Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - To The Shrine of the Shrimp

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In search of the vessel in which we make our voyage - An auspicious start - Our unrequited sympathy with the toilers of the Pool - Steamboat excursionists - The artful musicians - Darby and Joan - "There's the windmill!" - Marine aspect of Gravesend - We are boarded by shrimp-girls - The ninepenny teas - I invest ninepence in pleasant company - Grand devouring of shrimps - 'Heads and tails"  -  "Just another sarcer-full of big'uns."

ALL through the summer months several steam-vessels leave the Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge, for Gravesend and Rosherville Gardens.
    But where is Old Swan Pier? It is plainly visible from London Bridge - indeed, it is a rather imposing feature of the adjacent wharf frontage - but how to reach it? The perplexed explorer inquires in Thames Street, and is informed that "any of the few next turnings on the left-hand side will take him to it." Following these vague instructions, he enters the first lane to the left, or the second or third, it does not in the least matter which, and at the end of it finds himself on what appears to be private premises, and in the midst of a maze of bales and barrels, at which coopers and packers in their shirt-sleeves are busy, and who regard the intruder with such a "what-do-you-want-her" expression in their eyes that the stranger sheers off by the nearest outlet, lest he should be given in charge for trespassing. His only consolation is that he encounters dozens of other adventurers in search of the steamboat starting-place, and similarly bewildered in the attempt. As they approach each other they simultaneously begin, " Can you direct me to -" But the question so far advanced, everybody is aware of what further every one else is going to say, and it is abruptly broken off with an universal exclamation of "That's just what we are looking for." And, companionship making them courageous, they boldly pursue their way, and finally, and by tortuous stages, suddenly and unexpectedly come on an arched alcove, over which is written, "This way to the steamboats."
    How many turn back disheartened by the protracted search, or halt despairingly for refreshment and exhaust the remainder of their "happy day" in partaking of it, it would be hard to say. [-73-] But steady determination and perseverance work wonders. At least, such appeared to be the case on the gay and festive occasion when, resolved on a day's cheap enjoyment, I booked myself as Gravesend bound, and with full three hundred fellow voyagers boarded the steamboat in waiting. A few minutes afterwards the departure bell rang, our band of three instrumentalists - a harp, a fiddle, and a cornopean - struck up "Pour out the Rhine wine," the mooring-ropes were cast off, and we proudly swept through the centre arch of London Bridge, the state of the tide happily sparing us the ignominy of lowering our funnel.
    We steamed carefully through the tiers of shipping that clustered thick in the Pool, and I doubt if the spirits of those of our party, whose holidays were few and far between, were much depressed at sight of the work-a-day aspect of everything around us. Far be it from me to say that our enjoyment was heightened by any selfish satisfaction the spectacle afforded us on the contrary, it was based rather on a generous sentiment. One likes at such times to be on terms of amity and goodwill with one's fellow-creatures, and if our commiseration for those who were less fortunate than ourselves cost us nothing, we derived no less pleasure in bestowing it; and if on nearing any ship or barge where the poor toilers were sweating and driving they scowlingly resented our disinterested advice to cheer up, I am sure there was not one of us who did not make allowance for and forgive them.
    What terrible hard work it seemed, though! As we reclined at our ease, with our hats tilted over our eyes, and contemplated it through the curling wreaths of the smoke of our cigars, it was something like listening to the howling wind and the wintry rain pelting against the dark windows as one lies snug and warm in bed. Especially when we reached the neighbourhood of Billingsgate. Talk of the compulsory tasks exacted of convicts at Dartmoor or Portland ! Take the most able-bodied stone quarrier from the last-mentioned establishment and place him along with a gang of market porters engaged in landing huge cases and crates of fish, each weighing at least a couple of hundredweight. There is no shirking in that kind of work, or enjoying a skulk if you can dodge the vigilance of the overlooker. From ship to shore, and from shore to ship, at the [-74-] quickest of marches and with military precision, and in Indian file, on they tramp, each with a load seemingly heavy enough for a reasonably capable beast of burden, treading on each other's heels almost. Along a narrow bridge of "shore planks,' that vibrate and yield elastically under the enormous moving weight that passes them, the bow-backed giants are compelled to keep step or be jerked into the river, load and all.
