Saturday 31 July 2010

'Under the Bridge'

A nice little topographical sketch:



While the tide of population, at the rate of about ten to fifteen thousand an hour, is pouring in contrary streams over London liridge—while the omnibuses are crashing, the wagons are groaning, and the cabs and lighter vehicles are bounding and rattling along the granite causeway—we shall take the liberty to glance at what is going on in a portion of that transverse thoroughfare which runs under the bridge, at a level of thirty or forty feet below.

     The stone shaft at the side of the bridge-foot stands open, and from the dark orifice dusky figures emerge momentarily into the daylight, and are immediately swallowed up among the passing multitudes. Diving down the broad stone stairs, we are on the point of stumbling over a bundle of something animate crouched on the last step of the first flight. It is a poor vagrant Irishwoman, with three half-naked infants huddled close to her knees : she has been roaming about all the morning, and has resorted to this halflighted retreat to divide among her starving progeny the fruits of her mendicant expedition. She has spread upon her lap the fragments of broken bread, scraps of meat, morsels of dried fish and cold potatoes; and the children are stuffing the viands into their mouths, heedless of the discomforts of the sloppy, miry vestibule in which they take their repast, and of the keen, dank, wintry wind that stirs their tattered garments as it moans and whines drearily np the shaft.
   We are landed at the bottom of the descent in the heart of Thames Street, amid a babel of tongues, a motley mixture of the city population in a state of familiar tumultuousness peculiar to the quarter, and a dead-lock of carts, wagons,, and packages brought to a sudden stand-still by the crashing outwards of a huge wain and team from the wharf on the river's brink. It is no easy matter to elbow a way among the press; but the denizens of the place take the business quite coolly and as a matter of course, and the traffic on the north side of the street pursues its noisy current unmoved by the clash and clamour of wheels, and rampant hoofs, and blatant throats, all in active conflict before the eyes and ears of all comers. There is, moreover, entertainment quite as pungent for the nose; for, be it known, we have plunged at once into a combination of smells not the most aromatic. The prevailing odour is the ancient and venerable one of dried fish, mingled with another which becomes more and more perceptible as we advance, and at length becomes paramount about the latitude of Pudding Lane. The flavours of dried fish emanate from a row of shops, in good part denuded of their fronts, and almost overflowing into one another and on to the foot-path. Said shops are all crammed to repletion with every imaginable specimen of dried, smoked, and salted members of the finny tribe.
    There are dried cod and salmon, dried haddocks and mackarel; herrings red and white, smoked and salted; sprats by the million in the same state; pilchards in pickle, and oysters in ditto ; anchovies, sardines, camplins, and other unfamiliar specimens from the Mediterranean; and a vast selection besides, which we have not the skill to name. All these, piled in heaps, pressed into barrels and packed into baskets, lie about on floor and table, counter, stall-board and shelf, in immeasurable quantities; and as we look on, they vibrate in balances, they are told off in dozens, scores, and hundreds, they are sold and delivered in pots and tin cases, and they walk off in bag:, basket, or brown paper parcel to the extent of some cart-loads an hour.
    But by this time we have passed the terminus of Fish Street Hill, and are arriving at that classical and historical locality known as Pudding Lane, where, two hundred years ago, the great fire of London began that memorable banquet which, commencing with fish in this spot, finished off with pastry at Pie Corner. Before we are up with Pudding Lane, that other odour which we mentioned above begins to assert itself in spite of the dried fish. It is an odour of oranges, lemons, and dried fruits, and it proceeds from the shops of those mixed dealers who mingle salt cod and pickled salmon with Barcelona nuts and the fruits of Madeira and the Azores. Together with these stores, they exhibit also whole regiments of bottles of all sizes, filled, in defiance of Dr. Jongh, with cod-liver oil—oil expressed from the veritable liver of the veritable cod, on that spot and by their own hands.
