“The Channel glittered like a blue mantle shot with gold and starred by the silver of the capping seas. The ‘Narcissus’ rushed past the headlands and the bays. Outward-bound vessels crossed her track, lying over, and with their masts stripped for a slogging fight with the hard sou’wester. And, inshore, a string of smoking steamboats waddled, hugging the coast, like migrating and amphibious monsters, distrustful of the restless waves.
[…]The ‘Narcissus’, heeling over to off-shore gusts, rounded the South Foreland, passed through the Downs, and, in tow, entered the river. Shorn of the glory of her white wings, she wound obediently after the tug through the maze of invisible channels.
[…]A mad jumble of begrimed walls loomed up vaguely in the smoke, bewildering and mournful, like a vision of disaster. The tugs, panting furiously, backed and filled the stream, to hold the ship steady at the dock-gates; from her bows two lines went through the air whistling, and struck at the land viciously, like a pair of snakes. A bridge broke in two before her, as if by enchantment; big hydraulic capstans began to turn all by themselves, as though animated by a mysterious and unholy spell. She moved through a narrow lane of water between two low walls of granite, and men with check-ropes in their hands kept pace with her, walking the broad flagstones.
[…]The ‘Narcissus’ came gently into her berth; the shadows of soulless walls fell upon her, the dust of all the continents leaped upon her deck, and a swarm of strange men, clambering up her sides, took possession of her in the name of the sordid earth. She had ceased to live.
- Joseph Conrad
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897)
The Torrens, 1875 ~ On which Joseph Conrad twice served as First Mate in the 1890s
This greatly abridged passage from Joseph Conrad’s short novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), is an eloquent rendering of the same sentiment captured in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire (1838). The two works of art tell with great sadness of the passing of the great days of the sailing ship. Conrad, himself a former sea captain before becoming a writer, knows exactly what he is describing. He must have lived this scene himself many times over in his sea career. The full passage is a fascinating description of how a large sailing ship would come to berth in one of the docks of the City of London. Conrad doesn’t actually name which dock it is, but given the closing scene, where the crew of the ‘Narcissus’ receive their pay at the Board of Trade Office, and then disburse along the Highway, passing by the Royal Mint for a last drink together at the Black Horse pub, it could well be any of the docks between Limehouse Basin and St Katherine’s Dock. Similarly, Turner’s painting is set on the same stretch of the Thames, as the full description of the painting shows: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up at Rotherhithe. Many elements of the scene which Turner depicts (such as the position of the setting sun) are more fancifully symbolic than an actual, accurate record. Turner (and other artists) often used to come and sketch along this stretch of the river, and so, he knew it well.
The Fighting Temeraire - by J.M.W. Turner, 1838
Plaque commemorating the spot where Joseph Farrington RA made sketches for a painting, c.1790
I often think of this passage of Conrad, and of Turner’s painting, as this is the area of London where I now live. I don’t suppose either of them would recognise the place today, particularly the river itself which is comparatively empty compared to their times. Yet every now and then we get a taste of what it might have been like as we spot a Thames Sail Barge passing up or down river. This time last year saw a great return of sailing ships to the Thames as the Tall Ships Festival visited London. I first saw the Tall Ships Regatta when it visited London in the 1980s, and, although individual Tall Ships make a occasional visits to London from time to time, this was the first time I’d seen so many ships of this kind gathered together here since then. Even in the 1980s the river was much busier than it is now.
Port of London Authority film of the London Tall Ships Race in 1989
Last year, on the first day of the festival I wandered over to Wood Wharf to see where some of the boats were moored up. Then wandering on to the east side of the Isle of Dogs I was just in time to catch the departure of one of the largest ships, the Stad Amsterdam. I managed to capture the following three films of the ship as she cast off, passing through West India Docks, and then setting out onto the Thames at high tide. I think the Stad Amsterdam would surely have been a sight to gladden Conrad’s heart as she is a newly built, modern day tall ship. Launched in 2000 and named after the city in which she was built, she is a three-masted clipper, similar to the clippers Conrad is known to have sailed on. The ‘Narcissus’ of Conrad’s novel was actually based on a real ship of that name, also a clipper, on which he had served as second mate in 1884. The Stad Amsterdam is a fast ship, in 2001 she won the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race. And, in 2009, she retraced the route of Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle for a television documentary. She is frequently at sea, operating as a training ship or for charters, and her voyages can often be followed on Twitter (here).
It was great to see so many tall ships back on the Thames, and there were some very beautiful, Turner-esque sunsets while they were here too. Although the river, and Docklands itself, has changed a lot over years (and it continues to change) there are still many things to see around the area which mark its links to many different chapters of seafaring history. It’s fun to hunt these out. There are a number of plaques recording some nautical fact, or explaining some old building or piece of machinery’s former maritime function, dotted around the area. A monument in my local park commemorates this stretch of the Thames as the place from which Martin Frobisher set sail in search of the Northwest Passage.
And similarly, not far from where I live, there’s a blue plaque, marking the place where Captain James Cook once lived between his famous sea voyages, all three of which, as his Journals record, he began at Deptford. Several years ago I made another trip across the Isle of Dogs to Woolwich where I went on-board the working replica of his first ship, HMB Endeavour, when it visited London in 2002. This replica of Cook’s ship was built in Australia in the early 1990s. It was quite a wonderful reversal to think of the ship sent from England which first encountered Australia being reincarnated there and returning to Britain some two hundred years on, in a sense completing the circle of a true circumnavigation through time and tide.
A tour around the replica HMB Endeavour
Click here to see some wonderful old photos of Captain Cook's other house on the Mile End Road - before it was needlessly demolished in 1958 - on the very excellent Spitalfields Life blog.