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JACK ALIVE IN LONDON
Coming from Greenwich or Blackwall, radiant with 'Badminton,'
or 'Cider cup;' or, perchance, coming home very satiated and sea-sick from
foreign parts, tired, jaded, used-up, as a man is apt to be under such
circumstances, the Pool always pleases, enlivens, interests me. I pull out the
trumpet-stop of my organ of veneration; my form dilates with the tall spars
around me; I lose count of the wonders of the lands I have seen, of the coming
cares and troubles - the worrying and bickering - awaiting me, perhaps in that
remorseless, inevitable London yonder. I forget them all in the Pool. If I have
a foreigner with me, so much the better. 'Not in crimson-trousered soldiery,' I
cry, 'oh! Louis or Alphonse - not in the constant shouldering of arms, and the
drumming that never ceases, - not in orders of the day, or vexatious passports,
are the glories of Britain inscribed. See them in that [-42-]
interminable forest of masts, the red sun lighting up the cupolas of Greenwich,
the tarry hulls, the patched sails, the laden hayboats, the trim wherries, the
inky waters of the Pool. Read them in the cobweb rigging; watch them curling
from the short pipes of red-capped mariners lounging on the bulwarks of timber
ships! Ships upon ships, masts everywhere, even in the far-off country, among
trees and churches; the commerce of the world jammed up between these cumbered
wharves, and overflowing into these narrow creeks!'
I propose to treat, as shortly as I can consistently with accuracy, of maritime London, and of 'Jack' (alluding, under that cognomen, to the general 'seafaring' class) alive in London.
'Jack' is 'alive,' to my knowledge and experience, in East Smithfield, and in and about all the Docks; in Poplar, Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Shadwell, Wapping, Bermondsey, and the Island of Dogs. He is feebly alive in Fenchurch Street and the Minories; but he shows special and vigorous symptoms of vitality in Ratcliffe Highway. If it interest you at all to see him alive, and to see how he lives, we will explore, for some half-hour or so, this very muddy, tarry, salt-water-smelling portion of the metropolis.
You can get to Ratcliffe Highway through the Minories: you may attain it by a devious route through Whitechapel and Mile End New Town; but the way I go, is from London Bridge, down Thames Street, and through the Tower, in order to come gradually upon Jack alive, and to pick up specimens of his saline existence bit by bit.
London Bridge is densely crowded, as it has been, is, and always will be, I suppose. The wheels of the heavy waggons, laden with bales and barrels, creak and moan piteously; while the passengers, who are always certain of being too late (and never are) for a train on the South-Eastern Railway, goad cabmen into performing frantic pas de deux with their bewildered horses. The sportive bullocks, too, the gigs, knackers' carts, sheep, pigs, Barclay's drays, and cohorts of foot-passengers, enliven the crowded scene.
Comfortably corn-crushed, jostled, and dust-blinded, I descend the flight of stairs on the right of the King William Street side of the bridge. I have but to follow my nose along Thames Street to Ratcliffe; and I follow it. I elbow my way through a compact mass of labourers, porters, sailors, fish-women, and spruce clerks, with their bill books secured by a [-43-] leather-covered chain round their waists. Room there, for a hot sugar-broker tearing by, towards the Exchange, bursting with a recent bargain! Room for a spruce captain (he had his boots cleaned by one of the 'brigade' opposite Billingsgate Market) in an irreproachable state of clean shirtedness, navy-blue-broadclothedness, and chimney-pot-hattedness! He sets his big silver watch at every church, and dusts his boots with an undoubted bandanna. He has an appointment, doubtless, at Garraway's or the Jerusalem Coffee House, with his owner or broker.
A gush of fish, stale and fresh, stretches across Thames Street as I near Billingsgate Market. I turn aside for a moment, and enter the market. Business is over; and the male and female purveyors of the treasures of the deep solace themselves with pipes and jovial converse.