    But it is not all fish-carrying at Billingsgate. There is the ice-ship. And observed at a distance, with its gay flag flying, and with the words inscribed on it that designate the vessel's purpose, it seems to suggest such a cool contrast to the harsh and dry drudgery in view generally, that, given his choice of portering, one might well be tempted to say, " Although the pay may be a trifle less per diem, on account of the pleasant nature of the employment, give me a job on an ice-ship." If he so elected, a man would be glad enough to give something more than a trifle to be released from his bargain. There is no harder work on the river than "ice clearing," and none that lays the hair so sleek in prespiration or causes the calves of the legs, whatever may be their muscular development, to quiver and twitch so beneath the outer covering of cotton stocking. I have no idea as to what a yard square block of ice will weigh, but, judging from the rush of blood to the faces of the two men while assisting the huge mass on to the back of the third, who has to carry it over the narrow plank up a steep hill and gangway through the market and out into Thames Street, it would turn the beam against three hundredweight, and perhaps more. I had seen this work before, and I asked a porter what would be the result if a man slipped down with such a load.
    "If it fell on him," was the answer. "it would stave every rib of him just as though they were 'bacca-pipes."
    But after all - and I think this was the opinion of all of us as we leisurely discussed the subject - that, given the strength, we would rather work on an ice-ship than on a steam-collier, getting the coals from the hold to the barges alongside. Negro slaves could not be dingier, and Sambo's sable and oleaginous skin looks cool compared with that of those gangs of poor fellows, black-frosted with coal-grit that twinkled on their bodies, naked to the waist, on their faces, in their hair. They "jump" the great coal-basket out of the hold. Four of them stand on [-75-] a sort of raised stage, and haul at the ropes until the basket is nearly high enough; then, still holding, they jump as one man off the stage, and their weight counterbalancing the load, up it comes with a sudden leap, to be shot over the side, and before you can count twenty the tackle below is again adjusted, and the hauling and jumping is repeated, and thus through all the long hours that go to a day's work. It made us thirsty to look at it, and several bottles of ale were ordered of the alert waiter at least half an hour earlier than they otherwise would on that very account.
    The oft-repeated assertion that English people, as fellow-travellers, are less companionable and less apt at making themselves agreeable to each other than any other people, may be, to a great extent, true, but it certainly did not apply to our company. The reason was plain on the face of it. With few exceptions we were all of that class who knew how to be happy, and who prefer to be naturally jolly than affectedly genteel. Working men, of perhaps a bettermost sort, with their wives and children ; some with a sweethearting son or daughter, some accompanied with their old folk, grey-headed and wrinkled, but light-hearted as the youngsters, and as jovially bent on making a day of it, - the disposition increasing as Greenwich, Blackwall, Woolwich were passed, and the stretch of green country on either side opened out, and the river became brighter and less unpleasant to the smell.
    I can't say if all steamboat musicians know their business as well as ours did, or whether all holiday voyagers are equally free-handed. If so, I would, pecuniarily speaking, rather be a fiddler on board the Mayflower than a follower of many a more aspiring handicraft on shore. To be sure, the trio that composed our band knew their business remarkably well. They did not waste their talents in abstruse and complicated renderings, though they made an artful difference in their selection when playing at the shilling end of the boat, and when they favoured the presumably more appreciative sixteenpenny passengers at the superior end. They gave the former the familiar airs of songs they could sing if they had a mind to (and very often they had a mind to, and that to an extent that was audible to distant bargemen at the tiller, and who waved their brown tarpaulin hats and joined in the chorus), but when they came to [-76-] us their music was more refined and sentimental, and always with an eye to the main chance.
    There was a young sailor lad with his father and mother and several friends, who, when he got to Gravesend, was going aboard his outward-bound ship, and this coming to the knowledge of the cunning old fiddler - it was he who came round with the shell - he gave the others the cue, and "Write me a letter from home" was effectively instrumental in screwing a sixpence out of the purse of the tearful-eyed sailor boy's mother, while many of us, out of sympathy with her rather than the fiddler, dropped a penny into the ever-ready receptacle.
