Updated: Jun 10, 2020
In 1947, when SHAMUS DUST is set, there were passages like these everywhere along the Thames waterfront, downstream from London’s Tower Bridge on both sides of the river. Take yourself on a walk through Wapping and Limehouse today and you’ll see some still, running from cobbled streets down through giant brick warehouses to the wharves. Built to store everything that London once traded with its empire, nowadays they’re refitted as apartment blocks and office spaces with spectacular views of the river; spruce, very liveable and a hop on a bicycle to the City.
You might see a cruise ship or a Thames barge glide by to pass under the raised bascule bridge, but otherwise the endless freighters and barges lining the docksides are gone for good - to the container terminals way downriver.
The 19th century waterfront - where Joseph Conrad sets the beginning of Heart of Darkness (source story for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) could hardly have been more different. Smart London was living in the west, the eastern docklands were definitely the wrong side of the tracks, and by night they were just plain scary.
This is Lovell's Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula, filmed as late as 1963 for John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger. The movie was packed with superstars of the day - Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster just for openers - but I'd lay odds on their hotels being a fair taxi ride west of Greenwich. This was no stage-set. It was the real thing. It's even giving the old local in whiskers a nervous twitch and a faster shuffle.
1940, brought a devastating blitz of high explosive and fire-bombing along both river shores.
400,000 tons of timber went to ashes in a night. Raw rubber burned and blotted out the sky.
But maybe because they were further downriver or maybe they were just plain lucky, it seems Lovell's Wharf was spared.
"Below us stretched the three connecting basins of St. Katherine’s Dock, its lock gates spilling tidewater back into the river. And round about the dock, twenty more acres of burned-out warehouses like the one the soldier called home. On the December night the Luftwaffe put a match to them they’d been filled with raw rubber. The fires had set a low, stinking pall across the City, blotting out daylight for a week. Every brick in every warehouse and rubble heap around the dock still oozed the smell of it." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 32]
In 1947 the waterfronts still lay in ruins. Just the kind of place, in fact, where a marked man could take two in the chest, get kicked into the Thames and float off downstream on the tide.
"The dead man was meshed in a cat’s cradle of steel hawser anchored in the river bed, like a soldier caught in the wire, so swollen that the topcoat he wore might have been bought for somebody else. Forty-eight hours in the water, maybe more, had bloated his features almost past recognizing. The dragging tides had left his limbs dislocated and awry. One of the police squatted down to prize open a loop of hawser making a noose around the corpse’s neck, did the same to release an arm and heaved the body over to look at what he had. An eel twisted out of a raw-edged gash in the corpse’s chest and fell snapping in the gravel. Four inches below the gash a second hollow pit had a rib threaded through it." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 19]
Today, the same stretch of waterside is unrecognizable, peppered with bars and eateries, shopping and museums. Go check it out. As the shamus says, Some things get better after all.
Did you know?
Lovell Wharf was part of a huge complex of wharves taking up much of the Greenwich Peninsula, much of which was, and still is, owned by a charity called Morden College.
The charity was set up in 1680 by Sir John Morden endowing it with land, most of which had originally derived from Crown grants after the English Civil War.
Income from this land was used to fund the care of elderly and retired ‘Turkey Merchants’. Turkey Merchants? Yes Turkey Merchants. Not purveyors of feathered birds though. These were members of the Levant Company set up at the time of Elizabeth I in 1592 with a monopoly over the lucrative trade with the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. Today the College still houses the elderly in its eighteenth century almshouse in Blackheath, and in other, more modern accommodation. The Charity’s trustees are all ex-Lord Mayors of London.
Until the head lease expired after the first World War Lovell's Wharf had been used for importing coal, burning coke burning, manufacturing cement and making ice. It also dealt in scrap metal, requisitioned from the battlefields of the Great War. By 1982 the wharf was handling 118,000 tons of cargo - steel, aluminium, galvanised sheeting and gas pipes. But with the advent of container cargo in the 1990s Lovell's Wharf slowly went down the nick and finally threw in the towel and surrendered its lease.
The site owners converted warehouses to condos, gave the development one of it's older names and Greenwich Wharf was reborn.
Want to read more?
Turkey merchants https://www.historytoday.com/archive/turkey-merchants
Lovell's Wharf http://www.ballastquay.com/lovells-wharf.html