Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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THE THAMES TUNNEL, RATCLIFF HIGHWAY, AND WAPPING.
Sub-river Tunnels in the Coal-mining Districts—First Proposals for a Tunnel under the Thames—Its Commencement—A Dangerous Irruption—Brave Labourers—A Terrible Crisis—Narrow Escapes—The Last Irruptions—The Tunnel opened for Traffic—Ratcliff Highway—The Wild Beast Shops—The Marr and Williamson Murders—Swedenborg—Wapping—Hanging the Pirates in Chains—Townsend's Evidence-Capture of Jeffreys—Stag Hunting in Wapping—Boswell's Futile Exploration—The Fuchsia—Public-house Signs—Wapping Old Stairs—Shadwell and its Springs.
Sub-river tunnels are not unfrequent in the coalmining districts of the north of England. The beds of both the Tyne and the Wear are pierced in this manner; while at Whitehaven, and at the Botallack mines in Cornwall, the bed of the ocean has been penetrated for long distances, the tunnel at the former place extending upwards of a mile beneath the sea. At the close of the last century a North-country engineer proposed a sub-aqueous passage to connect North and South Shields, but the scheme was never carried out. The same gentleman then proposed the tunnel from Gravesend to Tilbury, mentioned by us in the preceding chapter; but it was soon abandoned as impracticable, as was also a Cornish miner's proposal to connect Rotherhithe with Limehouse.
In 1823, however, a bolder, more reckless, and far-seeing mind took up the project, and Mr. Brunel (backed by the Duke of Wellington and the eminent Dr. Wollaston) seriously submitted a plan of a tunnel to the public, and so practical a man soon obtained listeners. With his usual imaginative sagacity he had gone to Nature, and there found allies. The hard cylindrical shell of the soft-footed teredo (Calamitas navium, as Linnaeus calls it), which eats its way, in small tubular tunnels, even through the tough timbers of men-of-war, had suggested to the great engineer a shield under which his workmen could shelter.
The communication between the Surrey shore and the Wapping side was most important, as the wharves for the coasting trade of England lay chiefly on the Surrey bank, and traffic had to be conveyed by carts to the Tower-side docks. In 1829, of 887 wagons and 3,241 carts that passed over London Bridge southwards, 480 of the first and 1,700 of the second were found to turn down Tooley Street. It was also ascertained that the 350 watermen of the neighbourhood took over the Thames no less than 3,700 passengers daily.
In 1824 a company was formed to construct a tunnel, and an Act of Parliament was obtained. The preliminary step was three parallel borings, like cheese-tastings, made beneath the bed of the Thames, in the direction of the proposed tunnel. As to the level to be taken, Mr. Brunel consulted the geologists, who for once were not happy in their theories. They informed the engineer that below a certain depth a quicksand would be found, and he must therefore keep above it, and as close as possible to the stratum of firm clay forming the bed of the river. The Tower Subway has since shown the absurdity of this theory, and the folly of not making preliminary experiments, however costly. If the tunnel had been begun in a different place, and at the deep level of the Tower Subway, Mr. Brunel would have saved twenty years of labour, many lives, and about a quarter of a million of money.
In March, 1825, the laborious and for a long time unsuccessful work was begun, by erecting a round brick cylinder 42 feet high, 150 feet in circumference, and 150 feet distant from the river. The excavators then commenced on the inside, cutting away the earth, which was raised to the top of the shaft by a steam-engine placed there, which also relieved them from the water that occasionally impeded their progress. The engine raised 400 gallons a minute, and at a later stage served to draw carriages along the temporary tunnel railway, and also hoisted up and let down all things required by the masons. The bricklayers kept heightening their little circular fort as they themselves sank deeper in the earth. By this shaft Mr. Brunel congratulated himself he had evaded the bed of gravel and sand 26 feet deep, and full of land-water, which had annoyed his predecessors. When the shaft was sunk to its present depth of 65 feet, another shaft of 25 feet diameter was sunk lower; and at the depth of 80 feet the ground suddenly gave way, and sand and water were, as Mr. Saunders describes it, "blown up with some violence."
