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In the Footsteps of Charles Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse

April 1, 2012
by the gentle author

In Narrow St, Limehouse

Charles Dickens’ godfather Christopher Huffam lived and ran his sailmaking, blockmaking and chandlery business from a substantial house in Newell St, next to St Anne’s Limehouse. Huffam adored his godson, declaring the boy a prodigy, tipping him half a crown on his birthday and encouraging him to dance and perform comic songs upon the kitchen table – and also, it is said, upon the bar at The Grapes. In the company of his godfather, Dickens first explored Shadwell and Limehouse, engendering a lasting fascination with these teeming waterside regions that he returned to throughout his writing life, both in fiction and journalism.

It is a landscape that I came to know through Dickens’ writing even before I visited it for myself and, in spite of all the changes, when I walk through Shadwell and Limehouse today, I cannot dispel his vision of this distinctive area of London. So, after riffling through some bookshelves, I set out to see what I could photograph of Dickens’ imaginative perspective in these riverside streets.

“Shadwell Church! Pleasant whispers of there being a fresher air down by the river than down by the Docks, go pursuing one another playfully, in and out of the openings in its spire. Gigantic in the basin just below the church looms my Emigrant Ship… two great gangways made of spars and planks connect her with the wharf, and up and down these gangways, perpetually crowding to and fro and in and out, like ants, are the Emigrants. Some with cabbages, some with loaves of bread, some with cheese and butter, some with milk and beer, some with boxes  beds and bundles, some with babies – nearly all with children.” – The Uncommercial Traveller, Bound for the Great Salt Lake. In July 1863, Dickens visited a Mormon mission of 895 emigrants on board a ship in Shadwell Basin.

“I found myself on a swing bridge, looking down on some dark locks in some dirty water. Over against me, stood a creature remotely in the likeness of a young man with a puffed sallow face, and figure all dirty and shiny and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy father, Thames, or the drowned man about whom there was a placard on the granite post like a large thimble that stood before us. ‘A common place for suicide?’ said I, looking down at the locks. ‘Sue?’ returned the ghost with a stare. ‘Yes! And Poll. Likewise Emily. And Nancy. And Jane.’” – The Uncommercial Traveller, All the Year Round. In January 1860, Dickens visited the Wapping Workhouse for female paupers.

One day everyone will be chalking about it

“The wheels rolled on, and rolled on down by the Monument and the Tower, and by the Docks, down by Ratcliffe, down by where the accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher ground..” Our Mutual Friend, Gaffer Hexham’s Abode,1864.

“Down by the river’s bank in Ratcliffe, I found the Children’s Hospital established in an old sail loft or storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There were trap-doors in the floors where goods had been hoisted up and down, inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward staircases perplexed my passage through its wards, but I found it airy, sweet and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little beauty, for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look, but I saw the sufferings of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged.” New Uncommercial Samples, A Small Star in the East, 1868.

“Look at the marine store dealers, in that reservoir of dirt, drunkenness and drabs – thieves, oysters, baked potatoes, and pickled salmon, Ratcliffe Highway. Here the wearing apparel is all nautical. rough blue jackets with mother -of-pearl buttons, oilskin hats, coarse checked shirts, and large canvas trousers, that look as if they were made for a pair of bodies, instead of a pair of legs, are the staple commodities. In the window are a few compasses, a small tray containing silver watches in clumsy thick cases, and tobacco boxes, the lid of each ornamented with a ship or an anchor. A sailor generally pawns or sells all he has before he has been long ashore.” Sketches by “Boz,” Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People, 1836.

“Captain Cuttle lived on the brink of a little canal near the India Docks, where there was a swivel bridge which opened now and then to let some wandering monster of a ship come roaming up the street like a stranded leviathan. The gradual change from land to water, on approaching Captain Cuttle’s lodgings, was curious. It began with the erection of flagstaffs as appurtenances to public houses, then came the slop-sellers’ shops. These succeeded by anchor and chain-cable forges, where sledgehammers were dinging upon iron all day long. Then came rows of houses, with little vane-surmounted masts.” Dombey and Son, 1848.

“Rogue Riderhood dwelt deep in Limehouse Hole, among the riggers, and the mast, oar, and block makers, and the boat builders, and the sail lofts, as in a kind of ship’s hold stored full of waterside characters, some no better than himself, some very much better, and none much worse.” Our Mutual Friend, Pleasant’s Mysterious Vision, 1864.

“Past Limehouse Church, at the great iron gate of the churchyard, he stopped and looked in. He looked up at the great tower spectrally resisting the wind, and he looked at the white tombstones, like enough to the dead in their winding sheets, and he counted nine tolls of the church bell.” Our Mutual Friend, Think it Out, John Proudfoot, 1864.

“ The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, already mentioned as a tavern of dropsical appearance, had long settled into state of hale infirmity. In its whole construction, it had not a straight floor and hardly a straight line, but it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast, many a better trimmed building, many a sprucer public house. Externally, it was a narrow lop-sided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon the other as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden veranda impending over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all…” Our Mutual Friend, Cut Adrift, 1864.

Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse – Spitalfields Life will be hosting a walk in the footsteps of Charles Dickens on Easter Monday 9th April at 3pm from St Georges in the East, visiting locations described in his novels and journalism. The walk will take approximately an hour and a half, and conclude at the historic riverside pub The Grapes.

Booking is essential and numbers are limited, so please email spitalfieldslife@gmail.com to sign up. Tickets are £10.

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You may also like to read about

Charles Dickens at Park Cottage

Charles Dickens In Spitalfields

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 2 – The Silk Warehouse

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 3 – In the Streets

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 4 – The Silk Weavers

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 5 – The Young Artist

Charles Dickens at the Eagle

The Brick Lane Temperance Association

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Emily permalink
    April 1, 2012

    Thank you so much, Gentle Author, for these wonderful photos. On my recent London holiday, one of the highlights was walking this very route, just after sunset. None of my pictures came out very well (I don’t like to use a flash), so it’s great to have these – and the history that goes with them!

  2. melbournegirl permalink
    April 1, 2012

    Who could ask for better guides through London than Charles Dickens and our Gentle Author?

  3. Adrienne permalink
    April 1, 2012

    Brilliant idea, brilliantly done…

  4. April 2, 2012

    How serendipitous that you posted this today. Here in NY Masterpiece Theater is broadcasting Great Expectations. As I read this, I an counting d own – 42 minutes until Pip and Miss Haversham make their entries.

  5. Diana permalink
    August 3, 2013

    Dear gentle author,

    I so love your blog! I live in the US in Las Vegas, Nevada ….a far place and world from your surroundings….I love Charles Dickens and thank you for all the tidbits, etc. you bring forth. I have a young friend who is going to swim in your channel and a daughter and friend who will come there to watch.

  6. Brenda Hillier permalink
    January 14, 2016

    Fascinated. My father’s family were dockers and labourers in Limehouse. They came from Ireland in about the 1840′s… To think that Dickens walked the same streets at the same time…

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