Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 29 - 1861 (continued) - Vanished Industries

[... back to menu for this book]

[-232-]

CHAPTER XXIX

1861 (continued) VANISHED INDUSTRIES

Locomotive building in London - Shipbuilding in London - Last days of-Blackwall (Germany) - Greenwich again - Trinity House Almshouse - Old Woolwich Road - Park - Blackheath - Circus - Dick Turpin - Panoramas - Monte Video - Magic-lanterns - Modern "penny dreadfuls" - Scarlet fever - Saffron and tamarinds - "Walk on Jenkins."

NOT far from Greenwich - at Hatcham - existed until the late 1860s the locomotive-building factory of George England and Company, the last of the kind in London. In the early days of railways several such firms had existed, Braithwaite and Ericsson, already referred to; Rennie and Company at Blackfriars, and W. B. Adams at Bow. But all had disappeared except England. He started about 1845; attracted attention at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with an engine called Little England, and likewise did well at the Exhibition of 1862. This was creditable as his factory was a full mile from the nearest railway-station, so that all material and fuel had to be carted to the works, and the locomotives, when built, carted away from them. As some weighed thirty tons, this was no light undertaking. England and Company came to a sad end. Their men, many of whom were from Lancashire, struck while an important contract was in course of execution and dealt the firm a blow from which it could not rally. The works were closed and locomotive building in London came to an end. Eno and Company, of Fruit Salt fame, now occupy a part of their factory in Pomeroy Street.
    This strike simulated on a small scale the disastrous one which extinguished ship-building as a Thames industry. About 1880 I saw in the Isle of Dogs rows of workmen's cottages, and good cottages too, standing unoccupied and [-233-] desolate, their gardens and the paths and roadways in front obliterated by weeds. The erstwhile occupants had had to emigrate to the Clyde and elsewhere-to less genial climates and inferior accommodation - often to earn reduced wages. And now in 1924 it looks as if Old Father Time, bent on another of his usual revenges, and very effectively aided by the trade unions, is driving ship-building from the Clyde to the Tyne, the Wear and the Lagan.
    It was in 1866 that I got my last views of Thames ship-building activity. With other members of my rowing club I made a down-river excursion one afternoon - it was the day on which the news of the battle of Sadowa was received - in a four-oared gig and passed close to the ironclad Northumberland just launched from, I think, the Thames Iron Works. She was a monster for that date. On a similar outing another day we passed a shipbuilding works near Blackwall just as a steamer for a South American Government was launched with steam up and stores and crew on board. Almost as soon as she was afloat the screw began to revolve and her nose turned down the river. After a very, brief interval she glided away amidst cheers and dipping of flags.
    An amusing reflex of Thames shipbuilding came to me in 1891, when, with Mr. Anthony Reckenzaum, a Hungarian electrical engineer of some fame domiciled in England and a German friend of his, I joined the paddle-steamer Kaiser at Coblenz for a trip up the Rhine. The boat was a double- funnelled, powerful craft, and stemmed the rapid current masterfully. Our Deutscher called attention to the fact and took occasion to praise the efficiency of German ships and machine building with considerable complacency. Later we walked round the lower deck and, passing the engine-room, came upon a brass plate bearing the makers' names: "Ravenhill and Miller, Blackwall". "In what part of Germany is Blackwall?" I innocently enquired. Reckenzaum was surprised and delighted. "It was with that firm that I served my engineering apprenticeship!" he exclaimed. Reckenzaum specialised in electric traction [-234-] and navigated the first electro-motor launch across the Channel. On the occasion of the Rhine trip he was going home to Hungary, where he contracted an illness of which he ultimately died.
    One of the quaint institutions of Greenwich was (and still is) the Trinity House Almshouse for respectable aged Greenwich men which stands on the river front at the end of the passage of funny wooden houses leading eastward from the Trafalgar Tavern. It is a Greenwich Hospital on a small scale for poor men generally instead of for seamen.
    Despite its name it has no connection with the Trinity Brethren, and, although it has occasionally formed a last port of refuge for weather-worn pilots, has no special duties towards them. Founded by an Earl of Northampton in 1616, the charity has long been administered by the Mercers Company, whose Managing Committee still pay an annual visit of inspection. Formerly they were rowed down from London in the Company's state barge by gorgeously livened watermen, but in 1817 that mode of transport was abandoned and the stone steps at which they used to land were covered with massive slabs like another pyramid of Gizeh. The resulting slope still forms at low water a source of delight to river-side urchins, for whose skill in climbing acclivities it constitutes a severe test. The Almshouse has an old-world appearance and would look well enough with its square tower and clock were it not dwarfed and overshadowed by the monstrous, in taste as well as size, Electricity Generating Station which the London County Council have been permitted to inflict on the classic neighbourhood, ghoulishly spoiling the much-admired view of the Hospital from Observatory Hill and other points. A Limited Company is popularly supposed to have no soul: what shall we say of a County Council?
