest lane, has its turning. A rumour gets about that this or that firm has got an order; but so thoroughly disheartened are the unemployed that they receive the rumour very doubtfully. In the course of a day or two, however, when the workmen still employed in the firm are seen engaged in laying "ways," the good news is known to [-260-] be true; and the foremen of the establishment are besieged by applicants for work. In about a week hands begin to be engaged, and this goes on from day to day until the establishment is "full-handed." Then comes the report that the tender of another firm on the island has been accepted for "a big job," and this report likewise turns out to be true. So, one by one, the shops fill again. Once more piecework, overtime, and large wages prevail; clothes are redeemed from the limbo of the pawn shop; homes are refurnished. In short, the Isle of Dogs becomes itself again, and its people are restored to comfort and prosperity; but those of them who have suffered in it never forget "the time when they were so hard-up in 18--", while any of them who had not previously had a taste of hard times will from thenceforward have more of fellow-feeling for the unfortunate.
    A noticeable feature in the Isle of Dogs is, that while it is almost entirely inhabited by the working classes, the dwelling-houses upon it are singularly ill-adapted to the requirements of a working man's home. They are large houses of from twenty to thirty-five pounds a year rental; and as the houses, and especially the rents, are too large for a working man, the consequence is that from two to four families, or two families and a number of lodgers, live in each house. Though this may not be regarded as any great inconvenience by Londoners who have become habituated to living in rooms, it is severely felt by those workmen and their families who come from the provinces, and who have been used to living in "self-contained" cottages. The living in upstairs apartments has a decidedly demoralizing influence; as the great labour involved in managing a household without the aid of many conveniences which are only [-261-] to be found on a ground-floor, and the too close proximity of the sleeping to the household apartments, are productive of uncleanly and slovenly habits. Nor are these the only evils that arise from several families living in one house. The social habits of the various families are often totally different, and this is the cause of much unpleasantness and ill-feeling. Thus, the workman who occupies the lower apartments may be in the habit of retiring to rest at an early hour, while the "single young man" who lodges with the tenant of the upper apartments may be given to coming home during the small hours, howling popular choruses and practising acrobatic feats in his bedroom, previous to finally "turning in," or otherwise disturbing the rest of the more orderly inmates of the house. Or it may be that he of the upper apartments is the one who goes early to bed, while the occupant of the ground-floor, who is a member of a workshop brass band, practises on the cornet-a-piston till midnight.
    This system of several families dwelling in the same house also interferes materially with that family and domestic privacy so necessary to home happiness, and developes joint-stock tea partying, gossiping, and other undesirable qualities in women.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]

see also Richard Rowe in Argosy, 1867 - click here

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Isle of Dogs,?An uninviting title euphemistically derived from ?Isle of Ducks,? and applied to what was till lately about the best imitation on a small scale of the Great Dismal Swamp to be found in England. The place, it may be observed en passant, was not until late years an island at all, but simply a peninsula jutting out into the river between Limehouse and Blackwall. Just at the beginning of the present century, however, the Corporation, which had long been exercised by the demands of enterprising engineers for permission to put the river straight and take possession of its old Scamandering bed for docks, took heart of grace, and cut a canal through the neck of the ?unlucky Isle of Doggs,? as Master Pepys hath it, and so opened a short cut for ships bound up or down the river. Apparently, however, the new road was not found satisfactory, for it has been long since closed and sold to the West India-dock Company, who now use it as a timber dock. The isle itself is pretty well covered with shipbuilding and engineering yards, and was a few years since one of the busiest spots on the river bank. Strikes and trade quarrels have for the last few years considerably mitigated its prosperity, and the Isle of Dogs has at present a decided air of having been gathered to its godfathers, which, let us hope, it will soon again lay aside.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879