Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 36 - Silent Highwaymen

[... back to menu for this book]





IT does not require one to be much of a philosopher broadly to define that we have our partialities as well as our dislikes, and that we are generally as irrational in one as the other. As the wildest of madmen will talk with perfect sense and fluency until asked what has become of Julius Caesar, or what soft-soap is made of; when he will suddenly break out into rabid fury and incoherent bellowings, so can I listen with placid smiles to the narrated idiosyncrasies of my friends, meeting each account with placid smile or acquiescent shrug ; but if by ill-chance the subject of the silent highway be touched upon offensively, I break forth and lose my head at once. The Thames is my mania, my love for it the absorbing passion of my life. It is the only one weapon with which I beat my provincial acquaintances and foreign visitors. They come and stay with me, and abuse my place of abode. The provincial says he cannot breathe, the Frenchman says he has the spleen, the German inflates his many-plaited shirt-front, and bellows, "Ach Gott! was für eine Luft!" and the Italian sighs heavily, and pantomimically searches for the sun. When I show them St. Paul's, they shrug, muttering of Notre Dame, of the Cologne Dom, of St. Peter's at Rome, of Il Duomo at Milan; when I take them through Trafalgar Square they [-378-] roar, immediately instituting comparisons between that monstrous national disgrace and the glorious Place de la Concorde of Paris, the Unter den Linden, or the Schloss Platz of Berlin, the St. Stephen's Platz of Vienna, the Piazza di San Pietro at Rome, the Piazza del Granduca at Florence, or the Piazza S. Marco at Venice. The Monument is a standing joke for them, and all the London statues are exquisite themes for ribaldry. They sneer at our theatres, they laugh at our church-architecture, they are impressed with nothing at all, except it be Madame Tussaud's waxwork, until I take them on the Thames. Then I hold them!
    Dirty is Father Thames, I grant thick, yellow, turbid, occasionally evil-smelling but I love him none the less. I know him where he is pure and cleanly, at near-lying Richmond and lock-bound Teddington ; at decorous Hampton, and quaint old-fashioned Sunbury and Chertsey by pretty Maidenhead and quaker Staines; at Pangbourne, Goring, and Streightly, than which three there are not, I opine, any lovelier spots in this lovely country ; at monastic Medmenlam and red-faced Henley, far away down to the spot where the banks echo with the time-kept strokes of the racing eight, and the river runs merrily past old Oxford town. I know him throughout ; but I love him best in his own special territory, frowned upon by the great, gaunt, black warehouses, the dreary river-side public-houses, the dim gray Tower of London, the congregationless City churche, the clanging factories, the quiet temple, the plate-glass works, the export Scotch and Irish merchants, the cheese-factors' premises, the cement-wharves, the sugar consignees' counting-houses, the slimy slippery landing-places, the atmosphere of which is here sticky with molasses, there dusty with flour, and a little way farther off choky with particles of floating wool. Make your embankments, [-379-]  if you like; lay down your level road duly granited and palisaded off from the river, and lined with buildings of equal height and of the same monotonous architecture; but, before you do that, you will have to clear away hundreds of little poky dirty streets of a peculiar speciality nowhere else to be met with - streets which are as thoroughly maritime as Hamilton Moore's Treatise on Navigation, or the bottom of a corvette that has been for three years on the West India station - streets filled with outfitters, sail-makers, ship-chandlers; bakers of ship-biscuit, makers of ship-chronometers, sextants, and quadrants ; sellers of slop guernseys, and pea-jackets, and sou'-westers ; lenders of money on seamen's advance-notes ; buyers of parrots and cockatoos, thin Trichinopoly cheroots, guava jelly, and Angostura bitters from home-returning Jack.
