Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London : A pilgrimage, by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold, 1872

CHAPTER II

THE BUSY RIVER-SIDE

    Our object is to seize representative bits of each of the parts which are included in the whole of the great world of London. Every function of London life comprehends the most striking varieties of men, manners, and rewards. A folly dropped into the fashionable waters of the West raises a ripple presently in the saddest places of poverty and crime; and the hoop sported at St. James's makes mischief in Connemara. 
    It is among the working population of a community like that which has been busy by the banks of the Thames from the days of Nero-and has raised Roman upon British ruins, and British upon Roman again--that the true, innermost secret of the mighty fact, LONDON, must be sought. How the conglomerate millions act and react upon each other; draw their wants from every corner of the globe; split up industries into a hundred sub-industries, and then set to work to divide these, till ingenious man is lost in wonder over the infinite methods which Competition has invented of earning a leg of mutton-suggests a long and patient study, that cannot be without strong interest to intelligent humanity, nor devoid of use in the hand of the philosopher and historian. Such a study would stretch far beyond the ranges of this Pilgrimage. The first glance at the subject is confounding enough to slacken the courage of the most methodical and toughest inquirers. I remember being struck, after travelling through one of the great pine forests of Sweden, with the factories of Norrkoping-where the forest is split into lucifer-matches. Here were the princely capitalists to the beggars: gentlemen in chateaux, purveyors of stock-in-trade to the great army of Rags! There are men whose pernicious commercial activities represent a township of pauperism: there are others on whose heart and honor the hopes of a thousand creatures are hinged. As we take nearer views, passing from the general surface that is brilliant to the underlying force, we find the same humanity-only the circumstances differ. Here, by "the river's brink," as in the higher regions of society, are the men who work honestly, and the sluggards and cowards who prey upon work-who will pick dainties from the needle of the seamstress. We touch the gates of the jail: we hear the oaths echoing from the casual ward. Also we are bound to mark and record that we see the thousand end honest lives in misery for the ten who sink to pauperism, vagrancy, or crime. It is not possible to overpraise the greatness of heart with which the English working classes have passed through famine. They alone have known how to starve for an idea. In approaching the sadder parts of the great metropolis in which stubborn custom and purblind speculation have doomed them to abide--the poverty of one man reacting on his neighbor, and lack of money forcing the unfortunate to the companionship of drunkenness and crimewe seek the completeness of our picture, in the hope and belief that something approaching a perfect generalization will be its chief value. Hard, solid work: work that makes millionaires, and leaves the worn-out fingers of the heroic honest man cold upon a pallet-work is the key to London. In the serried legions of the distressed battling for an independent crust, and loathing the unearned crumb, there is a spectacle of moral grandeur which covers all the crime and vice and drunkenness. There are a hundred daily heroes for one coward at his bench. 
    Those who can and do work are emphatically-London; and the great city is their inheritance from countless generations of toilers stretching back to those rich English merchants whose fame reached Tacitus. They make the laws, and make the laws obeyed; they grace the senate and the bench; they preach from the pulpit, teach in the school-room, spread daily history from the printing-office; speed ships to every clime; make London the chief granary of the world; send railway navvies to the Japanese; deal in everything the earth produces, and invent against the keenest the means of cheapening in order to hold a market. It is a French saying that wine nowadays is made with everything-even with the grape--a compliment to commercial ingenuity, which may be applied in London as well as in Paris. Privat d‘Anglemont once wrote a lively book on the Unknown Trades of the capital of which he was the reigning Bohemian-and he dived under the surface far enough to reach the breeder of gentles for anglers, and the painter of turkeys' legs to give the birds a fresh appearance. Our neighbors are ingenious, but they have not overmatched London ingenuity in the art of contriving strange occupations. 
    London wears a dismal exterior to the eye of the foreigner, because all London is hard at work. The State Secretary in his severely appointed room, receiving a deputation, has a hard-worked appearance, and looks dressed for downright business. In the clubs men split into groups, and are all, or nearly all, intent on some weighty affair of the day. The streets West as well as here in the East, where we are being hustled on our way to the Docks, are filled with people who have errands. They are not sad men and women; but they are seriously devoted to the thing in hand. This morning, in the West, young peers-heirs to fat slices of counties--are in the throng, repairing to committee sittings, public meetings, board appointments. Old men, retired from business, are nevertheless going to business. "Better rub than rust." That is a duke, with the bundle of papers under his arm. Here is a member of Parliament, with his documents for the long day and night of work before him in a bag. Many of the pale figures in wig and gown, pacing Westminster Hall, are slaves to fashionable society, as well as barristers in large practice, and sit up studying their briefs after the rout is over. Their luncheon is in a sandwich-box, so that Nature's cravings may not rob them of an hour in the best part of the precious working time in the West. The ordinary daily labors of a City alderman, who is in business as well as on the bench, would fill the week of an Italian, and leave him exhausted on the seventh day. There is not a happier man than this same alderman; and his content is never so hearty as when he is marching from one duty to another. His features are set; his manner is solid. He looks into no shop-heeds no passer-by. Directness is his quality; it is that also of the crowds threading their ways swiftly on all sides. Energy and earnestness pervade London shops, and are of fiery intensity in the popular markets. Take the Whitechapel Road on a Saturday night, or Camden Town, or Knightsbridge, or the Borough, or Tottenham Court Road--the vehemence of the street traders is alarming to a stranger, who anticipates a score of cases of apoplexy. St. Martin's-le-Grand, when the boxes are about to close! The Docks, when the wind has wafted a fleet home from the Downs! Or Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning! Or Billingsgate, when the market opens! Here, emphatically, I repeat, is London! 
