Part Three – Shadwell Basin
Where the Bubbles meet the Fisherman’s Daughter
To get to Shadwell Basin we follow the canals that were built several centuries before. These self-same canals have been altered so that they are no longer able to grant vessels access but instead have blocks, lovingly fitted, that form a lengthy, continuous lock effect with water cascading over them. You can visibly see where the alterations have been made as the new brickwork walkway differs slightly from the cranky old bricks that would have once given broader berths to a multitude of ships. There is that constant thrum that you always hear when near a body of water, a hypnotic almost ominous pull of nature that resonate a deep memory. A metal bascule bridge sits retired and painted rust red. The bridge seldom, if ever, moves now. Its counterweight hangs heavy but unused. It is a single leaf bridge designed to allow ships to enter or vehicles to cross.
Shadwell Basin sits north of the Thames and downstream of the Tower; it is surrounded on three sides by apartments that have four to five storeys which all recall the old warehouses that would have welcomed ships as they caressed the wharfs and quaysides. The basin itself is more of butler sink as it is square and not round. We watch as joggers huff past followed by cyclists whose gears grate against greased cranks; a huddle of tourists hold a map at a curious angle jabbing their fingers in various directions while conversing in a guttural tongue neither of us understands. London attracts sightseers and immigrants alike; it always has for two thousand years. Even back in the seventeen hundred's three out of every five Londoners was an immigrant. In the early eighteen hundred's, Shadwell was home to Lascar seamen who, having been brought here by the East India Company, remained as residents. There were also Greek and Chinese who lived here and intermarried with each other and with white English people. London has always been a cosmopolitan melting pot long before America.
As the London Docks extended ever eastward so the need for newer docks grew and by 1828 work began here in Shadwell that was completed in 1832 to further expand the docks. It wasn’t long though before this latest development proved too small and by 1850, a larger entrance was built on this very site.
Dave and I watch the water flow, its hidden depths unfolding like a mystery that covers every fleeting glimpse you catch of its dark, sunken truths with yet another ceaseless wave. How many drowned here? How many bodies with broken skulls have been pushed into his welcoming maw? How many illicit treasures have fallen foul of some tempestuous rage, thrown in temper into the current, sinking slowly into the silt?
I ask Dave how much he thinks one of the penthouses would go for bearing in mind that they are by no means big.
“£700,000, maybe a million; hard to say with London prices.”
We follow a group of people through a large arch that takes us away from the basin and back toward The Highway. Above the buildings, clearly visible is a church.
“Dave,” I ask, “do you reckon that is a Hawksmoor church? He built one around here.”
“Dunno mate, let’s take a look.”
To our left is a green, park-like, area where old trees grow in abundance and beyond that the church. We climb a set of steps that are short but broad; stretching for many yards across what is in effect the back entrance. As we pass through and onto a stunted path there are a couple of houses, one with a car parked outside with a man carrying boxes to and from the boot. The church is St. Paul’s Church Shadwell but it was not designed or built by Hawksmoor. As we move around the grounds of the church the gentleman unloading boxes from the boot of his car returns but this time enters the house outside where the car is parked. The man is no more than thirty-five and I collar him as he appears at the house door.
“Excuse me,” I ask, “but is this church of Hawksmoor design?”
He confirms that it isn’t, telling me the of the two Hawksmoor churches in this area. One we have already visited whilst the other is a little way distant: St. Anne’s Limehouse I thank him and return to Dave who has stomped off on his own and is circling the church, camera at the ready. As he does what Dave does best I take a look at the notice board with its emblazoned history.
Built in 1656 it was originally known as the Church of Sea Captains but was re-built in 1669 as the Parish Church of Shadwell. During its time, it has given witness to many great people who have worshipped or been baptised her. Among the famous have been John Wesley who preached here. James Cook, son of Captain James Cook was baptised here and his father sat in the pews at worship. Jane Randolph, mother of President Thomas Jefferson was also baptised here, as was English Chemist, William Henry Perkin who discovered the first aniline dye.