Jack is getting more lively all through Thames Street, and Tower Street, and is alarmingly vital when I emerge on Tower Hill. A row of foreign mariners pass me, seven abreast: swarthy, ear-ringed, black-bearded varlets in red shirts, light-blue trousers, and with sashes round their waists. Part of the crew of a Sardinian brig, probably. They have all their arms round each other's necks; yet I cannot help thinking that they look somewhat 'knifey,' 'stilettoey.' I hope I may be mistaken, but I am afraid that would be odds were to put an indefinite quantity of rum into then, they would put a few inches of steel into you.
But I enter the Tower postern, and am in another London - the military metropolis - at once. Very curious and wonderful are these old gray towers, these crumbling walls, these rotting portcullises, so close to the business-like brick and mortar of St. Katherine's Dock House hard by. What had the 'Devilin Tower,' the 'Scavenger's Daughter,' the 'Stone Kitchen,' to do with wholesale grocers, ship-chandlers, and outfitting warehouses? Is there not something jarring, discordant, in that grim, four-turreted old fortalice, frowning on the quiet corn and coal carrying vessels in the pool? What do the 'thousand years of war' so close to the 'thousand years of peace?' Is not the whole sombre, lowering old pile, a huge anachronism? Julius Cæsar, William the Third, and the Docks! Wharves covered with tubs of peaceful palm-oil, and dusky soldiers sauntering on narrow platforms, from whence the black mouths of honeycombed old guns grin (toothless, haply) into peaceful dwelling-houses. The dried-[-44-]up moat, the old rooms, wall-inscribed with the overflowings of weary hearts; the weazen-faced old warders, with their strange, gone-by costume; the dinted armour, and rusted headman's axe; all tell - with the vacant space on the Green, where the four posts of the scaffold stood, and the shabby little church, where lie Derwentwater and Lovat, Anne Boleyn and Northumberland, the innocent and the guilty, the dupers and the duped - of things that have been, thank God!
I pass a lane where the soldiers live, (why should their wives necessarily be slatterns, their children dirty, and they themselves alternately in a state of shirt-sleeves, beer and tobacco, or one of pipeclay, red blanketing, and mechanical stolidity, I wonder?) and ask an artilleryman on guard where a door of egress is to be found. He 'dwoan't know:' of course not. Soldiers never do know. It isn't in the articles of war, or the Queen's regulations. Still, I think my friend in the blue coat, and with the shaving-brush stuck at the top of his shako, would be rather more useful in guarding a fortress if he knew the way into and the way out of it.
Patience, 'trying back,' and the expenditure of five mintues at last bring me out by another postern, leading on to Tower Hill the less, East
Smithfield, St. Katherine's Docks, and the Mint; very nearly opposite is a narrow street, where a four-oared cutter, in the middle of the pavement, in progress of receiving an outer coat of tar and inner one of green paint, suggests to me that Jack is decidedly alive in this vicinity; while, closely adjacent, a monster 'union jack,' sloping from the first-floor window of an unpretending little house, announces the whereabouts of the 'Royal Naval Rendezvous.' You have perhaps heard of it more frequently as the house of reception for the 'Tower Tender.' The Rendezvous, and the Tender too, had a jovial season of it in the war-time, when the press was hot, and civilians were converted into 'volunteers' for the naval service by rough compulsion. The neighbourhood swarmed with little 'publics,' embellished with cartoons of the beatified state of Jack when alive in the navy. Jack was continually drinking grog with the port-admiral, or executing hornpipes with the first-lieutenant. The only labour imposed on him (pictorially) was the slaying half a dozen Frenchmen occasionally before breakfast; for which a grateful country rewarded him with hecatombs of dollars. At home, he was represented frying gold watches, and lighting pipes with five-pound notes. Love, liquor, and glory! King [-45-] and country! Magnificent bounty, &c., &c., &c. But the picture has two sides; for Jack hung back sometimes, preferring to fry watches in the merchant service. A grateful country pressed him. He ran away from captivity; a grateful country flogged him. He mutinied; a grateful country hanged him. Whether it was the flogging, or the hanging, or the scurvy, or the French bullets, or the prisons at Verdun and Brest, I won't be certain; but Jack became at last quite a scarce article. So the Royal Naval Rendezvous, and the Tower Tender were obliged to content themselves with the sweepings of the prisons - thieves, forgers, murderers, and the like. these even grew scarce; and a grateful country pressed everybody she could lay her hands on. 