     Arrived at Pudding Lane, we resign for a brief space the fish and the fish-like smells, and breathe an atmosphere which seems to have been bottled up long ago in a latitude considerably nearer the tropics than that we are accustomed to, and, after having grown remarkably musty in confinement, inst let loose for our delectation. The physiognomy of Pudding Lane is not of a fascinating kind ; a good proportion of the houses are antiquated, and of that order of ancient architecture sometimes significantly described as "ramshackled;" the causeway will accommodate one wagon or cart; the footways on each side one pedestrian. The shops, though invitingly open, have nothing inviting within, at least to the vision; trhcre are piles of bulging orange-boxes, little barrels, and baskets of unpeeled willow in a state of compound fracture; and there are bags and sacks with their mouths open, disclosing rich hoards of-hazel nuts, cobs, brazils, and chestnuts in endless variety. The windows do not make a grand show, but a rather strange and singular one. There are oranges almost as green as unripe codlins, lemons of the same hue, or with a tip of yellow at their heels; these repose in beds of dried orange-peel cnt from the fruit of last season, and of dried lemon peel, to all appearance of a far more ancient date. There are no end of bungs, some few cut from cork, but the majority turned in the lathe from inch-thick oak; and there are numberless specimens of a nondescript article resembling a dozen bungs cemented together, also fashioned in the lathe from oak. Then there is an assemblage of gourds of various kinds, from all latitudes, of all sizes, and whose nomenclature it would puzzle us to set down. Aloft in the uppermost panes are ranks of bottles, containing orange-juice and lemonjuice, sold or offered for sale, as a notice on the side-posts informs us, for domestic use or for exportation. All these things impart no brilliancy to Pudding Lane, which wears a sombre and dingy appearance, but is lively notwithstanding, inasmuch as a violent quarrel is proceeding in one of the recesses behind one of the shops, which quarrel appears to afford considerable excitement to the neighbours, who are Hocking round the door, and which, judging from the shrill sharp tones of the interlocutors, seems to proclaim that the lemon-juice is in excess within the domicile.
    We have no penchant for witnessing the resolution of this "difficulty," and, retreating to Thames Street, turn up the next lane to the left in our eastward progress. This is comparatively a quiet place—peaceable, but decidedly fishy in odour, though we see no fish. But what is here ? A periwinkle warehouse,—periwinkles in huge hogsheads, and in mountains, distilling with the salt ooze and glistening darkly beneath a jet ot gas-light. There is nothing else in the place; the entire establishment is devoted to periwinkles, and there they lie on the wet floor in monster masses, while two stalwart fellows, shovel in hand, are labouring to pile Pelion on Ossa, and all in periwinkles! What a strange business to speculate in—and to speculate on—is that of a periwinkle merchant! How does he manage it ? Does he boil the poor creatures himself? does he take all those millions upon millions of innocent lives and consign them to death in his monster pot, and make them ready for the pin of the picker and the tooth of the eater? or does he sell the savoury hosts all alive oh! and leave the wholesale murders to the retailers ? Then, as to his commercial anxieties—are periwinkles liable to the influence of a panic ? Does a momentary crisis make the poor things dull ? Are they brisk and ready to "shell out" when cash is easy ? and how do they behave when discount is at ten per cent. ? Then, again, what do the underwriters say to periwinkles ? are they a damageable commodity ? are they ever brought into the Admiralty Court mixed up with questions of salvage ? and how do they stand at Lloyd's or on 'Change ? Such are some of the questions that arise at the first glance at the subject, and we could propound fifty more if it were worth while; in fact, we could speculate on periwinkles to the end of a pretty long chapter, but we have no strong desire to speculate in them. That thought is perplexing; think of a man's hopes and prospects, all one enjoys and all one longs for, being bound up with periwinkles! Positively, it would never do.
     That speculation on periwinkles has been too much for us, and we rush for refuge into Dark House Lane, on the opposite side of the way. Dark Honse Lane, spite of its ominous name, is light enough, and all the lighter that it opens at the end upon the broad surface of the river, whence a fresh breeze is blowing up at the moment, and kindly mitigating the smell of fish, which is the native and the perennial odour of the spot. As for the fish themselves, there they lie, poor sufferers, on the stall-boards—cods that were alive yesterday, now stretched motionless and slashed in ghastly gashes—silver whitings purchaseabfe for copper browns—princely turbots, with the whole tribes of subordinate flat-fish, all fatefully laid out and waiting to be entombed in the sepulchral maw of omnivorous London. For Dark House Lane is the supplementary Billingsgate of the metropolis, and does all day long, for the lovers of fish and a bargain, what Billingsgate will do only in the early hours of the morning.
