Tales from the Riverbank 3. Go East Old Man!

London. It’ll be lovely when its finished…

Having made it to Hampton Court on our last riverside walk, Jamie and I plan to head East from Tower Bridge to the Thames Barrier, exploring on the way the murky dockside past of some of our ancestors.

On the way down to Tower Hill, a convivially crowded tube is full of people in a state of Bank holiday relaxation, chatting in a variety of languages – as we do in London – blissfully oblivious of offending Nigel Farage in absentia.

Looking at the fragment of Roman Wall still standing opposite the Tower, Jamie expresses a desire to climb it; taking parcours into Spring Heeled Jack territory.

On the North side of the Tower there is a statue that at first we take to be a war memorial; but on closer inspection proves to be a memorial to Construction – and other – workers killed in industrial accidents. Erected by UCATT, the construction workers union (part of UNITE since 2017) it has the same physical look as military memorials; and is very much modelled on them. A solid looking bloke in bronze, staring into the distance/future, wearing a hard hat instead of a tin bowler, with a spirit level over his shoulder where a rifle might go, and a tool belt where his ammo pouches and dagger would be. Recent wreaths from UNITE, probably laid for worker’s memorial day on April 28th, lie at the foot of the plinth. Not a ceremony of remembrance anyone much makes a fuss of. But, they shall not grow old either… (1)

Setting out, down the wide steps Eastwards into the St Katherine’s Dock basin we go. Between 1828 and 1968 a working dock, when “brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk” started to come in in warehouse loads, stacked high in tall storehouses of fast blackening yellow brick, designed with the same early industrial brutalism as Kings Cross station and having that harsh beauty that functional confidence can confer if built in sufficiently grand dimensions; but now just a marina full of yachts, mostly white and sleek, and fringed with hotels, restaurants and bars for the sort of people, mostly white and sleek, who can afford them. Jamie suggest that it would make a great scene for a chase sequence in a spoof Bond film, with characters hopping from boat to boat. One of the yachts, appropriately enough, is called “Moneypenny”. Moored along the West side is a Thames barge, blunt nosed. solid, red sails furled, ready for a fair days pay for a hard days work; but kept for legacy display and exhibition reasons, just as the heavy overhead winches and pulleys on the warehouses are; mighty pieces of machinery painted glossy black and reduced to a decorative reminder of how far the world of money has moved on from mere mechanics. To one side is “Gloriana” a recreation of an eighteenth century Royal Barge with a sixteenth century name built for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and probably due a run out for the Platinum one later this summer- all red and gold, sharp prowed and elegant; a cabin for Royalty to loll in at the back – with Dieu et mon Droit carved above – and seats for rowers to plough the river with their oars in at the front (no God or rights for them). Brassy. All that’s missing is a crowd of musicians on other boats playing the water music; all trumpets and timpani. A wagtail gilded with delicate yellow under feathers dances delicately alongside, its light liveliness a kind of mute mockery of our pretensions to be able to design anything as sublime as it is.

Wapping High Street and the streets off it is more or less free of cars, but there are lots of people on rented bikes – chatting as they go – and joggers, mostly with earpieces in and proper kit. One woman has blue lipstick; which must be some sort of statement. The street is mostly luxury gated apartments, converted warehouses seven storeys tall, hemming in the cobbled road like a canyon, with, to landward, side streets leading to quiet social housing estates and, on the river side, sliced with neglected narrow alleyways leading to steep, treacherously slimy stair ways down to the river; which sucks and sloshes angrily with a smell of salt and sludge and a legacy of green slime far up the walls. A place for a quick scuttled escape to a waiting boat were there to be one there. But not a place to hang about. There is a definite sense of threat about it. The sort of alley way that might lead to a secret trap door to the hideout of an eighteenth century villain like the Spectre in The Valiant. Or a place a pirate might have been hanged, or chained up for the tide to drown him. Among the surviving pubs, which look like the sort of places that would have been really rough half a century ago but have scrubbed up nicely, even though they have a lot of the dame sort of shiny green bricks they used in Victorian public toilets, all gleaming glass and brass, scrubbed wood and real ales, is the Captain Kidd, which has a painting of him on the gibbet as part of its sign. Further up is The Prospect of Whitby, which says it is the oldest riverside pub in London; founded in 1520. The Inca Empire still had 12 years to run when they started. A list of all the monarchs since Henry VIII underlines just how long they have been pulling pints on that spot. There is room for just one more after Elizabeth II, which may or may not be prophetic.