'Food for powder,' was wanted - 'mortal men' good enough to 'fill a pit,' must be had. Quiet citizens, cripples, old men were pressed. Apprentices showed their indentures, citizens their freedom, in vain. Britannia must have men. People would come home from China or Honolulu, and fall into the clutches of the press-gang five minutes after they had set foot on land. Bags of money would be found on posts on Tower Hill, left there by persons who had been pressed unawares. People would leave public-house parlours to see what sort of a night it was, and never be seen or heard of again. I remember, even, hearing from my nurse, during childhood, a ghostly legend of how the Lord Chancellor, going over Tower Hill one night with the great seal in a carpet bag, and 'disguised in liquor' after a dinner at Guildhall, was kidnapped by a press-gang, sent on board the Tower Tender, and not released until three months afterwards, when he was discovered on board the 'Catspaw' frigate, in the Toulon fleet, scraping the mizen-mast, under the cat of a boatswain's mate. Of course I won't be answerable for the veracity of the story; but we scarcely need its confirmation to find plenty of reasons to bless those glorious good old times when George the Third was king.
Times are changed with the Rendezvous now. Sailors it still craves; but good ones - A. B.'s; not raffish gaol-birds and useless landsmen. The A. B.'s have heard of the 'cat;' and they know what 'holystoning' and 'black-listing' mean. There is a stalwart A.B., I watch, reading a placard in the window of the Rendezvous, stating that the 'Burster,' one hundred and twenty guns, fitting at Plymouth, wants some able-bodied seamen. 'Catch a weasel asleep,' [-46-] says the A. B., walking on. He belongs to the 'Chutnagore,' A 1, under engagement to sail for Madras, and would rather not have anything to do with the 'Burster.'
A weather-beaten old quarter-master stands on the steps of the Rendezvours, and eyes the A. B. wistfully. The A. B. is the sort of man Britannia wants just now. So are those three black-whiskered fellows, swaggering along with a Yankee skipper, with whom they have just signed articles for a voyage to Boston, in the 'Peleg Whittle;' Coon, master. Poor old quarter-master! give him but his 'four-and-twenty stout young fellows,' his beloved press-gang; and the 'Chutnagore' would go one A. B. short to sea; while Captain Coon would vainly lament the loss of three of the crw of the 'Peleg Whittle.' The 'Burster' is very short of hands; but he has bagged very few A.B.'s yet. See, a recruit offers; a lanky lad in a torn jacket, with an air of something like ragged respectability about him! He wants to 'go to sea.' The quarter-master laughs at him - repulses him. The boy has, ten to one, run away from school or from home, with that vague indefinite idea of 'going to sea' in his mind. To sea, indeed! He has prowled about the docks, vainly importuned captains, owners, seamen, anybody, with his request. Nobody will have anything to do with him. The greatest luck in store for him would be the offer of a cabin-boy's berth on board a collier, where the captain would regale him with the convivial crowbar and the festive rope's-end, whenever the caprice seized him. Going to sea! Ah, my young friend, trudge home to Dr. Broomback's seminary - never mind the thrashing - explain to your young friends, impressed as you have been with a mania for 'running away and going to sea,' that it is one thing to talk about doing a thing, and another to do it; that a ragged little landsmen is worse than useless aboard ship; and that there are ten chances to one even against his ever being allowed to put his foot on ship-board.
I leave the Royal Naval Rendezvous just as a dissolute Norwegian stops to read the 'Burster' placard. Now, I turn past the Mint, and past the soldiers on guard there, and pursue the course of a narrow little street leading towards the Docks.
