I. Estuary to The Pool
Dogger, Smith’s Knoll, Thames, Dover . . .
Off the North Foreland grey North Sea rollers meet the steep Channel chop,
piled up by wind and tide;
great ships, drawn by London’s lode, converge on deeps and channels.
Thames, like Poseidon, is cruel, capricious, but with a thousand beauties,
untrustworthy, but full of promise,
ungenerous, but bearing gifts,
shifty, sky’s multi-faceted mirror, through which we darkly look,
in perpetual motion, metamorphosis, dissolving and reforming,
driven by the wind, and drawn by the moon (slave of Aphrodite),
of unsleeping power, deliverance from which
demands votive ships to hang in the hulls of churches along Mary’s river,
and libations to be sunk in dockside pubs.
Pitching barges beat up the estuary,
low black sheer, no freeboard, shipping it green;
sienna sails strain against sprit,
hulls lean hard against leeboards,
bows slam into seas, compass card shivers,
wind rips across tide, choppy waters shoal yellow.
skipper watches the bob, judges the luff, spins the wheel,
snaps onto the other tack; in the dark, the fog,
he navigates by the colour of water, by smell, by the lead.
Ships wait for the tide, pick up pilots, thread the deeps.
gulls swoop, shriek, whirl on the foam, white on white,
grey herons perch and peer on piles,
black cormorants swoop, sluice beneath the swell.
Green-brown river slips past brickfields and oyster beds, wreck buoys.
Leigh bawleys, ships and barges,
paddle steamers to Gravesend and Margate,
pleasure boats run down by steamers - drowned legions for the eels;
fish and chips, beer and tea, stroll on the pier
Dirty British coaster . . . salt-caked smoke stack . . .
Shuttles of an Empire’s loom . . . London’s reason.
Gulls wheel and shriek,
ships slip over Spitway’s scant fathoms,
up Swin, slide past shoals,
white water boils on the Maplins,
grey coast beyond.
Dirty weather looms,
barges, Whitstable oyster boats, run for cover;
eastward towards Margate, beyond the Mouse and Shingles
the Deutschland breaks on the Kentish Knock.
Estuary spindrift and spume –
wind presses chine to leeboard,
sprit strains to leeward, weather vang taut,
diagonals the wind’s parallelogram,
thrashes past tossing lightship’s giant N O R E, white on red;
southward, Sheerness and Medway; Chatham and Rochester.
The Dutch stand off the Nore,
burn the fleet in the Medway, cut out The Royal Charles,
Tromp’s broom at masthead.
Richard Parker leads the Nore mutiny, the Floating Republic,
blockades the Thames, hangs at the yardarm.
Turner conjures Off the Nore: Wind and Water.
The lightship roars astern;
tear past Sea Reach No.1 buoy;
the PLA area, the tideway to Teddington Lock.
Isle of Grain, London Stone, Yantlet Flats on the port beam,
crash into Sea Reach on the flood
past Leigh bawleys, the Chapman light, Blyth sands.
On board the yawl Nellie, Conrad waits for the tide,
ponders Thames ships and men: Drake and Franklin,
Golden Hind, Erebus and Terror,
England, where men and sea interpenetrate,
and the mournful gloom over London – its heart of darkness.
Wreck Hall, Deadmen’s Point, Hole Haven to starboard;
brave wide waters, sparkling between Essex and Kent
where Trigonometrical Survey men plot for the one-inch map.
Allhallows, Hoo, Cliffe to port, Dickens watches the sails across the marshes,
past tide marks, leading marks, buoys and gibbet, shoal-lighthouse on timber piles.
Joe and Pip drink in the Three Jolly Bargemen, Magwich lurks,
convicts fill ballast lighters, rot in the hulks.
Narrowing, shoaling, the dredged channel.
Into the London River – wind rips across tide,
short river lop hits sea swell, deck heaves against helmsman’s feet,
tiller hard to starboard, bow swings round to bite
the southerly swing of sheltered water
as she opens the Lower Hope.
Hope Point battery, Mucking, East Tilbury,
bear west to fetch Gravesend Reach.
Tilbury Marshes; by Tilbury Fort
glittering Gloriana reviews her troops as Armada threatens.
Stanfield paints Tilbury Fort, Wind Against Tide –
swim-headed stackie, steam tug, redcoats.
Tilbury Docks, nemesis of the upper river;
ocean liner pier; river cargo jetty.
Gravesend, where Pocohontas died,
tilt boats arrive – the long ferry,
river pilots take over from Channel pilots.
Customs launches, bawleys and lobster boats;
sprits’l barges sail up river to the docks, threading among steamships;
nor-west by north up Northfleet Hope,
round Broadness, sou-west into St Clement’s reach
to make lime-white Greenhithe.
Everard’s yard. In the dark tideway
skipper, mate, third hand, muster for the tide, grasp winch handles;
hunger and sweat break out the anchor,
set mains’l, stays’l, tops’l and mizzen,
sheet them in and bear away on the flood,
past cement works, Grays, Thurrock, up Long Reach nor-west by west
for Blackwall, Limehouse – the Docks.
From Dartford’s soaring bridge, Canary Wharf’s towers loom.
Purfleet, Darent, round the point into Erith Rands;
Cold Harbour Point, Erith barge roads,
nor-nor-west up Erith Reach past Rainham’s one-eyed idol,
into Halfway Reach,
Dagenham marshes’ Dutch dykes to starboard:
Ford motor works: foundry and pier.
Crossness, Horse Shoe Corner, Barking Point, Creek, Power Station;
fishing smack, Saucy Jack, cutter rig,
fast carrier Ranger, one of Hewitt’s eighteen, carries fish in ice
from the North Sea fleet to Billingsgate.
Beckton reeks and smokes – Gas Light and Coke’s Inferno;
colliers unload at iron piers, coal bakes in hellish retorts
for London’s lights and fires, tar for her roads.
Upriver, safety valves jet steam,
tugs hoot, nudge and fuss, take charge of dumb lighters.
Sou-west into Gallions Reach; barges and lighters gather
for locking in to the Royals:
bridges open, hold up buses, as ships tug out on the flood.
west into Woolwich Reach; Depression, barge roads, sails flutter in rags,
an Afghan graveyard at the starvation buoys.
A mile below Woolwich, returning up river, Princess Alice paddle steamer
turns under the bow of the steam collier Bywell Castle and is run down;
the river spews a hecatomb.
Woolwich Naval Dockyard builds ships of the line;
HMS Royal Albert, 121 guns, converted to steam.
Arsenal, Gunners, Royal Regiment, Shooters Hill, Rotunda, The Shop, Ubique;
powder burns, canister sprays, shot whines, shell bursts.
The Free Ferry’s twin funnels pour smoke where the trolleybuses stop;
the river swirls a murky, milky, green-brown, and
this boy catches a strong living Thames smell: work, rot, salt and sludge
bearing ships, tugs and lighters.
North Woolwich station, pier, docks;
steam train to Stratford rumbles over Connaught Bridge –
sudden sweep of ships and lighters in the Royals:
Victoria, Albert, George V, before the City Airport.
Graving docks, red oxide hulls, skied Plimsoll marks.
Crane legs stalk; cabins, jibs, funnels, masts, derricks,
soar over Silvertown, etch the skyline. Coal and oil bunker ship.
By the Connaught dockers and stevedores wait for the morning call.
Custom House, Canning Town, wagons on the Silvertown Tramway,
sugar and chemicals – Brunner Mond explodes.
The Barrier bares its teeth.