    Look at my Thames, Historicus! and you will have little difficulty in calling before your mind's eye the old days when she was the Silent Highway for all, from the monarch taking water at Westminster, to the prisoner floating in at Traitor's Gate; when Richard the Second floated in his tapestried barge, and seeing Gower the poet, called him on board, and bade him "make a book after his best," whence arose the Confessio Amantis; when Wolsey, giving up York Place, " took his barge at his privy stairs, and so went by water to Putney;" when Sir Thomas More, abandoning his chancellorship and his state, gave up his barge and his eight watermen to Sir Thomas Audley, his successor; when Tames the Second, flying from his throne, embarked at Whitehall, as old Evelyn records in his Diary: "I saw him take barge - a sad sight." Time after time the oars cleave the waters, the swift wherries hurry towards the water postern of the Tower, the warder stands erect in the bows flouting the thick darkness with his flaming torch, the bearded guards lean negligently on their halberds, and in the midst sit the prisoners; now, courtly Essex, or [-380-] grave-faced Raleigh; now, Northumberland, or vacillating Dudley, or gentle Lady Jane Grey. The Traitor's Gate opens, and the Constable of the Tower receives them at the stairs; then the hurried trial, the sentence, and the early morning when the black-visored headsman does his work.
    As in a dissolving view, gone is the grim old Traitor's Gate; and in its place rises a rotunda with a Doric portico, an arcade, and a gallery outside, a Venetian pavilion in the centre of a lake, and grounds planted with trees and allées verts. This is Ranelagh, and the Silent Highway is silent no longer, bearing the chattering company thither on its bosom. "The prince, princess, duke, much nobility, and much mob besides are there." My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he has ordered all his letters to be directed thither. Dr. Arne composes the music for a concert; fireworks and a mimic Etna are introduced. A mask taps Sir Roger de Coverley on the shoulder, and begs to drink a bottle of mead with him; and Dr. Johnson - surly Sam himself - delivers that "the coup-d'oeil is the finest thing he has ever seen." The Silent Highway itself is broad, and clear, and wholesome, covered by gay wherries manned by jolly young waterrnen, all of whom are "first oars" with those fine City ladies who go to Ranelagh and Vauxhall, and all of whom row so neat and scull so steadily (albeit thinking of nothing at all), that the maidens all flock to their boats, and they are never in want of a fare.
    But the prompter's bell sounds, and through the Venetian pavilion, already half faded, I see the outline of Hungerford pier, with the ticket-sellers' boxes and the advertisement hoarding ; in place of the trees and the allées verts are the black or chequered funnels of steamers, mincing conversation of beaux and belles is drowned in a roar of "Grinnidge, Woollidge - this way for Nine Ellums!" The rapidly- decomposing heads and dresses of the jolly young water-men dwindle down into the small whole-length of a wiry [-381-] boy, who, with his eye on the captain's pantomimic finger, shrieks out with preternatural shrillness, "Turn a' starn!"
    Yes, this is what it has all come to The ancient Britons and their coracles, the middle ages and their romance of black boats and halberdiers and prisoners, and torches and Traitor's Gate, the Queen Anne times of hoops and powder, periwigs and cocked hats, rapiers and Ranelagh, all come down to a pea-soup atmosphere, a tidal sewer edged with bone-boiling and tallow-melting premises, and lashed into dull yellow foam by the revolving paddles of the iron steamboats of the Watermen and Citizen Companies, plying every three minutes. The jolly young waterman, who used to row along thinking of nothing at all, is now compelled to think a good deal of the management of his craft, lest she should come in contact with others, or with bridge-piers, and be incontinently sunk. Enormous barges, so helpless and unwieldy that one doubts the possibility of their ever being got home, still cumber Thames's broad bosom; light skiffs dot the surface from Putney to Twickenham; pretty yachts dodge about the Erith and Greenhithe reaches ; snorting little tugs struggle frantically as they drag big East Indiamen, down to the Nore; but still the real Silent Highwaymen nowadays are the passenger steamers.