The tunnel itself was begun at the depth of 63 feet. Mr. Brunel proposed to make his tunnel 38 feet broad and 22½ feet high, leaving room within for two archways each 15 feet high, and each wide enough for a single carriage-way and a footpath. The wonderful teredo shield, a great invention for a special object, consisted of twelve separate divisions, each containing three cells, one above another. When an advance was required, the men in their cells pulled down the top poling-board defences, and cut away the earth about six inches; the polingboards in each division below were then seriatim removed, and the same amount of earth removed, and then replaced. "Each of the divisions," says a describer of the shield, "was then advanced by the application of two screws, one at its head and one at its foot, which, resting against the finished brickwork of the tunnel, impelled the shield forward into the new-cut space. The other set of divisions then advanced." As the miners were at work at one end of the cells, the bricklayers at the other were busy as bees forming the brick walls of the tunnel, top, sides, and bottom, the crushing earth above being fended off by the shield till the bricklayers had finished. Following the shield was a rolling stage in each archway, for the assistance of the men in the upper cells.
The difficulties, however, from not keeping to the stiff, firm, and impervious London clay, proved almost insuperable, even to Mr. Brunel. The first nine feet of the tunnel, driven through firm clay, in the early part of the year 1826, were followed by a dangerously-loose watery sand, which cost thirty-two anxious days' labour. From March to September all went well, and 260 feet of the tunnel were completed. On the 14th of September Brunel prophesied an irruption of the river at the next tide. It came, but the precautions taken had rendered it harmless. By the 2nd of January, 1827,350 feet were accomplished, but loose clay forced itself through the shield. In April, the bed of the river had to be explored in a divingbell. Bags of clay were used to fill up depressions. A shovel and hammer, accidentally left in the river, were afterwards found in the shield during an influx of loose ground, eighteen feet below. In May, however, came the long-expected disaster, chiefly caused by two vessels coming in at a late tide, and mooring just above the head of the tunnel, causing a great washing away of the soil round them. Mr. Beamish, the resident assistant engineer, thus graphically describes the irruption:—
"As the water," he writes, "rose with the tide, it increased in the frames very considerably between Nos. 5 and 6, forcing its way at the front, then at the back; Ball and Compton (the occupants) most active. About a quarter before six o'clock, No. II (division) went forward. Clay appeared at the back. Had it closed up immediately. While this was going forward my attention was again drawn to No. 6, where I found the gravel forcing itself with the water. It was with the utmost difficulty that Ball could keep anything against the opening. Fearing that the pumpers would now become alarmed, as they had been once or twice before, and leave their post, I went upon the east stage to encourage them, and to choose more shoring for Ball. Goodwin, who was engaged at No. 11, where indications of a run appeared, called to Rogers, who was in the act of working down No. 9, to come to his assistance. But Rogers, having his second poling (board) down, could not. Goodwin again called. I then said to Rogers, "Don't you hear?" upon which he left his poling for the purpose of assisting Goodwin; but before he could get to him, and before I could get fairly into the frames, there poured such an overwhelming volume of water and sludge as to force them out of the frames. William Carps, a bricklayer, who had gone to Goodwin's assistance, was knocked down and literally rolled out of the frames on the stage, as though he had come through a mill-sluice, and would undoubtedly have fallen off the stage had I not caught hold of him, and with Rogers' assistance helped him down the ladder. I again made an attempt to get into the frames, calling upon the miners to follow; but all was dark (the lights at the frames and stage being all blown out), and I was only answered by the hoarse and angry sounds of Father Thames's roarings. Rogers (an old sergeant of the Guards), the only man left upon the stage, now caught my arm, and gently drawing me from the frames, said, 'Come away, pray, sir, come away; 'tis no use, the water is rising fast.' I turned once more; but hearing an increased rush at No. 6, and finding the column of water at Nos. 11 and 12 to be augmenting, I reluctantly descended. The cement casks, compo-boxes, pieces of timber were floating around me. I turned into the west arch, where the enemy had not yet advanced so rapidly, and again looked towards the frames, lest some one might have been overtaken; but the cement casks, &c., striking my legs, threatened seriously to obstruct my retreat, and it was with some difficulty I reached the visitors' bar" (a bar so placed as to keep the visitors from the unfinished works), "where Mayo, Bertram, and others were anxiously waiting to receive me. . . . I was glad of their assistance; indeed, Mayo fairly dragged me over it. Not bearing the idea of so precipitate a retreat, I turned once more; but vain was the hope ! The wave rolled onward and onward; the men retreated, and I followed. Met Gravatt coming down. Short was the question, and brief was the answer. As we approached I met I. [Isambard] Brunel. We turned round: the effect was splendid beyond description. The water as it rose became more and more vivid, from the reflected lights of the gas. As we reached the staircase a crash was heard, and then a rush of air at once extinguished all the lights. . . . . Now it was that I experienced something like dread. I looked up the shaft, and saw both stairs crowded; I looked below, and beheld the overwhelming wave appearing to move with accumulated velocity.