    The old house has an extensive and well-kept garden attached, and with its sun-dial and fountain must seem an anticipatory slice of Paradise to the poor old men whose haven it is. The garden extends as far as the Old Woolwich Road, which anciently, before the opening of Trafalgar Road, formed the main highway through East Greenwich; [-235-] it has a door leading into this thoroughfare which bears the date of 1616 inside and 1798 outside, of which anomaly I never heard any adequate explanation. Trinity House boasts no centenarian on its roll but has, on more than one occasion, preserved an inmate up to ninety-eight. The delicious scent of a favourite dish of mine-Irish Stew-which often pervaded the cloisters at dinner-time, probably contributed, I used to think, to this Methuselahism. As a boy I knew something of Trinity House; as an old man I respect it still.
    The Old Woolwich Road has been greatly rebuilt since the 1860s. It then contained many quaint houses, with wells in their back gardens; several old-fashioned inns, one of which, the Princess A lice, had an inner courtyard; "National" schools, built in 1839, for boys and girls, with the foundation of which the Rev. W. A. Soames had had a good deal to do. The boy scholars wore a grey uniform with Glengarry cap. The term National School generally meant Charity School, i.e. a place where education was given free at the cost of voluntary subscribers. Farther down the road was a Ragged School for boys and girls, similarly supported, of which Mr. Angerstein, M.P., was a fast friend. The scholars were of the poorest, and those who had no expectation of dinner at home could stay in and banquet modestly. The master, Mr. Newton, was an accomplished and kindly man. Being a staunch Churchman, he was grieved that the Governors let the schoolroom on Sundays for Methodist services and during the vacations for Methodist tea-fights and mothers' meetings. But religious feeling ran high in Greenwich in those days; not nice to record, perhaps, but at all events a fact that evinced interest in the higher order of things.
    Greenwich Park was quieter than now except on the riotous days of public holiday, when trains, steamers and omnibuses poured an unintermittent stream of humanity into it from morning till evening. Then it was by far livelier, for the Cockney had fewer places to fly to and Greenwich as a haven of pleasure stood high in his esteem. The flower-garden near the Blackheath Gate did not exist and there was no bandstand. The deer had a greater expanse [-236-] of glade and sward. We boys traversed the Park very often on our way to and from cricket and football on Black.. heath. In the Park itself no formal games were allowed, but we gloried in the avenues of ancient chestnut-trees whose swelling boles afforded foothold for feats of dexterity and whose copious yields of fruit were famous near and far; and there were gravel-pits with steep sides in which we formed and stormed fortifications. It was indeed a jolly place to live near to.
    Amusements in Greenwich were neither numerous nor elaborate. The excellent railway service brought the London theatres very close and it was not till the late 1860s that the town boasted a playhouse of its own. Where it stands, next the Baths and Wash-houses (which Greenwich, to its credit, established in the 1850s) used to be a vacant plot which was a favourite pitch for circuses and other wandering shows. These I did not patronise, as a rule, but on one occasion was tempted to invest my coppers by unusually elaborate and persistent pictorial advertisements billed over the whole town - "Dick Turpin's Ride to York and the Affecting Death of Black Bess, Represented by the Leading Equestrians of the Day."
    It proved very disappointing after the high expectations raised by the posters. The fugitive highwayman, wearing a red coat, knee-breeehes, buckled shoes and three-cornered hat, all very shabby, shot Tom King and rode several times round the ring, jumping over ordinary hurdles, followed by two or three highly supposititious Bow Street runners doing the same and shouting. After a time these officers stumbled and fell out one by one, distanced by Dick Turpin's matchless steed. That hero pulled up after a few more rounds, and Black Bess, who looked suspiciously like a piebald colt blackened over, lay down. The man sat on her and threw down his whip despairingly. Then a pistol was fired. Dick started, picked up the whip, hid his face in the ample cuff of his coat, and cried (or laughed) himself out. And the circus was crowded at 3d. a head, and never a word of remonstrance!
    There was a Hall on Royal Hill next to the Baths when. quite nice entertainments were given. These sometimes [-237-] included a panorama. I doubt whether the picture-surfeited children of 1924 know exactly what that was, and quite sure that after the "movies they would vote it slow and babyish. It was a series of pictures wound on huge rollers operated by a winch or other device, so that they could be successively presented to an audience. A lecturer - sometimes competent, sometimes much the reverse - descnibed each scene as displayed. I remember a panorama, about 1862, which dealt with Palestine, one of the tableaux showing the celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity. There was an organ in the Hall and this was played softly and solemnly while the gas was turned low and the brilliantly illuminated altar, surmounted by a huge cross, shown up by lights behind. The sombre church, the shadowy congregation, the glitter- hag crucifix, the subtle music, impressed me powerfully and I felt that I should like to be, oh, so good! - that I could never be naughty again!
