PortCities London
UKBristolHartlepoolLiverpoolLondonSouthampton
You are here:  PortCities London home > People and places > Thames art, literature and architecture
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card

The port in literature

Introduction
Sherlock Holmes
Charles Dickens
Daniel Defoe
'Chinatown' literature
Frost fair 'poetry'
*
Send this story to a friendSend this story to a friend
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
View this story in picturesView this story in pictures

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is one of the great figures of English literature in the early 18th century. He is best known for his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but he wrote many other books and hundreds of pamphlets. His varied life included two spells in prison and bankruptcy.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe, 1660-1731.
View full size imageDaniel Defoe (1660-1731). © NMM
Published in 1722, this seems to be a memoir of the Great Plague of London in 1665. Told in the first person, this is a vivid description of the City in the grip of the fearful epidemic. However, the Journal is a work of historical fiction rather than a genuine memoir, as Defoe was only five years old at the time of the Great Plague. Even so, Defoe's painstaking research into the course of the epidemic lends this work an air of authenticity. Several passages describe the effect of the epidemic on the port districts. 

The collapse of the port

A man in a wherry handling barrels, by Willem Van de Velde, the Younger.
View full size imageA man in a wherry handling barrels, by Willem Van de Velde, the Younger. © NMM
Defoe vividly describes how the plague destroyed London's sea-borne trade, and showed a deep understanding of just how many people depended on that trade for their livelihoods.

 

 

Quotation marks left
As merchandising was at a full stop, for very few ships ventured to come up the river and none at all went out, so all the extraordinary officers of the customs, likewise the watermen, carmen, porters, and all the poor whose labour depended upon the
Quotation marks right
merchants, were at once dismissed and put out of business...
Audio File 'As merchandising was at a full stop'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription

Quotation marks left
As navigation was at a stop, our ships neither coming in or going out as before, so the seamen were all out of employment, and many of them in the last and lowest degree of distress; and with the seamen were all the several tradesmen and workmen belonging to and depending upon the building and fitting out of ships, such as ship-carpenters, caulkers, ropemakers, dry coopers, sailmakers, anchorsmiths, and other smiths;
Quotation marks right
blockmakers, carvers, gunsmiths, ship-chandlers, ship-carvers and the like...
Audio File 'As Navigation'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription

Quotation marks left
Add to these that the river was in a manner without boats, and all or most part of the watermen, lightermen, boat-builders, and lighter-
Quotation marks right
builders in like manner idle and laid by...
 

 

The Thames viewed from Greenwich

The narrator persuades a waterman to take him out to Greenwich, from where he surveys the shipping on the Thames...

Quotation marks left
He carried me to Greenwich... I walked up to the top of the hill under which the town stands... to get a prospect of the river. But it was a surprising sight to see the number of ships which lay in rows, two and two, and some places two or three lines in the breadth of the river...

I cannot guess at the number of ships, but I think there must be several hundreds of sail...

The distress of the people at this seafaring end of the

Quotation marks right
town was very deplorable...

Audio File 'He carried me to'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription
Audio File 'I cannot guess'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription
Audio File 'The distress was such'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription

A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain

This work, published in 1726, was part travelogue, part social and economic observation. Defoe understood trade, and always made valuable comments on what he saw.

The Pool

Quotation marks left
That part of the river of Thames which is properly the harbour, and where the ships usually deliver or unload their cargoes, is called the Pool, and begins at the turning of the river out of Limehouse Reach,
Quotation marks right
and extends to the Custom-House-Keys.
Audio File 'That part of the river'.
Players: Realplayer 5 | Quicktime 4
Need help with audio?
View Transcription

Quotation marks left
In this compass I have had the curiosity to count the ships as well as I could... and have found above two thousand sail of all sorts, not reckoning
Quotation marks right
bargers, lighters or pleasure-boats, and yachts...
A model of the Pool of London in the 18th century.
View full size imageA model of the Pool of London. © NMM

Quotation marks left
In the river... there are from Battle-Bridge on the Southwark side, and the Hermitage-Bridge on the city-side, reckoning to Black-Wall...

Three wet docks for laying up;

Twenty-two dry docks for repairing merchant ships

Quotation marks right
Thirty-three yards for building merchant ships

Howland Great Dock near Deptford.
View full size imageThe Howland Great Dock near Deptford, by J Badslade. © NMM

The City wharves

Quotation marks left
The quays, or wharfs, next the river, fronting not the Custom House only, but the whole space from the Tower stairs, or dock, to the bridge... are a testimony of the vast trade carried on in it... The revenue, or income, brought in by these wharfs... is said to amount to a prodigious sum... [An] abundance of porters, watchmen, wharfingers, and
Quotation marks right
other officers, are maintained here by the business of the wharfs...

Greenwich

Quotation marks left
I took boat at Tower-Wharf, sending my horses to meet me at Greenwich... which is the most delightful spot of ground in Great-Britain; pleasant by situation, those pleasures increased by art, and all made completely agreeable by the accident of fine buildings, the continual passing of fleets of ships up and down the most beautiful river in Europe; the best air, best
Quotation marks right
prospect, and the best conversation in England.
Greenwich from One Tree Hill
View full size imageGreenwich from One Tree Hill, by Johannes Vorsterman. © NMM

Woolwich

Quotation marks left
Here, when the business of the royal navy increased, and Queen Elizabeth built larger and greater ships of war than were usually employed before, new docks, and launches were erected, and places prepared for the building and repairing ships
Quotation marks right
of the largest size...
A view of His Majesty's Dock Yard at Woolwich, on the south side of the River Thames, in the County of Kent.
View full size imageA view of His Majesty's Dock Yard at Woolwich, by John Clevely Junior. © NMM

Quotation marks left
Besides the building yards, here is a large rope-walk where the biggest cables are made for the men of war; and on the east or lower part of the town in the gun-yard... commonly called the Park, or Gun Park; where there is a prodigious quantity of all manner of ordnance-stores, such as are fit for sea-service, that is to say, cannon of all sorts ... and mortars
Quotation marks right
of all sorts and sizes...
Woolwich Dockyard.
View full size imageWoolwich Dockyard, by Nicholas Pocock. © NMM

 


*
*
Glossary
Dock
Lighter
Port
Revenue
Wharf

Find out more
StoriesJoseph Conrad
The Polish émigré who became a British merchant seaman and a master of English prose.
*
*
*
Fact fileCharles Dickens
The greatest English novelist of the Victorian era
*
*
*
StoriesThe Thames frost fairs
*
*
*
Things to doAn animated Frost Fair
Find out more with our Frost Fair animation
*
*
*
StoriesChinese in the Port of London
Find out about London's original Chinatown
*
*
Related Resources
Related Images9 Images
*
*
8
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
Legal & CopyrightPartner sites:BristolHartlepoolLiverpoolSouthamptonAbout this SiteFeedbackText Only