Now the great river’s horseshoes bend: beat north with the tide
up Bugsby’s Reach, Bugsby’s and Greenwich Marshes to port.
Peterboats, wells quick with fish, work the river for whitebait;
gasworks and Dome; power station for the trams; Blackwall Tunnel.
Victoria Dock entrance, Tidal Basin, Trinity House Quay, buoys and lighthouse;
Bow Creek and the River Lea: Izaac Walton’s Compleat Angler
enjoys his contemplative recreation.
The Thames Ironworks: forty drowned at the launch of HMS Albion.
Stratford marshes wait for the Olympics; developers rub their hands.
Gybe round Blackwall Point, block crashing on traveller across the main horse,
mizzen boom thumping the shrouds. The river’s great centrifuge
piling water against the outer bank, eddies pulling and swirling.
Citizen paddle steamers built by Ditchburn and Mare, Blackwall and West Ham,
thrash from London Bridge to Kew, Gravesend.
Blackwall Yard Dock: East India Company, Blackwall Frigates.
The Blackwall Railway strides from the City
to East India Docks (dug through fossil forest)
on brick arches; now they carry the DLR.
Rounding the Isle of Dogs, run south into Blackwall Reach,
under the astronomers’ Polaris alignments,
a quiverful of zero longitudes cut the river’s snaking umbilical
down the west side of the Greenwich peninsula, west into Greenwich Reach,
close-hauled again, beat northward, past Deptford, Millwall and Rotherhithe
into Limehouse Reach.
Isle of Dogs
Hemy paints Blackwall Reach and shipyards, with a paddle tug,
and a sailing barge, skipper’s wife at the tiller, sailing downstream.
Isle of Dogs: home of the archbishop’s hounds;
West India Docks, Canary Wharf, the Rum Quay.
Millwall Dock’s bulk trade and grain: square-riggers, steamships, barges at granaries.
Cubitt Town’s Mudchute and brickfields, Yarrow’s yard, hulls and upper works;
steel square rigger, bowsprit and figurehead, loom over Manchester Road.
Blackwall Railway branches south to North Greenwich, Island Gardens;
foot tunnel; the DLR pushes under the river.
Millwall’s windmills grind on the river’s earth wall,
Hogarth’s gibbet awaits the Idle Prentice.
John Scott Russell’s yard builds the Great Eastern, plate by iron plate,
red-hot rivets, screws and paddles, on the hard, side-on to river;
white iron torrents fill sand moulds for her titanic cylinders.
Dickens watches first attempt at launch: a man killed; Brunel soon dies.
Children play street cricket in the funnels’ shadow.
Ships skied on high tide’s plinth glide past Royal Greenwich,
Elizabeth’s Court; Donne preaches before James’s Queen.
Greensward swells to Flamsteed’s Observatory, a multiplicity of meridians:
cross zero longitude, switch hemispheres.
Red time ball falls for mariners in the Pool.
Halley’s Comet crowns the Altazimuth Pavilion.
The Royal Society, the Board of Longitude, Their Lords of the Admiralty.
Harrison’s chronometers defy the elements, convert time to longitude.
John Penn & Sons marine engine works.
Cutty Sark pub, Naval Hospital, College; Maritime Museum marks the lost world.
Whitebait is served; Cabinets and notables dine
in the Trafalgar Tavern, Crown and Sceptre.
Writers, artists, smoke, confer, watch the river: Dickens, Turner, Marryat, Conrad . . .
Magical photographs, time-frozen light, captured in chemicals:
tiller-steered topsail barge, sprit sailed, swim-headed,
mizzen stepped on rudder-head,
tall-bowler-hatted skipper at tiller, slipping down on the tide;
more barges, a stackie, moored inshore.
Two hundred years after Trafalgar.
Tissot, connoisseur of curves of quarter-deck and women,
paints the Trafalgar Tavern, lads larking on foreshore.
Wyllie etches barges, lighters, a steam tug –
Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide.
Rule Britannia! prints of Nelson, battles;
Come cheer up my lads ‘tis to glory we steer! The Saucy Arethusa.
Heart of oak! Steady, boys, steady! Press and bless our Tars, our Wooden Walls;
but mutinies at Spithead, on the Nore;
rum, sodomy and the lash.
Tilt boats to Gravesend, bumboats provision ships;
wherries, skiffs; watermen take skulls and oars, drive lighters.
Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling;
Poor Tom’s a cold – he’s gone . . . aloft.
Greenwich Pier; the glorious greyhound Cutty Sark, like London, falls apart.
Deptford Creek; Zeebrugge’s Royal Daffodil, lighters sit on Ravensbourne mud.
Henry’s Royal Dockyard, Pepys, Royal Victualling Yard.
Tsar Peter learns his trade; ruins sylvan Evelyn’s hedges, trashes his house.
Kit Marlowe’s quarrelsome riverside death; an agent liquidated?
Brocklebank Line, General Steam Navigation, the Plinlimmon.
Barnard and Dudman’s shipbuilding yard,
Ferranti’s Power Station electrifies London.
Rotherhithe and Surrey Commercial Docks
Adieu to cold Greenland – brave boys; whalers on the Surrey side,
Greenland Dock – whale jawbones for bollards, whalebone arches, narwhal tusks.
Muscovy Company’s God Speed, 60 tons, sails to Spitzbergen
to slaughter walruses, gain oil and ivory.
Narwhals, the water unicorns, betray the right whales;
she blows! Ahab’s whaleboats oceans away from Nantucket.
Howland Great Dock, Greenland Dock, Gulliver’s home in Redriff.
South Dock, the Surrey Commercial Docks: masts and bowsprits over packed houses,
square riggers, Finnish barques, Baltic trade, timber stacks;
deal porters bounce ashore, loads whipping leather.
Grand Surrey Canal bears spritsail barges, lighters, to Camberwell;
the Croydon Canal cuts the railway and dock no-man’s-land
of Rotherhithe, Bermondsey and New Cross Gate.
Redriff Road winds past docks and timber ponds;
Russia Dock, Quebec Pond, Lavender Pond,
Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe Street, pints in The Clipper,
in the Blacksmith’s Arms, PLA maps of the River and the Docks.
Surrey Docks Station, Lower Road; dockers shape up by Station Yard.
68 tram: Waterloo, Elephant, Tower Bridge, Bricklayers Arms,
along Jamaica Road, Rotherhithe, Surrey Docks, Deptford, Greenwich.
70 tram: London Bridge to Greenwich via Tooley Street.
Technologies clash in Rotherhithe’s red dawn: paddle tug belches smoke
thrashing up Turner’s Thames, towing the Téméraire,
to the breakers at Beatson’s Yard, Bull Head Dock Wharf.
Randall & Wells build ships. One house survives by Kings Stairs,
on the flattened river bank’s Desolation Row;
where is the Dover Castle, where The Jolly Waterman,
where Armstrong Jones entertains Margaret
when they’re not in their leathers at Thornton Heath Pond?
Whistler draws Baltic seamen at The Angel.
Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, the black East London Railway,
link New Cross and Whitechapel with smoke and steam;
yellow Brighton terriers work under the river.
Sailing barges and lighters cram grubby wharves.
The Shippe, then The Spread Eagle and Crown, later the Mayflower;
Here, near Adam, Eve and Paradise Streets, Sam Weller observes
that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.
At Jamaica Level, Ropewalks, gathering anathemata,
David Jones roams Alice, his mother’s, Rotherhithe;
her father Ebenezer Bradshaw,
of a family of Thames-side shipbuilders,
mast and block maker, Prince’s Stair,
opposite the Prospect on Wapping Wall.