"Dreading the effect of the reaction of this wave from the back of the shaft upon our staircase, I exclaimed to Mr. Gravatt, 'The staircase will blow up!' I. Brunel ordered the men to get up with all expedition; and our feet were scarcely off the bottom stairs when the first flight, which we had just left, was swept away. Upon our reaching the top, a bustling noise assailed our ears, some calling for a raft, others for a boat, and others again a rope; from which it was evident that some unfortunate individual was in the water. I. Brunel instantly, with that presence of mind to which I have been more than once witness, slid down one of the iron ties, and after him Mr. Gravatt, each making a rope fast to old Tillet's waist, who, having been looking after the packing of the pumps below the shaft, was overtaken by the flood. He was soon placed out of danger. The roll was immediately called—not one absent."
The next step was to repair the hole in the riverbed. Its position being ascertained by the divingbell, three thousand bags of clay, spiked with small hazel rods, were employed to effectually close it. In a few weeks the water was got under, and by the middle of August the tunnel was cleared of the soil that had washed in, and the engineer was able to examine his shattered fortifications. In all essentials the structure remained perfectly sound, though a part of the brickwork close to the shield had been washed away to half its original thickness, and the chain which had held together the divisions of the shield had snapped like a cotton thread. The enemy—so powerless when kept at a distance, so irresistible at its full strength—had driven deep into the ground heavy pieces of iron belonging to the shield.
Amid all these dangers the men displayed great courage and perseverance. Brunel's genius had roused them to a noble and generous disregard of the opposing principles of nature. The alarms were frequent, the apprehension incessant. At any moment the deluge might come; and the men worked, like labourers in a dangerous coal mine, in constant terror from either fire or water. Now and then a report like a cannon-shot would announce the snap of some portion of the overstrained shield; sometimes there were frightened cries from the foremost workers, as the earth and water rushed in and threatened to sweep all before them. At the same time during these alarming irruptions, large quantities of carburetted and sulphuretted hydrogen would burst into fire, and wrap the whole place in a sudden sheet of flame. Those who witnessed these explosions describe the effect of the fire dancing on the surface of the water as singularly beautiful. The miners and bricklayers, encouraged by the steadfast hand at the helm, got quite accustomed to these outbursts, and, at the shout of "Fire and water!" used to cry, "Light your pipes, my boys," reckless as soldiers in the trenches.
But still worse than these violent protests of Nature was a more subtle and deadly enemy. The air grew so thick and impure, especially in summer, that sometimes the most stalwart labourers were carried out insensible, and all the workmen suffered from headache, sickness, and cutaneous eruptions. It was a great struggle, nobly borne. They shared Brunel's anxieties, and were eager for a share of his fame, for he had inspired the humblest hodman with something of his own high impulse. "It was touching," writes a chronicler of the tunnel, "to hear the men speak of Brunel. As in their waking hours these men could have no thought but of the tunnel, so, no doubt, did the eternal subject constantly mingle with their dreams, and harass them with unreal dangers. One amusing instance may be mentioned. Whilst Mr. Brunel, jun., was engaged one midnight superintending the progress of the work, he and those with him were alarmed by a sudden cry of ' The water ! the water!—wedges and straw here!' followed by an appalling silence. Mr. Brunel hastened to the spot, where the men were found perfectly safe. They had fallen fast asleep from fatigue, and one of them had been evidently dreaming of a new irruption."
