Monday 22 February 2010

To the Isle of Dogs

Just discovered a lovely piece of travel journalism by the writer Richard Rowe, from 1876 - a journey to the Isle of Dogs. It captures the grime of the East End and the isolated peculiarity of 'Isle' which remains to this day. Here's an excerpt on the East End seen from the railway (which now forms the Docklands Light Railway - you can still see elements of this panorama) and here's where you'll find it all online.

The glimpses the Blackwall-bound traveller catches of Rosemary-lane, Cable-street, and the Back-road are dreary enough, but those sewer-like lanes running into them are inexpressibly dismal. It is impossible to believe that their stagnant atmosphere was ever stirred and purified by a hearty, innocent laugh. How can people be happy in such holes? As to being virtuous, it seems ridiculous to entertain the thought. The inhabitants crawl about like vermin, and if they prey like vermin, are they morally responsible for acting according to nature into which they have been born and bred? Of course, for its own protection, society is obliged to hold them legally responsible; but would not society's "selfishess" be more "enlightened" if it attacked the cause as well as the effect? Whilst such dwellings exist, it is natural that there should be crime as that there should be cholera. The squalid haul that the policeman drags into the police-dock from such districts affects one like the carcasses and skeletons nailed upon a gamekeeper's gable. It was necessary that the vermin should be punished, but still it seems hard that they should be punished for merely following the instincts of their kind. "Is not this great Babylon that I have built by the might of my power?" exclaimed Nebuchadnezzar, as he walked on the roof of his palace; and, for a punishment, he had to eat grass like an ox, and his nails were turned into talons. If any one man could be made accountable for the building of the greater part of our great Babylon that is seen from the Blackwall Railway, he would not be likely to boast of his achievement; but bestial appetites and rapacious claws would be fitly symbolical for the condition into which he had reduced his tenants. A tawny African desert strewn with bleaching bones would not be so depressing a spectacle as the grimy wilderness of jumbled roofs, staggering chimney-stacks, and blind or blinking windows, athwart which the Blackwall Railway cuts at the commencement of its career. The mortar in which the shattered chimney-pots stand awry is black and cracked like desiccated mud. A pall of soot is spread over the broken tiles and the crumbling rafters that peep out between. The small windows have the look of eyes clouded by cataract, or damaged in fight. Supplementary stories of slanting slate - not much bigger than middle-sized house-cisterns - have been added to tottering hovels, swarming with life, and those tanks are "family-homes!" That the trains at Stepney Junction, in a single week, should have made mangled corpses of two wretched suicides, weary of existence in Ratcliff, is a grim fact to call to mind when you roll over the rails splashed with their blood; but, save as to the mode of death selected, you can scarcely think the fact wonderful.

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