The Ship and Pilot pub.
At Cherry Garden Pier, steamers hoot
for Tower Bridge to open.
Dockers, stevedores, hook and heave loads,
work derricks, winches, the union purchase.
Some artists like the rough trade.
Duncan Grant paints the Surrey Docks
before Hitler’s incendiaries find dry tinder in the timber stores.
Minton paints Rotherhithe from Wapping; Bacon is hereabouts.
Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, derelict; shops, pubs, boarded up,
security grills, doors and gates, murder notice in Jamaica Road.
River slides into decadence along both banks; yuppie fortress housing,
converted wharves, warehouses, new blocks, expensive cars, all gated,
shun the council housing across Rotherhithe Street.
Give us back our waterfront, shout the Rotherhithe people
to the deaf Dockland Development Corporation.
Along the dead riverside nothing happens;
where lightermen laid into their sweeps, the river also dead.
Low tide; sad barge May motors down with trippers, no sail set.
Black crow shares foreshore with gulls and pigeons,
silent heron on the sand of Cuckold’s Point;
The blank new obelisk by Lavender Wharf speaks volumes.
In the park near the council flats, opposite the Rotherhithe Hilton,
where incendiaries’ firestorm vaporised Lavender Pond’s timber sheds,
alien yuppie mothers, babies in pushchairs, drink chilled white wine;
up the river, over the docks, on the Heathrow flightpath,
incoming plane passes the gibbous moon.
At Bermondsey, Bill Sikes haunts foul Jacob’s Island
by St Saviour’s Dock, the Neckinger’s dark, narrow chasm.
The Tooley Street fire rages for days, and in The Sign of Four
Holmes chases Aurora from Jacobson’s Yard among tugs and lighters.
Shad Thames’ grimy gloom scrubbed up, a film-set.
In the drizzle, swim-headed hulls grip the gull-specked low-tide strand,
groan, gurgle as the making flood sucks them clear of mud,
bump hollow with a hopeless thud at slack high water,
hawsers creak and strain against the tide,
sun-bleached timber gathers grime,
soot sifts through the quayside grit;
men sweat, spit and smoke by Butler’s Wharf;
another long shift before a wad and char, or a pint at Dockhead.
Tugs jet steam, hoot, anxious to catch the first of the flood;
black smoke smudges the haze, screws churn and boil;
full ahead, downstream through the tiers, towing ships and lighters.
The Lower Pool, London and St Katharine Docks
Swing west from Limehouse Reach, into the swelling Pool,
the river’s teeming womb;
boatyards, shipyards, mast, block and oar makers,
running rigging, standing rigging, hemp, caulking, tackle and tar.
Burston of Ratcliffe, hydrographer, makes charts for the King,
for the Duke, for Lord Sandwich, for Pepys.
Ships’ figureheads are carved in Wapping, Limehouse and Rotherhithe.
The great Ratcliffe Fire starts with a kettle of pitch
at Clove’s barge yard, Cock Hill,
a saltpetre barge villainously explodes; fire spreads north and east,
to timber and rope yards, sugar warehouses.
600 houses consumed.
Limekiln Dock, Chinatown, opium dens where Holmes reclines.
The Grapes (The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters),
Limehouse Cut and Basin – Regent’s Canal Dock –
freights like ice, like fire: coal and timber; ice for Battle Bridge Basin.
Ice ships burn – straw packing compresses, spontaneously combust.
Marx ponders his epic Limehouse poem – London’s Secret Sorrows.
Jack ashore – paid off, drunk, whored, robbed . . .
Jack Tar’s Drunken Frolick in Wapping,
Tiger Bay, Ratcliffe Highway murders,
Paddy’s Goose (the White Swan), Shadwell High Street.
London Docks, warehouses, criminally betrayed; Shadwell Entrance and Basin,
Tobacco Dock, wine vaults by the mile, spirits, spices, warehouses in bond.
Doré (and Dante); sweat, grime, of river, wharf and crane.
Shadwell and Wapping warehouse fortresses wrought in brick and iron,
New, East, West Docks; the Hermitage Entrance.
John Seller, Hydrographer to Charles II,
sells his charts, engraved by James Clark, and
The English Pilot, Atlas Maritimus, Atlas Minimus and Hydrographia Universalis
in his shop at the Hermitage.
Mary Read, London pirate, raids ships in the Carribean
with ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and Anne Boney, dies in prison.
Williams the pirate hanged at Execution Dock, where Thames tides roll,
and afterwards in chains at Bugby’s-Hole. Kidd has his fake pub.
The Prospect of Whitby (the Devil’s Tavern); here sit Turner, Minton;
Whistler paints Wapping: Heffernan, Legros, a seaman – the whore’s assignment.
Molly was never false since last we parted
at Wapping Old Stairs; The Town of Ramsgate, Wapping Entrance and Basin.
Turner (‘Admiral Booth’) inherits the Ship and Bladebone pub.
Sparks’ barge yard, sailing barge Mafeking, lighters, sit on the mud.
Ackroyd and Sinclair find their element.
The Blue Lamp: River Police hunt the thieves,
haul out the sodden corpses, post notices: Dead Person, Dead Child . . .
Before East Enders, on strand and hard, mudlarks scavenge,
children play cricket, wicket chalked on a lighter’s side,
PC 49 chases villains from Wapping to Lower Thames Street,
while Dixon patrols Dock Green.
Bewick lands from a collier brig below London Bridge
in the year of Wealth of Nations, the American War;
Geordie sea-coal whipped out by plunging human counterweights
for London’s houses.
St Katharine Dock, Blitz’s rubble dumped in Eastern Basin.
Telford’s warehouses, wantonly destroyed;
The narrow St Katharine Entrance, Tower Bridge.
London’s threat from the east
First, Zeppelins and Gothas navigate to London, by the light of the ‘bombers’ moon’,
following the silvery Thames; then the greater replay.
Little ships sail to Dunkirk to evacuate the BEF. Ack-ack hacks the sky,
the river meanders; the docks draw black rectangles in the bombsight,
Merlins scream, Spitfire and Hurricane zip white the blue,
scrawl and swoop; fighter boys battle it out –
Brylcreem boys, top tunic button undone, victory roll or burnt to a cinder,
the bomber will always get through.
London’s burning, pour on water, steel-helmeted firemen engulfed,
warehouse walls collapse, black against incandescence.
Docks burn – Royals, East and West India, Surrey, London, St Katharine.
Water aflame, molasses, rum and sugar boil a searing Vesuvius,
timber blazes for days in the Surrey Commercial.
Wapping and Rotherhithe crackle and cool,
no nightingale sings in Shad Thames in 1940, or even ’41.
Hitler’s panzers chew into Russia,
but he can still twitch his tail at England. Searchlights sear the sky,
St Paul’s dome soars above ruins,
Ludgate Hill railway bridge, flame and smoke;
Gog and Magog perish again in the Guildhall.
Weeds spring up – London Pride.
In the estuary, Maunsell forts bristle;
in the docks D-Day concrete pours, Phoenix giants grow
for Mulberry Harbours off Normandy.
Last, the dread drone of doodlebugs before the cutout,
and the sudden flat blast of unheralded V2s.
The Upper Pool
Tower Bridge, London Bridge, dark bridges sew both banks,
gather up the dead river in a tarpaulin for a burial at sea,
railway bridges and stations loom;
lights of silent shipping slide
up and down on the tide.
Tower Bridge, hydraulic bascules.
