Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    The "Venus rising from the sea," of the ancient Greek mythology, presents a very different picture to the imagination from that afforded by her modern antithesis, the tide-waitress of London descending into the bed of the Thames to forage for the means of subsistence among the mud and filth of the river.
    The tide-waitress has few charms to boast of. Who and what she was originally, it would be difficult to guess. She is not young, and in what scenes her youth was passed, it would be in vain to inquire. Her antecedents are a mystery, the key to which is secreted in her own breast; the romance of her life has passed away with her youth; and whether that were joyous or grievous, you may ask her if you like - but she will not satisfy your curiosity. On the other hand, she is not old; age would shrink aghast from her way of life. An avocation pursued in perpetual contact with the mud and moisture of the river, is no calling for the woman of threescore and upwards, whom poverty has already made familiar with the cramps, and rheums, and rheumatisms, which she finds more than sufficiently plentiful without the trouble of raking them out of the mud. 
    No; the subject of the present brief sketch is invariably a woman in the prime of life, who has seen the world, and cares little for its conventionalities or its opinions. Driven, by some cause or other - it maybe by crime, it may be by want - from the acknowledged and beaten paths of industry, she has turned aside from the current of human activities, and made a property for herself out of the rubbish and the refuse which all the world besides are content to surrender as worthless. Upon this she contrives to make a living, and to keep out of the workhouse, to remain clear of which is the utmost stretch of her ambition. Education she has none, and she never had instruction worthy the name. All her knowledge is to know the time of low water, and the value of the wrecks and waifs which each recurring tide scatters all too scantily over her peculiar domain. Her garb and garniture are in appropriate keeping with her profession and accomplishments. She is bundled up in tatters more plentiful than shapely, and to which the name of dress could hardly be applied. On her head is the ragged relict of an old bonnet, the crown of which is stuffed with a pad; an old hamper is suspended at her side by a leathern strap round the shoulders; and in front she wears an apron, containing a capacious pocket for the reception of articles susceptible of injury in the basket. She cannot indulge in the luxury of stockings, but encases her feet in a pair of cast-off Wellingtons, begged for the purpose from some charitable householder, and cut down to the ankle by her own hand for her especial use.
    Thus equipped, and armed with a stout stick, she goes forth to her labour so soon as the tide is half run out, and commences her miscellaneous collection amidst the ooze and slime of the river. She walks ankle deep in the mire, and occasionally omitting to feel her way with the stick, is seen to flounder in up to her knees, when she scrambles out again, and coolly taking off her boots, will rinse them in the stream before proceeding with her work. The wealth which she rescues, half-digested, from the maw of Father Thames, is of a various and rather equivocal description, and consists of more items than we can here specify. We can, however, from actual observation, testify to a portion of them: these are, firewood in very small fragments, with now and then, by way of a prize, a stave of an old cask; broken glass, and bottles either of glass or stone unbroken; bones, principally of drowned animals, washed into skeletons; ropes, and fragments of ropes, which will pick into tow; old iron or lead, or metal of any sort which may have dropped overboard from passing vessels; and last, but by no means least, coal from the coal barges, which, as they are passing up and down all day long, and all the year round, cannot fail of dropping a pretty generous tribute to the toils of the tide-waitress. Among the coal-owners, however, this nymph of the flood, or the mud, is not in very good odour; they are known to entertain a prejudice against her profession. Her detractors do not scruple to aver that she cannot be trusted in the company of a coal-barge without being seduced by the charms of the black diamonds to fill her basket in a dishonest manner. We are loth to give credit to the accusation; at the same time we know that it is practically received by the wharfingers, who invariably warn her off when she is seen wandering too near a stranded barge. 
