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High Treason: Looking forward to 1940 or reaching back to the Great War?

Yesterday, I introduced Maurice Elvey’s 1929 silent film High Treason at the beautiful Curzon Cinema in Clevedon for South West Silents. In preparation, wrote a piece about the film for South West Silents – and this is what I said.

South West Silents

With our upcoming screening of High Treason at the Curzon in Clevedon on September 10th, we felt it necessary to get some words up on the website about this spectacular film. Luckily for us we know the brilliant Lucie Dutton, a PhD student at Birkbeck College, who is currently completing a thesis on the film’s director Maurice Elvey! For a film launched between the two wars, and at the transition moment of sound arriving in the UK, Lucie has been good enough to outline in detail what this films means for British film history. Without further ado, over to Lucie!

Maurice Elvey’s High Treason (1929), a vision of the future, is often referred to as “The British Metropolis”. Depending on the version you watch, it is set in 1940, 1950, or even – in a French version – in 1995. There are modernist cityscapes and exciting innovations: television…

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A Movie Star Album: Commemorating Rudolph Valentino

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The elaborate title page of an album made by a dedicated admirer

Ninety years ago, at 12.10pm on 23 August 1926, Rudolph Valentino died at the age of just thirty-one. At the time, he was probably the biggest star in the world – he was certainly the brightest – and an outpouring of public grief followed his untimely death. 

Every 23 August, I spend time remembering Rudolph Valentino – watching a film or two, reading about his work, and reflecting on the impact he had on the filmgoers of the 1920s. Watching his films on television courtesy of Channel Four Silents (when I was a lot younger) awakened my lasting passion for silent film, so I feel I should honour his memory.

I may have my private “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Day”, but back in the day, the Shepherds Bush Pavilion in London held a “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Week”, with revivals of Monseiur Beaucaire, The Eagle, Blood and Sand and Beyond the Rocks. Mr Forsyth, the General Manager of the Pavilion, seems to have taken care over the event, hiring an Italian singer to perform a special “In Memorium” prologue, publishing one of Valentino’s own poems, and giving a detailed synopsis of what he considered the main draw, Monsieur Beaucaire.


Today, Monsieur Beaucaire is one of the lesser-known Rudolph Valentino films. I have seen it just once on the big screen – about eighteen years ago – and I loved it. The costumes are beautiful, Valentino is witty, and the swashbuckling is excellent. It also seems to have been enjoyed by a mysterious Valentino fan who put together a beautiful Rudolph Valentino album between 1924 and 1926 to express some of their feelings about what they were seeing at the cinema.

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The mysterious album maker was definitely dedicated to creating something lovely. The album is beautifully made. Some pages are covered in black paper, the better to create a dramatic effect. Black and white pictures, cut from magazines, have been painstakingly coloured with inks. Blue skies have been cut out and pasted behind a picture of a captured Valentino in The Son of the Sheik. Poetry and prose is carefully written in stylised lettering, some in gold paint.Tiny flourishes are used to highlight the text.

The maker selected poetry with which to honour Valentino. I identified three poems as being by Rupert Brooke: Not With Vain Tears, When We’re Beyond the Sun; The Great Lover; and Beauty and Beauty.

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Another poem – When Thou Art Dead – had me at a loss. The words were used by Erich Korngold as the basis for his song Tomorrow in The Constant Nymph but this was not written until 1943, far too late for a 1920s album. Eventually, I tracked down a song with the same lyrics that had been popular during the First World War by Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens.

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A further poem appeared to have been copied from Valentino’s own book Daydreams. But when I checked the album version against the original words, I realised that the maker had adapted the words. Valentino’s “You are the History of Love and its Justification / The Symbol of Devotion / The Blessedness of Womanhood” seemed to have become slightly darker.

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Sadly the album was never finished. The last dated entry is from October 1926. There are then a few pictures cut with great care from magazines, ready to be pasted on to blank pages. An unfinished page, with illustrations drawn in ink and a poem traced out in pencil, shows how carefully the maker prepared their pages. The pencil marks are faded and just the ghost of a poem remains. I suspect it was written by the maker, who had graduated from copying out poetry, to adapting it, to writing their own.

Perhaps the maker lost interest in the album or found a new object of desire. Maybe the lack of new films and fewer and fewer opportunities to see Rudolph Valentino on the screen made the album feel less important. However, the album wasn’t thrown away. It was kept, and kept in very good condition. We can’t tell who made it, we don’t know what they did after 1926, where they lived, or how old they were.