The Margaret, Captain Robert Fairless, sails to Hartlepool
from Pickle Herring Upper Wharf – Ken’s second riverside lair.
William Farmer, near the Limekiln, Horsely Down,
makes mariners’ magnetic compasses.
At the Drawing Room in the Tower the Ordnance Survey draughts the landscape,
copper-plates are engraved, printers pull their soot-black proofs.
Gallant Rawalpindi ladders drop to Londoners’ sandy beach;
Tower Hill’s bloody execution rills; echoes from dockers’ meetings;
Memorials of Merchant Navy, Fishing Fleets,
twelve thousand men lost in the Kaiser’s War,
twenty-four thousand in Hitler’s, torpedoed, bombed, shelled, mined
from London River to Murmansk, Tierra del Fuego and Ultima Thule:
torpedo hits midships – white water plume jets mast-high,
hull slides under, boilers tumble,
oilskinned, duffle-coated men, scalded, burned, trapped below,
fall into cold scaly care of mermaids, sea gods, goddesses, fishes and monsters.
Scurrying escorts scatter erupting depth charges;
HMS Belfast, retired from the North Cape, a pale shadow.
Port of London Authority, Trinity Square, bears Father Thames, Neptune,
Produce, Exportation, Commerce, Navigation
and other appropriate allegories, sea and river deities,
now asset-stripped, washed-up, sold-out.
Tower Dock, Wool Quay; Hans Andersen arrives at the Custom House;
the fiery Monument, Thames Street, the Coal Exchange.
Ships, lighters drive under oars, skiffs weave; stackies for London’s nags,
stumpies, spritties, swimmies, lower their gear to shoot bridges,
rig bridge sails, steer through the tiers and arches.
Billingsgate: salt cod, leather hats and beer; fast fish carriers slant up
with Dogger haul, pack like sardines in the Pool.
Margate Passage Packet, the Robert and Jane, K. Kidd, Master,
sails from Dice Key. Steam tug Nero.
Billingsgate Fellowship Porters measure out their lives
in loads of grain, malt, salt, fish, fruit and vegetables.
Ticket Porters scramble for work, land cargoes from the West Indies,
America, Canada, Ireland, coastal ports.
Hay’s Dock, where ocean-cleaving racing tea clippers berth, becomes Galleria;
Derain’s fauve Pool from Fresh Wharf.
London Bridge City looms its dark-glassed Orwellian threat over Hay’s Wharf –
the arrogant, the overbearing, man with no eyes –
capital’s dark typhoon, ripping the heart out of London.
Acheron, Pyriphlegethon, Styx, Cocytus . . . Blake’s charter’d Thames.
Bricklayers Arms, the Greenwich Railway, London Bridge Station –
crowd flowed over . . . death . . . so many.
Old London Bridge dams the tidal flow: a five-foot drop on the ebb,
craft shooting the bridge explode in splinters; a life a day.
Boswell and Johnson avoid the hazard, walk from Old Swan Pier to Billingsgate.
Houses calcine in the Fire, rebuild, then disappear;
two central arches, replaced by a single span, ease shipping.
New London Bridge built before Victoria
lasts until Selsdon Man, then goes west – to Arizona,
but watermen still race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge,
and murdered Nancy haunts the southern steps.
Pomp and Circumstance
Waterborne popinjays: royal, mayor, guilds, trades.
Colour, silk, music – in centuries of spectacles London apes Venice.
Henry brings his brides to Westminster from Greenwich.
Elizabeth, our Cleopatra, magnificently processes on St George’s day
and dallies with Leicester. Shakespeare paints his word picture:
gilded barge, burnished throne, burning on the water,
silver oars keeping stroke to the tune of flutes . . .
Caus the hydraulic engineer, Heidelberg’s Prospero,
creates at Somerset House the Earl of Arundel’s Parnassus;
in this quadrivium, the Thames transmutes to a river of Paradise.
For the Palatine Elector and Elizabeth, daughter of James, alchemically wed,
The Tempest at Whitehall: this music crept by me . . .
water music, efficacious dockology: watermen, immune,
hurl colourful abuse and treason;
also for the doomed pair The Marriage of the Thames and the Rhine.
John Taylor, water poet, stages the battle of Algiers with cannon, fireworks,
and on Valentine’s day, Lepanto, the Sultan’s nemesis.
Charles, divine right curtailed, defenestrates through Inigo’s Whitehall window;
the headsman’s mask ends the time of masques.
Gorgeous barges glide – Kings, Lord Mayor and Companies;
Charles’s brings pickled Nelson from Greenwich to Whitehall Stairs,
from where Constable paints Prinnie’s and City barges, opening Waterloo Bridge.
Cranes dip for Churchill from Tower Pier to Waterloo.
London Bridge holds back the river; while it freezes
frost fairs spill land life onto river, fire on ice.
Orlando looks through, sees below, the frozen bum-boat woman,
The world turned upside down.
Skaters spin and swirl past the Muscovy ambassador;
thaw turns entertainment into tragedy, the ice’s trapdoors open,
traders and stalls crash through, to feed the eels.
Southwark and Bankside
The South Work guards London’s bridgehead,
heads grin on the gatehouse spikes.
The Tabard Inn sees off Chaucer’s pilgrims.
Railway arches dwarf Borough Market’s glass halls, cathedral, The Market Porter.
The Curtain theatre glides across the river, towards the bear-baiting ring.
Through Shakespeare’s muse, Aphrodite of the Thames,
Bankside playhouses, bearpits for human groundlings, England’s glory;
Rose, Globe, Swan, Hope, Cockpit, Phoenix,
Burbage, Marlowe, Spenser, Alleyn, conjure within their wooden ‘O’s.
Bankside barge, brailed sail and sprit framing St Paul’s,
replaced by Hirst’s spotty boat, Tate Modern’s diseased decadence;
million-brick power station generates light entertainment. The void turbine hall,
the ‘blade of light’ (gives swing bridge a new meaning);
god-like architects, masters, not servants.
Albion Mills burn down. The shot-tower topples.
The Oxo Tower beefs up the bank, but yuppies colonise the warehouses.
Waterloo Station; Southampton boat trains, the Windsor side,
Eurostar makes Paris in two and a half hours.
Temple, Blackfriars and Queenhithe
Grahame sits in Threadneedle Street, dreaming of wind and willows;
Eliot banks cultural fragments, the declining west. Vintners Hall sports iron swans;
at Swan Steps, Old Swan Pier above London Bridge,
the Crested Eagle paddle-steamer to Margate, Rifleman steamboat.
Cavernous Cannon Street Station, railway bridge, Southwark Bridge.
The City’s holy hills, Mithras’ temple, St Paul’s.
Fleet Street, St Bride’s, founts pour letterpress rivers, hot metal flows.
Templar Knights – Pip’s Temple, blasted by east wind and rain by
Aethelred Hythe, Queenhithe, the Saxon port.
Railway crossing to Holborn Viaduct, Snow Hill, St Paul’s, Smithfield, Farringdon,
the Metropolitan Widened Lines to Kings Cross, St Pancras and Paddington.
City of London School, the Black Friars, and Blackfriars Bridge.
Charing Cross and Westminster
King’s Reach: Monet and Picasso at the Savoy; Adelphi;
the river from Whitehall Stairs dominated by St Paul’s;
south bank’s shot towers, smoking chimneys of leadworks, breweries.
Cleopatra’s Needle, en route from Heliopolis, city of the sun,
threads the Med, Channel, estuary and river.
