PortCities London

The port in literature

Charles Dickens

Sculpted panel commemorating Charles Dickens.
View full size imageSculpted panel commemorating Charles Dickens. © NMM

The great novelist, journalist and social commentator Charles Dickens (1812-1870) managed to write about most things during his long career. London's river, port and seafaring connections appear often in his works.

So many passages could be mentioned: his vivid description of Jacob's Island in Bermondsey in Oliver Twist, his depiction of the Thames and those that earned a living from the river in Our Mutual Friend, or his factual but highly personal observations on Whitechapel and Shadwell in The Uncommercial Traveller.

To do full justice to Dickens would require an entire website, so here is a very small sample.


As the Steam Boat Pier

In his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), Dickens described the steamboats at the London Bridge Steam Wharf.

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Little steam-boats dashed up and down the river incessantly. Tiers upon tiers of vessles, scores of masts, labyrinths of tackle, idle sails, splashing oars, gliding row-boats, lumbering barges, sunken piles, with ugly lodgings for the water-rat within their mud-discoloured nooks; church steeples, warehouses, house-roofs, arches, bridges, men and women, casks, cranes, boxes, horses, coaches, idlers, and hard-labourers:
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there they were, all jumbled up together...
Steam boats at Adelaide Wharf, off London Bridge.
View full size imageSteam boats at Adelaide Wharf, off London Bridge. © NMM
London Bridge Steam Wharf.
View full size imageThe London Bridge Steam Wharf. © NMM

Audio File 'There they lay'.
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The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters

Exterior of The Grapes public house.
View full size imageExterior of The Grapes public house. © NMM
In Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), a novel featuring many characters that worked on the Thames, Dickens portrayed the riverside tavern The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters.

It is widely believed that his description was based on the Bunch of Grapes public house in Limehouse. This still survives as the Grapes.

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The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters... had not a straight floor, and hardly a straight line; but it had outlasted, and clearly would yet outlast, many a better-trimmed building,
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many a sprucer public house.
At Limehouse, c. 1884-85.
View full size imageAt Limehouse, c. 1884-85. © NMM

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Externally, it was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house, inclusive of the complaining
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flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water...
Off Limehouse, c. 1884.
View full size imageOff Limehouse, c. 1884. © NMM

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The wood forming the chimney-pieces, beams, partitions, floors and doors, of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, seemed in its old age fraught with confused memories of its youth.

In many places it had become gnarled and riven, according to the manner of old trees; knots started out of it; and here and there it
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seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs.

Inside of the Grapes public house.
View full size imageInside the Grapes public house. © NMM

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The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast. The available space in it was not much larger than a hackney-coach; but no one could have
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wished the bar bigger...
An Evening at the Grapes, by Alice West.
View full size imageAn Evening at the Grapes, by Alice West. © NMM

Audio File 'The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
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View Transcription