Walking alongside the river for a short patch where it is accessible, we hear a distant chanting, slightly menacing, like a football crowd. It seems to be coming back in the direction of the Tower of London. Not possible to pin down. The swish flats built to look swashbucklingly futuristic by Michael Heseltine’s Docklands Development Corporation in the 1980s – an abortive model for a megalomaniac vision of a wholesale urbanisation of the North Bank of the estuary as far down as Southend jokingly referred to at the time as “Heselgrad” – are looking a bit battered close up. Weathered. Stained. Pooped on by gulls. Rickety and rotted a bit in places. The old pre war LCC council estate flats look as though they will be in better shape for a lot longer. Recently built estates look much more solid than either. Very square, but with handsome dimensions. Bright green privet hedges – a gesture at a Garden City revival perhaps – have the feel of holograms, as though we are walking through one of those computer generated scenes of what the new estate will look like when it is built and the sun is shining and it is inhabited entirely by fit, well dressed people who have places to go and things to do.

At the point that the Regents Canal meets the Thames we walk across a solid looking bridge, looking down at a flotilla of swans nosing around looking for food among the flotsam of plastic bottles and footballs and trying to groom themselves with water that is the colour of diahorrea. Needs must. As we near the far end, lights begin to flash and a siren sounds at both ends of the bridge as barriers begin to descend; so everyone scuttles off. Water is pouring out through the lock gates, with streams of algae spiralling out towards the river like an unappetising green sauce. As the lock gates open, so does the bridge. The whole thing lifts slightly, then swings away from our side to the left, upstream, with a stolid certainty, pivoting on the far bank and coming to rest parallel to the channel of water. Three two masted boats, crewed by quite elderly people and flying Dutch flags at their stern, cast off from the bollards inside the lock and motor swiftly through and out onto the river in a rapid convoy; before the bridge swings inexorably back, and settles itself down with a sigh and a solid THUNK. The small crowds of cyclists and walkers gathered at both ends are made convivial by being held up together; a common experience of no great significance in itself, but the power and the weight involved in the way that the bridge moved, making the forces we use for small everyday experiences visible is humbling and exhilarating; if the grins people are giving each other is anything to go by.

The river is busy all the way down to Greenwich and small children point and laugh at the river clippers; which are large, sleek and powerful and growl through the water like apex predators, churning a foaming wake. Fast orange speed boats operating out of St Katherine’s Dock, bounce across the surface with screaming tourists imagining they are in that chase from the imaginary Bond film- a riverine version of a white knuckle ride. Not to be outdone, a Police boat with its siren going hurtles down river towards Greenwich- sometimes taking flight momentarily – leaping forward in a series of stomach turning jumps; either giving chase to person or persons unknown, or late for tea, or having fun. A boat decorated with Horrible Histories logos lurks alongside former execution sites to give people that Weren’t we awful…! frisson. One of the slower tour boats, heading back up river, is full of people singing “Bring me Sunshine”– in a rather heartfelt way. This may be the possibly the same lot who were chanting earlier so menacingly, but now seem to be in a much mellower mood.

“Bring me sunshine, in your smile

Bring me laughter, all the while

In this world where we live,

There should be more happiness

So much joy you can give

To each brand new bright tomorrow…” (2)

I have to explain the cultural echoes this has for my generation; as it means nothing to today’s. It could be a prayer. You could intone it like an Anglican vicar if you add the words “Oh Lord”… at the beginning. Certainly of its time. Tomorrow might well be brand new, but its not likely to be very bright, and very few young people think it is opening up for them; with 75% in a recent survey afraid of what it might bring, 54% that humanity is doomed and 39% actively considering not having children.

How not to take a scenic photo. Greenwich in the gloom, with the Cutty Sark’s masts centred, the Royal Naval College to the left, and Jamie in silhouette in foreground.

Greenwich from the other side presents as a montage of architectural styles – the stately elegance of the Royal Naval College, reclines with aristocratic languor, stretching effortlessly along the waterfront with green hills behind it. Alongside, and towering above it like an outsized Igor to the College’s Doctor Frankenstein, is a huge Victorian power station; vast vaulted brick halls, foursquare towering chimneys like the stiffened upturned legs of some dead beast, thoroughly Orcine, a hunk of Mordor built on the lawns of Arcadian fantasy.

Walking North up the East side of the Isle of Dogs and the river empties. Only the occasional Clipper prowls beyond Greenwich, giving a sense of abandonment and a quiet that feels a bit eery. On the far side, near the O2, a few dry docks are still working, a Go Cart track makes an enormous noise, and tiny figures can be seen walking across the top of the O2 like a queue of penguins on a very round ice floe. The South end of the Isle is not like the North, dominated as it is by gleaming towers of finance capital. Cubitt town was built on lands reclaimed from swamps as late as the 1840s. Housing estates from before “Docklands” dream in the sunlight, children throw stones into the oncoming waves in old dry docks, one of them, closed off from the river, is covered in algae, smooth and flat like a bilious billiard table dotted with cast off plastic bottles buoyed up high in the airless water beneath, while lots of people in new Shalwar Kamiz’s for Eid head for relatives houses. The ward that elected the first ever BNP councillor in 1993 now feels comfortably multicultural, with people of all descriptions chatting in the street. Another memorial to dead workers stands quietly by the waterfront. Six Fire fighters killed in a fire and explosion on a now demolished wharf in 1969 – a plaque from the Brigade and one for their union alongside each other; their names listed.