Here Jack leaps into great life. Ship-chandlers, ship-grocers, biscuit-bakers, sail-makers, outfitting warehouses, occupy the shops on either side. Up a little court is a nau-[-47-]tical day-school for teaching navigation. There is a book-stall, on which lie the 'Seaman's Manual,' the 'Shipmaster's Asistant,' and Hamilton Moore's 'Navigation.' There is a nautical instrument-maker's, where chronometers, quadrants, and sextants are kept, and blank log-books are sold. The stationers display forms for manifests, bills of lading, and charter-parties. Every article vended has some connection with those who go down to the sea in ships.
When we enter St. George's Street, where there are shops on one side of the way, and St. Katherine's Dock warehouses on the other, Jack becomes tremendously alive on the pavement. Jack from India and China, very sunburnt, and smoking Trichinopoly cheroots - thin cigars with a reed passed through them, and nearly a foot long. American Jack, in a red worsted shirt, and chewing indefatigably. Swedish Jack, smelling of tallow and turpentine, but amazingly good-natured, and unaffectedly polite. Italian jack, shivering. German Jack, with a light-blue jacket and yellow trousers, stolid and smoky; Greek Jack, voluble in petticoats and long boots. Grimy seamen from colliers; smart, taut men, from Green's or Wigram's splendid East India ships; mates in spruce jackets, and gold-laced caps, puffing prime Havannahs. Lastly, the real unadulterated English Jack, with the inimitable roll, the unapproachable hitch, the unsurpassable flowers of language. The pancake hat stuck at the back of thead, the neckerchief passed through a wedding-ring, the flaring yellow silk handkerchief; the whole unmistakable costume and demeanour - so unlike the stage sailor, so unlike the pictorial sailor - so like only what it really is.
This is the busiest portion of the day, and the Highway is crowded. Enthusiasts would perhaps be disappointed at the woful lack of nautical vernacular prevalent with Jack. he is not continually shivering his timbers; neither is he wlways requesting you to stand by and belay; to dowse the lee-scuppers, or to splice the main brace.
The doors of the public-houses disgorge great crowds of mariners; nor are there wanting taverns and eating-houses, where the sailors of different nations may be accommodated. Here is a 'Deutsches Gasthaus,' a Prussian 'Bierhalle,' a real 'Norwegian House.' Stay! Here we are at the Central Dock gates, and, among a crowd of sailors, hurrying in and out, swarm forth hordes of Dock labourers to their dinner.
[-48-] A very queer company, indeed; - 'navvies,' seafaring men, and individuals of equivocal dress and looks, who have probably taken to the 'two shillings' or half-crown a day awarded for Dock toil, as a last refuge from inevitable starvation. Discharged policemen, ruined medical students, clerks who have lost their characters, Polish and German refugees, might be found, I opine, in those squalid ranks. It is all equality now, however. The college-bred youth, the educated man, must toil in common with the navvy and the tramp. They seem contented enough, eating their poor meals, and puffing at the never-failing pipe with great gusto. Poor and almost destitute as these men are, they can yet obtain a species of delusive credit - a credit by which they are ultimately defrauded. Crafty victuallers will advance them beer and food on the security of their daily wage, which they themselves secure from the foremen. They exact, of course, an enormous interest. It is, after all, the old abuse, the old Tommy-shop nuisance - the 'infamous truck system' - the iniquitous custom of paying the labourers at the public-house, and the mechanic late on the Saturday night.
I have not time to enter the Docks just now; and plunge further into the Babel of Ratcliffe highway. Jack is alive everywhere by this time. A class of persons remarkably lively in connection with him, are the Jews. For Jack are these grand Jewish outfitting warehouses alone intended. For his sole use and benefit are the swinging lamps, the hammocks and bedding, the code of signal pocket-handkerchiefs, the dreadnought coats, sou-wester hats, telescopes, checked shirts, pilot jackets, case bottles, and multifarious odds and ends required by the mariner. For Jack does Meshech manufacture the delusive jewellery; while Shadrach vaunts the watch that has no works; and Abednego confidentially proposes advances of cash on wages-notes. Jewry is alive, as well as Jack, in Ratcliffe Highway.You may call that dingy little cabin of a shop, small; but, bless you! they would fit out a seventy-four in ten minutes, with everything wanted, from a spanker-boom to a bottle of Harvey's Sauce. For purposes marine, they sell everything; - biscuits by sackfuls, bales of dreadnoughts, miles of rope, infinities of fishing-tackle, shaving-tackle, running-tackle, spars, sextants, sea-chests, and hundreds of other articles. Jewry will even supply you with sailors; will man vessels for you, from a cock-boat to an Indiaman. Jewry has a capital black cook [-49-] inside. A third mate at two minutes' notice. a steward in the twinkling of a handspike. Topmast men in any quantity, and at immediate call.
