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

FullSizeRender (5)

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!).

IMG_0092

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.

IMG_0093

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