Perkin was obviously a man of extremely good taste and breeding being born in March (the same month as the author of these walks), 1838 in the East End of London and the youngest child of seven. His father was a carpenter and fortunately, a successful one as William would, after an education at the City of London School, benefit from when he entered the Royal College of Chemistry. Whilst at the City of London School he was lucky enough to be taught by Thomas Hall who invested in the young boy a passion for chemistry. It was this love that drove him on.
He was only 15 when, in 1853, he joined the Royal College but under the watchful eyes of August Wilhelm von Hoffman his confidence and knowledge grew. Chemistry as a science was still in its infancy in the mid eighteen hundred and although the atomic theory was generally accepted and all major elements discovered it was still perceived by many as being arcane. Perkins’ tutor Hoffman had presented his hypothesis on how quinine could be synthesised and Perkin took up this challenge and began his experiments. If they could find away to develop this concept they may have discovered a possible cure for malaria, if not a cure, a potent weapon against it.
Whilst Hoffman was on vacation in his native Germany, Perkin took his experiments home with him. He had rooms in Cable Street and from the top floor went to work. The laboratory he used was crude, lacking any real equipment but nonetheless he soldiered on. He discovered one day that he could transform aniline when it was extracted with alcohol. This produced a curious substance which had an intense purple colour. At first, he was nonplussed by this discovery as it had nothing to do with his project but then, having conducted further trials with his brother Thomas and their mutual friend, Arthur Church, the three men decided not to tell Hoffman but to continue with their experiments in secret in Perkins’ hut in his garden, all of which sounds rather like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to me or at least very eccentric.
The experiments failed to produce any form of a medical breakthrough but did create something far more lucrative if not so laudable. The resultant substance created produced a dye which when introduced to silk remained stable even after washing. This at a time when the Empire’s fortunes soared high and as the industrial revolution was enveloping the entire civilised world. The colour mauve, or mauvine, entered the English language.
Enthused with their discovery samples were sent to a dye works in Perth, Scotland to which they received a very favourable response from the managing director. Without a moment’s hesitation they decided to patent their find, this they did in August 1856.
Inventing a dye was in itself not a major problem, finding the capital to produce it however was. Perkin, still only twenty-two persuaded his father to lend him the capital, then, along with his brothers, they built a factory. Inflamed by his desire for success Perkin went into overdrive inventing a mordant (a substance used in the dyeing of cloth), giving technical advice to the cotton dyeing industry and by marketing his discovery. Then, with a true stroke of commercial luck, his dye was given the Royal seal of approval when Napoleon the third’s wife, Empress Eugénie, started wearing a similar colour and then, to cap it all, so did Queen Victoria.
It must be remembered how important the colour purple was in Victorian times. It was a mark of the aristocracy, of prestige and of wealth. Until this discovery, such a colour had not been widely available. Now it was about to reach a commercial level never believed possible before. People from all walks of life would be seen wearing purple and not at extortionate prices. Factories were built all over Europe to produce this new aniline dye. Perkin himself discovered and patented even more. An international trade war began.
The success of these dyes made William Perkin very wealthy but it didn’t end there. The industrial revolution was largely textile driven but now, as science began to take off and advance at alarming rates so the impact on the broader sweep of industry was felt; coal production being the major benefactor. William continued to experiment and in 1858, he, along with B.F Duppa, synthesised glycine in what was the first laboratory preparation of an amino acid. The two went on to synthesise tartaric acid in 1860. Perkin was also the first man to discover a process for synthesising artificial perfume using a method known as the Perkin reaction. William Perkin was knighted in 1906 only to die one year later in London.
We leave the church by another gate, this time taking the road, Wapping Highway. Traffic is loud and conversation hard to hear. We take to raising our voices to be heard, our estuary accents becoming all the more acute. We pass a building, stocky and grey with a statue outside that has been boarded up. The library isn’t the most attractive of buildings but is still of significance to this area as is the hidden statue that stands guard at the front. The statue is of Clement Attlee, a former Labour Prime Minister and one who was voted the greatest Prime Minister to have lived during the 20th century. He was born in London, Putney but had no other association with this area apart from being another Londoner.
We see Limehouse waiting patiently in front of us and walk toward it.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.