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I hope very much that the maker wouldn’t have minded their album being shared. It is such a beautiful object that it seems a shame to keep it sitting on my shelf to be taken out once a year on 23 August. We know very little about silent film audiences, but this album tells us that at least one cinemagoer in the 1920s found the inspiration to create something beautiful from what they saw at the picturehouse.

A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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Quilting the Thames Part Five: Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach

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Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach: “O greatest sailor”

I have now reached Greenwich on my trip down the river for my Thames Quilt. For this panel, I am rekindling my interest in Lord Nelson, who has inspired a number of my past projects, including the Nelson Quilt.

I became fascinated by Nelson when researching a silent film biography made in 1918 by British director Maurice Elvey. One of many people involved in this film was Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, an expert on Nelson, who advised on the scenario. After many months of shooting and editing, Kerr was happy that Elvey’s film was right and, on January 30 1919, the cinema trade magazine The Bioscope reported that Kerr had said that as “a devoted student of Nelsonalia …. he was especially happy to be able to say that he could find absolutely nothing to criticise in the film.”

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In 1932, Admiral Kerr published a book – The Sailor’s Nelson – which includes a long poem about the death of Nelson. This is a short extract:

The Embodiment of Duty and Britain’s Naval Strength, / The Victor of a hundred fights, his hour had come at length. / And fitly ‘mid victorious cheers and sounds of ebbing strife / He placed the Crown Immortal on his glorious suffering life. / O greatest sailor since the sea was named, / O truest patriot that the land has known. / Beyond all other Sea Kings loved and famed, / Rising alike to Fortune’s smile and frown. / Where lay thy power? What thy mystic charm?

I quilted a phrase from this poem – O greatest sailor – on the Greenwich Reach panel, not because I particularly like the poem (in fact it isn’t really to my taste being highly patriotic and heroic in tone) but because I wanted to mark Admiral Kerr’s contribution to Elvey’s Nelson film.

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The Symmetry of Greenwich

Greenwich has played a significant role in building the myth of Nelson. It was to Greenwich, on December 23 1805, that Nelson’s body was brought after his death almost three months earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s death was followed by an outpouring of public grief, culminating in an extensive funeral. On January 4 1806, dignitaries viewed Nelson’s body lying in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. On January 5, 6 and 7 thousands of members of the public visited the Painted Hall to pay their respects. And on January 8 and 9 Nelson was taken on his last journey from Greenwich to his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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The Painted Hall at Greenwich

On January 8, Nelson’s body was taken by river up the Thames from Greenwich to Whitehall in a two-mile long, carefully planned River Procession. The formal order was published in The Times that day as follows:

  1. Capt Ludlam, Harbour Master
  2. Capt Wood, Harbour Master
  3. Water Bailiff
  4. Rulers of the Company of Watermen &c
  5. Chaplain and Staff of River Fencibles
  6. Boat with drums muffled
  7. Officer commanding gun-boats (10 gun boats in all)
  8. Row boat with Officer
  9. Row boat with Officer

PROCESSION OF STATE BARGES

  1. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  2. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  3. Barge with the Body
  4. Barge with the Chief Mourner
  5. His Majesty’s Barges
  6. Barge with the Lords Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral
  7. The Right Hon the Lord Mayor’s Barge
  8. Barge with the Committee specially appointed by the Corporation of London on the occasion of Lord Nelson’s Funeral
  9. Barge with the Committee of the Corporation for improving the Navigation of the River Thames
  10. Barge of the Drapers’ Company
  11. Barge of the Fishmongers’ Company
  12. Barge of the Goldsmith’s Company
  13. Barge of the Skinners’ Company
  14. Barge of the Merchant Taylors’ Company
  15. Barge of the Ironmongers’ Company
  16. Barge of the Stationers’ Company
  17. Barge of the Apothecaries’ Company

According to the Bury and Norwich Post (January 15 1806)  the Barge with the Body was covered with black velvet, and surmounted with black feathers. In the centre was a Viscount’s coronet, and three bannerolls were affixed to the outside of the barge. In the steerage were six trumpets and six Lieutenants of the Royal Navy. The other barges were rowed by picked men from the Greenwich Pensioners. They had all their flags hoisted half staff high. As the Procession moved from Greenwich, minute guns were fired. Not a vessel was suffered to disturb the Procession. The decks, yards, and rigging of the numerous ships on the river were all crowded with spectators; the number of ladies was immense.

Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to see the Procession. Such was the commercial value of good viewing places that The Times carried numerous advertisements such as these from January 6: A good view of the Grand Procession of Lord Nelson, at the Sign of the Turk’s Head, Union Stairs, Wapping or Those ladies and gentlemen who are desirous of seeing to advantage the grand and solemn procession by water of the late lord Nelson, may be accommodated with seats in a spacious loft, fitted up for the occasion. For particulars enquire at the Angel, Upper-ground-street, Surrey-side of Blackfriars Bridge, where tickets may be had at 5s each.