By January, 1828, the middle of the river had been reached, and no human life had yet been sacrificed. But, as if the evil principle had only retired to prepare for a fresh attack, a terrible crisis now came. "I had been in the frames," says Mr. Brunel, jun., in a letter written to the directors on the fatal Saturday, August 12th, 1828, "with the workmen throughout the whole night, having taken my station there at ten o'clock. During the workings through the night no symptoms of insecurity appeared. At six o'clock this morning (the usual time for shifting the men) a fresh set came on to work. We began to work the ground at the west top corner of the frame. The tide had just then begun to flow, and finding the ground tolerably quiet, we proceeded by beginning at the top, and had worked about a foot downwards, when, on exposing the next six inches, the ground swelled suddenly, and a large quantity burst through the opening thus made. This was followed instantly by a large body of water. The rush was so violent as to force the man on the spot where the burst took place out of the frame (or cell) on to the timber stage behind the frames. I was in the frame with the man; but upon the rush of the water I went into the next box, in order to command a better view of the irruption; and seeing there was no possibility of their opposing the water, I ordered all the men in the frames to retire. All were retiring except the three men who were with me, and they retreated with me. I did not leave the stage until those three men were down the ladder of the frames, when they and I proceeded about twenty feet along the west arch of the tunnel. At this moment the agitation of the air by the rush of the water was such as to extinguish all the lights, and the water had gained the height of the middle of our waists. I was at that moment giving directions to the three men, in what manner they ought to proceed in the dark to effect their escape, when they and I were knocked down and covered by a part of the timber stage. I struggled under water for some time, and at length extricated myself from the stage; and by swimming and being forced by the water, I gained the eastern arch, where I got a better footing, and was enabled, by laying hold of the railway rope, to pause a little, in the hope of encouraging the men who had been knocked down at the same time with myself. This I endeavoured to do by calling to them. Before I reached the shaft the water had risen so rapidly that I was out of my depth, and therefore swam to the visitors' stairs, the stairs of the workmen being occupied by those who had so far escaped. My knee was so injured by the timber stage that I could scarcely swim or get up the stairs, but the rush of the water carried me up the shaft. The three men who had been knocked down with me were unable to extricate themselves, and I grieve to say they are lost, and, I believe, also two old men and one young man in other parts of the work."
This was a crisis indeed. The alarmists grew into a majority, and the funds of the company were exhausted. The hole in the river-bed was discovered by the divers to be very formidable; it was oblong and perpendicular, and measured about seven feet in length. The old mode of mending was resorted to. Four thousand tons of earth (chiefly clay, in bags) were employed to patch the place. The tunnel remained as substantial as ever, but the work was for seven years suspended. Brunel, whose tenacity of purpose was unshakable, was almost in a state of frenzy at this accident. So far his plan had apparently failed, but the engineer's star had not yet forsaken him. In January, 1835, the Government, after many applications, agreed to make some advances for the continuation of the work, and it was once more resumed with energy. The progress was at first very slow; for, of sixtysix weeks, two feet four inches only per week were accomplished during the first eighteen, three feet nine inches per week during the second eighteen, one foot per week during the third eighteen, and during the last twelve weeks only three feet four inches altogether. This will excite little surprise when we know, says a clever writer on the subject, that the ground in front of the shield was, from excessive saturation, almost constantly in little better than a fluid state; that an entire new and artificial bed had to be formed in the river in advance; and brought down by ingenious contrivances till it was deep enough to occupy the place of the natural soil where the excavation was to be made, and that then there must be time allowed for its settlement, whenever the warning rush of sand and water was heard in the shield. Lastly, owing to the excavation being so much below that of any other works around the tunnel, it formed a drain and receptacle for all the water of the neighbourhood. This was ultimately remedied by the sinking of the shaft on the Wapping side. Yet it was under such circumstances that the old shield injured by the last irruption. was taken away and replaced by a new one. This was executed by Brunel without the loss of a single life. But now fresh difficulties arose: the expenditure had been so great that the Lords of the Treasury declined to make further advances without the sanction of Parliament. The examination of Mr. Brunel and the assistant engineers before a Parliamentary Committee led, however, to favourable results, and the work was again renewed.
In August, 1837, a third irruption and several narrow escapes occurred. The water had gradually increased at the east corner, since two p.m. on the 23rd, rushing into the shield with a hollow roar, as though it fell through a cavity in the riverbed. A boat was then sent into the tunnel, to convey material to block up the frames. Notwithstanding, the water gained upon the men, and rapidly rose in the tunnel. About four p.m., the water having risen to within seven feet of the crown of the arch, it was thought wise for the men to retire, which they did with great courage, along a platform constructed by Mr. Brunel in the east arch only a few weeks before. As the water still continued rising, after the men left, Mr. Page, the acting engineer, and four others, got into the boat, in order to reach the stages and see if any change had taken place; but after passing the 600 feet mark in the tunnel the line attached to the boat ran out, and they returned to lengthen it. This accident saved their lives, for while they were preparing the rope the water surged up the arch ten or twelve feet. They instantly made their way to the shaft, and Mr. Page, fearing the men might get jammed in the staircase, called to them to go steadily; but they, misunderstanding him, returned, and could hardly be prevailed upon to go up. Had the line been long enough, all the persons in the boat must have perished, for no less than a million gallons of water now burst into the tunnel in a single minute. The lower gas-lights were now under water, and the tunnel was almost in darkness. The water had now risen to within fifty feet of the entrance of the tunnel, and was advancing in a wave. As Mr. Page and his assistants arrived at the second landing of the visitors' stairs, the waves had risen up to the knees of the last man.