A strange sound -half human, half ornithological - breaks on the ear above the turmoil of the crowded street. I follow a swarthy mariner, who holds a cage, muffled in a handkerchief in his hand, a few yards, until he enters a large and handsome shop, kept also by a child of Israel, and which literally swarms with parrots, cockatoos, and macaws. here they are, in every variety of gorgeous plumage and curvature of beak: with their wicked-looking, bead-like eyes and crested heads; screaming, croaking, yelling, swearing, laughing, singing, drawing corks, and winding up clocks, with frantic energy! Most of these birds come from South America and the coast of Africa. Jack generally brings home one or two as his own private venture, selling it in London for a sum varying from thirty to forty shillings. I am sorry to have to record that a parrot which can swear well, is more remunerative to Jack than a nonjuring bird. A parrot which is accomplished enough to rap out half a dozen round oaths in a breath, will fetch you fifty shillings, perhaps. In this shop, also, are stuffed humming-birds, ivory chessmen, strange shells, and a miscellaneous collection of those foreign odds and ends, called 'curiosities.' Jack is very lively here with the rabbinical ornithologist. He has just come from the Gold Coast in a man-of-war, the captain of which, in consideration of the good conduct of the crew while on the station, had permitted each man before the mast to bring as many parrots home with him as he liked. And they did bring a great many, Jack says - so many, that the vessel became at last like a ship full of women; the birds creating such an astonishing variety of discordant noises, that the men were, in self-defence, obliged to let some two or three hundred of them (they didn't keep count of fifty or so) loose. Hundreds, however, came safe home; and Jack has two or three to dispose of. They whistle hornpipes beautifully. I leave him still haggling with the ornithologist, and triumphantly eliciting a miniature 'Joe Bee's Vocabulary of slang' from the largest of his birds.
You are not to suppose, gentle reader, that the population of Ratcliffe is destitute of an admixture of the fairer portion of the creation. Jack has his Jill in St. George's Street, Cable Street, Back Lane, and the Commercial Road. Jill is [-50-] inclined to corpulence; if it were not libellous, I could hint a suspicion that Jill is not unaddicted to the use of spirituous liquors. Jill wears a silk handkerchief round her neck, as Jack does; like him, too, she rolls, occasionally; I believe, smokes, frequently; I am afraid, swears, occasionally. Jack is a cosmopolite - here to-day, gone to-morrow; but Jill is peculiar to maritime London. She nails her colours to the mast of Ratcliffe. Jill has her good points, though she does scold a little, and fight a little, and drink a little. She is just what Mr. Thomas Dibdin has depicted her, and nothing more or less. She takes care of Jack's tobacco-box; his trousers she washes, and his grog, too, she makes; and if he enacts occasionally the part of a maritime Giovanni, promising to walk in the Mall with Susan of Deptford, and likewise with Sal, she only upbraids him with a tear. I wish the words of all songs had as much sense and as much truth in them as Mr. Dibdin's have.
A hackney-coach (the very last hackney-coach, I verily believe, in London, and the one, moreover, which my Irish maid-of-all-work always manages to fetch me when I send her for a cab) - a hackney-coach, I say, jolts by, filled inside and out! Jack is going to be married. I don't think I am mis-stating or exaggerating the case, when I say that the whole party - bride, bridegroom, bridesmaids, bridesmen, coachman and all - are considerably the worse for liquor. Is this as it should be? Ah, poor Jack!
