"This is one of the grand aspects of your London."
We were sitting upon some barrels, not far within the St. Katherine's Dock Gates, on a sultry summer's day, watching the scene of extraordinary activity in the great entrepot before us.
"There is no end to it! London Docks, St. Katherine's Docks, Commercial Docks on the other side, India Docks, Victoria Docks; black with coal, blue with indigo, brown with hides, white with flour; stained with purple wine, or brown with tobacco!"
The perspective of the great entrepot or warehouse before us is broken and lost in the whirl and movement. Bales, baskets, sacks, hogsheads, and wagons stretch as far as the eye can reach; and there is a deep murmur rising from the busy fellows within. The solid carters and porters; the dapper clerks, carrying pen and book; the Customs' men moving slowly; the slouching sailors in gaudy holiday clothes; the skipper in shiny black that fits him uneasily, convoying parties of wondering ladies; negroes, Lascars, Portuguese, Frenchmen; grimy firemen, and (shadows in the throng) hungry-looking day-laborers landing the rich and sweet stores of the South, or the bread-stuffs of the generous West-all this makes a striking scene that holds fast the imagination of the observer, who has just skirted the dull outer wall of a great dock, faced by the low and shabby shops of poor Jack's arch enemies.
He who wants to study every form of ship, every kind of rigging, the thousand and one details of spars and ropes, the delightful play of light and color which is a perpetual beauty about a clipper's deck; the sad human stories that crowd the emigrant vessel; the sailor of every clime and country; in short, the immensity of commerce that counts warehouses by the mile and goods by the hundred thousand tons can have no better field than these watery acres that give hospitable welcome to every flag. The light plays upon every known bunting. We thread our way round the busy basins, through bales and bundles and grass-bags, over skins and rags and antlers, ores and dye-woods: now through pungent air, and now through a tallowy atmosphere, to the quay, and the great river where fleets are forever moored. The four thousand feet of river frontage of the St. Katherine's Docks only lead east to where the London Docks take up the striking story of human skill and courage, centred from every navigable sea.
We pass from London dock to London dock--the first being a water--bed of some twenty acres--over the canal bridges, and through throngs of workers tripping to and fiom the anchored fleets. It seems as though every floating plank had been drawn hither by some mysterious irresistible stream. We are in the regions of tobacco, and within the shadows of storehouses that can shelter nearly twenty-five thousand hogsheads, and keep cool in their foundations between sixty and seventy thousand pipes of wine! This Tobacco Dock, with the kiln in the corner, commonly known as the Queen's Tobacco-Pipe (and wherein damaged and confiscated tobacco and other commodities are blown into thin air), and its dark avenues braided and curtained with webs fed by the exudations of many vintages, is, to the Temperance enthusiast, a damned spot; and these alleys of hogsheads and pipes, and ships whose comely sides they have filled, are only so many passages to the Valley of Death.
Through shabby, slatternly places, by low and poor houses, amid shiftless riverside loungers, with the shipping-littered Thames on our right, we push on to the eastern dock between Wapping and down Shadwell. Streets of poverty-marked tenements, gaudy public-houses and beer--shops, door-steps packed with lolling, heavy-eyed, half-naked children; low-browed and bare-armed women greasing the walls with their backs, and gossiping the while such gossip as scorches the ears; bullies of every kind walking as masters of the pavement-all sprinkled with drunkenness-compose the scene, even in these better days, along the roads which stretch from dock to dock, to Limehouse and Blackwell, where the wealth of the Indies is cast upon our shores.
At Limehouse the activity in the coal trade was the striking feature. The rows of black ships, the dusty workmen and quays, are in striking contrast to the brightness of the scenes where the immense Australian emigrant clippers lie, and where our corn and wine are landed.
We have travelled through the commerce of a world in little. The London Docks alone receive something like two thousand ships a year.
They include one wine-cellar seven acres in extent! The potent gentlemen at Dock House govern the employment of a capital amounting to about four millions sterling. They are the hosts of squadrons of the peaceful Marine that is overspreading the world with the blessings of civilization. By us, where we sit watching sailors in the rigging, or slung by a ship's sides "peacocking" her bottom, looms the enormous figure-head of the Concordia, stretching out of the basin and overshadowing the quay. A noble representative vessel in the midst of this mastforest, and by the banks of the busiest river in the world. This ship is of the fleet that shall prevail in the end over the ironclads and the floating rams. Its comely prow shall rise triumphant over many summer seas when the Spitfires have been laid up and put out of sight of a world at peace-save in such contests as those, the spoils of which lie along our leagues of quays, prone to the vigorous and courageous hand of the workman.
On the opposite bank of the Thames, by carrier boat, through tangles of ships and steamboats, coasters and lightermen, we survey the Surrey Commercial Docks and the regions of timber, redolent of turpentine, by the Grand Surrey Canal behind. It is but a repetition of that which we have studied on the Middlesex bank; only in Rotherhithe the seafaring element is intensified, and is upon everybody and everything. Every living creature slouches or shambles; the women are brawny of arm and of brazen countenance; the public-houses are driving a wonderful trade; and along all the line the money gained by night-watches in the Northern seas, and over the crestless black billows of the Baltic, is being freely and badly spent.
Take Shadwell, Ratcliff Highway, Old Gravel Lane, and Rotherhithe, and you find few differences, save at points, in the intensity of the squalid recklessness. By day and by night it is the same interminable scene of heedless, shiftless money-squandering of Jack ashore, in the company of his sweetheart.
The whole is a grand picture, with a very dark background-such a background as that which appeared to us one dark night, outside a public house, by Dockhead.
An after-dark journey by the river-side is an expedition to be undertaken cautiously, and in safe company. In the Ratcliff district there is a strong dislike to the appearance of people who belong to the West of London. Muttered oaths and coarse jests follow in the wake of the stranger --seasoned in proportion to the richness of his appearance. A fop of St. James's Street would fare badly if he should attempt a solitary pilgrimage to Shadwell. His air of wealth would be regarded as aggressive and impertinent in those regions, upon which the mark of poverty is set in lively colors. It is remarkable that the poverty of the river-side is unlike that of Drury Lane or Bethnal Green. The stings and arrows of outrageous fortune pierce a rollicking company by the water. Jack gives a constant jollity to the scene, and is the occasion of the interminable roistering apparent in the lines of low public-houses thronged with ragged, loud-voiced men and women. The pitched battle we witnessed outside a public-house at Dockhead one threatening night is an incident that from time to time starts out of the level of the Ratcliff highwayman's careless and vicious life of want and drink.