Downstream from The Pool, a little way below Shadwell, an uncouth row of dilapidated dwellings in those days stood—or, better, squatted, like a mute company of draggletail crones—atop a river-wall whose ancient blocks, all ropy with the slime of centuries, peered dimly out through groups of crazy spiles at the restless pageant of Thames-life.
Viewed by day, say from the deck of a river steamer, the spectacle they offered was, according to bias of mood and disposition, unlovely and drear or colourful and romantic: Whistler might have etched these houses, Dickens have staged therein a lowly tragedy, Thomas Burke have made of one a frame for some vignette unforgettable of Limehouse life.
Builded of stone or brick or both as to their landward faces, without exception they presented to the river false backs of wooden framework which overhung the water. Ordinarily, their windows were tight-shut, the panes opaque with accumulated grime—many were broken and boarded. Their look was dismal, their squalor desperate.
Below, by day, heavy wherries swung moored to the ooze-clad spiles or, when the tide was out, sprawled upon stinking mud-flats with a gesture of pathetic helplessness peculiar to stranded watercraft. Seldom was one observed in use: to all seeming they existed for purposes of atmosphere alone.
More seldom still did any dwelling betray evidence of inhabitation beyond faint wisps of smoke, like ghosts of famine, drifting from the chimneypots, or—perhaps—some unabashed exhibit of red flannel hung out to dry with wrist or ankle-bands nipped between a window-sash and sill.
By night, however, a stir of furtive life was to be surmised from cryptic lights that flared and faded behind the crusted window-glass or fell through opened floor-traps to the thick black element that swirled about the spiles, and from guarded calls as well, inarticulate cries of hate and love and pain, rumours of close and crude carousal.
And ever and again the belated riverfarer would encounter one of the wherries, its long oars swung by brawny arms and backs, stealing secretly across the inky waters on some errand no less dark.
On land the buildings lined a cobbled street, from dawn to dark a thoroughfare for thundering lorries and, twice daily, in murk of early morning and gloom of early night, scoured by a nondescript rabble employed in the vast dockyards whose man-made forests of masts and cordage, funnels and cranes, on either hand lifted angular black silhouettes against the misty silver of the sky.
Black and white and yellow and brown, men of every race and skin, they came and went, their brief hours loud with babel of strange tongues and a scuffling of countless feet like the sound of surf; and their goings left the street strangely hushed, a way of sinister reticences, its winding length ill-lighted by infrequent corner-lamps, its mephitic glooms enlivened by windows of public houses all saffron with specious promise of purchasable good-fellowship.