South Bank: Festival of Britain, Festival Hall, streamlined spiky Skylon,
the Hayward’s concrete brutalism. Scott’s Discovery, escaped from antarctic ice.
Hungerford bridge loses its chains to Clifton; stackies unload Essex hay.
Troop trains for the front, returning wounded, at Charing Cross.
Francis Thompson, down-and-out, haunted by Heaven’s hounds,
has visions of cricket at Lord’s, and Jacob’s Ladder
stretching from Heaven to Charing Cross; his Jesus walks on the Thames.
Canaletto’s river sparkles in serene hydrography, topography;
Constable and Daubigny, Pissaro and Sisley,
Turner, Monet, Whistler, dissolve London’s substance –
sun burns through fog, smoke, steam and mist;
images swirl through the pearly northern light.
Palace of Westminster; Parliament blazes;
Red bursts through grey, reflects off river;
Monet haunts the Savoy, Waterloo Bridge,
savours the atmospherics, loves the fog, a hundred canvasses in five years.
After the fire Scott and Pugin do Gothick;
Pugin sails up from Ramsgate to supervise the decoration
of the talking shop – the elective dictatorship.
The London Eye’s slow clock mocks Big Ben; red trams rattle and sway,
red buses roar, over Blackfriars Bridge, Westminster Bridge.
By County Hall, another Thatcher victim,
a Coade-stone lion arrives, from the Lion Brewery.
Hamlet, 36 tons, built at Lambeth two years after Blake, the great Londoner’s, death.
Vulcan’s factories and forges, potteries, pour smoke;
St Thomas’ Nightingale nurses face Parliament’s terrace, the longest bar in London,
and Bedlam becomes the Imperial War Museum.
Barge-building, boat yards, Bain’s, at Fore Street and Bishops Walk.
Lambeth Palace; the horse ferry to Westminster.
Hewed timber, floods, filth. Paddle steamer Boadicea at Lambeth Pier.
Miriam Branson, daughter of a dray-horse stableman,
tells stories of her beloved river to John Berger, her son and London’s.
Thames’ waters bathe Blake’s infant limbs.
He lives in Hercules Road, has visions; draws, paints, engraves . . .
ponders the men of Thames, the cheating waves of charter’d streams.
The Rights of Man named seditious libel, Tom Paine runs from Pitt’s repression,
nips over Blake’s wall to find William and Catherine in Eden,
tipped off, escapes to France, is nearly guillotined.
Thames filling with captured French ships, the invasion threat –
Tower and workshops vomit pikes and muskets;
Jerusalem’s River feeds the dread forge, trembling, shuddering.
Under the shadow of war the bright Thames is chok’d, dirty, not silver;
He found Jerusalem upon the River of his City . . . sang soft thro’ Lambeth’s vales,
beast and whore rule without control . . . doing the Lambeth Walk.
Millbank, Vauxhall & Wandsworth
Secret services spy on each other from Millbank and Vauxhall.
Prison, Tate Gallery, dinghies and motor boats beach.
In Grosvenor Road proud figureheads of broken frigate and seventy-four
rear from Castle’s Yard, Baltic Wharf – Hood, Bristol, Princess Royal, Cressy –
of ships Thames-built and broken,
light-burned onto glass plates, loom through memory’s fog,
HMS Colossus, Edinburgh, Ocean, Orion;
which breasted the waves, patrolled empire.
England expects . . . mementos of heaven’s command, on the beach.
Nine Elms locomotives; goods depot; Covent Garden market relocates.
Surrey Iron Railway’s horses drag wagons through Mitcham and Merton,
come to wharf at Wandsworth.
Pimlico and Battersea
Pimlico, Grosvenor Bridge: Southern Belle, Golden Arrow, Night Ferry
slowly pound from Victoria up Grosvenor Bank pouring columns of steam,
past Peabody buildings, carriage sheds, Grosvenor Canal, pumping station;
across shivering black mercury, sparkling with reflected lights
of Chelsea Bridge and Albert Bridge;
Battersea Park, power station’s foursquare pile, giant white chimneys,
railway arches, Brighton Railway roundhouses, goods depot,
tracks to Stewarts Lane shed, London, Chatham and Dover’s Longhedge works,
gasworks, Dogs’ Home, South London Line, Gypsy caravans below railway arches,
Pouparts Junction, Lavender Hill Mob, up the Junction.
III. The Upper Reaches
By the fertile, promiscuous Thames in its upper, green, reaches,
in and beyond Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Cremorne,
fireworks soar and stain the night sky,
pleasure reigns in fête champêtre.
Among shadowy glades and willows, lantern lit,
benign, divine Bacchus and Priapus rule.
The river pulses in and out, wine flows,
hands stretch to thigh and breast,
cocks and nipples swell,
sperm spurts in all the right, and the wrong, places;
among the melons, on the grass,
in the pleasure gardens.
Champagne flows above the locks,
[cocks] rear among the cushions,
knees are raised and parted as swans look on.
Leda’s Maidenhead . . . taken, on sweet Thames;
later the waters break, tears . . . over countless weirs.
The river ebbs and flows,
black smoking steamboats, barges, lighters, work the tide.
Whistler paints water music – nocturnes, symphonies;
grey, blue, gold fantasies, Battersea Bridge’s skeletal timbers, Cremorne fireworks,
the stuff of Ruskin’s ire – a paint pot flung, a farthing damages.
Swanky Cheyne Walk, The Adam and Eve,
Royal Hospital – scarlet survivors of shattering battle.
Kings Road, Swinging London struts mini-skirts . . .
Cremorne Gardens – Whistler’s Nocturne, Blue and Silver,
and Rossetti, demi-monde: dancing, drinking, deviltry,
closed by church order – here Lots Road Power Station chimneys
tower over spritties by Chelsea Basin,
where the West London Extension, war’s artery, steams across the river
from Clapham Junction to Addison Road.
At Putney, in England’s revolution,
Cromwell, Lilburne, Rainborough contest the constitution and liberty.
The Wharf, beached stumpie barges; The Eight Bells, Star and Garter, White Lion.
Fulham Palace and football. Hurlingham’s polo.
Boat Race on the tideway, Putney to Mortlake; The Ship, by the finishing post.
cox yells, muscles burn and hearts burst to dig the oars in, follow the stroke.
Greaves, Whistler’s waterman, paints Hammersmith Bridge,
boat race spectators defy gravity on its chains,
horse bus crawling to Cremorne; Tideway Sculls; Diamond Sculls.
At Chiswick, Thorneycroft’s yard builds HMS Speedy, torpedo boat.
The river the Heathrow flightpath; a plane a minute over Brown’s vegetable Kew.
Brentford Dock, Isleworth; The London Apprentice, and Syon House.
Ham House’s river god, and Turner’s majestic sweep from Richmond Hill.
Three obelisks by cast shadow plot London’s time.
Donne and Pope at home at Twickenham. Rugby football.
Teddington lock, the tideway’s beginning and PLA’s west end.
Kingston, Thames Ditton, Molesey Lock.
Hampton Court, Wolsey’s futile gift.
Sunbury, Walton, Shepperton, Weybridge, Chertsey, Staines,
Egham, reservoir’d Wraysbury, Datchet.
Royal Windsor; Gray’s Eton. The river’s mid-point.
Robber barons lean on the king at Runnymede,
the Stones play Monkey Island, Bray’s oscillating vicar;
Maidenhead and promiscuous Skindles.
Great Western’s river, the western Thames,
Brunel’s broad gauge, Rain, Steam and Speed,
Brunswick green, copper and brass, brown and cream,
crossing and recrossing the sweet Thames plain,
of lush water meadows, stately swan-specked sweeps,
reeds and rushes, islands, bridges and weirs, fish and fowl,
the bubbling, burbling, babbling river.
