Victorian London - Thames - Description of the Thames - 'Over Hungerford Bridge'


AFTER rambling about on the Surrey side of the bridges, to mount the wooden incline that leads up from the low bank, and catch the fresh breeze that blows along the river, and watch its brightness and its bustle, from the Hungerford foot-bridge, is something like turning to poetry after reading police cases. There is a good deal of prose mixed up with the poetry: you see gasometers as well as the cross-crowned dome of St. Paul's and the spires of the city churches, lime-heaped wharfs as well as the grassy gardens of the Temple, tumble-down hovels and gloomy ranges of warehouses as well as the facade of Somerset House and the towers of the Palaceof Westminster, coal-lighters lumbering along sideways like dead whales as well as glancing wherries, and the white awnings, bright flags, and brighter faces, of river steamers reeling beneath their load of holiday-makers; but still, the prospect, as a whole, is a great relief after the squalid melancholy in which you have been wandering. It is not a lively locality, that "Surrey side." By day, at least,— and its nocturnal vivacity is not more cheerful, owing its genesis to the peculiar proclivities of New Cut and York-street roughs; ruffians, now garotting and now hocussing, from Kent-street and the Mint, and the harlots and pickpockets: who colonise in dingy streets leading out of the Waterloo-road. The obelisk in St.George's-circus — a hoary modern antique, dating not further back than the third George's time —has no venerableness in its grey: it seems to have grizzled prematurely through constant contemplation of the dreariness of the thoroughfares which there converge. One of them is now blocked with a chaos of windlasses, boarded shafts. and galleries, and earth-heaps on which the sewer-making navvies recline during their dinner-hour, snoring in the sunlight with a sustained vigour that thunderously echoes along the road ; and yet it looks more wakeful than it ever looked before. Almost the only bright-looking objects in the Blackfriars-road are the gilt wheel which a "dealer in cotton waste" displays as sign, and the gilt dog, hungrily nosing in a gilt skillet, mounted above another shop at a corner ; and their exceptional brilliance is more than set off by the doleful dirt and dilapidation of the "houses in Chancery " at the corner of Stamford-street. In spite of the rusty iron girders which stretch across the filthy areas, the murky, melancholy old tenements, that have so long stood tenantless, seem ever on the point of falling down like Judas. The areas are not only thick with dust but littered with glass and stones and brickbats. Every pane in the windows is smashed ; fringed with stiff clotted lashes of jagged glass, the frames stare blankly like gouged eye-sockets. Both from window-frame and door the last blister of paint has cracked and crumbled, and a fur of brown soot encrusts them; whilst the bricks stand out with blackness even in the midst of London grime. Stamford-street, as a whole, is about as lively as an empty canal-lock, but the rest of it looks comparatively cheerful after those dismal old houses at the corner. Save where omnibuses constantly rattle and rendezvous, the general characteristic of Surrey side thoroughfares is gritty desolation. In its second-hand furniture shops denser and more angular dust lies on the greasy arm-chairs, the battered cabinets, and mildewed bedsteads than can be found at any other brokers'. You might write your name on the long-vanished white and faded blue of the rocket-cases in its firework shops. It seems to have taken to that manufacture in desperation at its dreariness. Now and then in its squalid streets you come upon a music-shop, where melancholy moustached men are turning over fly-spitten songs and sonatas, and trying dusty pianos whose merriest tunes seem set in minor keys as they tinkle out into the circumambient shabbiness and silence. Most melancholy, least musical of birds are those exposed for sale on the Surrey side. The very larks sing out of tune, as they flutter in the pill-box cages that have worn their tails to stumpy, plumeless quills. Normally brisk chirpers and hoppers mope with drooping wings amongst the seed-husks at the bottom of their dungeons, with only spirit nough left to croak upbraidingly in whispers. The Cochin-China cocks languidly protract the most lugubrious lament that even those low-spirited fowl can wail. The magpies "in their dusty rusty black, and rumpled dirty white, look as seedy and sleepy and sulky as Cremorne waiters on the morning after an Oaks night. The Surrey side flower-stall is as depressing a sight. The arum is turning yellow like old ivory. The once white fuchsias are dredged with filthy dust as thickly as an auricula with its pure powder. The fallen musk-blossoms have given dull buff facings to the faded scarlet uniform of the geraniums; and they in their turn have dropped their dim petals on their shrivelled leaves like splashes of lack-lustre sealing-wax, and what were once clumps of bloom bristle like burnt-out fireworks.
