Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 24 - 1860 - Longitude 0 0' 0"

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CHAPTER XXIV

1860 - LONGITUDE 0 0' 0"

Family removal - Greenwich in 1860 - River path to Woolwich - Derelict steamers - Angerstein's Wharf - A good Fairy - Yarn of a rope - Marooned off Blackwall - Churchwardens.

NOVEMBER, 1860, witnessed a great family transformation scene - we removed to Greenwich, and thenceforth I did what falls to the lot of very few boys: dwelt in W, and went to school in E., longitude, crossing the meridian every day and sometimes several times a day. That wore out shoe-leather, I suppose, but probably did not perceptibly affect the meridian.
    The change of scene was great and the surroundings vastly more interesting, historically and otherwise, than those we had left. The beautiful and famous Park, with its docile deer; the renowned Observatory, with its time-staff and ball, its twenty-four-hour clock, and its standard measures; the Hospital, with its quaintly dressed inmates - stiff square - cut blue coat with great cuffs, long waistcoat, white cravat, three-cornered hat; its Painted Hall, with stately battle pictures and relics of Nelson; the Naval School, with its full-rigged ship firmly fixed on dry land, like Noah's ark on Ararat; the noble river, with its never- ending stream of ships as well as of water; the old heart-of-oak Dreadnought, moored in the tideway and used as a seamen's hospital; Blackheath, with its past legends of Wat Tyler, of highwaymen, and now with its modern attractions of donkey-rides and cocoa-nut shies; the celebrated hostelries, Ship and Trafalgar; the Parish Church, with its memories of Wolfe, the conqueror of Canada; the wooden houses, narrow streets, steamer pier, railway viaduct and station, alms-houses, toll-bridges over Deptford Creek, and [-198-] general flavour of a bygone age, and that age one not too particular about smells and cleanliness. Such was the Greenwich of 1860. Even the very partial understanding of its characteristics, their origins and meanings, at which I was able (with guidance) to arrive helped me not a little in learning the practical lessons of life.
    The town was already decayed in those days. Its industries were few, and did not compensate for its vanished maritime importance. There were streets of good houses leading up to and fringing the Park and Blackheath, for the supply of which many shops were necessary; but the chief life of the real Greenwichers gyrated round the river, the Hospital, and the big Government establishments at Deptford.
    The path along the river to Charlton and Woolwich, now an almost continuous throng of Works of various kinds and under which the Blackwall Tunnel passes, was then a desolate embankment overgrown with wild vegetation of a luxuriance I have never since seen equalled in this country. A rhubarb-like plant, whose leaves attained enormous size, abounded, and there were other huge and coarse weeds. Here and there, separated by great distances, would be found a chemical works, a foundry, or a rope-walk. Some way east of Greenwich was the celebrated Cable Manufactory, and an Engineering Works, in front of which the hulls of two small partially dismantled iron screw-steamers were moored stem and stern on the foreshore, alternately floated and left stranded by every tide.
    They were there for a long period and formed a great attraction for boys. We used to pretend that they were French or Russian gunboats, or pirates, and would organise cutting-out expeditions against them. The smaller we could board without much difficulty, but the smoothly-plated sides of the larger presented a different problem and it was long before I succeeded in reaching her deck. When I eventually did, the gratification was naturally great and the zest with which I explored the bare and dingy interior - cabin, forecastle, engine-room - was keen indeed. There were remnants of coal in the stoke-hole and bunker, the boilers and machinery looked all right, and the vision of [-199-] boarding the vessel as the tide came in, getting up steam, casting off the moorings (on investigation I found that was more easily imagined than done, the existence of boys not having remained unsuspected by those who arranged them), and going for a surreptitious cruise with my brothers and special chums as crew, crossed my mind-nay, more, haunted it. But there were difficulties. I couldn't find a compass: there were certainly neither charts nor chronometer; and, supposing a vigilant Thames Police boat came alongside and demanded a view of my captain's certificate? I couldn't well run her down and have blood and the tears of wives and orphans on my soul, so that an ignominious striking of my flag and perhaps six months in jail for suspected piracy - with contingent ruin of the family name - seemed the not unlikely, if humiliating, alternative. Otherwise I could, perhaps, have towed a few sailing vessels up and down the river or out to sea and gone home with my pockets full of gold and bank-notes after honestly bringing the steamer back to her moorings and blowing off steam. But it was not to be!
    About half-way to Charlton the scene on the pathway changed dramatically for a short distance, for there we came to Angerstein's Wharf, a landing-place for goods of quite modern appearance, with railway sidings, trucks, sheds, and labourers. It was served by a single-track branch from the North Kent Line of the South-Eastern Railway. At that time the business done was not great, and one goods train a day, which came about 11 a.m., sufficed for the traffic. Whether the existence of the Wharf was due to the enterprise of Mr. Angerstein, M.P. (already mentioned in connection with birds' nests), or was named because of proximity to his estate, which the branch line either crossed or skirted, I never learned.
