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Charles Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse

May 29, 2022
by the gentle author

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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.

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

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 29, 2022

    You’ve outdone yourself here. Spitalfields Life is always worth visiting, but today’s blog is a masterpiece, tying together the sense of place and great literature.


  2. Milo permalink
    May 29, 2022

    Very evocative. I’ve spent many hour wandering those streets and your photos bring them deliciously back. Imagine owning the ‘Grapes.’ Imagine being able to sit in that place after the customers have gone and its late and locked up and warm and quiet and you get yourself a drink and sit at a table overlooking the river….I can scarcely think of anything i’d like better.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    May 29, 2022

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, very nice juxtaposition of Dickens’s texts with various contemporary pics of Shadwell and Limehouse. The novelist loved to walk for hours at night throughout London while he created his story lines and worked out his plots.

    Good stuff…

  4. Jo N permalink
    May 29, 2022

    Beautiful stuff, both the photos and the writing.

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