I’ve been doing a bit of research about life in Victorian London for my final MA assignment due later this month. Last week, while Mac was working in London, I took the opportunity of going down there with him for a few days. Keen to demonstrate a writing-research motivation, I managed to find time in between shopping trips and cocktails at Selfridges, to don my walking boots and tramp around the streets of Shad Thames and beyond.
This is part of the Bermondsey area and makes for a fascinating trip. The old wharfs and warehouses are now plush apartments with names such as Cayenne Court or Vanilla & Sesame Court, reflecting the original use of the properties for the storage of imported spices. Many of the old buildings still have the original lettering on the walls.
The dockers would gather at Shad Thames twice a day in the hope of being hired for a half-day’s work ferrying the spices, tea and coffee in barrows from the riverside wharfs into the warehouses, further inland.
Visiting the notorious Jacob’s Island where Dickens located Bill Sike’s lair in Oliver Twist was a highlight although it took me a while to find it as it is marked only by a Southwark Council historical plaque. Jacob’s Island was once one of London’s worst slums and described by Dickens himself as the “filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”.
It was named such because of the deep ditches surrounding the housing. These contained deadly stagnant water, which unsuspecting residents used for cooking, drinking and washing and the cause of a terrible Cholera epidemic.
“…crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.” Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Nearby St Saviour’s Dock, where Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist fell to his death into the stinking mud of Folly Ditch (don’t worry, Bullseye was fine), has its own tales of horror. In these historic streets, one can easily imagine the great Thames, packed solid with loaded vessels containing cargoes of spices, coffee and tea, awaiting offloading and transportation into the warren of cobbled streets filled with warehouses. Sometimes, due to the logistical problems of unloading and sheer volume of goods, the laden ships could wait weeks to be processed….ripe indeed for opportunist pirates to plunder the goods, ooh-arrgh. Consequently, an appropriately gruesome Victorian punishment would be meted out without the inconvenience of a trial. Their termination of choice? A public hanging, of course.
These would often take place at St Saviour’s Dock, giving the locals something to do other than another night watching Nancy sing on the tables at the Tavern.
St Saviour’s Dock where the public hanging of pirates would often take place. The inlet river took on the name ‘Neckinger’, after the ‘Devil’s Neckinger’ – London slang for the noose used to hang the pirates.
The Shad Thames area is also home to the The Anchor Brewhouse, an historical site, originally opened in 1787. The Thames-side brewing spot was mentioned by both Chaucer and Shakespeare in their tomes. A particularly intriguing place is Horsleydown Old Stairs, which is a gloomy tunnel/alleyway leading directly down to the river and runs adjacent to the Anchor Brewhouse. The unusual name is thought to be derived from the instruction, “Horse lie down” to the old carthouses to rest who transported the barrels of beer around the area.
Horsleydown Old Stairs is a quirky little alleyway leading directly
down to the Thames.
The view of Horsleydown Old Stairs from the other side – photo taken from
Shad Thames is a chic area today, retaining its character and cobbled streets but dotted with quaint shops and numerous bars, restaurants and cafes.
So now, all there is left to do is to incorporate said research into my fictional piece of prose. For that, I first need more coffee….