Dickens and London
     Dickens and London's Docklands

No 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf
Photograph Sue Gane (2001)


Sailing boats inside the docks
by Gustav Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872)

At first sight London's modern docklands is a network of impressive buildings, elegant  squares and gardens liberally sprinkled with interesting street sculpture, with few reminders of the days when West India Docks looked like the illustration on the right above and Dickens' godfather lived in Limehouse village.   The docks were badly damaged by World War II bombing.  They reopened but could not offer the deep berths and road access needed for the internationally standardised containers introduced from the 1960s.  Docklands became derelict and the Canary Wharf complex was built among the remnants of the docks from 1990 onwards, part of a major drive to regenerate the area.   It took its name from the wharf used for unloading imported fruit which once stood on the site.  This modern mini-Manhattan is best approached via the Docklands Light Railway and Canary Wharf station, an impressive entrance to a temple of commercialism with a red painted steel and glass-arched roof.  Cabot Square, an open space set around fountains, is a good place to look at the surrounding office blocks, built to rival the City of London.  The tower, Number 1 Canada Square (by Cesar Peli, 1991, illustrated on the left above) is 800ft high. 

In the 19th century London was the largest and richest city in the world, its wealth largely based on overseas trade.  West India Docks were built in the early 1800s, the first enclosed docks in London.  They were paid for by a group of merchants who wanted to avoid the losses from delays, fire and especially theft in the wharves that lined the banks of the river Thames from the City of London eastward.  

But just to the south of Canary Wharf is Garford Street, where Charles Dickens’ godfather, Christopher Huffam, had a sailmaking and ship chandlers shop.  He lived nearby in the centre of Limehouse village, next to the church.  As a child Dickens visited him often with his father and he drew on his boyhood experiences in Limehouse in writing Our Mutual Friend and Dombey and Son.   Further east along the river is a  terrace of c.1700 houses in Narrow Street.  At the end is The Grapes public house, immortalised in Our Mutual Friend as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters Tavern kept by Miss Abbey Potterson (both illustrated below).


Narrow Street and The Grapes
Photograph by Sue Gane (2000)


Miss Abbey Potterson in her bar
by Marcus Stone from Our Mutual Friend (1865)

It was 'a tavern of dropsical appearance … long settled down into a state of hale infirmity.  In its whole constitution it had not a straight floor, and hardly a straight line; but it had outlasted, and clearly would outlast, many a better-trimmed building, many a sprucer public-house.  Externally, it was a narrow lop-sided 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 flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.'