    Whether that came to pass it would not become me to say; but being in Monte Video at Christmas, 1907, and hearing that a Midnight Mass was to be celebrated at the Cathedral, memories of the Royal Hill picture came upon me - and I determined to be present. The scene was quite like that depicted in the old panorama-gloomy arches, indistinct worshippers, shining altar, solemn organ - but the heart of the beholder was changed somehow. I had a Kodak in my pocket, and, finding a convenient niche, took a 15-minute exposure of the mystic scene. It showed the altar up well, but little else. Panoramas like that at Greenwich were instructive in a high degree. I am sure that I came away knowing much more about the Holy Land than when I went in, and as for midnight masses I had never suspected that such things existed, although I had got a Roman Catholic priest for an uncle.
    Magic-lantern exhibitions of voyages and travels with spoken explanations of the slides were likewise frequent at Greenwich and no doubt helped to lighten the darkness enveloping the masses. There was a Society which distributed free tickets for them to poor children.
    [-238-] What a magnificent educative medium we possess in the Cinema if it were only intelligently used instead of debased as at present. In the Victorian days we used to deplore the existence of "penny dreadfuls" - tales of crime, violence and vice dished up attractively for boys  - but which were never very numerous. Now we present our children - both boys and girls - with animated "penny dreadfuls" in unlimited quantity and see no harm in it. Worthy pictures and good lecturers would be even as high-voltage lamps in the murkiest grottoes of Ignorance.
    There was another kind of panorama occasionally seen in London - a set scene or big picture built in with rock-work or other accessories which the spectator viewed from a (supposed) roof or brow of a hill. Of such I remember the Siege of Paris at the Crystal Palace, with which the late Mr. E. A. Vizetelly, translator of Zola's books, had something to do. Also Ancient Rome (I wondered where the chimney-pots were, and thought the artist must have forgotten them) with a Triumph in progress; and the Battle of Trafalgar (painted by a German!).
    One evening in 1861 I was reading a tale by Greenwood, in after-years the Amateur Casual and Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in which the dark arches of the Adelphi and the nightly concourse there of street arabs and homeless children were vividly depicted - Dr. Barnardo, destined to disperse such congregations, was not yet-when I suddenly felt sick and had to put it aside. An attack of scarlet fever developed and kept me a prisoner for several weeks. I mention this because, under the doctor's orders, I had to take saffron and a drink made from tamarinds, both, I believe, obsolete remedies to-day; and furthermore, during convalescence read for the first time Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Adventures of Peter Wilkins. Robinson Crusoe I had familiarly known for at least six years, but Peter, with his flying men, I thought ran him close in interest, although I noted a likeness between the cavern into which he was drawn and one of the experiences of Sinbad the Sailor. A coloured picture showed Wilkins navigating his boat, tiller in hand, through the tossing waves of the cavern which the [-239-] text described as being pitch dark. The colours were bright, the waves being particularly green (where they didn't consist of foam), and, although I thought it strange that Peter could steer so deftly in the dark, especially as there was no way on the boat except that imparted by the stream, it never struck me that without light there could be no colour and no picture to sketch, and that a truer presentment of the scene would have been a blotch of printer's ink.
    Another reminiscence of my early Greenwich days relates to "Walk on Jenkins," whose phantom occasionally intrudes even yet on my remembrance. He was the policeman of our immediate neighbourhood, and was held in detestation by children for his inflexibility about games in the public streets, and his habit of impounding hoops bowled on footpaths, which had to be reclaimed at the station at the expense of a lecture from the grey-haired Inspector in which hints of dire penalties to be incurred in the event of future breaches of the regulations were freely scattered. Constable Jenkins rarely passed a group of boys at a street corner or elsewhere without saying, "Walk on there!" This he did so often that "Walk on Jenkins" became his nickname, and he knew it, for it was frequently bawled after him 1rpm a safe distance by daring and irreverent urchins.
    When "Walk on Jenkins" interfered once in a fight and got his eyes blackened and his tall leathern hat bashed over his face by a local pugilist known as Slogger Ward, there was rejoicing round the walls of the ancient Park and the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter that day. Poor man! It was said that having a wife and children at home, once a week, after his spell of duty on the streets, he bad to doff the blue uniform of the Queen, top-hat, truncheon and rattle, tuck up his shirt-sleeves and do the family washing. He bad certainly been seen banging "things" out to dry. We thought that both funny and derogatory and despised him accordingly; but I can now see that if such majestically formed soap-suds were necessary to make ends meet or to relieve a weakly wife (a policeman's wife could scarcely be lazy in the nature of things), then his spells at the washtub were very much to his credit.