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Tuesday 26 July 2011

they hear, all day long, and never ending, save on Sunday, the sound of hammer and of saw, the whistling of the bo's'ns and foremen, the rolling of casks, the ringing of bells, and all the noise which accompanies the build- ing and the fitting of ships ; and smell perpetually the tar and the pitch (which some love better than the smell of roses and of violets)


I suppose that the best place in the world for a boy who is
about to become a sailor, as well as for one who loves to paint
ships, must be Deptford, which seems to many so mean and
despicable a town. Mean and despicable to Jack and to my-
self it would never be, because here our boyhood was spent,
and here we played with Castilla ; here we first learned to sit by
the river-side and watch the craft go up and down, with those
at anchor and those in dock. At Deptford, where the water is
never rough enough to capsize a tilt-boat, we are at the very
gates of London ; we can actually see the pool.: we are, in a
word, on the Thames.

The Thames is not, I believe, the largest river in the world;
the great Oronoco is broader, and, I dare say, longer ; the Nile
is certainly a greater stream. Yet, there is no other river
which is so majestic by reason of its shipping and its trade.
For thither come ships, laden with palm-oil and ivory, from the
Guinea Coast ; from Norway and Riga, with wood and tallow ;
from Holland, with stuffs and spices and provisions of all kinds ;
from the West Indies, with rum and sugar ; from the East
Indies, with rice ; from China, with tea and silk ; from Arabia,
with coffee ; from Newcastle, with coal. There is no kind of
merchandise produced in the world which is not carried up the
Thames to the port of London. And there is no kind of ship
or boat built to swim in the sea, except, I suppose, the Chinese
junk, the Morisco galley, or the piratical craft of the Eastern
Seas, which does not lie at anchor in the Thames, somewhere
between Greenwich Reach and London Bridge. East-Indiamen,
brigs, brigantines, schooners, yachts, sloops, galliots, tenders,
colliers, hoys, barges, smacks, herring-busses, or hog-boats all
are here. And not only these, which are peaceful ships, only
armed with carronades and muskets for defence against pirates,
but also his majesty's men-of-war, frigates, sloops of war, cut-
ters, fire-ships, and every kind of vessel employed to beat off
the enemies of the country, who would prey upon our com-
merce and destroy our merchantmen.

On that very day when
Jack came was there not, lying off Deptford Creek, the Re-
doubtable, having received her stores, provisions, and ammuni-
tion, and now waiting her captain and her crew ? and I warrant
the press-gang were busy at Wapping and at Ratcliffe. Beside
her lay the sloop-of-war Venus, the Pink, and Lively, and off
the dock mouth was the Hector, lying in ordinary, a broad can-
vas tilt or awning rigged up from stem to stern. So that those
who look up and down the river from Deptford Stairs see not
only the outward and visible proofs of England's trade, but also
those of England's greatness.

Or, again which may be useful
to the painter one may see not only at Deptford and at Red-
riff, but above the river, at Wapping, Shadwell, and Blackwall,
every kind of sailor ; they are mostly alike in manners and in
morals and one hopes that to sailors much is pardoned, and
that from them little is expected but they differ in their
speech and in their dress. There is the phlegmatic Hollander,
never without his pipe ; the mild Norwegian ; the fiery Spaniard,
ready with his dagger ; the fierce Italian, equally ready with
his knife ; the treacherous Greek ; and the Frenchman. But
the last we generally see since it is our lot to be often at war
with his nation as a prisoner, when he comes to us half starved,
ragged, and in very evil plight. Yet give these poor French
prisoners only warmth, light, and food, and they will turn out
to be most light-hearted and merry blades, always cheerful and
ready to talk, sing, and dance, and always making ingenious
things with a knife and a piece of wood. Perhaps if we knew
this people better, and they knew us better, we should be less
ready to go to war with each other.