The next irruption was in November, 1837, when the water burst in about four in the morning, and soon filled the tunnel. Excellent arrangements had been made for the safety of the men, and all the seventy or more persons employed at the time escaped, but one—he alone did not answer when the roll was called; and some one remembered seeing a miner going towards the shield when all the rest were escaping. The fifth and last serious irruption occurred on March 6, 1838. It was preceded by a noise resembling thunder, but no loss of life occurred.
The last feeble struggle of the river against its persistent enemy was in April, 1840. About eight a.m., it being then low water, during a movement of the poling-boards in the shield, a quantity of gravel and water rushed into the frame. The ground rushed in immediately, and knocked the men out of their cells, and they fled in a panic; but finding the water did not follow, they returned, and by great exertions succeeded in stopping the run, when upwards of 6,000 cubic feet of ground had fallen into the tunnel. The fall was attended with a noise like thunder, and the extinguishing of all the lights. At the same time, to the horror of Wapping, part of the shore in that place sank, over an area of upwards of 700 feet, leaving a cavity on the shore of about thirty feet in diameter, and thirteen feet in depth. Had this taken place at high water, the tunnel would have been filled; as it was, men were sent over with bags of clay and gravel, and everything rendered secure by the return of the tide.
Sometimes sand, nearly fluid, would ooze through minute cracks between the small poling-boards of the shield, and leave large cavities in the ground in front. On one of these occasions the sand poured in all night, and filled the bottom of the shield. In the morning, on opening one of the faces, a hollow was discovered, eighteen feet long, six feet high, and six feet deep. This cavity was filled up with brickbats and lumps of clay. One of the miners was compelled to lay himself down in this cavity, for the purpose of building up the further end, though at the risk of being buried alive.
At last, on the 13th of August, 1841, Sir Isambard Brunel passed down the shaft on the Wapping side of the Thames, and thence, by a small drift-way through the shield, into the tunnel. The difficulties of the great work had at last been surmounted.
The tunnel measures 1,200 feet. The carriageways were originally intended to consist of an immense spiral road, winding twice round a circular excavation 57 feet deep, in order to reach the proper level. The extreme diameter of this spiral road was to be no less than 200 feet. The road itself was to have been 40 feet wide, and the descent very moderate. The tunnel is now turned into a part of the East London Railway, which will form a junction between the Great Eastern Railway and the various branches of the Brighton Railway on the south of the Thames.
Ratcliff Highway, now called St. George Street, is the Regent Street of London sailors, who, in many instances, never extend their walks in the metropolis beyond this semi-marine region. It derives its name from the manor of Ratcliffe in the parish of Stepney. Stow describes it as so increased in building eastward in his time that, instead of a large highway, "with fair elm-trees on both the sides," as he had known it, it had joined Limehurst or Lime host, corruptly called Limehouse, a mile distant from Ratcliffe. In Dryden's miscellaneous poems, Tom, one of the characters, remarks that he had heard a ballad about the Protector Somerset sung at Ratcliff Cross.
The wild-beast shops in this street have often been sketched by modern essayists. The yards in the neighbourhood are crammed with lions, hyenas, pelicans, tigers, and other animals in demand among the proprietors of menageries. As many as ten to fifteen lions are often in stock at one time, and sailors come here to sell their pets and barter curiosities. The ingenious way that animals are stored in these out-of-the-way places is well worth seeing.
