In The Old Curiosity Shop, chapter 5, Quilp, who lives on Tower Hill, takes a wherry across the river by the Tower to get to his wharf on the Surrey side. A wherry was a two-oared (or sometimes single oared – sculled) ferry boat, plied by licensed watermen to take passengers across the river at designated points. Dickens perfectly captured this chaotic time on the Thames.
It was flood tide when Daniel Quilp sat himself down in the ferry to cross to the opposite shore. A fleet of barges were coming lazily on, some sideways, some head first, some stern first; all in a wrong-headed, dogged, obstinate way, bumping up against the larger craft, running under the bows of steamboats, getting into every kind of nook and corner where they had no business, and being crunched on all sides like so many walnut-shells; while each with its pair of long sweeps struggling and splashing in the water looked like some lumbering fish in pain. ... Coming slowly on through the forests of masts was a great steamship, beating the water in short impatient strokes with her heavy paddles as though she wanted room to breathe, and advancing in her huge bulk like a sea monster among the minnows of the Thames. On either hand were long black tiers of colliers; between them vessels slowly working out of harbour with sails glistening in the sun, and creaking noise on board, re-echoed from a hundred quarters. The water and all upon it was in active motion, dancing and buoyant and bubbling up; while the old grey Tower and piles of building on the shore, with many a church-spire shooting up between, looked coldly on, and seemed to disdain their chafing, restless neighbour.
It is easy to imagine from this description the dangers and difficulties of crossing the river north/south while most of the river traffic on a much larger scale is plying west/east. It’s no surprise, especially in the fog, that accidents happened, as Dickens illustrates in Our Mutual Friend Book 3 chapter 2, when Rogue Riderhood, an experienced waterman, is mown down in his small boat by a large steamship further east near Limehouse.
‘What is it?’ asked Miss Abbey.
‘It’s summut run down in the fog, ma’am,’ answered Bob. ‘There’s ever so many people in the river.’
‘Tell ‘em to put on all the kettles!’ cried Miss Abbey. ‘See that the boiler’s full. Get a bath out. Hang some blankets to the fire. Heat some stone bottles. Have your senses about you, you girls down stairs, and use ‘em.’ …
Boats were putting off, torches were lighting up, people were rushing tumultuously to the water’s edge. ... The drags were called for. A cry for the life-buoy passed from mouth to mouth. It was impossible to make out what was going on upon the river, for every boat that put off sculled into the fog and was lost to view at a boat’s length. Nothing was clear but that the unpopular steamer was assailed with reproaches on all sides. She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement; her captain ought to be tried for his life; her crew ran down men in row-boats with a relish; she mashed up Thames lightermen with her paddles; she fired property with her funnels; she always was, and she always would be, wreaking destruction upon somebody or something, after the manner of all her kind. The whole bulk of the fog teemed with such taunts, uttered in tones of universal hoarseness. All the while, the steamer’s lights moved spectrally a very little, as she lay-to, waiting the upshot of whatever accident had happened. Now, she began burning blue-lights. These made a luminous patch about her, as if she had set the fog on fire, and in the patch—the cries changing their note, and becoming more fitful and more excited—shadows of men and boats could be seen moving, while voices shouted: ‘There!’ ‘There again!’ ‘A couple more strokes a-head!’ ‘Hurrah!’ ‘Look out!’ ‘Hold on!’ ‘Haul in!’ and the like. Lastly, with a few tumbling clots of blue fire, the night closed in dark again, the wheels of the steamer were heard revolving, and her lights glided smoothly away in the direction of the sea…
‘What is it, Tootle?’ demanded Miss Abbey.
‘It’s a foreign steamer, miss, run down a wherry.’
‘How many in the wherry?’
‘One man, Miss Abbey.’
‘Yes. He’s been under water a long time, Miss; but they’ve grappled up the body.’
It’s quite clear from this passage that steamships running down smaller boats was not uncommon.
The other aspect the passage from The Old Curiosity Shop highlights is that there was no other way of crossing the Thames by the Tower at this time. The great neo-gothic structure that is Tower Bridge would not be built until 1886-94, so there was no bridge crossing the Thames further east than London Bridge, which was frequently grid-locked with traffic, and this was the last of the narrower stretch before the river opened out into the wider Pool of London. It was also before most of the large docks had been built inland from the river, taking some of the great cargo ships out of the Pool to be unloaded in greater safety behind their high walls.