Dicken's Limehouse Hole
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I took a steamboat one day at Westminster Bridge, and after a voyage of 40 minutes or so landed near Limehouse Hole, and followed the river streets both east and west. It was easy enough to trace the course of Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, as they walked under the guidance of Riderhood through the stormy night from their rooms in The Temple, four miles away, past the Tower and the London Docks, and down by the slippery water's edge to Limehouse Hole, when they went to cause Gaffer Hexam's arrest, and found him drowned, tied to his own boat. The strictly commercial aspect of the Docks—the London Docks above and the West India Docks below—shades off by slight degrees into the black misery of the hole. The warehouses are succeeded by boat-builders' sheds; by private wharves, where ships, all hidden, as to their hulls, behind walls and close fences, thrust unexpected bowsprits over the narrow roadway; by lime-yards; by the shops of marine store-dealers and purveyors to all the wants and follies of seamen; and then by a variety of strange establishments which it would be hard to classify.
Close by a yard piled up with crates and barrels of second-hand bottles, was a large brick warehouse devoted to the purchase and sale of broken glass. A wagon loaded with that commodity stood before the door, and men with scoop-shovels were transferring the glass into barrels. An enclosure of one or two acres, in an out-of-the-way street, might have been the original of the dust-yard that contained Boffin's Bower, except that Boffin's Bower was several miles distant, on the northern outskirt of London. A string of carts, full of miscellaneous street and house rubbish, all called here by the general name of "dust," were waiting their turn to discharge. There was a mountain of this refuse at the end of the yard; and a party of laborers, more or less impeded by two very active black hogs, were sifting and sorting it. Other mounds, formed from the siftings of the first, were visible at the sides. There were huge accumulations of broken crockery and of scraps of tin and other metal, and of bones. There was a quantity of stable-manure and old straw, and a heap, as large as a two-story cottage, of old hoops stript from casks and packing-cases. I never understood, until I looked into this yard, how there could have been so much value in the dust-mounds at Boffin's Bower.
Gradually the streets became narrower, wetter, dirtier, and poorer. Hideous little alleys led down to the water's edge where the high tide splashed over the stone steps. I turned into several of them, and I always found two or three muddy men lounging at the bottom; often a foul and furtive boat crept across the field of view. The character of the shops became more and more difficult to de-fine. Here a window displayed a heap of sailor's thimbles and pack-thread; there another set forth an array of trumpery glass vases or a basket of stale fruit, pretexts, perhaps, for the disguise of a "leaving shop," or unlicensed pawnbroker's establishment, out of which I expected to see Miss Pleasant Riderhood come forth, twisting up her back hair as she came. At a place where the houses ceased, and an open space left free a prospect of the black and bad-smelling river, there was an old factory, disused and ruined, like the ancient mill in which Gaffer Hexam made his home, and Lizzie told the fortunes of her brother in the hollow by the fire.
I turned down a muddy alley, where 12 or 15 placards headed "Body Found," were pasted against the wall. They were printed forms, filled in with a pen. Mr. Forster tells us in his life of Dickens that it was the sight of bills of this sort which gave the first suggestion of "Our Mutual Friend." At the end of the alley was a neat brick police-station; stairs led to the water, and several trim boats were moored there. Within the station I could see an officer quietly busy at his desk, as if he had been sitting there ever since Dickens described "the Night Inspector, with a pen and ink ruler, posting up his books in a whitewashed office as studiously as if he were in a monastery on the top of a mountain, and no howling fury of a drunken woman were banging herself against a cell-door in the back yard at his elbow." A hand-some young fellow in uniform, who looked like a cross between a sailor and a constable, came out and asked very civilly if he could be of use to me. "Do you know," said I, "where the station was that Dickens describes in `Our Mutual Friend'?"
"Oh, yes, sir ! this is the very spot. It was the old building that stood just here : this is a new one, but it has been put up in the same place."
"Mr. Dickens often went out with your men in the boat, didn't he?"
"Yes, sir, many a night in the old times."
"Do you know the tavern which is described in the same book by the name of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters ?"
"No, sir, I don't know it; at least not by that name. It may have been pulled down, for a lot of warehouses have been built along here, and the place is very much changed; or it may be one of those below."
Of course, I chose to think that it must be "one of those below." I kept on a little farther, by the crooked river lanes, where public houses were as plentiful as if the entire population suffered from a raging and inextinguishable thirst for beer. The sign-boards displayed a preference for the plural which seems not to have escaped the observation of the novelist. If I did not see The Six Porters, I came across The Three Mariners, The Three Cups, The Three Suns, The Three Tuns, The Three Foxes, and the Two Brewers; and in the last I hope that I found the original of the tavern so often mentioned in the story.
I had first noticed it from the steamboat—"a narrow, lop-sided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden veranda impending over the water,"—a tavern of dropsical appearance, which had not a straight floor in its whole constitution, and hardly a straight line. I got at the entrance on the landside after a search among puzzling alleys, and there I found still stronger reminders of "Our Mutual Friend." Stuck against the wall was an array of old and new hand-bills, headed, "Drowned," and offering rewards for the recovery of bodies. The value set upon dead persons in Limehouse Hole is not excessive : the customary recompense for finding them seems to be ten shillings, and in only one instance did the price reach the dazzling amount of one pound.
By the side of the house is an approach to the river : most of the buildings near are old and irregular, and at low tide a great deal of the shore must be exposed. Going upon the slippery stones, beside which lay a few idle and rickety boats, I found the expected range of windows with "red curtains matching the noses of the regular customers." I looked in at the door. A long passage opened a vista of pleasant bar-parlor, or what-ever it may have been, on the river-side; and, perhaps, I should have seen Miss Abbey Potterson if I had gone to the end. Several water-side characters were drinking beer at the lead-covered counter, -waited upon by a sharp young woman, who seems to have replaced Bob Gliddery. Instead of the little room called "Cozy," where the Police Inspector drank burned sherry with Lightwood and Wrayburn, there was an apartment labelled "The Club." A party of "regular customers," all evidently connected with water (or mud), sat around a - table : beyond question they were Tootle, and Mullins, and Bob Glamour, and Captain Joey; and at ten o'clock Miss Abbey would issue from the bar parlor, and send them home. If The Jolly Fellowship Porters is still extant, this must be it.