Charles Dickens the younger goes off on one

One of Whistler’s ‘nocturne’ series paintings dated 1872-5, including showing a lighter or dumb barge on the Thames in London. The image is from the Wikipedia

I’ve been greatly enjoying Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames from its Source to the Nore published in 1885, and compiled by the famous Charles Dickens’ first son, also called Charles. It’s available free online here and here, as well as several other sources.

Writing is often about making an argument, and an argument well made can provide fine entertainment, particularly if they’re extended, draw in evidence from many sources and finally achieve the status of a good rant.

Charles Dickens’s Dictionary provides several of these and the following quotations about the geezers who manage dumb barges on the River Thames is one of the best.

Barges. – Although the extension of the railway facilities in the country through which runs the Upper Thames has has very considerably reduced the number of up-river barges, there are still many engaged in the carrying trade. That they are useful may be taken for granted; that they are possibly ornamental, may be a matter of opinion; that they are a decided nuisance when a string of them, under the convoy of a vicious steam-tug, monopolises a lock for an hour or so, admits of no doubt. And the steam tugs themselves are an abomination. They are driven along with a sublime disregard of the interests of persons in punts and small boats – in this respect resembling their more distinguished cousins, the steam launches – and raise a wash which, one would suppose, can be as little beneficial to the banks of the river as it is to the peace of mind of anglers and oarsmen. Nor are the manners and customs of their crews, or of their associates the bargees, such as to conduce to the comfort of riparian proprieters or pleasure seekers. Practically, they seem to have things all their own way, and to do and say just what they like. All that can be done is to give them as wide a berth as possible, and to be thankful, at all events, that there are not more of them.

‘Down the river – from about Brentford downwards, that is – the barges occupy a very different position; an immense amount of the enormous goods traffic of the Port of London being transported by their medium, and their numbers appearing to be steadily on the increase. They are of two kinds, sailing and dumb barges. These latter are propelled by oars alone, and drift up and down apparently at the mercy of the tide. The only use of the long sweeps with which they are provided is, in fact, to keep the barge straight and even this is difficult if not impossible in a high wind. They are quite incapable of getting out of the way, or of keeping any definite course, and as they bump about among the shipping and get across the bows of steamers, they are the very type of blundering obstructiveness, and an excellent example of how time is allowed to be wasted in this country. Crowds of them hang about the entrances of the docks and piers where steamers are unloaded, and the traffic of the river, always excessive, is becoming absolutely congested with them. The books of the Watermen’s Company, in which all barges solely engaged in the London Traffic are registered, showed in a879 a total of 7,000, and about 1,000 additions are made to the list every year. The number of barges leaving the London and St. Katherine’s Docks, on an average, in 24 hours is 100. In the same time 165 leave the East and West India Docks, 100 the Victoria Docks, and 150 the Surrey Docks. To these must be added the great crowd of dumb barges which go from wharf to wharf, and from ship to ship, without entering the docks at all. The consideration of these facts; a trip down the river in a steamboat; and contemplation of the miles and miles of wharves along the both banks, almost all of which are incessantly receiving and sending out goods by dumb barges; will satisfy any one that these barges are a very large factor in the difficult problem of satisfactorily regulating the traffic on the river. And it is not only that their numbers are enormous, and their mode of progress slow, uncertain and even dangerous to other vessels. It is provided in the [ThamesConservancy byelawsthat every dumb barge shall have one competent man on board, and that when they exceed 50 tons they shall carry at least two men. The competent men, as has been said, are in fact incapable of navigating their clumsy charges to any satisfactory result; but that is not all. The evidence of all sorts of river experts given before the the Traffic Committee is exceedingly unfavourable to the men. Mr C. A. Howard, district superintendent of the metropolitan police, gives them a singularly bad character. “In navigating they are the most indifferent class of men on the river,” he thinks. Mr Spicer, Trinity House pilot, is decidedly of opinion that dumb barges are the greatest cause of obstruction, and that they will very seldom get out ot the way or even put themselves straight, when hailed to do so. A great number of witnesses are of even a more decided way of thinking. “I invariably find the men in dumb barges neither obliging nor civil… “

And so on and so forth for some pages. To his allegations of churlishness and incompetence, Dickens adds the accusation of dishonesty, says that gross neglect of duty is rarely punished by suspension and argues that the Watermen’s Company’s monopoly position should be abolished in favour of open competition.

But notice what he says about the men working sailing barges:

It is a singular fact, not unnoticed by the [Traffic] committee, that whereas the men who work the dumb barges are very ill spoken of in almost every quarter, and excellent character is given to the men who navigate the sailing barges further down the river. These men have no monopoly, and are exposed to free and open competition. They are, according to the almost unanimous evidence of skilled witnesses, pilots and so forth, skilled and careful navigators, and have gradually got into a custom of “give and take” with the steamers, which greatly facilitates the working of navigation rules.

Sometime, I’ll follow this up with his equally determined rant against the selfish and stupid operators of steam launches, which are clearly the Chelsea tractor and jetski drivers of his time.

A midwinter harbour walk at Broadstairs in the company of Charles Dickens

Broadstairs Dickens plaque

Broadstairs look out and Bleak House 2 Broadstairs look out Broadstairs look out and Bleak House

Broadstairs Hercules Broadstairs The Scotsman Broadstairs 2

Broadstairs North Foreland lighthouse 2 Broadstairs North Foreland lighthouse

Broadstairs features, including the harbour and the old harbourmaster’s look out. I remember a moderate-sized traditional boat that was beside the look out for many years. Does anyone know what it was?

This splendid plaque above is found on the side of Bleak House at Broadstairs, one of the many houses in the town where Charles Dickens is recorded as living – he spent many summers here with his family, and while in the town worked on some of his famous novels.

Built early in the 19th century Bleak House had previously been used by officials observing marine movements, and it certainly has a commanding view of the sea all around including the famous Goodwin Sands. I’ve read that witnessing shipwrecks on the sands contributed to Dickens’s gloomy outlook on life – which is one of the things that can make his books hard going for modern readers.

Nevertheless, Dickens’s association with Broadstairs is a matter of great pride for the locals, who celebrate it in various ways including ‘Dickens lived here’ plaques and an annual festival in which the locals dress in 19th century costume. However, it can also be the subject of some waggish humour, as the small marble plaque pictured below clearly shows: it reads ‘Charles Dickens did not live here’.

The following non-gloomy description of the town is taken from: The Letters of Charles Dickens from 1833 to 1870.

This is a little fishing-place; intensely quiet; built on a cliff whereon – in the centre of a tiny semicircular bay – our house stands; the sea rolling and dashing under the windows. Seven miles out are Goodwin Sands (you’ve heard of the Goodwin Sands!) whence floating lights perpectually wink after dark, as if they were carrying on intrigues with the servants. Also there is a big lighthouse called the North Foreland on a hill behind the village, a severe parsonic light, which reproves the young and giddy floaters, and stares grimly out upon the sea. Under the cliffs are rare good sands, where all the children assemble every morning and throw up impossible fortifications, which the sea throws down again at high water. Old gentlemen and ancient ladies flirt after their own manner in two reading rooms and on a great many scattered seats in the open air. Other old gentlemen look through telescopes and never see anything…

Broadstairs plaque 2