Those who live in such a town as Deptford, and continually
witness this procession of ships, cannot choose but be sensible
of the greatness of the country, and must perforce talk con-
tinually with each other of foreign ports and places beyond the
ocean. Also because they witness the corning and going of the
king's ships (some of them pretty well battered on their return,
I promise you) ; and because they hear, all day long, and never
ending, save on Sunday, the sound of hammer and of saw, the
whistling of the bo's'ns and foremen, the rolling of casks, the
ringing of bells, and all the noise which accompanies the build-
ing and the fitting of ships ; and smell perpetually the tar and
the pitch (which some love better than the smell of roses and
of violets) they cannot refrain from talking continually of
actions at sea, feats of bravery, and the like. All the towns-
people talk of these things, and of little else. And, besides,
in these years there was the more reason for this kind of con-
versation because we were always at war with France and Spain,
fighting, among other things, to drive the French out of America,
and so to enable the ungrateful colonies to make us, shortly
afterwards, follow the lead of the French. Every day there
came fresh news of actions, skirmishes, captures, wrecks, burn-
ings. The Channel and the Bay of Biscay swarmed with French
privateers as thick as wasps in an orchard. There was not a
lugger on the coast of Normandy but stole out of a night to
pick up some English craft ; every fleet of merchantmen sailed
under convoy, and every sailor looked for death or a French
prison unless he would fight it out unto the end.

The people of London are strangely incurious many there
are who know nothing about the very monuments standing in
their midst and so that they can read every day the news
from France and Spain, they care little about their own country.
Therefore Deptford, which lies at their very gates, is as little
known to them as if it were in Wales. Some, it is true, come
every year on St. Luke's Day to join the rabble at Horn Fair,
landing at Rotherhithe, and walking to Charlton with the pro-
cession of mad wags who carry horns on their heads to that
scene of debauchery and riot ; and once a year, on Trinity Mon-
day, the elders of the Trinity House assemble at the Great Hall
behind St. Nicolas's, and after business go to church, and after
church, dinner at the Gun Tavern on the Green. And the ships
of the royal navy come and go at the royal yard almost daily.
Otherwise Deptford hath no visitors.

I do not say that it is
a beautiful city, though, as for streets, we have the Green and
Church Street ; and as for monuments, until late years there were
the great House and gardens of Saye's Court, now lying deso-
late and miserable, partly enclosed in the King's Yard and
partly given over to rank weeds and puddles. Here it was that
the great Peter, Czar of Muscovy, once lived. There are also the
two churches of St. Nicolas and St. Paul, both stately buildings,
and temples fit for worship, the latter especially, which is like
its sister churches, built about the same time, of Limehouse,
St. George's, Ratcliffe, Hoxton, Bethnal Green, Hackney, St.
Martin's-in-the-Fields, Camden Town, and others majestic with
its vast round portico of stone and its commanding terrace.

Then there are the two hospitals or almshouses, both named after
the Holy Trinity, for decayed mariners and their widows. To
my own mind these monuments of benevolence, which stand so
thickly all round London, are fairer than the most magnificent
king's palace of which we can read. Let the great bashaw have
as many gilded palaces as he pleases for himself and his se-
raglio ; let our palaces be those which are worthy of a free
people, namely, homes and places of refuge for the aged and de-
serving poor, and those who are quite spent and now past work.

I suppose there are few places richer and more fortunate
than Deptford and its neighbor, Greenwich, in these founda-
tions. At the latter place there is the great and noble Naval
Hospital, now inhabited by nearly two thousand honest veter-
ans ; they will never, be sure, be turned out of this, their stately
home, until England hath lost her pride in her sailors. There
is Morden College, for decayed merchants ; there is Norfolk, also
called Trinity, College, for the poor of Greenwich, and of Der-
singham, in Norfolk ; and there is Queen Elizabeth's Hospital,
for poor women. So, at Deptford, we have those two noble
foundations, both named after the Holy Trinity, one behind
St. Nicolas's and the other behind St. Paul's, the latter espe-
cially being a goodly structure, with a fair quadrangular court,
a commodious hall, and gardens fitted for quiet meditation and
for rest in the sunshine during the latest trembling years of life.