Barges sail, men and horses pull against gravity’s current;
Taplow, Boulter’s Lock, Astors’ Cliveden;
Cookham lock crammed with white phantoms, punts and launches;
Spencer’s surreal swans, resurrection.
Bourne End, Marlowe’s suspension bridge, the Marlowe Donkey.
Walton copes with Cromwell’s dictatorship, the rule of the major generals,
by writing on fishing.
Hurley; Medmenham: Constance Babington Smith,
air photo interpreters of a twentieth century Hell Fire Club,
measure ships and wingspans, spot buzz-bombs and rockets at Peenemunde.
Bisham, Temple Lock; Temple Island – start of Royal Regatta;
Wyatt’s temple folly the Etruscan interior’d fishing lodge for Wren’s Fawley Court.
Hambleden Lock; beneath the Chilterns – the longest straight:
Wordsworth’s son pulls an oar in the first varsity race;
hats and white dresses, caps, ties and boats, serenades from punts, height of empire.
Marsh Lock, Wargrave; Shiplake weir; Jerome’s Three Men.
Great Western’s great cutting at Sonning.
Reading’s strategic crossings, railways, biscuits, beer and Oscar Wilde.
Caversham; at Mapledurham Court, Blunt entertains Elizabeth. Pope’s poetic visit.
Wild Wood across the Pangbourne water meadows;
Rattie and mole mess about among the willows.
Whitchurch, Roman causeway and the Goring Gap – wide sweep to Pangbourne.
Streatley, Cleeve Lock, South Stoke, Moulsford, North Stoke,
strategic Wallingford straddles trade-routes crossing; Benson Lock;
RAF Benson’s photo-reconnaissance Spitfires spy out the Bismarck, the dark lands.
Shillingford, Dorchester, Sinodun Hill, Wittenham – Paul Nash paints surreal Clumps.
Clifton Hampden’s bend; Gilbert Scott’s six-arched bridge;
London’s State Barge runs aground; sheep roast on the frozen river.
Clifton Lock, Appleford, Culham Lock, Sutton Courtney.
Ancient Abingdon; by water meadows the Ock flows from the Vale of the White Horse.
Radley and its College, Sandford Lock, Rose Isle, Kennington, Iffley Lock.
Oxford; Cherwell’s beauty flows under Magdalen Bridge.
Folly Bridge, eights sprint, punts glide for the few
along rivers of pleasurable knowledge.
On Christchurch Meadow, Carrol ponders his muse, while Alice rows.
College barges founder, near the gasworks and railway bridges.
At Swinford, lush meadows, meanders, ridge and furrow;
George III got wet, precipitating the bridge’s building.
Osney Lock, Medley Weir, Godstow Lock, Wolvercot,
King’s Weir, Eynsham Weir, Pinkhill Lock, Skinner’s Weir,
Arnold punts at Bablock Hithe, Scholar-Gypsy’s wet fingers trailing,
Arle Weir, Ridge’s Weir, Newbridge, Shifford, Duxford Ferry, Chimney,
Tadpole Bridge, Rushy Lock, Old Mans Weir,
Radcot Bridge at Faringdon, oldest on the river; twin islands, three channels.
Eaton Hastings, Morris’ Kelmscot, Hart’s Weir,
Buscot Lock; meanders, wildfowl, kingfishers. The Lechlade bend,
Leach and Coln flow in; barges load stone for St Paul’s dome;
Colley’s Supper Rooms. Inglesham. Hannington Bridge.
At Kempsford troops take off for D-Day.
Castle Eaton, Water Eaton, River Ray; River Churn joins at Cricklade,
Waterhay, Happy Land; Ashton Keynes, Somerford Keynes, Poole Keynes;
Kemble Mill, Ewen, Parker’s Bridge; RAF Hurricanes muster near Kemble.
Trewsbury Mead and Thameshead, the source in the stony hollow by the old ash;
Fosse Way; Cirencester, Seven Springs, Coberley.
On the Cotswold Hills the rain falls.
The River Gods
Aphrodite, born of the foam
Domine Dirige Nos – Venus or Mammon?
Gods, goddesses, entwine, copulate, create the sacred Thames.
In wood and stone they spout crystal, life and power.
At birthplace source, by spurt of milk and sperm,
their sweet waters run softly, flow strongly,
swirl and twist, rear and plunge,
to watery grave’s full fathom.
Magical, fertile river,
guarantor of fecundity and wealth;
water gods are propitiated with skulls,
Thames becomes Golgotha.
Acheloüs, Brother of Nilus,
offspring of Oceanus and Thetis,
defeated by Hercules, becomes serpent and bull;
nymphs fling his wrenched horn to the river,
in which Acheloüs drowns.
The horn bears fabulous fruit – the horn of plenty.
Among the bulrushes,
Thames’ urn disgorges
a cornucopia of sea creatures.
But here are monsters, for the dark Tamasa,
for the wild and wasteful ocean.
Apollo and Venus protect its swans,
but Mercury, for the quicksilver river, is London’s watch and ward;
A blessed flood like the fertile Nile,
it is also a river of blood.
Fragments of History
Mammoths’ tusks, hippos’ horns, litter the thawing tundra;
bog people live in marsh and fen.
Sacrificial axes, swords, skulls, clutter the river’s depths.
The river’s debris our history;
mud holding its ancient people,
rites and rituals in waterlogged timber piles,
murders and suicides in its bones,
sadness in its bicycle wheels, supermarket trolleys, plastic bottles, coke cans,
tragedy in our loss.
Levant traders, Phrygians, Phoenicians, Romans
pulled and sailed to Albion.
Cultured Celts, Greek-speaking druids, blueskin warriors, wicker-sacrificing,
hammered by Caesar’s phalanxes sailing round the North Foreland,
wading ashore at Reculver,
making for Thamesis, creating Londinium.
Over-extended Rome has trouble in the Teutoburgerwald,
and also with Boudicca and the Iceni,
but builds a bridge and a port.
Legions, Roman engineers, hew timber
for river spans; bridge follows bridge.
Saxons follow, burn to defend.
badgers scuttle over tesserae, among sub-mural child sacrifices.
Londinium survives the raiders for a few centuries
before disappearing under Wild Wood.
Ambrosius Aurelianus fights a rearguard action against the darkness,
beat Saxons at Badon,
sinks without trace till troubadours resurrect Arthur
and a round table.
Tribes take over real estate – Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings;
Saxons come to market at Lundenwic,
between Covent Garden and The Strand,
found St Paul’s church on a sacred hill,
create Aethelreds Hithe, Queenhithe,
refortify Southwark: Canute’s entrenchment from Redriff to Walworth.
Lundenburh grows within Roman walls.
Curled Norse prows hunt the sunset,
bite against English coastline,
forge up Blackwater, Crouch, Thames,
nuzzle into misty creeks;
clinker hulls ground on Essex mud and sand,
horn-helmed scourges leap ashore,
fling spears, stab, hack.
Corpses feed carrion birds, swell the eels,
Saxons retreat from Maldon.
Normans build a white tower on Bran’s Hill,
and nineteen stone arches, piers, protective starlings,
houses built, drawbridge, chapel to murdered St Thomas.
Charles returns, plague rages, London burns,
the Monument its exclamation mark.
Renaissance Wren rebuilds St Paul’s and City churches;
Hawksmoor does more.