    An old couple sat snoodled together beaming with happiness, though apparently neither would again see threescore years and ten - his hand in hers as it rested on his knee, while round about the aged pair were his broad-shouldered brown-bearded son, and his wife and half a dozen boys and girls, the old folks' grandchildren. Here was an opportunity our band was not likely to overlook. "Darby and Joan" was excellently played by the fiddle and the cornopean, while the harp, relieved from duty for the purpose, sang the words so nicely that the shell must have been enriched to the extent of a shilling at least. One way and another our two hours and a half voyage came to an end in what seemed to be an astonishingly short time, and we had no idea we were so near Gravesend until some one exclaimed, "There's the windmill!"
    It is a fondly-cherished belief among many untravelled Londcners that at Gravesend the sea - the real briny ocean -  really commences. The water there may be not quite as blue as at Dover or Brighton, or as pungently salt, but it is much more azurely inclined than the Thames at Blackwall or even at Woolwich. Those who are fastidious as regards beach may object that the Gravesend foreshore would more resemble what one is accustomed to find at the seaside if there were more sand and shingle and less of what appears to be brick-and-mortar refuse resulting from the pulling down of old houses.
    But there are incontestable evidences that Gravesend is the threshold of Neptune's domain. There are the pier-posts thickly encrusted with genuine barnacles, and at low water ropes of black seaweed strew the mud in plenty; and if you wish to learn whether the water is fresh or brackish, you have but to [-77-] taste it. Besides, it is but reasonable to assume that the inhabitants themselves know more about the matter than casual visitors, and is it not written on the walls of the Clifton Baths that hot and cold "sea-water" may be obtained on the premises? Fresh water is at a premium in this saline locality. It is not a hundred yards from the landing-pier where there is a large stack of wharf warehouses, the frontage of which exhibits hundreds of barrels, and thereon is inscribed, in letters large enough for all to read, "Fresh water is supplied in any quantity to vessels outward bound."
    But, after all said and done, the most effective way of silencing objectors to Gravesend claiming marine honours is to refer them to a merely minor pride and glory of the town - the shrimp, which will no more increase and multiply in fresh water than on dry land.
    Gravesend is notoriously the headquarters of the shrimp family, and has been from time immemorial. Shrimps and shrimp-catchers may be found scattered along the British coast, but what other port except Gravesend finds it absolutely necessary, in order to keep pace with the enormous demand, to maintain a shrimping fleet? Not one or two mere cockle-boats, but a round dozen or so of sizeable smacks, each with its bag-net as big as a boat's mainsail, and with a cauldron on board into which to pop the catch as soon as it is hauled in.
    When not at work, the vessels in question may be discovered nestling snugly in a little bay close under the wall of the Clarendon Hotel on the one side, while on the other the masts nearly touch the windows of the much-to-be-praised seaman's mission-house, where, on application, lockers well stocked with wholesome books for reading may be obtained, and put on board outward-bound ships for the use of sailors. I don't know what are the quarterings of Gravesend's coat of arms, but in justice the shrimp should have a prominent place there. It would, perhaps, be going too far to claim for the appetizing crustacea that the borough is indebted to it for its commercial prosperity, but it undoubtedly plays an important part in promoting and maintaining a happy domestic relationship between Gravesend and every town, village, and hamlet as far away as London and beyond.
    It is an emblem of friendly greeting, and with snowy baskets laden with the crispy little fish, smart maidens in neat print [-78-] dresses and ample aprons "welcome the coming, speed the parting guest." Several of these boarded our vessel the moment she touched at the Town Pier, and for the benefit of those who did not at present land, but were going on to Sheerness, brought an abundant supply of shrimps in spotless calico bags, containing quarts and pints, and which were as eagerly purchased almost as the "soft tack" and the green vegetables the bumboat folk bring alongside ships that have been long absent on sea service. Those more fortunate ones whose destination is Gravesend can wait a little while. Not long, for no sooner do they set foot ashore than there are so many shrimp-sellers in waiting for them, that had they been taken with a fancy to strew the pavement as flowers are sometimes strewn in the path of distinguished visitors, we might have walked ankle-deep in shrimps as far as the High Street.