At the point that the River Lea reaches the Thames, we have to walk across a flyover on the A13 – an umbilical cord to home in my case (3) – in search of the Orchard peninsular; which was the site of a shipbuilding yard owned by my great, great, great grandfather (via my Dad’s paternal Grandmother’s line), Benjamin Crispin Wallis. The yard’s main claim to fame is to have built the paddle steamship Ruby for the Diamond Gravesend Steam Packet Company in 1836, claimed at the time to be “the fastest in Europe”; 160 feet long with two 50 Horse Power engines capable of 13 and a half miles per hour; allowing her to get to Gravesend ahead of all rivals in just 1 hour and forty minutes. This was such a success that he was bankrupt within a year. He was back in business by 1852, listed in the London Commercial and General Directory of that year as a Barge and Boat Builder at Orchard Place Blackwall, but went bust again by the end of the decade; “occupation 1859: Bankrupt.” His creditors received 1 shilling and 3 pence for every pound they were owed. (London Gazette July 24th 1860). He died in 1877 at 77 years old. (4)

Orchard Place is a backwater along Bow Reach that is almost as hard to get to now as it always was. Cut off by the Lea’s meanders, and the basin of the East India Dock, with no public transport, seen as an island by those who lived there and those who shunned visiting it; it was desperately poor. Marked dark blue on Charles Booth’s poverty map, denoting “very poor, casual, chronic want” – only black – “Lowest class, vicious, semi criminal” was rougher. People worked in the industries that grew up around the docks, notably rendering whale oil from blubber, glass polishing (mostly women) a lucky shift at the Docks for those with enough cash to buy drinks for the foremen in the many pubs, or “toshing”, scavenging along the shoreline for useable goods, or lumps of coal to use or sell. Largely isolated from the rest of London, three families dominated – the Scanlans, Jefferies and Lammins. A school report from the Bow Creek School noted that, “of 160 children in the school, 100 were Lammins”; which must have made taking the register interesting.

Lammin? Here.

Lammin? Here.

Lammin? Here.

Some of these children were reported as asking their mother for a candle, “so we can watch the rats”. Made our own entertainment in them days…

The view from the A13 flyover looking South across Orchard Place. To the right is the entrance to the East India Docks. Ahead is the river and Greenwich. The Wallis yard, I think, was where the flats are to the right. The Thames Cable Car can just be seen on the Greenwich side – a ski lift to nowhere much.

At the end of the peninsular there is a cafe in a prefab unit, which has a black cab on the roof with a tree growing through it, where we rest our aching feet and eat a vegan buttie (bit dry).

Across the flyover looking down to the right at scuzzy Leaside industrial leftovers, big, broken wooden drums dumped in piles, buddleia growing through the concrete of an industrial graveyard – ahead to the Tate and Lyle factory – Baking Britain Golden – a last citadel of production left isolated in brownfield desolation – and to the left to the Victoria Dock; which for a moment we are disoriented by; as it is so broad it looks like the river has been moved (by Jonathan Strange perhaps) or the universe has been turned inside out around us. The Thames Cable Car – the Dangleway – sways high up 300 feet over our heads and we wave back at some kids who are very excited to be in it.

Finally, the Thames Barrier and journey’s end. The park alongside is full of families out for Eid and the river flows muckily too and fro.

On the tube back, I notice in our reflections that we are sitting in a disturbingly identical way.

  1. Deaths of front line workers in recent years, thanks partly to “health and safety gone mad”, have gone down quite sharply from 2.1 per 100,000 in 1981 to 0.44 per 100,000 in 2021. A total of 142 in 2020-21 (mostly falls from height or being hit by a vehicle) mostly still in construction and agriculture, with a much higher rate of deaths for the over 60s. Lest we forget, the death rate from Covid in the same year was running at about ten times that rate for front line workers in jobs like health, care and transport.
  2. The theme song for Morcambe and Wise. Having known it for years- and assumed it was a late Music Hall type variety song – I’m slightly surprised to find that it was written and composed by Willie Nelson. This is his original. I think I prefer theirs, which is gentler; somehow ordinary, a couple of blokes singing a song with no great passion – but with a kind of sincerity; and definitely with the right notes in the right order.
  3. Billy Bragg has a song about it – an Essex version of Route 66 (Dig the scene, on the A13). How could you not?
  4. Research by Jonathan Clarke.