I do not think that even Morden College itself, with its canal
in front and its stately alleys of trees, or Norfolk College, with
its convenient stone terrace overlooking the river and its spa-
cious garden, is more beautiful than the Hospital of the Holy
Trinity beside St. Paul's Church, Deptford, especially if one
considers the stormy, anxious, and harassed lives to which it
offers rest and repose. They have been lives spent on the sea ;
not in the pursuit of honor won at the cannon's mouth and by
boarding-pike in fighting the king's enemies, but in the gather-
ing of wealth for others to enjoy, none of their gains coming to
themselves. The merchant captain brings home his cargo safe
after perils many and hardships great ; but the cargo is not for
him. His owners, or those who have chartered the ship, re-
ceive the freight ; it is bought with their money and sold for
their profit. For the captain and the crew there is their bare
wage ; and when they can work no longer, perhaps, if they are
fortunate, a room in a hospital or almshouse, with the weekly
dole of loaves and shillings.

The tract of land (it is not great) lying at the back of Trinity
Almshouses and the Stowage, contained by the last bend of the
creek before it runs into the river, is rented by two or three
market-gardeners, and laid out by them for the production of
fruit and vegetables.

As these gardens lay retired and behind the houses, no one
ever came to them except the gardeners themselves, who are
quiet, peaceful folk. About the orchards here, and the beds
of asparagus, pease, endive, skirrett, and the rest of the vegeta-
bles grown for the London market, lies ever an abiding sense
of peace ; and this although one cannot but hear the continual
hammering of the dock-yard, the firing of salutes, and the yo-
hoing and roaring of voices which all day long come up from
the ships upon the river. I know not how we came to know
these gardens, or to find them out. I used to wander in them
with Castilla, when we were little children, with Philadelphy
for nurse ; we took Jack Easterbrook to show him the place as
soon as he came to us ; we thought, I believe as children love
to think of anything that the gardens were our own, though,
of course, we were only there on sufferance, and because the
gardeners knew we should neither destroy nor steal.

Perhaps the chief reason why we sought the place (because
we had gardens of our own at home) was that, just beyond the
last bend of the creek, there stood, on the very edge of the
steep bank here twenty feet above low-water mark an old
summer-house, built of wood. It was octagonal in shape, hav-
ing a pointed roof of shingle, with a gilded weathercock upon
it. Three sides contained windows, all looking upon the river ;
another side consisted of a door ; and a bench ran round the
room, except on the side of the door. It had once been paint-
ed green, but the paint was now for the most part fallen off ;
the shingle roof was leaky, and let in the rain ; the weathercock
was rusty, and stuck at due east ; the planks of the wall had
started ; the door hardly hung upon its hinges ; the glass of the
windows was broken ; and the whole structure was so crazy
that I wonder it kept together, and did not either tumble to
pieces or slip down the steep bank into the ooze of the creek.
In this summer-house the great czar Peter, when he was learn-
ing how to build ships in Deptford Yard, would, it was said,
sometimes come to sit with his princes or heyducs, on a sum-
mer evening, to drink brandy, to look at the ships, and to med
itate how best to convert his enslaved Muscovites into the like-
ness of free and honest English sailors. We had small respect
for the memory of the czar, but as for the old summer-house,
it was all our own, because no one used it except ourselves.
For us it was a fortress or castle where we could play at being
besieged, the ships in the river representing the enemy's fleet.
Jack would sally forth and perform prodigies of valor in bring-
ing in provisions for the garrison. Or it was our ship, in which
we sustained imaginary broadsides, and encountered shipwreck,
and were cast away, Jack being captain and Castilla the pas-
senger, while I was alternately bo's'n, first lieutenant, or cook,
according to the exigencies of the situation. But very soon
Jack grew too big for these games, and left us to ourselves.
Then we fell to more quiet sport.

It was pleasant to watch
the ships go up and down the river, and fine to see how the
tide rushed up the creek below us, making whirlpools and ed-
dies, and setting upright the boats lying on their sides in the
mud, and trying to tear down the bank on which stood our
rickety palace. We seemed to know every craft, from the
great East - Indiaman to the Margate hoys or the Gravesend
tilt-boats, by face, so to speak, just as we knew the faces of the
naval officers who walked about the town. And, thanks to
Jack, we knew the history of every ship of the king's navy
which came to Deptford, and all the engagements and actions
in which she had ever taken part.

1 comment:

  1. Very pleased to read the historical facts of the Ancient Naval History of the Deptford. ND Makker- Indian Naval Master Chief Wright