I’m reading the quintessential novel of Victorian Greenwich, Poor Jack, by Captain Marryat, better known for Mr Midshipman Easy and The Children of the New Forest, but popular enough at the time.
I’m going to talk about the novel itself when I’m finished; I’m only half way through it, but it paints a fascinating picture of Greenwich in the late 18th Century, with a cast of varyingly low-life Greenwich characters from mudlarks hanging about under the windows of Thames taverns waiting for well-heeled patrons to toss pennies into the river and watch them dive, to peg-leg pensioners telling tales of whaling derring-do, ex-pirates posing as Nile veterans to miserly marine storekeepers who turn out to be ex-fences. Marryat’s novel is one of the only descriptions of the actual town I have found. Most accounts centre on the big buildings, the royal history.
Writing in 1840, Marryat has his narrator live through some of the biggest alterations the town ever saw. Old Jack himself says
“Such a change has taken place since I can first recollect Greenwich that it will be somewhat difficult for me to make the reader aware of my localities. Narrow Streets have been pulled down, handsome buildings erected – new hotels in lieu of small inns – gay shops have now usurped those which were furnished only with articles necessary for the outfit of the seamen. Formerly, long stages with a basket to hold six behind, and dillies which plied at the Elephant & Castle, were the usual land conveyances – now they have made place for railroads and omnibuses. Formerly, the wherry conveyed the mariner and his wife with his sea chest down to the landing place – now steam boats pour out their hundreds at a trip.
Even the view from Greenwich is much changed, here and there broken in on by the high towers for shot and other manufactories, or some large building which rises boldly in the distance…
I got my first-edition leather-bound copy cheap off Greenwich market because it’s missing half its illustrations – a victim, presumably, of evil characters who vandalise books and sell their ill-gotten results as ‘original prints’ – but don’t get me started on those particular individuals. In this case, I did actually manage to get a cheap book; others that don’t look so quaintly archaic just get tossed once their pictures have been stripped.
But there are a few illustrations left, and the ones that interest me most are, of course, of Greenwich. And the bit that I’m most curious about is the alley where Jack lives for much of his childhood.
Fisher’s Alley (sometimes called Fisher’s Lane) was part of the old medieval street plan that was swept away as part of the 1830s redevelopment of Greenwich Town centre, where the market and posh streets like Nelson Road were built. The only bit that is anything like the old system used to be is Turnpin Lane, which, for some odd reason remained when everything else bit the dust.
The lane full of grotty fishermen’s tenenments ran, as far as I can tell, along the river front round about where the Pepys Building (visitor centre) is now, though a little further north.
I’ve enlarged this map from the excellent Ideal Homes site, and I’ve put an arrow where I think it would have been, based on the illustration in Poor Jack and Marryat’s descriptions of the place. I am ready to stand corrected as, to be honest, I’m not really sure.
I find the line-drawing at the top of the post particularly interesting because it shows the ‘real’ bit of working-class Greenwich with the incongruous grandeur of Greenwich Hospital right bang next door to it. No wonder the lives of ordinary people were so bound up with those of the pensioners.
Fisher’s Alley was just up the way from Billingsgate (nothing to do with the City Billingsate market) and Ship Dock. Fishermen worked up and down the area, and the alley would have housed at least some of them. I can’t tell whether the houses would have backed onto the water, like the buildings on present day Crane Street or whether the Five Foot Walk would have been between them – the map could go either way.
However it was, it would have been grubby, crowded and tumbledown. Jack describes it as
“a very narrow street and what was said in a room on one side of it can be heard on the other’. His terrifying mother puts a board up by the door to prevent her toddler from crawling out (he’s at the front left of the drawing), and he says ‘I used to hang over the baord and listen: there were drunken men and drunken women, and occasionally scolding and fighting.‘
To earn money to live, his mother (who got her own husband press-ganged into the navy, so don’t feel too sorry for her…) tries to rent out rooms in their filthy hovel, hanging around by the door like curry vendors on Brick Lane, trying to entice sailors to take a bed for the night: ‘Walk in Gentlemen; I’ve a nice clean room and boiling hot water.” She doesn’t get many takers, and if she does, they don’t last long because she’s so rude to them.
And that’s pretty much all I can find about the old lane. I guess it was one of dozens, some of which look fabulously dodgy. Who writes about single streets? Who keeps descriptions of ‘normal life’? ‘Everybody’ knows about it, what’s the point? But 150 years later not a trace of Fishers Alley remains.
The lane didn’t go in the 1830s when the rest of Greenwich was prettified, but it lasted only a very short time after Marryat’s book came out. If Poor Jack had returned even ten years later, he’d have found Monument Gardens instead.
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