    Thence to Charlton the river path was desolation. I do not remember a single building, and it was rarely that any way-farer was met as we plodded along the embankment, the construction of which some antiquaries have ascribed to the Romans. The only company we had was that of the steamers, ships and barges. Owing to the [-200-] winding of the Thames the river-side route was perhaps three times as long as the direct road between Greenwich and Woolwich, and few were the disturbers of its solitude.
    I witnessed a little marine incident on this deserted section one windy day. A brig had managed to run ashore and stick fast on the slope of the embankment at or near high water, and, as the tide was now running out, she was canted towards the river, and I fancy was in some danger of capsizing, for, as the Woolwich diamond-funnelled steamer Fairy approached on a trip up-river the crew waved and shouted excitedly to her. Like a good Fairy she stopped, and, after some hoarse palaver, backed slowly towards the brig until one of her men caught a line by means of which a rope was hove on board. This being made fast, the steamer pulled softly. The sailer quivered, slid gently off the bank, and quietly came upright. Fairy then tugged her into midstream, cast off, and went away. All this occupied only a few minutes. I have since wondered whether it was simply a kindly action by one skipper to another, or whether the Diamond Funnel Company lodged a claim for salvage or services rendered.
    Such things are usually charged for, but not always. In 1898 I had some pleasant conversations at Guernsey with the late Captain H. P. Mortimer, then not very long retired from the L. and S. W. R. service, and amongst other things he told me that some years before, when approaching the Needles from the Channel Islands in one of the old paddle-wheel mail steamers, he observed signals of distress from a German barque in a perilous position at the base of the chalk cliffs. He stopped; the German sent a boat with a hawser, which broke as soon as he put on steam to tow her off. He then passed a cable of his own, and this time pulled her into deep water and safety. He reported the occurrence at Southampton, but, as little time had been lost, it was decided not to claim anything. Later a letter came from the barque's owners at Hamburg. Tendering thanks or offering compensation? Oh, no! Asking for the return of the remnant of their broken rope which the mail-steamer had taken away.
    [-201-] At one point of the river-side path a splendid view was had of Blackwall Pier across on the Essex shore. Steamers continually called at the landing-stage and near the top of the tide tugs passed every few minutes with sailing vessels, many of considerable size, in tow. In the early sixties wind-jammers were plentiful, and all but the smallest took steam assistance in the upper river reaches. The Thames makes a big bend here and Blackwall Pier with the terminus of the Blackwall Railway occupies the bight of the curve. On the Kentish side, immediately opposite the pier, there was in those days, forming the nose of the promontory known as Blackwall Point, a detached piece of land which for some two hours before and after every high water became an island. The books say that "opposite Blackwall on the banks of the Thames a good many pirates usually hung in chains, looking like scarecrows." It was the locality marked Bugsby's Marsh, or Bugsby's Hole, on the old maps, and probably this conspicuous islet was the cheerful spot alluded to.
    I thought it would be good fun to become a Robinson Crusoe for four or five hours and one day, when the tides were moderate, for I realised that the island might become submerged when they were at their highest, I walked across the very muddy channel and allowed myself to be cut off. There wasn't much fun to be extracted from the situation, however, about half a minute sufficing for a complete inspection of the domain of which for the time being I was "monarch of all I surveyed" - to wit, one-eighth of an acre of rank vegetation. Fortunately, I knew nothing of the pirates in chains. When the rising water reached the edge of the flat islet and started to lipper amongst the grass and flags boredom vanished, for I began to apprehend that the almanac might be wrong and that my refuge was about to be covered. I got my handkerchief ready to tie to my stick in case it should become necessary to signal to passing craft for aid; but, happily, just as I was asking myself whether I ought to delay longer, I noticed some anchored barges near the opposite shore begin to swing and then I knew that Father Thames had shot his bolt and that I had [-202-] won the hazard. But it was weary work waiting for the channel to become passable, especially as I had turned exceedingly hungry. My isolated position had attracted attention on more than one passing vessel, but, excepting some lightermen, nobody had hailed me. Those bargees termed me a something young fool with a directness that could not have been excelled by dwellers in the "street that is called Straight." And, moreover, the epithet was surely deserved.
    I had observed something during my brief Crusoe experience that might be looked for in vain in 1924. Some of the skippers and mates of the smaller craft calmly sailing or drifting past were gravely smoking long churchwarden clay pipes. These were greatly  - may I say to the fore? -  in those days. Greenwich watermen smoked them when on shore, in their pubs, in the street, and when talking in groups at the river-side. The 1860 workman would as soon have smoked narghiles as cigarettes, which were rare, and when used - chiefly by foreigners - were rolled as required, the ready-made-up article being unknown.