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Mr Baker’s trap to Mr Jasper’s opium den: Extending the East London Dickens Thames walk, 2

Continuing from the previous blog...

From Raine St turn right, back onto Wapping Lane and walk up to the open space that acts as a bridge over a small canal stream. This canal, in places scarcely big enough to float a paper boat, now runs from Hermitage Basin in the south west, to Shadwell Basin in the east, neither of which can be seen from the bridge.

Tobacco dock today

However, it used to be big enough to carry trading ships that came to be unloaded in the huge internal docks, from the great Western Dock, that would have been visible just beyond the small further bridge to the west, to Tobacco Dock right here, and on to a huge pool (New Dock or Eastern Dock) directly to the east including the area now covered by Wapping Forest, all part of the giant London Docks.


The bridges themselves were swing lock bridges to allow the ships to pass through. The bridge you are now standing on was formerly Gravel Lane bridge. It is here that Dickens, on his way to Wapping Workhouse, meets a laconic waterside character, a ‘figure all dirty and shiny and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy father, Thames’, who tells him that this bridge was known locally as Mr Baker’s trap because women would throw themselves into the water below – Mr Baker was the local coroner. The women didn’t always die. Often they waited until someone, usually a policeman, was coming along, then they would be hauled out and ‘“carried into the werkiss and put into a ’ot bath, and brought round. But I dunno about restored,” said the apparition; “blow THAT!” — and vanished.’

On the far side of the present bridge, to your left, you will see two large ships in dry dock. These are replicas of trading ships, built when the disused warehouse of Tobacco Dock had been turned into a shopping centre, and the ships were bizarrely known as pirate ships for children to play on.

Replica ships on Tobacco dock

The shopping centre has now gone and the area, closed to the public, contains offices and holds private events. If you go down the steps between the two ships you can peer into the cavernous space, which gives some idea of the size of this former warehouse and the Victorian architecture and ironwork that graced it.

Tobacco dock warehouse south side

Returning to and continuing further up Wapping Lane, the giant brick wall along the east side emphasises the paranoia of the shipping companies about theft (large-scale piracy as well as petty theft) and how the docks and dock buildings physically dominated this area. If you turn left down Pennington St you may be allowed to look inside the dock from the north side.

Tobacco dock warehouse north side

You might even glimpse the statue of the boy and the tiger, commemorating an extraordinary event. In 1857, a Bengal tiger escaped from Jamrach’s exotic pet store on nearby Ratcliffe Highway and carried off a boy in its jaws. German-born Mr Jamrach saved the boy by, allegedly, prizing open the tiger’s jaws!

Jamrach's tiger and boy sculpture

The top of Wapping Lane brings you to the modern Highway, now a busy, wide, unatmospheric road with few features giving away its notorious past. Formerly, the Ratcliffe Highway (later St George's St) was lined with marine stores, gin shops, slop shops, public houses, mission houses, cheap music halls, bird sellers and Jamrach’s menagerie. Seamen from all over the world, German, Spanish, Greek, Scandinavian, American, Chinese, Malays and, perhaps the most downtrodden of all, lascars from India, mixed, fought or kept to their own. Its reputation was ‘almost unique in Europe as a scene of coarse riot and debauchery,’ (Charles Dickens Jnr, Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879), and it was known for the horrific multiple murders of two families in 1811 (the suspected murderer hung himself in prison and was buried with a stake through his heart at the crossroad with Cannon Street).

It was also notorious for its opium dens, perhaps not as prolific as was once thought but certainly there. Dickens visited one with Inspector Field and his American friend and publisher J.T. Fields before he wrote Edwin Drood. Fields described the visit, ‘In a miserable court, we found the haggard old woman blowing at a kind of pipe made of an old penny ink-bottle. The identical words which Dickens puts into the mouth of this wretched creature in 'Edwin Drood' we heard her croon as we leaned over the tattered bed on which she was lying. There was something hideous in the way this woman kept repeating “Ye'll pay up according, deary, won't ye?” and the Chinamen and Lascars made never-to-be-forgotten pictures in the scene.’ This court was near St George-in-the-East church Stepney, across the Highway from Wapping Lane, probably in the maze of houses, pubs and courts in what is now St George’s Gardens. While ‘respectable’ people would not normally visit here, adventurous tourists might come under police escort, and even, like Charles Dickens Jnr, try ‘the tiny lumps of delight’!

'Sleeping it off' Luke Fildes' illustration for Edwin Drood

This is Dickens Snr’s description of John Jasper’s two visits to the opium den in Edwin Drood:

Eastward and still eastward through the stale streets he takes his way, until he reaches his destination: a miserable court, specially miserable among many such...’

He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it. And as she blows, and shading it with her lean hand, concentrates its red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as a lamp to show him what he sees of her.

Another?” says this woman, in a querulous, rattling whisper. “Have another? …Ye’ll pay up accordingly, deary, won’t ye?”’

This dock area was colourful, exotic, cosmopolitan, with untold riches in merchandise and great Victorian industrial architecture and design on one side of the high walls, and the meanest slums and extremes of poverty, crime and despair on the other.

To be continued...

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