And I have occasion to say 'Poor Jack!' a good many times in the course of my perambulations. It is my personal opinion that Jack is robbed - that he is seduced into extravagance, hoodwinked into spendthrift and dissolute habits. There is no earthly reason why Jack should not save money out of his wages; why he should never have a watch without frying it, nor a five-pound note without lighting his pipe with it. It cannot be indispensable that he should be continually kept 'alive' with gin; that he should have no companions save profligate women, no amusements save low dancing-saloons and roaring taverns. The sailor has a strong religious and moral bias. He scorns and loathes deceit, dishonesty, and injustice, innately. He is often a profligate, and a drunkard, and a swearer (I will not say blasphemer), because abominable and vicious customs make him so; because, ill-cared for on board ship, he no sooner lands than he becomes the prey of the infamous harpies who infest [-51-] maritime London. He is robbed by outfitters (I particularise neither Jew nor Gentile, for there are six of one and half a dozen of the other); he is robbed by the tavern-keepers, the crimps, and the boarding-masters. He is robbed by his associates, robbed in business, robbed in amusement. 'Jack' is fair game to everybody.
The conductors of that admirable institution, the Sailors' Home, I understand, are doing their best to alleviate the evils I have lightly, but very lightly, touched upon. Jack is alive, but not with an unwholesome galvanic vitality, in the Home. He is well fed, well treated, and well cared for, generally; moreover, he is not wronged. The tailor who makes his clothes, and the landlord who sells him his beer, and the association that board him, do not conspire to rob him. The only shoal the managers of the Sailors' Home have to steer clear of, is the danger of inculcating the idea among sailors, that the institution has anything of a gratuitous or eleemosynary element in its construction. Sailors are high-spirited and eminently independent in feeling.
I have come by this time to the end of the straggling series of broad and narrow thoroughfares, which, under the names of East Smithfield, St. George's Street, Upper Shadwell Street, and Cock Hill, all form part, in the aggregate, of Ratcliffe Highway. I stand on the threshold of the mysterious region comprising, in its limits, Shadwell, Poplar, and Limehouse. To my left, some two miles distant, is Stepney, to which parish all children born at sea are, traditionally, said to be chargeable. No longer are there continued streets - 'blocks,' as the Americans call them - of houses. There are swampy fields and quaggy lanes, and queer little public-houses like ship-cuddies, transplanted bodily from East Indiamen, and which have taken root there. The 'Cat and Fiddle' is a waterman's house - 'jolly young watermen,' I am afraid, no more. At the 'Bear and Harp' - so the placard informs me - is held the 'Master Mariners' Club.' Shipbuilders' yards start suddenly upon me - ships in full sail bear down on me through quiet lanes; lofty masts loom spectrally among the quiet graves in the churchyard. In the church yonder, where the union jack flies at the steeple, there are slabs commemorating the bequests of charitable master-mariners, dead years ago; of an admiral's widow, who built an organ; of the six poor women, who are to be yearly relieved as thank-[-52-]offering for the release of some dead and gone Levant trader 'from captyvitie among the Turkes in Algeeres.' In the graveyards, scores of bygone sea-captains, their wives and children, shipwrights, ropemakers, of the olden time, dead pursers, and ship-chandlers, sleep quietly. They have compasses and sextants, and ships in full sail, sculptured on their moss-grown tombs. The wind howls no more, nor the waves roar now for them. Gone aloft, I hope, most of them! - though Seth Slipcheese, the great ship-contractor, who sold terribly weevilly biscuit, and salted horse for beef, sleeps under that substantial brick tomb yonder; while beneath the square stone slab, with the sculptured skull and hour-glass, old Martin Flibuster may have his resting-place. He was called 'captain,' nobody knew why; he swore terribly; he had strange foreign trinkets and gold doubloons hanging to his watch-chain, and told wild stories of parboiled Indians, and Spanish Dons, with their ears and noses slit. What matters it now if he did sail with Captain Kidd, and scuttle the 'Ellen and Mary,' with all hands aboard? He died in his bed, and who shall say, impenitently?