We read the river’s story in maps, paintings, photographs, books, charts,
struggle to fathom its meaning; mere greed, capitalist conspiracy or cock-up?
Sound the bottom with tallow’d lead – what sticks? Lies? Myths? Truth?
But the mud runs, and the bed-sands shift. No anchor holds.
Why, how, to unravel the strands of tarred, twisted truth’s cable?
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner
that I love London town, lament by the waters.
pulled up and down its serpentine course by the moon,
our sheet anchor; without her mass
we veer off course.
The river waxes on the flood, invades the land,
forces inland, upstream;
wanes on the ebb, pulls back slimy fingers from glistening shores;
flows to the sea’s moon-tide,
not our sun-tied work,
clocks, timetables, not tide-tables.
Leland’s Thames engineers a nation’s glory;
his Cygnea Canteo celebrates a progress of royal swans.
Spenser’s Faerie Queen makes London his Cleopolis.
His Prothalamion has sweet silver streaming Thames run softly,
bearing lovely nymphs, swan-daughters of the Flood,
celebrates marriage, sexual joy, ordered estate, elite culture.
Drayton’s river runs with fertility and pleasure in Poly-Olbion.
Camden, like Spenser, conjoins Tame and Isis in Britannic marriage,
while Taylor, the water poet, exchanges oars for pen
to write Thames-Isis, an alchemical wedding.
Pope makes the Thames the Old Father, gives him a beard
like some Roman river god. Gray perpetuates this hoary Thames,
ponders youth, with ball and hoop, and tragic age.
Blake’s Thames, innocence betrayed, by experience’s corporations.
Wordsworth’s sublime, calm, cathartic Westminster dawn.
Thompson’s Christian visions at Charing Cross.
Owen’s Shadwell ghost traverses a slaughter house, not yet the trenches.
Eliot’s Thames Lorelei shore fragments against the west’s ruin.
David Jones loves the Lady of the Pool, the people and places:
Rotherhithe, Limehouse, Wapping.
Poets keep coming to drink.
The River’s Colours
Short brown chop, green Thames lop, wind across white tide over yellow shoal
Diamond facets of waves reflect wharves, ships, sky
Crystal for the cups in the riverside palaces
Gold for the Bank and the barge she sat in
Silver for the asset-strippers’ betrayal
Mercury, quicksilver for the river’s rippling mirror
Copper for the peoples’ penny pies, and the muffin man
Pewter for the poets’ ale
Lead for the fires’ melting roofs
Black for the oil and tar, the murderers, the suicides’ depression, the dark river
Slate for roofs, slivers of Welsh mountain, landed at Dinorwic Wharf
Grey for the City workers’ suits
Blue for the tars
Indigo for Boudicca’s warrior woad
Violet for Monet’s light
Green for the starboard lights
Brown for the sewage
Red for the rusting hulls
Khaki for the empire’s garrison
Yellow for the London fog
White for the masthead lights
Shoals, Deeps and Reaches
Sands & Shoals
Clite Hole Bank
Deeps & Channels
East Swin (King’s Channel)
Knock John Channel
North Edinburgh Channel
Four Fathoms Channel
Reaches – The Nore to Teddington
Lower Hope Reach
St Clement’s or Fiddler’s Reach
Halfway Reach (The Guzzard)
Nine Elms Reach
Stairs & Wharves
London Bridge to Limehouse c.1800
The Surrey Side The Middlesex Side
Tooley Stairs Fresh Wharf
Toppings Wharf Cox’s Key
St Olave’s Church Botolph Wharf
Chamberlains Wharf Lions Wharf
Cotton’s Wharf Billingsgate
Bridge Yard Dice Key
Hayes’s Wharf Wiggins’s Key
Cox’s Wharf New Bear Key
Beales Wharf Bear Key
Battle Bridge Custom House
Yoxall’s Wharf Galley Key
Griffin’s Wharf Chesters Key
Gun & Shot Wharf Tower Stairs
Pickle Herring Stairs
Pickle Herring Wharf
Hodson & Hayters Wharf Kings Stairs, Tower
Walter & Redman’s Wharf
Davis’s Wharf Traitors Bridge, Tower
Dancing Bridge Irongate Stairs
Hartley’s Wharf Irongate Wharf
Horslydown Old Stairs St Katherine’s Wharf
Pearsons Wharf St Katherine’s Stairs
Holland & Butlers Wharf
Old Rose Stairs Wheelers Wharf
George Stairs St Katherine’s Dock
Coles’s Wharf Harrisons Wharf
Horslydown New Stairs Millers Wharf
Alderman Parsons Stairs
Crows Nest Wharf
St Saviour’s Dock Hermitage Dock
Savery Mill Stairs Hermitage Stairs
Hoffams Wharf Browns Key
Springles Wharf Dundee Wharf
East Lane Stairs Union Stairs
Three Mariners Stairs Kingstons Wharf
Fountain Stairs Bell Dock
Cherry Garden Stairs Wapping Old Stairs
West Lane Stairs Wapping Church (St John’s)
Hoopers Wharf Gun Dock
Rotherhithe Stairs Wapping New Stairs
King Stairs Thames Police Office
Princes Stairs Gun Wharf
Elephant Stairs Phoenix Wharf
Rotherhithe Church Execution Dock
Church Stairs Wapping Dock Stairs
Cumberland Wharf King Edward Stairs
Hanover Wharf Frying Pan Stairs
Hanover Stairs New Crane Stairs
Russells Mill Stairs New Crane Dock
King James’s Stairs
The Kings Mills Shadwell Dock & Stairs
Randalls Cawseway Water Works
Walters Wharf Coal Stairs
King and Queen Stairs Bell Wharf & Stairs
Great Stone Stairs
Globe Stairs Trinity Stairs
Shepherd & Dog Stairs Ratcliff Cross Stairs
Royal Group of Docks
Royal Victoria Dock
Royal Albert Dock
King George V Dock (New Dock)
East and West India Docks – Blackwall & Isle of Dogs
Blackwall Docks: East India Docks (Import & Export)
Poplar Dock (Midland Railway)
North London Railway Company Dock
West India Docks (Import & Export)
Millwall Docks (Outer & Inner)
Surrey Commercial Docks (Rotherhithe)
Regents Canal Dock
Regents Canal Dock (Limehouse Basin)
London Docks (Shadwell & Wapping)
Shadwell Entrance & Basin
Wapping Entrance & Basin
West Dock (Western Basin)
St Katharine Docks
St Katharine Entrance & Basin
London (Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide)
Sulphurous fogs, watery miasma.
London’s wen smokes and swells;
stains the maps wider, tells a million stories.
The river bobs with sodden suicide logs;
disease, unemployment, poverty, hypocrisy, depression,
twists, bubbles, like an intestine; plague, rheum, cholera . . .
ever a running sewer, squeezes the foul flood against wind and tide,
through its reaches (Sea Reach its colon), shits it out at Southend.
The Great Stink triggers pipes, sewers, pumping stations and outfalls.
Parliamentary Reports on London, on housing, on embanking the Thames
for sewers, roads and underground railway,
to speed the current, to scour the cess.
A Court for King Cholera: Booth and Mayhew highlight the rookeries, cesspits;
dosshouses, fleas, lice and bedbugs prepare men well for the trenches;
river, street, dock, trench . . . Jack London, Conrad, make connections.
Yet in this death the river was alive; its emptiness signs our destruction.
Where are the boats, barges, tugs and lighters; where the wharves, docks, factories,
where the lightermen, barge skippers, mates and boys,
the casual labour, the Tidal Basin, Custom House, the foreman’s prejudice?