    The inchoate thoroughfares of the Surrey side are still more dreary than its old ones. Here towers a pretentious hop-warehouse in brand-new white and red, and at its foot spreads a wilderness of hummocked, ash-strewn soil,
enclosed in rails that look as if all the sweeps in London had been employed to rub soot into their very grain ; and, behind, the vilest slums, with here and there a remnant of a shorn-off hovel protruding in harsh ruin, squint villanously round corners; or a quadrangle of squat almshouses looks very uncomfortable at having its conventual somnolence laid bare. Charitable institutions of every kind jostle on the Surrey side, but they all have a sad, half-hopeless look, as if depressed by living in a neighbourhood so constantly in need of charity which they cannot give. They peer peevishly through their smoky trees, as if that apology for foliage tantalised them with a wish to swarm off bodily into the country. The meeting-houses on the Surrey side, on week days, remind one, for the most part, of dusty, mildewed boxes stowed away in a lumber-room—even Mr. Spurgeon's ambitious tabernacle is already defiled with stains like the "tide-marks" of a half-washed face; and even more dreary are most of the churches. Their graveyards, when I last saw them, were ablaze with marigolds, but the brightness of the flowers springing rankly from the unkempt soil, fat with decaying corpses, went no deeper than the eye. They made a fit wreath for a black yet hoary-headed tottering tombstone, half hidden in the coarse grass like an aged negress performing Obeah rites upon the sly. The new Surrey Theatre is a more architectural building than the old, but it has put on the doleful drab uniform of the district, and by day time dust and straw eddy depressingly between the locked gates and the locked doors of its flat portico. The ugliest brewery, the most gloomy bonded warehouse, is a more beautiful, exhilarating object than the Victoria Theatre. Nor do the bewildering lines of broad railway arches, straddling through the wildernesses they have made, add any amenity to the Surrey side. Their bills and boards, gay with white and red and blue and green and gold, flout the surrounding squalor with their garishness, when posted outside; or cling to the walls inside, like flocks of tropical birds dimly seen roosting in a jungle. Their atmosphere is damply close and disspiriting as that of the cave of Trophonius. The Blackfriars Station of the London, Chatham, and Dover might, perhaps, look cheerful if planted anywhere else, but the raw handsomeness of its variegated brick merely makes the eyes blink in the dull neighbourhood in which it stands. The Waterloo Terminus, on the other hand, is quite in keeping with the district. Its amorphous pile of dingy brick, its melancholy arches that seem far fitter for family vaults than shops, its muddy, narrow entrances, its mire-splashed wood-work, its sprawling stucco superscription peeling from the wall, combine to make the Waterloo Terminus in complete harmony with its surroundings — the dreariest London station in the dreariest London road. Even noble Waterloo Bridge grows hideous when it touches Surrey. Its glistening, columned stone degenerates into grimy, jumbled brick. Passing under the gloomy arch with which it spans the tunnel-like riverside road, you make the discovery that the houses built upon its Surrey side approach have not an inch of back yard. Above its sloping range of board-blocked crypts runs, high up in the air, a range of wooden; pantries, stuck on to the houses after the fashion of conservatories. Are clothes hung out to dry, and children sent to play, in those lofty cupboards? Here and there in the road along the river you come upon a handsome dwelling-house, with a sweep of once white steps, and a plot on which grass once grew, in front, converted now into the office of the neighbouring wharf. It looks sulkily ashamed as you go by, as if it did not like any one but habitués to see brass rails with account-books laid on the top of them, gleaming from the windows of what used to be its drawing-room. Although the road is fringed with wharfs, whose overhanging stacks of timber scent the air with turpentine, the thoroughfare is strangely quiet. At the entrance of one of the wharfs stands a bronzed bargemaster, attired in claret-coloured, flapped, plush cap, blue guernsey, and new green corduroys, tranquilly smoking, and watching, with a droll mixture of philosophical curiosity and philosophical contempt, a trio of lime-dusted hobbledehoys, who, squatting on the narrow pavement, are trying to make the tatters of their greasy corduroys less patent by cat's-cradle undergirdings of twine. Il y a fagot et fagot. "All corduroy-wearers are not alike," seems to be the profound reflection of the self-satisfied bargemaster. On the pebbly "hard" beyond the wharf, mudlarks, with their trousers tucked up to the hips, are dabbling in the rippling water and playing pitch and toss under the lee of a lop-sided lighter. The flag-staffed, lighthouse-like shot-towers, seen from that quiet road, have almost as lonely a look as if they were fixed on Eddystone or the Bell Rock. The red-nightcapped, leather-aproned draymen seem some new order of monks as they move about in the quadrangles of the lofty Lion Brewery. When you approach the turnstile of the foot-bridge, a policeman, lounging on the metal counter, and chatting with the toll-taker, has to make way for you. There are very few people on the bridge. The lack of popular inscriptions and sketches on its chains and railings would seem to indicate that at no time can there be many foot passengers upon it. Throughout the entire length its red brown-and-gold bears but two specimens of such mural art—a sum in simple multiplication, and a fancy portrait of a mounted field officer, with a hooked nose almost as huge as his cocked hat ; both in crayon. For a moment there is peace upon the adjoining railway; its friction-polished metals gleam untraversed; its lofty signal-station stands lonely as a house on piles in the middle of a marsh. But in another moment there is a creaking jerk, the arms of the semaphores are stiffly going through their extension motions ; the bridge quivers ; and a train rushes past, so close and so little above their level, that you cannot help fancying for a second that your toes will be crunched in spite of the intervening palisade. Thenceforward engines are constantly panting past you, one way or the other : detached engines crawling along languidly, as if they had crept out of the shed to get a breath of fresh air ; engines backing long lines of empty carriages ; and engines hurrying along with crowded trains, whose guards, leaning out over the doors of their vans, view all they pass with the stolid gaze of stale familiarity, whose cockney passengers do not even take the trouble to look out, but whose country passengers excitedly gather at the windows to catch a glimpse of the bright bustling river and the busy embankment works.