The old sea-captains and traders connected with the sea have still their abiding-places in quiet, cosy little cottages about here, mostly tenements, with green doors and bow-windows, and with a summer-house perched a-top, where they can twist a flag on festive occasions, and enjoy their grog and tobacco on quiet summer evenings. The wild mania for building - the lath-and-plaster, stucco-palace, Cockney-Corinthian frenzy - has not yet extended to Limehouse, and the old 'salts' have elbow-room.
I must turn back here, however; for it is nearly four o'clock, and I shall be too late else for a peep into the Docks. The Docks! What a flood of recollections bursts through the sluice-gates of my mind, as I gaze on the huge range of warehouses, the swarms of labourers, the crowd of ships! Little as many of us know of maritime London, and of the habits of jack alive, we have all been to the docks, once in our lives at least. Was it to see that wonderful seafaring relation of ours who was always going to the Cape with a magnificent outfit, and who always returned, Vanderdecken-like, without having doubled it - being also minus shoes and stockings, and bringing home, as a species of atonement-offering, the backbone of a shark? Was it to dine on board the 'Abercrombie, Jenkinson,' of I don't know how many [-53-] hundred tons burden, which went out to Sydney with emigrants, and foundered in Algoa Bay? Was it with that never-to-be-forgotten tasting-order for twelve pipes, sixteen hogsheads, twelve barrels, of rare ports and sherries, when coopers rushed about with candles in cleft sticks, running gimlets into casks, and pouring out rich wines into sawdust like water? When we ate biscuits, and rinsed our mouths scientifically, and reproached our companions with being uproarious; but coming out (perfectly sober, of course) could not be prevented from addressing the populace on general subjects, and repeatedly volunteering the declaration (with our hat on the back of our head, and the tie of our cravat like a bag-wig) that we were 'All Right!'
I remember, as a child, always asking myself how the ships got into dock; a question rapidly followed by alarming incertitude as to how they got out. I don't think I know much more about the matter now, though I listen attentively to a pilot-coat and scarred face, who tells me all about it. Pilot-coat points to the warehouses, dilates on the enormous wells those gigantic brick-work shells contain; shows me sugar-bags, coffee-bags, tea-chests, rice-bags, tubs of tallow, casks of palm-oil. Pilot-coat has been everywhere, and every voyage has been added a fresh scar to his face. He has been to sea since he was no higher than 'that' - pointing to a stump. Went out in a convict-ship; wrecked off St. Helena. Went out to Valparaiso; had a fever. Went out to Alexandria; had the plague. Went out to Mobile; wrecked. Went out to Jamaica; fell down the hatchway, and broke his collar-bone. Deserted into an American liner; thence into an Australian emigrant ship; ran away at Sydney; drove bullocks in the bush; entered for Bombay; entered the Indian Navy; was wrecked off the coast of Coromandel; was nearly killed with a Malay creese. Been in a South-Sea whaler, a Greenland whaler, a South Shields collier, and a Shoreham mackerel boat. Who could refuse the 'drop of summut' to an ancient mariner, who has such a tale to tell, were it only to curtail the exuberance of his narration? And it is, and always has been, my private opinion, that if the 'wedding guest' had given the real 'ancient mariner' sixpence for a 'drop of summut,' he would have had the pith of his story out of him in no time, whereby, though we should have lost an exquisite poem, the 'wedding guest' would not have been so unsufferably bored as he undoubtedly was, and some of [-54-] us would have known better, perhaps, what the story was about.
You have your choice of Docks in this wonderful maritime London. The St. Katherine's docks, the London, the West India Docks lie close together; while, if you follow the Commercial Road, the East India Docks lie close before you, as the Commercial Docks do after going through the Thames Tunnel. There are numerous inlets, moreover, and basins, and dry docks: go where you will, the view begins or ends with the inevitable ships.