On tugs, coasters and ships, hands haul lines and hawsers,
in fierce engine rooms, stokers swing coal and slack to furnace, raise steam,
engines hiss and thump, pistons push connecting rods, swing big ends,
turn shafts for paddles and screws; tend roaring diesels.
Telegraphs ring from bridge to engineer – slow ahead –
as tugs take the strain, hawsers bar-taut,
and, snap, sudden as chain-shot, whip off a head;
into, out of, locks, docks, away from wharves, down river.
Tower Bridge’s arms rise in Minoan goddess salute:
arrival on the flood, departure on first of the ebb.
Ships grow; pallets and containers; docks move to Tilbury;
no more manufacture, no more exports,
Barber’s, Lawson’s, Brown’s booms – on credit.
What is this service economy, so hard to comprehend?
No more jobs for the boys. Banks to the Isle of Dogs?
Investment bankers and computer whizzes in Wapping, in Rotherhithe?
Capital unbound; property and greed create London, railways, docks,
and destroy them.
Londoners – passive victims, used and ignored, experience the trickle-down effect;
now called globalisation (pushed by politicians, corporations),
forces are more uncontrollable. Bombs explode in bus, tube . . .
The map (Post Office Directory 1904)
chatters its urgent message: I am gone and not gone;
you can read me – I record, am the key; decode.
Through me swirls the indifferent river.
You are the ones who care . . . or not.
The American banker knows his Thames, sees it sweat oil and tar,
sees barges drift with turning tide, red sails wide to leeward,
swinging on the sprit . . . down Greenwich Reach past the Isle of Dogs,
knows he is dead with that city crowd flowing over London Bridge,
the corporate Thames, a bankers’ Waste Land –
Canary Wharf’s Manhattan, omphalos of an Empire of Capital,
Mammon’s towers, terrorist target.
London City of Merchants, Capital of Das Kapital, enslaving the world.
Marx writes in the Bloomsbury dome.
A vocabulary of decline hits the Thatcher fan:
monetarism, deindustrialisation, shock therapy,
Schumpeterian wave of creative destruction, Kondratief’s long cycle.
Dockers’ unions, casual labour, death of the docks, of manufacturing,
three million unemployed. Out go local government, in come
Docklands Development Corporation; property speculators, asset-strippers.
The Times, News International, Telegraph,
bulldoze through unions to Wapping and Millwall.
The new gospel: we can survive without manufacturing;
those who make things, ship them, are dispensable.
We can write them off, whom we called the salt of the earth –
chirpy cockneys, Bow Bells boys and girls,
who did the dangerous, dirty jobs, who took Hitler’s bombs.
We consign them to weaselspeak:
claimants, clients, service users, jobseekers’ allowance, new deal, delivery . . .
we will not provide apprenticeships, retrain them, create jobs.
we will ignore them, we will take away their self respect,
we will pay them not to work, we will import cheaper immigrants to do the jobs,
we will call them racist, we will call them the underclass,
we will weave webs around them, we will betray them,
the meek will inherit the dearth.
Triumphant Thatcher’s children inhabit the wharves, dispossess the people, the river;
blessed are the yuppies, blessed are the investment bankers,
blessed are the media people, blessed are the Britpops,
blessed are the property developers, blessed are the estate agents,
blessed are the spinners, blessed is Blairspeak,
blessed is the information economy.
We can live on a knowledge-based economy, we can live on credit,
we can increase public-sector employment,
we believe in globalisation, multiculturalism,
postmodern relativism, post-colonialism;
In our hubris we will build the Millennium Dome,
spin off the planet.
Domine Dirige Nos?
But not through the lost opportunity of post-war destruction and rebuilding.
Developers’ fatuous renamings – Canada Water, Surrey Quays, Chelsea Harbour.
Fake pubs, gated communities . . . London’s enemies:
Ken Livingstone bans the pigeons, brings in bendy buses, bids for the Olympics.
Prescott’s Thames Gateway sinks the arid floodplain.
Floods and barriers – the Thames rises in revenge.
Livingstone and Prescott conspire to complete the destruction,
create towers and dark canyons to squeeze out the river,
making Thames the Styx – hateful and gloomy river
of the lower world.
Wharves disappeared, docks filled, walls and corners removed, names changed –
the peoples’ very landmarks erased, lives rubbed out of history.
I remember . . . it was about here, or was it . . . over there?
I unloaded timber, welded, rivetted, drummed up the char,
was hit by a swinging block, slipped from that lighter,
saw the river on fire.
Through the parkland, housing estates, apartment blocks, woods, new roads,
emerge granite, brick, cast-iron fragments;
sudden swing or bascule bridge, bollard, hydraulic tower,
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Nicht ärgern, nur wundern!
Memory, years ago from 2005
54: the last trams rattling and swaying
to Westminster and Blackfriars, the Festival of Britain.
50: the Boat Race on black-and-white TV,
river boat from Westminster Pier to the Tower, to Kew, to Hampton Court.
49: spritsail barges in Whitstable harbour.
48: Woolwich Free Ferry, see the shipping
and catch the river’s smell.
47: Cutty Sark, and the reaches around the Isle of Dogs,
the ships in the West India, Millwall and Surrey Docks, from the Observatory on Greenwich hill.
43: lighters on the Surrey Canal and the ships in the Surrey Commercial from
the railway arches near South Bermondsey, the Royal Docks from the North Woolwich train,
and steam across the river, from Victoria, and into Charing Cross.
41: Lots Road Power Station and the river
from a Willesden to Norwood freight on the West London Extension Railway.
40: drink in the Prospect of Whitby,
the morning sun reflect off the Upper Pool, dazzling, silhouetting Tower Bridge;
in the fog all is mysterious – ships, lighters, cranes and tugs loom out
for Fresh Wharf and Hay’s Wharf.
38: punt on the Isis and Cherwell.
Then I see London Bridge rebuilding, dock strikes, dock closures.
The Dockland Development Corporation and the rape of London’s River.
Low tide; a wide foreshore opposite Gun Wharves,
gulls, pigeons, a heron;
waves lap bones, bricks, flints,
oyster shells, broken clay pipes,
rusted steel cable lengths like turds,
broken pots, rusty chains, bolts and huge square nails,
driftwood, old branches entangled with wire grids,
frayed ropes, old metal frames, bits of tyres, scrap iron, broken bottles and glass,
iron slag, feathers and chalk.
Low slack water shivers and stirs;
the salt, flood tide gathers with the moon,
pushes up river between glistening banks,
slides up like a wedge over the fresh downstream current,
an outstretched hand reaching for the source,
eddies inshore, by the mudbanks and piles, reeds and rushes,
mouths and inlets, dock entrances and locks, piers and jetties,
whirlpools of contradiction.
It takes hold of buoys, piles up against them, presses them upstream,
swings vessels around at their buoys and anchors.
Needle-like kingfishers, herons, dive through the looking glass,
slide under into the dimming brown-filtered light, towards swaying weeds,
up and out, breaking sudden surface, gulping air, bobbing or flying.
The mesmerising river our hope, fulfilment and betrayal.
In its deeps lurk eels,
Concept, text and photographs
by Peter Chasseaud
Text © Peter Chasseaud 2005
Aerial Photograph of a bomber over the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe by kind permission of
The Trustees of The Imperial War Museum
Page layout and print preparation: Peter Flanagan
Lithographically printed by VR Litho in 20 point Gill Light
on 310gsm Somerset Tub Sized Satin archival-quality paper
Edition limited to 50 copies