    The river steamboat traffic may be divided into the above and below bridge; for, though some of the Greenwich boats proceed as high as Hungerford, the chief portion of their trade lies between London Bridge and their point of destination, while none of the Chelsea boats are seen east of London Bridge. The above-bridge traffic is conducted by the boats of the Citizen and the Iron Steamboat Company, working in harmony and sharing "times". Their management is, I believe, excellent; but in this paper I shall confine myself to speaking of the Watermen's Company's fleet, which is the largest and the longest estab-[-382-]lished on the river. Forty years ago, when the inhabitants of Greenwich had occasion to visit London, they were conveyed to and fro in boats with covered awnings, rowed by a pair of oars, in which, at a charge of sixpence each, they were brought to Tower stairs: those going by land had the privilege of paying eighteenpence for a ride in a slow and very stuffy omnibus, while Woolwich residents had to get to Greenwich as best they could, and thence proceed either by land or water conveyance. As Greenwich extended and the power of steam became known, the watermen of Greenwich formed themselves into a company, and started one or two steamboats; one opposition company did the same, a fraternity at Woolwich followed in the track, and the opposition became tremendous. All these boats started from the same piers at the same time, and the happy captain was he who could cleverly cut into his adversary, knock off her paddle-box, and thus disable her for several days' trip. This state of things could not last long, the Greenwich Company "caved in, the Watermen's and the Woolwich Company entered into amicable arrangement, and thence- forward ran in concord.
    These two companies own thirteen boats each; the total number of river steamboats plying on the Thames between Gravesend and Richmond being about sixty. The boats belonging to the Watermen's Company average about ninety tons each; each measures about a hundred and sixteen feet in length, fourteen feet in width, and eight feet in depth. All are built of iron, manufactured in the company's own yard at Woolwich, where about seventy artificers are in constant employment: in addition to which force, the company has about sixty men afloat, and eighteen collectors of tickets or supervisors. Each boat has a crew consisting of a captain, a mate, two men, a call-boy, an engineer, and a stoker. With the exception of the engineers and stokers, all these men must be free watermen (an Act of Parliament [-383-] accords to the Watermen's Company the privilege of demanding that all the crews of passenger-carrying vessels must be watermen), and all work up, in regular rotation, from the post of call-boy to that of captain. This alone secures that intimate knowledge of the river, and that incessant vigilance, which is absolutely necessary for the protection of life ; the call-boy is apprenticed to the captain generally, and rises by gradual steps from the bottom of the paddle-box to the top of it, from watching the captain's fingers and explaining his pantomime to the engineer, to twiddling his own fingers and commanding the boat. Everywhere, except in the engine-room, the captain is supreme, and even the engineer is bound implicitly to obey the captain's orders as to the speed and direction of the vessel. Liberal wages are paid; the captain receives two guineas a week, the engineer the same, the mate has thirty shillings, the men six-and-twenty, the boy seven; and this is not too much, when it is remembered that about fourteen hours daily is the average attendance required of each.
    The expenses attendant on the management of such a company are very large. In addition to the weekly wages just detailed, it may be reckoned that the primary cost of each boat, exclusive of repairs, is five thousand pounds, while the pierage-dues are enormous. At the piers held by the Thames Conservancy the company have to pay sums averaging from one penny to sixpence for every time their boats call, while at other piers they are charged amounts varying from four shillings and sixpence to seven shillings and sixpence for every hundred passengers landing. Thus they disburse between three and four thousand a year in pier-dues; the rent of the Greenwich landing-stage, which belongs to a company, is alone two thousand pounds a year. With all these disbursements, the company pay a dividend of five per cent. A complaint of drunkenness or incivility against those employed by them is unknown; and such good feeling exists, that the masters now invite the [-384-] men to an annual supper, at which great conviviality reigns, and the highest mutual respect is expressed.
    Here is a little bit of the history of my modern silent highwaymen. Come, Monsieur, Herr, or Signor, and show me anything like it in the countries where you dwell.