    They certainly are worth looking at : it is a queerly chaotic waste to see so near the serried rows and jumbles of dusky dwellings that crowd down upon it. Yonder there is some sign of cosmos emerging from the chaos ; the earthwork plateau is filled in, and the granite facings glisten in the sunlight. But near the bridge the scene is, to the non-professional eye, a mere nightmare vision of hopelessly confused and behind-hand engineering. A tiny cascade is tumbling from the riverside boarding as water splashes down the gates of a canal lock or a mill-dam. Alongside lies an arid earth-barge, into and out of whose open hold navvies' barrows, slung in a triangle of hooked cord, are constantly descending empty and ascending full. A panting steam crane hauls them up; its grimy driver, glued to its little wooden step, looking, as he swings backwards and forwards with his engine, a mere piece of its machinery. All over the works these industrious little black monsters keep up their consequential pant. A heavier puffing proceeds from a pumping engine, planted on an oasis of small coal, and a dismal clank from the huge, clay-coloured links of its ever revolving chain; whilst through a grotesquely bent pipe water runs out into a muddy reservoir. Here yawns a deep, broad gap, sided and crossed with an angular confusion of planks, which give it the look of a Noah's ark in frame. There curving tramroads run apparently nowhither. Along springy paths of plank, navvies, in blue check shirts, and dirty white jumpers, are wheeling their barrows, piled high like jelly glasses, with straining arms, or sauntering back with them empty, propelling handles turned into carelessly drawing shafts. Ballast-waggons and contractors' tumbrils seem to be emptying their loads at random,—sierras of loam and gravel to be rising under a fortuitous concourse of atoms. In two or three places men are laying fat bags, which, when thrown down, give out a cloud of white dust, like flour sacks. In the centre of the level that has been made stands a shanty, as black, and rough, and desolately ruinous as the remains of a log hut in the midst of a fire-blasted prairie. Here drain-pipes are littered like the chimney-tops of houses engulfed by earthquake ; there lies a massive wooden pile like the stranded kelson of a wreck; and yonder bask half-a-dozen granite blocks like fallen obelisks in an Egyptian sand-plain.