    Besides the materials above mentioned, there is no doubt that she occasionally comes upon a prize of more value. A bottle of wine from a pleasure boat may come now and then; and sometimes a coin or a purse from the same source; at least we have seen such things go overboard, and it is not impossible that the tide-waitress gets them. Some years since one of the sisterhood found one afternoon a packet of tradesmen's handbills buried in the mud under Waterloo Bridge. A waterman, who could read, advised her to take them forthwith to the owner. She did so, much to the worthy man's astonishment, who imagined that they were then in course of distribution by his two apprentices, who had left the shop in the morning with the avowed object of circulating them to the number of 3,000. The lads came home at night ostensibly wearied out with their day's work. They were astounded at the sight of the packet, which they had not even untied; and the youngest immediately confessed that, tempted by the other, he had joined in making a holiday trip to Gravesend; that they had thrown the bills into the river when off Erith, feeling certain that there was no risk of discovery. It was a lesson they were not likely soon to forget-that the path of dishonesty and deceit is always a thorny one.
    This river gleaner is rather a picturesque object when viewed from a good distance. Though her eyes are ever on the soil, and though she is constantly raking and handling it, yet she never stoops, as a stoop would swamp her skirts in the mud; she bends rather in a kind of graceful arch, supported by the stick in one hand. The tide, which proverbially waits for no man, shuts her out of her moist domain with rigorous punctuality, and then she retires to sort her wares and to convert them, in different markets, into the few pence which they may realize.
    We feel quite safe in affirming that, little as is to be got by it, the above is the most successful kind of fishing that can be carried on in the present day in the Thames between London Bridge and that of Vauxhall. The times, and the river, too, are altered since fishermen cast their nets in the waters off Westminster, and Londoners ate the fish caught in the shadow of their own dwellings. It is more than a hundred and sixty years ago that, one fine summer's morning, a fisherman who was dragging the water off Lambeth Palace, found his net pinned fast to the bottom by some weighty substance, which seemed very reluctant to move. On lifting it cautiously to the surface, it appeared to be a somewhat lumpy piece of metal, impressed with certain cabalistic signs, which the finder, who was guiltless of the arts of reading and writing, was at a loss to comprehend. He pitched it, therefore, into the stern of his little craft, and quietly pursued his avocation till his day's work was accomplished. In the evening, when he had disposed of his fish, his thoughts reverted to the lump of metal in his boat; and he carried it to the house of one of his patrons to ascertain whether or not it might be of value. To the amazement of the gentleman into whose hands it was thus strangely conveyed-and no less to that of the poor fisherman himself-it proved to be the great seal of the realm, which had been missing ever since the flight, in the preceding winter, of the craven and wrong-headed monarch, James the Second. There had been a rigid search made for it in all quarters, and from the evidence of Judge Jefferies it came out that James, who had always a superstitious kind of veneration for the great seal, which he regarded as a sort of talisman, had been for some time unwilling to trust it out of his sight. He had compelled his chancellor - that bloodthirsty judge - to remove from his noble mansion, and to reside in a chamber in Whitehall, in order that the object of his solicitude might be always near him. On the night of his clandestine flight, he had ordered the great seal and the writs for the new parliament to be brought to his bed-chamber. The writs he threw into the fire, and the great seal he carried off in his hand, and dropped it stealthily into the river opposite Lambeth Palace, as he traversed the space from Whitehall to Vauxhall. Whether he thought by this means to deprive the acts of his successor of the validity of legal sanction, we cannot say: the Prince of Orange managed to do very well without it; and if it had never been fished up to this day, but had been left to form part of the treasures of our present subject, the tide-waitress, and been sold for old metal at a marine-store, we imagine that government would have gone on much the same as it has done.
    We have introduced the tide-waitress incidentally into royal company. It is no great matter. We leave our readers, if they choose, to settle the relative respectability of either party. What happened to the fugitive monarch may happen, and we fear is likely to happen, to the poor mud-faring woman. He died a pauper, dependent on the bounty of an alien - and she, alas! has the workhouse, or, which is perhaps more probable, the hospital in perspective, as the consummation of her career.

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853