Ratcliff Highway has not been the scene of many very memorable events. In 1811, however, it was startled by a series of murders that for a time struck all London with terror, and produced a deep conviction in the public mind that the old watchmen who then paraded the City were altogether insufficient to secure the safety of its inhabitants. Mr. Marr, the first victim, kept a lace and pelisse shop at No. 29, Ratcliff Highway. At about twelve at night on Saturday, December 7, 1811, he sent out his servant-girl to purchase some oysters for supper, while he shut up the shop-windows. On the girl's return, in a quarter of an hour, she rang the bell, but obtained no answer. As she listened at the key-hole, she thought she could hear a person breathing at the same aperture; she therefore gave the alarm. On the shop being broken open, Mr. Marr was found dead behind the counter, Mrs. Marr and the shop-boy dead in another part of the shop, and a child murdered in the cradle. The murderer had, it was supposed, used a ship-mallet, and had evidently come in on pretence of purchasing goods, as Marr had been reaching down some stockings when he was struck. Very little if any money was missed from the till. Twelve days after, before the horror and alarm caused by these murders could subside, other crimes followed. On the 19th of December, Williamson, the landlord of the King's Arms public-house, Old Gravel Lane, Ratcliff Highway, with his wife, and female servant were also murdered. An apprentice who lodged at the house, coming down-stairs in alarm at hearing a door slam, saw the murderer stooping and taking the keys out of the pocket of Mrs. Williamson. The murderer heard him, and pursued him upstairs; but the lad, fastening his sheets to a bed, let himself down out of window into the street. The murderer, a sailor named Williams, escaped, though the house was almost instantly surrounded; but was soon after captured at a sailors' boardinghouse, where a knife stained with blood was afterwards found secreted. The wretch hanged himself in prison the night of his arrest. His body was placed on a platform in a high cart, with the mallet and ripping chisel, with which he had committed the murders, by his side, and driven past the houses of Marr and Williamson. A stake was then driven through his breast, and his carcase thrown into a hole dug for the purpose, where the New Road crosses and Cannon Street Road begins.
It was remembered afterwards, by a girl to whom the murderer had been attached, that he had once asked her if she should be frightened if she awoke in the night and saw him standing with a knife by her bedside. The girl replied, "I should feel no fear, Mr. Williams, when I saw your face." Very little was discovered of the man's antecedents, but it is said that the captain of the East Indiaman in which he had sailed had predicted his speedy death by the gallows. These murders excited the imagination of De Quincey, the opium-eater, who wrote a wonderful though not strictly accurate version of the affair. Macaulay, writing of the alarm in England at the supposed murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey, says, "Many of our readers can remember the state of London just after the murder of Marr and Williamson; the terror which was on every face; the careful barring of doors; the providing of blunderbusses and watchmen's rattles. We know of a shopkeeper who on that occasion sold 300 rattles in about ten hours. Those who remember that panic may be able to form some notion of the state of England after the death of Godfrey."
In the Swedish Church, Princes Square, Ratcliff Highway, lies buried that extraordinary man, Baron Swedenborg, founder of the sect of Swedenborgians, who died in 1772. This strange mystic, who discovered an inner meaning in the Scriptures, believed that in visions he had visited both heaven and hell; he was also a practical mineralogist of great scientific attainments.
We now come to Wapping, that nautical hamlet of Stepney, a long street extending from Lower East Smithfield to New Crane. It was begun in 1571, to secure the manor from the encroachments of the river, which had turned this part of the north bank of the Thames into a great wash or swamp; the Commissioners of Sewers rightly imagining that when building once began, the tenants would not fail to keep out the river, for the sake of their own lives and properties. Stow calls it Wapping-inthe-Wose, or Wash; and Strype describes it as a place "chiefly inhabited by seafaring men, and tradesmen dealing in commodities for the supply of shipping and shipmen."
It must have been a dirty, dangerous place in Stow's time, when it was chiefly remarkable as being the place of execution for pirates. Stow says of it—"The usual place for hanging of pirates and sea-rovers, at the low-water mark, and there to remain till three tides had overflowed them; was never a house standing within these forty years, but since the gallows being after removed farther off, a continual street, or filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages built, inhabited by sailor's victuallers, along by the river of Thames, almost to Radcliffe, a good mile from the Tower."
Pirates were hung at East Wapping as early as
the reign of Henry VI., for in a "Chronicle of
London," edited by Sir Harris Nicolas, we read
that in this reign two bargemen were hung beyond
St. Katherine's, for murdering three Flemings and
a child in a Flemish vessel; "and there they
hengen till the water had washed them by ebbying
and flowyd, so the water bett upon them." And
as late as 1735 we read in the Gentleman's
Magazine, "Williams the pirate was hanged at
Execution Dock, and afterwards in chains at
Bugsby's Hole, near Blackwall." Howell, in his
"Londinopolis," 1657, says, "From the Liberties
of St. Katherine to Wapping, 'tis yet in the memory
of man, there never was a house standing but
the gallowes, which was further removed in regard
of the buildings. But now there is a continued
street, towards a mile long, from the Tower all
along the river, almost as far as Radcliffe,
which proceedeth from the increase of navigation,
mariners, and trafique." In one of those wild
romantic plays of the end of the Shakespearean
era, Fortune by Land and Sea, a tragi-comedy by
Thomas Heywood and William Rowley, the writer
fixes one scene near Execution Dock, where two
pirates, called Purser and Clinton, are brought to
die. One of these men delivers himself of a grand
"How many captains that have aw'd the seas
Shall fall on this unfortunate piece of land!