    At the end of the lane we are at the door of the noted fish dining-house, where, for such a thing as eighteenpence, you may take your fill and your choice of a whole catalogue of finny delicacies; and there hangs the catalogue at the door, in the shape of the bill of fare, with the princely turbot at the top. And, by the same token, the genteel flavour of the aldermanic fish, mingled with odours fragrant and appetising, of melted butter and ketchup and Hervey sauce, greets our olfactories as we linger on the threshold; and we hear the clatter of knives and forks, the clink of glasses, the explosion of corks, and the subdued hum of voices in the room above; and we feel that the critical moment has arrived, and that the deed which is irrevocable is being done.
      "May good digestion wait on appetite, and health on both." Here we are in Billingsgate Market—Billingsgate in midday—Billingsgate without so much as a single fin, a fish-fag, or a bnmmaree. All are fled; the stall-boards are bare and deserted; the flag-paved floor is swimming in water, and men in wooden clogs are swilling and sweeping it clean: the ornamental fountain runs a dark-brown mixture, and buckets are leaping in and out to supply the cleansing fluid. Down in the regions below the dealers are overhauling the whelks, muscles, and other shellfish, shovelling and measuring them into baskets and hampers, and packing them for consignment to distant quarters. A solitary mountain of shrimps is all that makes head against Thames Street.
      Off the river front of the market, from fifteen to twenty fishing-smacks lie moored close to the stairs; but they have discharged their cargoes long ago, and dance buoyantly on the waves. The crews are lounging about lazily, hands in pocket and pipe in mouth, watching the craft that sail or paddle past, and exchanging impromptu criticisms and rough compliments with each other. Here and there a fellowship porter is seen gossiping among them. You may know him by his characteristic garb, cleansed though it be from the soil of the morning's labour, and by his independent j air and bearing. You cannot see across the river, for the mist and fog of the season have settled down upon the water, and the vessels, as they loom past, have carefully to watch their way up and down the channel. But there is life on the broad stream; you catch the cough, cough of the engines, the dashing of paddles, the hoarse hail of the seaman, the shrill cry of the engine-boy, and a hundred minor and mingled sounds, which, accompanied by the low talk of the restless billows, tell the tale of man's ceaseless industry on this, the grandest of the highways of the world.
     Opposite to the Thames Street front of Billingsgate stands a handsome edifice, with a tower over a hundred feet in height. This is the Coal Exchange, and, as the doors stand open, we may as well look ki. We ascend the stairs in the body of the tower, and emerge upon a gallery, one of three which look out upon a rotunda sixty feet in diameter. The floor below represents the dial of a mariner's compass, the design being formed by a species of parquetagc, with timber of different hues. In the centre are the city arms, the dagger-blade being formed of a part of a mulberrytree, planted by Peter the Great when he was working as a shipwright in the dockyard at Deptford. Around and near the walls are arranged a row of high desks, furnished with writing materials, at which the agents and speculators stand and transact their business. The gallery from which we look down is ornamented with emblematical figures painted on the panels, and with views of the different processes by which coal is won from the mine and transferred to the consumer. All round the gallery are private chambers and offices, tenanted by the agents of the great coal-owners, and devoted to the transaction of their business. Ascending to the second gallery, and thence again to the third, we find the same style of ornamentation and similar conveniences for business. The roof is a glazed dome, crowned with a lantern, which rises seventy feet high, and sheds a flood of light through the whole interior, almost equal to that of the street without. The Coal Exchange was finished and opened in the year 1849, having cost over £90,000 in its erection. In excavating for the foundation, there were discovered the remains of a Roman bath, in excellent preservation. This relic has been preserved, and is open to the inspection of the visitor. It is in the basement floor, on the east side.
     Beyond Billingsgate, Thames Street shakes off its bustling character, and presents nothing especially remarkable, at least in that peculiar phase of London life which we have been contemplating. Furthermore, at this distance from the dry arches we can hardly be said to be under the bridge. The present sketch may therefore end here.
Leisure Hour, 1858


  1. First time commenter here. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog.

  2. Glad you know someone is reading :)

    best wishes,