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.
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. *
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!).
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.
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.
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.
* 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.