Some that commanded islands; some to whom
The Indian mines paid tribute, the Turk vailed.
* * * * *
"But now our sun is setting; night comes on;
The watery wilderness o'er which we reigned
Proves in our ruins peaceful. Merchants trade,
Fearless abroad as in the rivers' mouth,
And free as in a harbour. Then, fair Thames,
Queen of fresh water, famous through the world,
And not the least through us, whose double tides
Must overflow our bodies; and, being dead,
May thy clear waves our scandals wash away,
But keep our valours living."
The audience, no doubt, sympathised with these gallant filibusters, whose forays and piracies against Spain would be thought by many present very venial offences.
In 1816 Townsend, the celebrated Bow Street runner, was examined before a Committee of the House of Commons, on the decrease of highwaymen, and other questions connected with the police of the metropolis. He was particularly questioned as to the advantage of hanging men in chains. The sturdy old officer, with the memorable white hat, was strongly for the custom. "Yes," he said, "I was always of that opinion, and I recommended Sir William Scott to hang the two men that are hanging down the river. I will state my reason. We will take for granted that those men were hanged, as this morning, for the murder of those revenue officers. They are by law dissected. The sentence is that afterwards the body is to go to the surgeons for dissection. There is an end of it—it dies. But look at this. There are a couple of men now hanging near the Thames, where all the sailors must come up; and one says to the other, 'Pray, what are those two poor fellows there for?' 'Why,' says another, 'I will go and ask.' They ask. 'Why, these two men are hung and gibbeted for murdering His Majesty's revenue officers.' And so the thing is kept alive."
In one of Hogarth's series of the Idle and Industrious Apprentices, the artist has introduced a man hanging in chains further down the river; and a friend of the author's remembers seeing a pirate hung in chains on the Thames bank, and a crow on his shoulder, pecking his flesh through the iron netting that enclosed the body.
Wapping, it will be remembered, was in 1688 the scene of the capture of the cruel minister of James II., Lord Chancellor Jeffreys, who, trying to make his escape in the disguise of a common seaman, was captured in a mean ale-house, called the "Red Cow," in Anchor-and-Hope Alley, near King Edward's Stairs, in Wapping. He was recognised by a poor scrivener, whom he had once terrified when in his clutches, as he was lolling out of window, confident in his security. The story of his capture is related with much vividness and unction by Macaulay:—
"A scrivener," says the historian, "who lived at Wapping, and whose trade was to furnish the seafaring men there with money at high interest, had some time before lent a sum on bottomry. The debtor applied to equity for relief against his own bond, and the case came before Jeffreys. The counsel for the borrower, having little else to say, said that the lender was a trimmer. The chancellor instantly fired. 'A trimmer! Where is he? Let me see him. I have heard of that kind of monster. What is it made like?' The unfortunate creditor was forced to stand forth. The chancellor glared fiercely on him, stormed at him, and sent him away half dead with fright. 'While I live,' the poor man said, as he tottered out of the court, 'I shall never forget that terrible countenance.' And now the day of retribution had arrived. The trimmer was walking through Wapping, when he saw a well-known face looking out of the window of an ale-house. He could not be deceived. The eyebrows, indeed, had been shaved away. The dress was that of a common sailor from Newcastle, and was black with coal-dust; but there was no mistaking the savage eye and mouth of Jeffreys. The alarm was given. In a moment the house was surrounded by hundreds of people, shaking bludgeons and bellowing curses. The fugitive's life was saved by a company of the Trainbands; and he was carried before the Lord Mayor. The mayor was a simple man, who had passed his whole life in obscurity, and was bewildered by finding himself an important actor in a mighty revolution. The events of the last twenty-four hours, and the perilous state of the city which was under his charge, had disordered his mind and his body. When the great man, at whose frown, a few days before, the whole kingdom had trembled, was dragged into the justice-room begrimed with ashes, half dead with fright, and followed by a raging multitude, the agitation of the unfortunate mayor rose to the height. He fell into fits, and was carried to his bed, whence he never rose. Meanwhile, the throng without was constantly becoming more numerous and more savage. Jeffreys begged to be sent to prison. An order to that effect was procured from the Lords who were sitting at Whitehall; and he was conveyed in a carriage to the Tower. Two regiments of militia were drawn out to escort him, and found the duty a difficult one. It was repeatedly necessary for them to form, as if for the purpose of repelling a charge of cavalry, and to present a forest of pikes to the mob. The thousands who were disappointed of their revenge pursued the coach with howls of rage to the gate of the Tower, brandishing cudgels, and holding up halters full in the prisoner's view. The wretched man meantime was in convulsions of terror. He wrung his hands, he looked wildly out, sometimes at one window, sometimes at the other, and was heard, even above the tumult, crying, 'Keep them off, gentlemen! For God's sake, keep them off!' At length, having suffered far more than the bitterness of death, he was safely lodged in the fortress, where some of his most illustrious victims had passed their last days, and where his own life was destined to close in unspeakable ignominy and terror."