    And in no part of London does Work wear more changing, more picturesque phases than in the narrow, tortuous, river-side street that leads from the quiet of the Temple to the Tower, and so on to the Docks. In this river-side thoroughfare there are more varieties of business activity than in any other I can call to mind. Glimpses of the Thames to the left, through tangles of chains and shafts and ropes and cranes; and to the right, crowded lanes, with bales and boxes swinging at every height in the air, and wagon-loads of merchandise waiting to be warehoused; and, in the thoroughfare itself, immense vans and drays in hopeless confusion to the stranger's eye, yet each slowly tending to its destination: a hurly-burly of clanking hoofs and grinding wheels, and clinking chains, and wheezing cranes, to a chorus of discordant human voices, broken by sharp railway whistles and the faint thuds of paddles battling with the tide-this is Thames Street. From the North flows the life of the Great City; from the South that of the famous stream which every foreigner is impatient to see. At its busiest time the street is more striking than Cheapside. The watermen, porters, touters, fish-salesmen, sailors, draymen, costermongers, all mixed up with the crowds of passengers hurrying to and from the boats, stopped by street vendors of all descriptions, importuned by beggars, threading perilous ways between mountainous loads, fish and fruit barrows, cabs and carts, present such a picture of a thousand errands transacting in one spot as may not be seen in any other city on the face of the globe. And the picture changes at every hundred yards. At every corner there is a striking note for the sketch-book. A queer gateway, low and dark, with a streak of silver water seen through the stacks of goods beyond, and bales suspended, like spiders from their web; a crooked, narrow street with cranes over every window, and the sky netted with ropes as from the deck of a brig! A flaring public-house with a lively sailors' party issuing from a brace of cabs--for more drink that, obviously, is not necessary to any of the assistants. A break-down, fringed by a crowd of advisers. An apple-stall surrounded by jubilant shoe-blacks and errand boys. A closed, grass-grown churchyard, with ancient tombstones lying at all angles like a witch's fangs. You may almost smell your whereabouts as you approach the solid arch of London Bridge that spans the street, just beyond Mile's Lane.         
    Mile's Lane, Duck's Foot Lane, and, not far off, Pickle-Herring Street are representative thoroughfares of river-side London. At the cost of sundry blows and much buffeting from the hastening crowds we make notes of Pickle-Herring Street: now pushed to the road, and now driven against the wall. The hard-visaged men, breathlessly competing for "dear life," glance, mostly with an eye of wondering pity, at the sketcher, and at his companion with the note-book. What, in the name of common-sense, can we want with old Pickle-Herring Street, that has been just the same as it is time out of mind? 
    "What does he say?" asks the sketcher, who hates to be overlooked. The rude fellow with the peak of his cap over his left ear, and fat curls plastered upon his cheek, and generally a greasy atmosphere about him, has merely stroked his ribs as he looked over our shoulders, and said, "Go it!"--in explanation of his contempt. The warehouse-men pause aloft on their landing-stages, book in hand, to contemplate us. Clerks, crossing the bridges which span the street from upper office to upper office, shrug a shoulder; and the man bending beneath an immense sack turns up his eyes from under his burden, and appears pleased that he has disturbed us. 
    It is shiny, damp, and slippery work, past the bridge, eastward, towards the Docks. The air is filled with mingled odors of fruit and fish. The herring merchant contends, in this Araby, with the wholesale vendor of oranges. Oystershops, with cavernous depths in which hasty men are eating, as my companion has it, "on their thumbs;" roomy, ancient fish warehouses and fruit-stores on the. north side, and only fish everywhere on the south, with here and there peeps of the Pool through the chinks of yard doors and wharf poles; pyramids of fish-baskets, and walls of oozy tubs; men in the most outlandish dress, all toned to one greasy neutral tint, vociferating, swearing, and haggling-but hurrying every one! We are passing sloppy Billingsgate, and the Coal Exchange, and are making for the quieter and heavier street business that lies between us, the Tower, and the Docks! 
    Who says that all this movement is ugly? At every turn there is a sketch. Every twisting or backing of a cart, every shifting of the busy groups, suggests a happy combination of lines and light and shade. About the Tower there are picturesque studies by the score. The Jewish quarter is at hand, and therein may be found in plenty such dark alleys and by-ways for such venerable or striking figures as would have warmed the genius of Rembrandt to enthusiasm. Or take the line of marine-store dealers facing the brown, unbroken walks of the docks! Their shows abound in delightful accidents of form and color. The hard-visaged dealers and the slouching customers form themselves into well-contrasted groups. Among the customers are men of many nations, but all browned by the sun and hardened by the seaspray. You easily distinguish the British from the foreign salt. The Englishman never loses that slow, automatic movement which has been so often mistaken by strangers as indicating a sluggish nature. M. Taine is among the brilliant writers who show in this error that they have failed to catch the fundamental essentials of the Anglo-Saxon character. He goes the length of saying that the fluid in our veins is blood and water: the fact being, as he might easily convince himself if he would study our seafaring men, that the slow movement indicates strength, and that the blood is calm because it is rich and healthy.