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


    Who's for a cheap ride on what a pleasant writer calls the "silent highway? - silent no longer, since the steamers have taken to plying above Bridge at a charge which has made the surface of the Thames, where it runs through the heart of London, populous with life, and noisy with the clash of paddles and the rush of steam, to say nothing of the incessant chorus of captains, engine-boys, and gangway-men - with their "Ease her," "Stop her," "Back her," "Turn ahead," "Turn astarn," "Now, marm, with the bundle, be alive," "Heave ahead there, will you?" &c., all the day long.
    Come this way, my friend; here we are opposite the Adelphi Theatre, and this is the man who used to be a black man, or else it's another, who does duty as talking finger-post, and shows you, if you are a stranger, how you are to get at the half-penny boat. Come, we must dive down this narrow lane, past the "Fox under the Hill", a rather long and not very sightly, cleanly, smooth, or fragrant thoroughfare; and here, in this shed-looking office, you must pay your half-penny, which guarantees you a passage all the way to London Bridge. Look alive! as the money-taker recommends - the Bee, you see, is already discharging her living cargo, and others are hurrying on board. The boat wont lose time in turning round - she goes backwards and forwards as straight as a saw, and carries a rudder at her nose as well as one at her tail. Never mind these jolting planks, you havn't time to tumble down - on with you! That's it: here, on this floating-pier, manufactured from old barges, we may rest a moment, while the boat discharges her freight, and takes on board the return cargo. You see the landing-stage or pier is divided into two equal portions; the people who are leaving the boat have not yet paid their fare; they will have to disburse their coppers at the office where we paid ours, there being but one paying-place for the two termini.
    Tis a motley company, you see, which comes and goes by the half-penny boat. Here is a Temple barrister, with his red-taped brief under his arm, and at his heels follows a plasterer, and a tiler's labourer with a six-foot chimney-pot upon his shoulders. There goes a foreigner - foreigners like to have things cheap - with a bushy black beard and a pale face, moustached and whiskered to the eyes, and puffing a volume of smoke from his invisible mouth; and there is a washer-woman, with a basket of clothes weighing a hundredweight. Yonder young fellow, with the dripping sack on his back, is staggering under a load of oysters from Billingsgate, and he has got to wash them and sell them for three a penny, and see them swallowed one at a time, before his work will be done for the day - and behind him is a comely lassie, with a monster oil-glazed sarcophagus-looking milliner's basket, carrying home a couple of bonnets to a customer. See ! there is lame Jack, who sweeps the crossing in the borough, followed by a lady with her "six years' darling of a pigmy size," whom she calls "Little Popps," both hurrying home to dinner after a morning's shopping. All these, and a hundred others of equally varied description, go off on the landing-stage, whence they will have to pay their obolus to the Charon of the Thames ere they are swallowed up in the living tide that rolls along the Strand from morn to night.
    Now if we mean to go, we had better get on board, for in another minute the deck will be covered, and we shall not find room to stand. That's right; make sure of a seat while you may! How they swarm on board, and what a choice sample they present of the mixed multitude of London! The deck is literally jammed with every variety of the pedestrian population - red-breasted soldiers from the barracks, glazed-hatted policemen from the station, Irish labourers and their wives, errand-boys with notes and packages, orange-girls with empty baskets, working-men out for a mouthful of air, and idle boys out for a "spree" - men with burdens to carry, and men with hardly a rag to cover them; unctuous Jews, jabbering Frenchmen, and drowsy-looking Germans - on they flock, squeezing through the gangway, or clambering over the bulwarks, while the little vessel rolls and lurches till the water laves the planks on which you stand. In three minutes from her arrival she has discharged her old cargo, and is crammed to overflowing with a new one. " Back, there: overloaded already!" roars the captain. "Let go; turn ahead; go on!"- and fiz! away we go, leaving full half of the intending voyagers to wait for the next boat, which, however, will not be long in coming.
    "Bless me, how we roll about from side to side!" says an anxious old lady. "Is anything the matter with the boat, that it wabbles so?"
    "Only a little krank, marm; it's all right," says the person addressed.
    "It's all right, of course," says another, glancing at the nervous lady, "whether we goes up or whether we goes down, so long as we gets along. The Cricket blowed herself up, and the Ant got tired on it, and laid down to rest herself at the bottom t'other day-. Howasever, a steamer never blows up nor goes to the bottom but once; and, please God, t aint goin' to be this time."
    While the old lady, unsatisfied with this genuine specimen of Cockney philosophy, is vowing that if she once gets safe on shore she will never again set foot in a half-penny boat, we are already at Waterloo Bridge. Duck goes the funnel, and we dart under the noble arch, and catch a passing view of Somerset House. The handsome structure runs away in our rear; the Chinese Junk, with its tawdry flags, scuttles after it; we catch a momentary glimpse of Temple Gardens, lying in the sunlight, where half-a-dozen children are playing on the grass; then comes Whitefriars, the old Alsatia, the sanctuary of blackguard ruffianism in bygone times; then there is a smell of gas, and a vision of enormous gasometers; and then down goes the funnel again, and Blackfriars Bridge jumps over us. On we go, now at the top of our speed, past the dingy brick warehouses that lie under the shadow of St. Paul's, whose black dome looks down upon us as we scud along. Then Southwark Bridge, with its Cyclopean masses of gloomy metal, disdains to return the slightest response to the fussy splashing we make, as we shoot impudently through. Then come more wharfs and warehouses, as we glide past, while our pace slackens, and we stop gently within a stone's throw of London Bridge, at Dyers' Hall, where we are bundled out of the boat with as little ceremony as we were bundled in, and with as little, indeed, as it has ever been the custom to use since ceremony was invented - which, in matters of business, is a very useless thing.
    And now, my friend, you have accomplished a half-penny voyage; and without being a conjuror, you can see how it is that this cheap navigation is so much encouraged. In the first place, it is cheaper than shoe-leather, leaving fatigue out of the question; it saves a good two miles of walking, and that is no trifle, especially under a heavy burden, or in slippery weather. In the second place, it may be said to be often cheaper than dirt, seeing that the soil and injury to clothing, Which it saves by avoiding a two miles' scamper through the muddy ways, would damage the purse of a decent man more than would the cost of several journeys. These are considerations which the humbler classes appreciate, and therefore they flock to the cheap boats, and spend their half-pence to save their pence and their time. This latter consideration of time-saving it is that brings another class of customers to the boats. In order that it may be remunerative to the projectors, every passage must be made with a regular and undeviating rapidity; - and this very necessity becomes in its turn a source of profit, because it is a recommendation to a better class of business men and commercial agents, to whom a saving of time is daily a matter of the utmost importance. Hence the motley mixture of all ranks and orders that crowd the deck.
    Besides these half-penny boats, there are others which run at double and quadruple fares; but they carry a different class of passengers, and run greater distances, stopping at intermediate stations. They are all remunerative speculations; and they may be said to have created the traffic by which they thrive. They have driven the watermen's wherries off the river almost as effectually as the railways have driven the stage-coaches from the road; but, like them, they have multiplied the passengers by the thousand, and have awakened the public to a new sense of the value of the river as a means of transit from place to place. 

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