Strype records the fact that on July 24, 1629, King Charles I., having hunted a stag all the way from Wanstead, in Essex, ran him down at last, and killed him in Nightingale Lane, "in the hamlet of Wapping, in a garden belonging to a man who had some damage among his herbs, by reason of the multitude of people there assembled suddenly."
Dr. Johnson, in one conversation with that excellent listener, Boswell, talked much of the wonderful extent and variety of London, and observed that men of curious inquiry might see in it such modes of life as only few could imagine. "He in particular," says Boswell, "recommended us to 'explore' Wapping, which we resolved to do. We accordingly carried our scheme into execution in October, 1792; but, whether from that uniformity which has in modern times to a great degree spread through every part of the metropolis, or from our want of sufficient exertion, we were disappointed."
Joseph Ames, that well-known antiquary and lover of old books, who wrote "Typographical Antiquities; or, the History of Printing in England," was a ship-chandler in a humble alley of Wapping, where he died, in 1758. This worthy old student is described as a person of vast application and industry in collecting old printed books and prints, and other curiosities, both natural and artificial. His curious notices of Caxton's works, and of very rare early books, were edited and enlarged, first by Herbert, and lastly by that enthusiastic bibliomaniac, T. F. Dibdin. Another celebrated native of Wapping was John Day, a block and pump maker, who originated that popular festivity, Fairlop Fair, in Hainault Forest.
Amongst the ship and boat builders of Wapping, the rope makers, biscuit bakers, mast, oar, and block makers, many years ago, a prying nurseryman observed in a small window a pretty West Indian flower, which he purchased. It proved to be a fuchsia, which was then unknown in England. The flower became popular, and 300 cuttings from it were the next year sold at one guinea each.
Among the thirty-six taverns and public-houses in Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall, says Mr. Timbs, are the signs of the "Ship and Pilot," "Ship and Star," "Ship and Punchbowl," "Union Flag and Punchbowl," the "Gun," "North American Sailor," "Golden Anchor," "Anchor and Hope," the "Ship," "Town of Ramsgate," "Queen's Landing," "Ship and Whale," the "Three Mariners," and the "Prospect of Whitby."
Between 288 and 304, Wapping, are Wapping Old
Stairs, immortalised by Dibdin's fine old song—
"'Your Molly has never been false,' she declares,
'Since last time we parted at Wapping Old Stairs.'"
Going still further east we come to Shadwell, which, like Wapping, was a hamlet of Stepney, till 1669, when it was separated by Act of Parliament. It derives its name, its name, it is supposed by Lysons, from a spring dedicated to St. Chad. Its extent is very small, being only 910 yards long, and 760 broad. In Lysons' time, the only land in the parish not built on was the Sun Tavern Fields, in which were rope-walks, where cables were made, from six to twenty-three inches in girth; the rest of the parish was occupied by ships' chandlers, biscuit bakers, ship-builders, mast-makers, sail-makers, and anchorsmiths. The church of St. Paul was built in the year 1656, but it was not consecrated till 1671. It was rebuilt in 1821 on the old site. There were waterworks, established in Shadwell by Thomas Neale, Esq., in 1669.
About 1745 a mineral spring, which was called Shadwell Spa, was discovered by Walter Berry, Esq., when sinking a well in Sun Tavern Fields. It was said to be impregnated with sulphur, vitriol, steel, and antimony. A pamphlet was written by Dr. Linden, in 1749, to prove it could cure every disease. The water was found useful in cutaneous diseases. It was then employed for extracting salts, and for preparing a liquor with which the calicoprinters fix their colours. The waters of another mineral spring in Shadwell resemble those of the postern spring on Tower Hill. Cook's almshouses at Shadwell are mentioned by the local historians.