    Nor did these busy vendors represent the great consumption. They were merely the skirmishers of the shrimp interest-agents in advance, anxious to make known that the town was still true to its trust, and to furnish a foretaste of the feast Gravesend was never yet known to fail in - the ninepenny shrimp tea. It is a most hospitable place as regards eating and drinking. Experience has doubtless taught the inhabitants that two or three hours' blow on the river is calculated to sharpen the healthy appetite, and that those who set out on the voyage unprovisioned will on landing instantly look about for something to assuage their inner cravings.
    A small army famished and athirst after a forced march would not seek in vain for as much liquid and solid satisfaction as would be good for them, At the town end of the pier there is a broad and busy thoroughfare, and no sooner do the vigilant scouts announce another steamer than by some secret and subtle means the victuallers - licensed and unlicensed - send forth from their kitchens into the street such seductive odours of meats - baked, boiled, and roast - of deliciously dressed ducks, of ham of York, cream and pink coloured, and done to a turn, with roast veal and aromatic stuffing, all blending to produce a fragrance which to the hungry is as irresistible as the music of the fabled water nymph of the Indian seas to the enchanted sailor.
    There are nymphs connected with the Gravesend glamour. [-79-] Prim young waitresses, with the prettiest of ribbons in their caps, and spruce young waiters throng the pavements, and as though they were asking rather than conferring a favour entreat you to step in and partake of the tempting spread. But though the invitation be accepted - as in nine cases in ten it is - and done amplest justice to, even to the extent of more than one "follower" of pie or tart, composed of Kentish cherries and currants, a duty - a pleasure - a kindly combination of the two, remains to be performed, and in few instances will it be neglected.
    What it is no visitor can pretend to forget, for he is reminded of it at every turn. It is announced on the walls, it is hung out at windows, and stuck against doorposts. Grown folk and little children press on you small handbills by way of jogging the memory "Tea, with shrimps, ninepence."
    Why ninepence is nothing to the purpose. Ninepence it is, and the jolly holiday makers to whom the appeal is made would no more think of paying more or less than they would offer three-halfpence for a penny loaf or a shilling for tenpenny nails. The shrimps, of course, are the main inducement. Were any one insane enough to advertise "tea without shrimps, twopence halfpenny," he would not get custom enough to pay for milk and sugar. Indeed, it appears to be generally understood that the congou decoctions and the bread and butter are mere secondary accessories, trifles to which the founders of the shrimp feast do not seriously pledge themselves.
    I speak from experience. At the earnest entreaty of a motherly person I entered what ostensibly was a hosier's shop, but the floor was strewn with shrimp-heads - there were shrimp heads on the counter and among the thimbles and balls of cotton, and a show of black stockings for female wear appeared at the door festooning a wooden peck measure, such as shrimps are measured with. In the parlour behind the shop a family of seven were seated, and there was a mockery of tea in progress, but such a munching of shrimps - for your true shrimp lover devours the object of his affections armour and all, having wrung off its helmeted head - that the sound was like the breaking up of match-wood.
    "Have another cup, father?" asked a buxom older daughter, who presided at the teapot.
    "Not me, my gal," replied the old gentleman, whose waistcoat and shirt-front were abundantly festooned with legs and scales; "I can get plenty of that when I'm at home, but I'll take another sarcer-full of big 'uns if you find 'em handy to fish out," and, being further supplied to his liking, he went on calmly crunching.
    "What time does the boat go, old lady?" he inquired of his wife, after a busy ten minutes or so.
    "We've got a good half-hour yet," was the answer.
    "Then I think," said her husband, reflectively, inserting two fingers between his neckerchief and his throat as if he were gauging himself, "I'll try jist one more sarcer-full, mother. I think I can manage 'em."
    That he accomplished the feat is more than probable, but, having to catch a train then within a few minutes of being due, I cannot say for certain.