Tarry with me for a moment in the Isle of Dogs, and step on board this huge East Indiaman. She is as big as a man-of-war, and as clean as a Dutch door-step. Such a bustle as is going on inside, and about her, nevertheless! She is under engagement to the 'Honourable Company' to sail in three days' time; and her crew will have a tidy three days' work. There are horses, pigs, bullocks, being hoisted on board; there are sheep in the launch, and ducks and geese in the long-boats. French rolls can be baked on board, and a perfect kitchen-garden maintained foreward. Legions of stores are being taken on board. Mrs. Colonel Chutney's grand piano; old Mr. Mango's (of the civil service) hookahs and black servants; harness, saddlery, and sporting tackle for Lieutenant Griffin of the Bombay Cavalry. And there are spruce young cadets whose means do not permit them to go by the overland route, and steady-going civil and military servants of the Company, going out after furlough, and who do not object to a four months' sea-voyage. And there are black Ayahs, and Hookabadars, and Lascars, poor, bewildered, shivering, brown-faced Orientals, staring at everything around them, as if they had not quite got over their astonishment yet at the marvels of Frangistan. I wonder whether the comparison is unfavourable to us in their Brahminical minds, between the cold black swampy Isle of Dogs, the inky water, the slimy hulls, the squalid labourers, the rain and sleet: and the hot sun and yellow sands of Calcutta; the blue water, and dark maiden, with her water-pitcher on her head; - the sacred Ganges, the rich dresses, stately elephants, half-naked Sircars of Hindostan; - the rice and arrack, the paddy-fields and bungalows, the punkato, palankeen, and yellow streak of caste of Bengal the beloved! Perhaps.
Passengers are coming aboard the Indiaman, old stagers wrangling as to the security of their standing bed-places, [-55-] and young ladies consigned to the Indian matrimonial market, delightfully surprised and confused at everything. The potent captain of the ship is at the Jerusalem Coffee-house, or busy with his brokers; but the mates are hard at work, bawling, commanding, and counter-commanding. Jack is alive, above, below, aloft, and in the hold, as usual, shouldering casks as though they were pint pots, and hoisting horses about manfully.
Shall we leave the Isle of Dogs, and glance at the West India Docks for a moment? Plenty to see here at all events. Rice, sugar, pepper, tobacco; desks saturated quite brown with syrup and molasses, just as the planks of a whaling ship are slippery. Jack, in a saccharine state, strongly perfumed with coffee-berries. Black Jack, very woolly-headed, and ivory-grindered, cooking, fiddling, and singing, as it seems the nature of Black Jack to cook, fiddle, and sing. Where the union-jack flies, Nigger Jack is well treated. English sailors do not disdain to drink with him, work with him, and sing with him. Take a wherry, however, to that American clipper, with the tall masts, and the tall man for skipper, and you will hear a different tale. Beneath the star-spangled banner, the allowance of halfpence for Nigger Jacks decreases wofully, while that of kicks increases in an alarming proportion. I would rather not be a black man on board an American ship.
In the London Docks we have a wonderful mixture of the ships of all nations; while on a Sunday the masts are dressed out with a very kaleidoscope of variegated ensigns. Over the ship's side lounge stunted Swedes and Danes, and oleaginous Russians; while in another, the nimble Gaul, faithful to the traditions of his cuisine, is busy scraping carrots for a pot au feu.
Not in one visit - not in two - could you, O reader! penetrate into a tithe of the mysteries of maritime London; not in half a dozen papers could I give you a complete description of Jack alive in London. We might wander through the dirty mazes of Wapping, glancing at the queer, disused old stairs, and admiring the admirable mixture of rotting boats, tarry cable, shell-fish, mud, and bad characters, which is there conglomerated. We could study Jack alive in the hostelries, where, by night, in rooms the walls of which are decorated with verdant landscapes, he dances to the notes of the enlivening fiddle; we might follow him in his uneven wanderings, sympathise with him when he has lost his register ticket, [-56-] denounce the Jews and crimps who rob him. Let us hope that Jack's life will be amended with the times in which we are fortunate enough to live; and that those who have the power and the means, many not long want the inclination to stretch forth a helping hand to him. Ratcliffe and Shadwell, Cable Street and Back Lane, may be very curious in their internal economy, and very picturesque in their dirt; but it cannot be a matter of necessity that those who toil so hard, and contribute in so great a degree to our grandeur and prosperity, should be so unprotected and so little cared for.