From early times it was a river of the dead, to which the bodies of the local population were consigned. The number of human skulls found in Chelsea has given it the name of “our Celtic Golgotha.” As Joseph Conrad said, of another stretch of the Thames, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The derivation of its very name, pre-Celtic in origin, is tamasa, “dark river.” How can so many influences and associations be denied when, in modern times, lonely and unhappy people are often to be seen staring down into its turbulent depths? The German poet Heinrich Heine in 1827 described “the black mood which once came over me as toward evening I stood on Waterloo Bridge, and looked down on the water of the Thames … At the same time the most sorrowful tales came into my memory.”
The river has embraced many such tales, as the old “dead houses” along its banks might testify. Here were brought the bodies of those who in the words of the ubiquitous posters were “found drowned.” Three or four suicides, or accidents, every week were laid upon a shelf, or within a wooden “shell,” to await the attentions of beadle and coroner. Heine went on to declare that “I was so sick in spirit that the hot drops sprang forcibly out of my eyes. They fell down into the Thames and swam forth into the mighty sea, which has already swallowed up such floods of human tears without giving them a thought.” It might be said that the river had swallowed them already. The toll-keepers upon the bridges were well known for their willingness to discuss the suicides—how many they were, how difficult to stop them, how difficult, indeed, to find them once they jumped. The river can in that sense become a true emblem of London’s oppression. It can carry away all of life’s hopes and ambitions, or deliver them up quite changed.
The river banks mark that point where the stone of the city and the water meet in perpetual embrace, with the scattered debris of ships and urban waste mingling together; here are found sheets of metal, planks of rotten wood, bottles, cans, ash, bits of rope, pieces of board of no identifiable purpose or origin. The river also affects the fabric of the city with what Dickens described in Our Mutual Friend as “the spoiling influences of water—discoloured copper, rotten wood, honeycombed stone, green dank deposit.”
There were small communities beside it which became a picture of urban dereliction. The area of Deptford was described in the nineteenth century as quite “the worst part of the great City’s story.” It is a record of that city’s decay when its commercial life has departed, with “the muddy, melancholy banks … the desolation of empty silent yards.” This, in the words of Blanchard Jerrold, was the “dead shore”; yet not so dead that there were not inhabitants of the area, living off the detritus which the Thames offered. These were the people of the river. They lived, too, in Shadwell (“the well of shadows”). Here, in the early twentieth century, “the houses of the people are square and black and low. The walls of storages are sheer and blind upon the narrow streets.” The darkness of the river against the darkness of the surrounding buildings renders it “invisible.” On the other bank, close to Rotherhithe, can be found Jacob’s Island which was also black with the “dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses”; where once the bright water reflected and illuminated the brightness of the buildings along its banks, in the nineteenth century darkness called to darkness. Jacob’s Island, too, was “the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many locations that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.”
It is those elements of anonymity, and of secrecy, which the river accommodates within itself. Conrad compared the buildings that lined the shores to “the matted growths of bushes and creepers veiling the silent depths of an unexplored wilderness, they hide the depths of London’s infinitely varied, vigorous seething life … Dark and impenetrable at night, like the face of a forest, in the London waterside.” Sometimes it becomes almost too black and sad to bear examination. The author of London Nights, Stephen Graham, describes his pilgrimages within the “long, strange passages under the Thames in East London” where “one is descending, one is going back, one is bearing all London.” Just as Heine spoke of his instinctive and intuitive sorrow at the sight of the dark river, so in Stephen Graham’s book the Thames itself and all its submerged secrets “told of an enigma which would never be solved; the enigma of London’s sorrow, her burden, her slavery.” The river has brought London money and power, but at the cost of the city’s being enslaved to those insidious principles. One late twentieth-century writer, Iain Sinclair, has described the Thames in his novel Downriver as “breathless, cyclic, unstoppable. It offers immersion, blindness: a poultice of dark clay to seal our eyes for ever from the fear and agony of life … passions reduced to silt.”
No wonder the watermen of the Thames, from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth, were known for their insulting and foul language. The violent and blasphemous abuse they used was known as water-language, to which anyone could be subject. Monarchs were often reviled in this manner when they took to the water and H.V. Morton, in In Search of London (1951), notes that “remarks which on land would have been treasonable were regarded as a joke upon the Thames.” It has even been suggested that Handel’s Water-Music was composed in order to “drown the torrent of abuse that would have greeted the new king, George I, during his first river-progress” (1714). It may be that the antiquity of the Thames has given its watermen licence to speak without fear; in that sense the river can be considered the essence of that radical and egalitarian temper so often associated with London.
But that sense of darkness, continually moving upon the face of the water, also acts as a toughening and coarsening presence for all those who work there. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of “the muddy tide of the Thames, reflecting nothing, and hiding a million of unclean secrets within its breast—a sort of guilty conscience as it were, unwholesome with the rivulets of sin that constantly flow into it.”
When Samuel Johnson gave the injunction to Boswell “to explore Wapping” as one way of understanding “the wonderful extent and variety of London” he could not have guessed the curious construction that might have been applied to his words in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the early decades of the twentieth century Wapping was as much blasted by decay as Shadwell or Jacob’s Island. Where the banks of the Seine are open and approachable, there are stretches of the Thames which actively deter visitors. The area of Wapping was itself hard to find, with its high street running beneath the great walls of the old warehouses, while the adjacent streets seemed to wish to conceal themselves behind gasworks and tenements. It had always been a lawless area, beyond the jurisdiction of the city, but its dereliction at the beginning of the century was also an echo of the shame and waste of the short-time labouring system at the docks; crowds of men seeking work would gather outside the gates, while only a few were ever selected by the foremen. The rest slunk back to that life of poverty, drink and oblivion so well documented by Charles Booth as well as Sidney and Beatrice Webb. “Indeed it is a sight to sadden the most callous,” according to Henry Mayhew, “to see thousands of men struggling for one day’s hire … To look in the faces of that hungry crowd is to see a sight that must be ever remembered … For weeks many have gone there, and gone through the same struggle—the same cries; and have gone away, after all, without the work they had screamed for.” So the Thames, the begetter of commerce, is also the most visible harbour for the misery which commercial principles can impose.
In the forlorn graveyard of St. George’s in the East, one of the unhappy and ill-favoured places of London over many generations, lay “the sailors’ women, inured to immorality from childhood, rotten with disease.” Wapping was also a place of death at Execution Dock, where those accused of crimes upon the “high seas” were summarily despatched into eternity. In the police station at Wapping was kept what has been described as “one of the saddest books in the world”; it is a journal of the narratives of attempted suicides, with the events and circumstances which led each towards the river. The author of Unknown London, Walter George Bell, wandering through the area in 1910, observed the “reeking drink shops; inexpressible in their squalor and dirt, the natural home for every kind of abomination” with “the inner recesses of the hive” being a “gloomy slum area.” So we may take to heart Samuel Johnson’s injunction to “explore Wapping” in order to understand London.