Changing London

Into the unknown – arriving in London by steamer

Visitors to London have a choice of ways of getting to Britain’s capital these days. Travel by road, rail or plane are probably the most popular ways of reaching the centre, but the list is by no means exhaustive. Those with money to burn can find even more creative ways of landing in London – think helicopters landing on Canary Wharf skyscrapers for example.

But there is an obvious mode of transport that’s missing from the list. While the cruise industry may be thriving in other ports of the UK (and indeed the world), it’s rare that you see a long-distance cruise ship full of passengers arriving or departing from central London. Most river vessels go little further than Maritime Greenwich.

In times gone by it was a different picture, with the piers around London Bridge bustling with visitors, often from some considerable distance. Old Swan Stairs or the Old Swan Pier (roughly where Cannon Street railway bridge is now) was one of the busiest and its steamers served as far afield as France and Belgium in the 19th century (as well as operating local services). The dock was, over time, upgraded from a rickety structure to one made of stone, but it still retained a flimsy wooden gangway.

First impressions

But what (and whom) did visitors experience when they arrived by steamer in the capital?

When a “ship touches the unsteady landing-stage: the gangway is cleared; and now the stranger makes his first acquaintance with the Londoner,” wrote journalist Blanchard Jerrold, a young Englishman, in his fascinating 1872 account London: A pilgrimage.

“The poor fellows who wait by London Bridge to rush on board any steamer that has passengers with luggage to land, make many a traveller’s first impression. In their poverty there is nothing picturesque. The Londoner reduced to hunting after odd jobs by the river-shore is a castaway, whom it is impossible to class. He’s a ne’er-do-weel nearly always: but without the electricity and spirit of the Paris chiffonier, or the New York loafer. His clothes are picked anywhere; a black tail coat of the most ancient date, a flat cap or broken silk hat – everything fifth hand!”.

Jerrold’s account – accompanied by graphic sketches from Gustave Doré – of travels around Victorian London is today available in a new edition in bookshops, but it’s this opening chapter that describes arriving at London Bridge by steamer than really caught my attention. The writer didn’t have a good word to say about anyone arriving in an area now frequented by smart office workers making their way to and from Cannon Street station.

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Smartened up – Canon Street station today

He calls those that hang around the area “noisy nondescripts, who wind through the passengers, to pounce upon the luggage.” And he said “they express chronic distress in a hideous form: and their fierce internecine war for a few pence puts their worse expression upon them. It’s an ugly corner of the battle of life.” After passing the “shabby pestering loiters, and uncivil officials”, the passengers reach a London Cab and the capital is waiting to be discovered.

Working district

The “narrow, tortuous, river-side street” on the north bank of the Thames leading from the quiet of Temple to the Tower – and beyond to the docks – had “more varieties of business activity than in any other I can call to mind.” Jerrold described Thames Street, now a wide thoroughfare with cars and lorries thundering along it at all hours of the day:

“Glimpses of the Thames to the left, through the tangles of chains, and shafts, and ropes, and cranes; and to the right crowded lanes, with bales and boxes swinging at every height in the air, and waggon-loads of merchandise waiting to be warehoused: and, in the thoroughfare itself immense vans and drays in hopeless confusion to the stranger’s eye, yet each slowly tending to its destination: – a hurly-burly of clanking hoofs and grinding wheels, and clinking chains, and wheezing cranes, to a chorus of discordant human voices, broken by sharp railway whistles and the faint thuds of paddles battling with the tide…..”

Jerrord suggested that the stretch was more impressive than the shopping street of Cheapside. He captured the hustle and bustle of a workers who earned a living thanks to the river – from water-men and porters to sailors and fish-salesmen – bumping into vendors selling their wares and steam ship passengers. It must have been a wonderful experience to visit this “crooked narrow street with cranes over every window” which had a “flaring public-house with a lively sailors’ party”.

The bustling Docks

Continuing east, Jerrord reached the St Katherine’s Dock. “Bales, baskets, sacks and hogsheads, and waggons stretch as far as the eye can reach,” he wrote. “Slouching sailors” wore their “gaudy holiday clothes” and a skipper was spotted wearing “shiny black that fits uneasily”, while groups of “wondering ladies” convoyed past “hungry-looking day-labourers.” It was a busy spot, bustling with people from “every clime and country”.


Passing from dock to dock, Jerrod is amazed at the sheer size of warehouses, piled high with goods such as wine and tobacco. And then pushing on to the area between Wapping and Shadwell, he finds “poverty-marked tenements, gaudy public-houses and beer-shops, door-steps packed with lolling, heavy-eyed, half-naked children…” Further on towards Limehouse, Jerrod found the coal trade striking. While across the Thames, he spots timber and turpentine.

And he gives a warning about taking a night time stroll along the river side, noting it is an “expedition to be undertaken cautiously, and in safe company.” Apparently people in Ratcliff didn’t take too kindly to those from West London: “A fop of St. James Street would fare badly if he should attempt a solitary pilgrimage to Shadwell. His air of wealth would be regarded as aggressive and impertinent in these regions, upon which the mark of poverty is set, in lively colours.”

Holiday destination?

Jerrod is clearly a fan of Paris, describing how “the Seine has a holiday look: and little, fussy steamers that load for London under the walls of the Louvre, seem-to be playing at trade.” What a different story it is in London, as he suggested:

“….to the West as to the East of London Bridge, the surging life and vehement movement are swift and stern. There is no room for a holiday thought. The mills are grinding the corn, by steam; the barges are unloading hastily, the passenger boats are bound on pressing errands – the train shoots over the river towards the Continent, and crosses another with mail from India. The loiterer will inevitably be crushed or drowned. The very knee-deep in mud, upon the banks, are intent on business – mudlarks prospecting for the droppings of the barge!”.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the banks of the Thames in central London are of course popular with holiday-makers and workers alike. Some of the best restaurants, bars and hotels are in these spots. Offices show-off with their waterside views and apartments along the Thames attract a premium. Little more than a few – many times more than the 19th century – boats go past.

But while it’s good that living conditions have been improved and these dirty parts of London have been cleared up, I wouldn’t object to a steamer or two coming in to the centre every now and again. Travelling on the Eurostar is an experience, yet it would be fun to head off to France from a pier by London Bridge.

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