Nelson's Coat

Nelson’s coat at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich – one of the Nelson relics

When the procession arrived at Whitehall Steps at 3.00pm, Handel’s Dead March (from Saul) was played, and Nelson’s body was taken on to land. At this moment the sunshine disappeared – Dark and heavy clouds came on, and instantly succeeded a tempestuous hail storm, which fell until the Body was landed, when the hemisphere again was clear. (Bury and Norwich Post, January 15 1806)

Nelson’s body lay at the Admiralty until the following day. Then, on January 9 1806, a solemn procession led by the Duke of York and closed by a party of sailors bearing the three flags of HMS Victory went from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral where Nelson was buried with great ceremony.

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My Nelson Quilt, July 2015

Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames* must have been one of the largest events ever to take place on the River, and I wanted to include it in my Thames Quilt. Nelson has been such an inspiration to my quilting work over the last two years and I am pleased I have been able to commemorate him once again in stitch.

* Many items relating to Nelson’s funeral can be found in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Funeral directors, A France and Son provided the state coffin, and their office at 45 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1, still features a window display dedicated to Nelson’s funeral (and my thanks to Ken the Old Map Man, of  London Trails, for bringing this to my attention).

Quilting the Thames Part Four: “She Moves!” at Deptford Reach

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Brunel’s Great Eastern launching sideways at Deptford Reach: Thames Quilt Section Four

According to many maps of the Thames, Greenwich Reach follows straight on from Limehouse Reach. My trusty 1890 Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames, however, informs me that there is another distinct section of the River in between. Deptford Reach is “about a mile long, from the end of Limehouse Reach to Greenwich Ferry,” and here, I found traces of one of the most celebrated engineers of the 19th Century – Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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The legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – that great builder of bridges, railways, tunnels, ships and dockyards – can be found all over London. The Three Bridges of the Grand Junction Canal, Great Western and Brentford Railway, and Windmill Lane all crossing each other in Hanwell; the Wharncliffe Viaduct; the spans of Paddington Station – these are all part of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. There is a Brunel Museum, by the river in Rotherhithe, which is well worth a visit. The museum concentrates on two of Brunel’s projects – the Thames Tunnel and the SS Great Eastern.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel keeping an eye on Paddington Station

And a shade of the SS Great Eastern can be found at Deptford Reach. Along the Thames path, there is a strange wooden construction: the launch site of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern – or the Great Babe, as he nicknamed her.


In 1857 when she was built, the SS Great Eastern was the largest ship in the world – so big at 692 feet long that the River Thames was not wide enough to accommodate her unless she was launched sideways. And on 3 November 1857, thousands of spectators flocked to Deptford Reach to see this sideways launch, much to Brunel’s dismay. He had wanted to keep it low-key. And the launch failed – the winches and capstans that were supposed to haul the great ship towards the river were simply not strong enough.

Deptford Directions

On 4 November, the London Daily News reported:

We regret to announce that the first attempt to launch this great Leviathan has been a failure … Every available spot on both sides of the river where a glimpse of the ship could be caught was filled with expectant spectators. About 1 o’clock the excitement of all was raised to the highest pitch … The shout is heard, “She moves!” and so she does – the aft part faster, however, than the fore. Her speed is instantly checked, and she is still.

NPG P663; Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of 'The Great Eastern' by Robert Howlett

Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of the Great Eastern by Robert Howlett, albumen print, arched top, 1857 *

A further (unsuccessful) launch was attempted on 19 November, and reported by the Sligo Champion on 21 November 1857. The Champion’s description of Brunel is wonderful; his bulging pockets indicate a man more concerned with his work than with creating a public show:

A short man of five-and-forty, who must surely be a carpenter in his second-best suit, with a shocking bad hat, which he wears … with the slouch, as if the functions of a hat were to cover the nape of the neck. Our friend wears an invisible green coat, square and wide at the skirts, with two or three outside pockets, in one of which he doubtless carries a carpenter’s rule, and in the other bit of glue.

Thames at Deptford

The River Thames at Deptford where the SS Great Eastern was launched sideways on 31 January 1858

After another failed launch on 28 November, finally, on 31 January 1858, a successful sideways launch took place. This time, “She floats!” and she stayed afloat. But her first voyage in 1859 was beset with difficulties. In September, once the ship had left the Thames and was in the English Channel, a huge explosion led to the destruction of one of her funnels. Five stokers were killed, four or five others were badly injured, and one was lost overboard. Brunel suffered a stroke after his final inspection visit to the Great Eastern on 5 September 1859 and died shortly afterwards on 15 September 1859. He was just 53.