    York Stairs, separated by the whole breadth of the embankment from the water that once lapped their stones with musical splash, have a dolefully widowed look. Their black and grey seems like mourning put on for their bereavement. The stairs proper, indeed, have vanished, the grass-fringed steps against which wherries, and, earlier, barges with gilt moulding and gay banners and merry minstrelsy, used to grind. The rough dirt and rubbish are levelled flush with the bottoms of the rustic columns. The iron gates are broken down, and sprawl in the archway, orange-red with rust. Writing years ago of the place once inhabited by the Bishops of Norwich and the Archbishops of York; Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; and Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans; and by both the Buckinghams ; who have left their names sown broadcast there,—Leigh Hunt observed, "A little spot remains, with a few trees, and a graceful piece of art; and the river flowing as calmly as meditation." The trees still struggle into leaf along their neglected walk; Inigo Jones's Water Gate still bears its lions, and its cable-wreathed anchors, its Villiers' arms, and their motto, which seems so queer a one to have been borne by Charles the Second's Buckingham, Fidei Coticula Crux ; but the river has vanished. At least, it has been forced to, retreat to a remote distance, and the human-faced couchant lions look reproachfully over the intervening waste at the crowded penny boats, spotted with guardsmen's uniforms like poppies, arriving at and departing from the far-off dummies, as if they were dreamily lamenting the contrast between the present and the past. In names only does the district on the east foot of Hungerford Bridge retain its splendour. York-place is an alley peopled by small hairdressers and greengrocers; York-buildings a pile of gloomy offices; the George a public-house,—a decent-looking place of its kind, although it is crowded up in a corner, but somehow, when you look at it, you cannot help being reminded of the worst inn's worst room and the incongruous decoration of the miserable truckle-bed. Duke-street and Buckingham-street are funereal thoroughfares of grimy brick and smutty painted facades, with dingy boards-protruding from the open doorways, and fly-spitten bills wafered to the dusty window panes, announcing chambers and offices to let. Modern architecture has broken out at a corner of Buckingham-street in free-stone and polished granite pillars, but the pedestals have been chipped and the pillars have been dimmed with damp and grease, and the building does not look out a whit more cheerfully on the rarely trodden pavement than do the mouldy old houses that advertise "Furnished Apartments " in their dusky parlour windows, or the "desirable residence," which, in spite of its mildewed, dusty desolation, plumes itself on the possession of high, narrow windows, running up, like a giraffe's neck, from the bottom of the first to the top of the second floor. It is hard to realise that foreign ambassadors have been lodged in state, and that their multitudinous retainers have brawled, "to the effusion of blood," as the Scotch law says, for precedence, in a spot so sombre and silent. Still, at any rate, the old streets and alleys were laid out by the second Duke of Buckingham when he pulled down his palace. The Charing Cross Hotel is a very showy pile, but one can hardly help grudging that it and the railway that runs into it, should have almost destroyed the identity of Villiers-street by shearing off one side, and generally turning it topsy-turvy. Hungerford Market, too, is gone, and though that was but a modernised representative of the Hungerford House that stood- upon its site when York House was still a palace, a dreamy lounger in London must needs regret the cool, cheerful-looking mart, with its moist slate and marble slabs, adorned with bowls of gold fish, and silvery turbots embossed with coral-red lobsters.    
    The railway advertises " light and airy" arches to let. Some of the unoccupied ones, I have read, have been temporarily occupied by street Arabs, and exultingly christened "The Just Found Out." If they have any light,.
they must be a pleasanter sign to put up at than the Arabs' old hostel, the Adelphi arches. It is curious to stand at the mouth of one of these, and watch the few people who enter and emerge gradually vanish or loom into distinctness like lead-miners in a sloping shaft. The buildings above, that bear the names of the architect, Adelphi, Adam, Robert, James and John„ are not much more cheerful. Like the adjoining streets, they are a  warren of chambers and offices, but the rabbits so rarely pop in and out, that the pavements and roadways appear Pompeiian. A dreary hush broods in the atmosphere of the Adelphi. Drab turned up with dirt is its uniform. The other buildings look insulted when a pile of chambers suddenly takes it into its head to clothe itself from head to foot in white paint, and whilst the whiteness lasts, it shimmers in the surrounding gloom far more like a sheet of penance than a festal garb. The Arts, you cannot help fancying, must languish like flowers in a dried-up pot in the dustily melancholy mansion of the Society that has taken them under its special protection in the Adelphi. It is odd to note so many, and so various, and so frequently changing names on door-post and lobby-wall, and yet to wander in silence so sepulchral. Are the Pure Literature, and the Home for Little Boys, the Social Science, and the Reform League, the Naval Architecture, and all the other people who sport active-sounding titles in the Adelphi, taking siesta behind their blinds? What has become of the fast bachelors popularly supposed to have chambers therein ? Do they only come out with the bats? At any rate, the place is quiet as a Quakers' meeting, When you pass a family hotel, and catch a glimpse of gleaming cruet-stands and snowy napkins, and inhale a pungently unctuous whiff of mulligatawny, you are almost as much startled as if you had come upon preparations for a feast in the heart of a pyramid. The most cheerful part of the Adelphi is the Terrace. Its pilastered front looks out upon the river, and an attempt is made to make it gay with flowers and green with creepers. But it, too, is dull and faded as a drowsy dowager. The bricks show through the vanishing plaster of its western wing. If you look over the river railing, you see not the river, but the embankment's wilderness, and the flat asphalte roofs of stables peppered with pebbles, and the dreary yards of Oxygen Works littered with tar-barrels. The chances are that not a soul besides yourself will be hanging over the palisade ; but before you turn to plunge into London bustle again, half relieved and half flustered, at the Adam-street corner of the Strand, you may call to mind that Johnson has leaned on those rails before you, talking sadly to Boswell of their old friends Beauclerc and Garrick, no longer sprightly tenants. of their then still bright-looking houses in the faded old terrace behind your back.

Richard Rowe, Argosy, 1867