Thames Quilt - Deptford Shadows

As for the SS Great Eastern, she was broken up in 1889-90 at New Ferry on the River Mersey. Such was the strength of her construction, it took two hundred men took two years to complete the task.

Commercial difficulties, costly repairs, and bankruptcies seem to mean that the Great Eastern somehow represent Brunel’s moment of hubris. But I like to think of that first launch as a moment of hope and ambition – and tenacity. The excited cry of “She floats!” and the determination to try and try again were very much in my mind as I sewed Deptford Reach.

Thames Quilt - up the garden path

The Thames Quilt getting too long and leading me down the garden path….

* Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, NPG P663, reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence

Quilting the Thames Part Three: The Greenland Lads at Limehouse Reach

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Greenland Lads on a ship full of oil at Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt Section Three

Travelling further down the River Thames to Limehouse Reach,  I found myself at a loss. What should go into the Thames Quilt here?

I considered the E A Dupont 1929 Silent Film Piccadilly with its Limehouse scenes as a starting point. It didn’t work. Much as I love that film, it isn’t really a story of the river. I flirted with Sherlock Holmes and the silent films directed by Maurice Elvey starring Eille Norwood as Holmes, but that didn’t work either. I re-read Great Expectations to check whether Magwitch hides in Limehouse (he does, in a house with a “bow-window where he can see the ships sail up and down the river,” and watch Pip and Herbert Pocket rowing on the river in preparation for his escape) but I didn’t feel it was the right choice.

LowTide at Limehouse Reach

Low Tide at Limehouse Reach

Then I remembered a visit to the Museum of London, Docklands, where I had seen a great big pot, a remnant of a trade that perhaps we would rather forget today – a pot used in whaling. I do not condone or support whaling in any way, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Thames as a working river, and whaling is undeniably part of its working history. I was fascinated to discover that, if you make your way to Limehouse Reach and cut behind the river into Greenland Dock, you are walking in the footsteps of the Thames whalers. *

Limehouse Dock

Greenland Dock

And it was with the whalers that I found the theme for the Limehouse Reach section of the Thames Quilt. I have a long-standing interest in sea songs and shanties. Some of these songs are whaling songs – songs like The Greenland Whale Fishers (And when we reached that whale my boys / He lashed out with his tail / And we lost a boat and seven good men / And we never caught that whale), and Reuben Ranzo (O! Ranzo was no sailor – Ranzo me boys, Ranzo / He shipped aboard a whaler – Ranzo boys, Ranzo!).

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The Whale from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1920

One of my favourite sea shanties is The Bonnie Ship The Diamond. The final verse of the song looks forward to the whalers returning home:

It’ll be bright both day and night when the Greenland lads come home / With a ship that’s full of oil me boys, and money to our name / Here’s a health unto the Diamond bright, the skipper and the crew / Here’s a health to every bonnie lass that has a heart so true.

I used this verse as inspiration for the Limehouse Reach section of the quilt, but I must confess to geographically repurposing the song: I believe the real Diamond sailed out of Aberdeen rather than London. However, I wanted to make reference to Greenland Dock, so I used the Greenland lads to make a connection. You can see a rousing rendition  of The Bonnie Ship The Diamond by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir here.

A murky day on the River at the entrance to Limehouse Reach

The entrance to Greenland Dock from the River on a grey April day

Visitors to Greenland Dock today see a lovely stretch of water without the smell, mess and sound of London’s filthy whaling trade. But two and a half centuries ago, a day out to see a whale carcass was a great treat. On February 9 1762, The Derby Mercury reported that on Sunday an innumerable concourse of people repair’d to Greenland Dock to see the Whale lately brought there. The road was lined with coaches, chariots, post-chaises, horsemen and footmen, from morning till evening, like a fair. It is computed that there were not less than 50,000 persons of both sexes continually passing and repassing. Their journey, however, proved unsavoury at the end,  for the whale stank abominably.

Moby Dick Live

The return of the Thames Whalers? The empty stage at the end of Moby Dick Unabridged

In October 2015, whaling returned to the Thames when the Southbank Centre staged Moby Dick Unabridged – a  four-day live rendition of Herman Melville’s novel. An impressive reading relay was enhanced by art installations, sea shanties and dance performances. It is a matter of lasting regret that I didn’t experience the whole thing; I was only able to get along to the final afternoon when I became so wrapped up with Captain Ahab that I stayed, spellbound, until the end.

More recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick while sewing the Thames Quilt. There is a description of the whaling town of New Bedford near the beginning. In my head, I see not New Bedford but Greenland Dock:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled up upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one more perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.

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Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt detail

 

 

* I was lucky enough to be shown around Greenland Dock by Ken, the Old Map Man, who has developed a great walk about the docks in Rotherhithe – including the magical remains of Russia Dock. Find out more here and take a walk by the river.

Quilting the Thames Part Two: Samuel Pepys at the Lower Pool

Thames Quilt Panel Two - Samuel Pepys

Lower Pool – Thames Quilt Section Two

My quilted journey down the Thames continues at the Lower Pool, which runs from the Cherry Garden Pier to Limekiln Creek. And at the Lower Pool I am joined by celebrated Seventeenth Century diarist, Mr Samuel Pepys.

NPG D30958;  Samuel Pepys by Robert White, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt

Samuel Pepys by Robert White, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, line engraving, published 1690, National Portrait Gallery *

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) lived through turbulent times – the Civil War, the execution of one king (Charles I), and the coronation of another (Pepys was on the ship that brought Charles II home from exile in the Netherlands). He wrote his daily observations in diaries that lasted through the 1660s. Pepys wrote of events of great national import such as the Great Fire of London, the Plague, and the Anglo-Dutch war; and wrote more intimately of his career as a naval administrator, of his wife Elisabeth and his many extra-marital philanderings, his household servants, of concerts and the theatre, of playing the flageolet at home, and of being jealous of his wife’s dancing master.

Everybody's Pepys

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

As a London resident and employee of the Navy Board, Pepys naturally wrote about the Thames in his diaries – and of his working life around Greenwich, Woolwich, Tilbury, Deptford, and Rotherhithe, or, as he knew it, Redriffe or Redriff, which had been a centre of shipbuilding since Elizabethan times. He often travelled between different places on the Thames during the course of the day – taking boats up and down the river, or walking through the fields between the shipyards of Redriffe and Deptford. For example, on September 5 1662, he started his working day at 5.00am and travelled by boat to Woolwich: Here I staid and mustered the yard and looked into the storehouses; and so walked all alone to Greenwich, and thence by water to Deptford, and there examined some stores, and did some of my own business in hastening my work there, and so walked to Redriffe, being by this time pretty weary and all in a sweat; took boat there for the Tower, which made me a little fearful, it being a cold, windy morning.

Redriff Road

A glimpse of Redriff in Rotherhithe

Travelling by river in the 1660s was just part of life – often the only way of getting around London and the surrounding areas. Pepys usually simply notes his journeys, if he mentions them at all. But occasionally there were difficulties. On December 27 1665, Pepys dined with Sir W Warren at the Pope’s Head … and thence to the goldsmiths, I to examine the state of my matters there too, and so with him to my house, but my wife was gone abroad to Mrs Mercer’s, so we took boat, and it being darke and the thaw having broke the ice, but not carried it quite away, the boat did pass through so much of it all along, and that with the crackling and noise that it made me fearfull indeed. So I forced the watermen to land us on the Redriffe side, and so walked together till Sir W Warren and I parted near his house and thence I walked quite over the fields home by light of linke, one of my watermen carrying it, and I reading by the light of it, it being a very fine, clear, dry night. 

Redriffe Mud

Looking up towards Lower Pool and the Redriff Mud from Nelson Wharf

According to Pepys’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter, in very cold winters the Thames above London Bridge froze over. The gaps between the bridge piers, or starlings, were so narrow that they restricted the flow of water through them, creating relatively still water upstream … The river above the bridge froze over in six winters during the second half of the century. When it froze really hard fairs were held on the ice, such as during the severe winter of 1684, the worst of the century, when the Thames could be crossed by pedestrians for seven weeks between 2 January and 20 February.

Pepys’ crossing point below London Bridge was not frozen solid, but on that December evening the sound of the ice cracking at Rotherhithe was sufficiently frightening to make him want to get off the river as quickly as possible.

Thames Quilt Panel Two - joined

Lower Pool section, work in progress on the Thames Quilt, March 2016

The pictures of ice and darkness conjured by Pepys are very vivid – you can almost hear the ice cracking as you read his diary – and when I came to the Lower Pool in my quilt, I knew his experience had to be included. I quilted him in with the words Pepys took boat but was afeared of the cracking ice at Redriffe.

I like to think of him reaching the Rotherhithe shore in relief, then reading his book by the glow of a waterman’s light as he walked for the rest of his journey on a freezing cold night.

 

* Picture of Samuel Pepys, NPG D30958 reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence