The Highway 1859

A wonderful neighbourhood, to be sure. You hardly know that you are in London at all as you walk through the streets

An evocative description of the area around the Ratcliffe Highway from the 1 October 1859 edition of ‘All Year Round’ a periodical established by Charles Dickens. It gives such a sense of the liveliness of the area, even on a Sunday and is a far cry from its modern descendent, the widened, dual carriageway. This comes from a report on the Ritualism Riots that occured in that year:

A wonderful neighbourhood—fishy, tarry,  inexpressibly dirty, and so nautical that the
very  weathercock upon its principal
church partook  of the spirit of the
place and represented a  frigate under
full sail, with a union jack to show  the
quarter of the wind.  

A wonderful neighbourhood, to be sure. You  hardly know that you are in London at all as  you walk through the streets. Many of the  shops kept by Jews are open though it is  Sunday, the Jews and Jewesses sitting at the  open doors, fat, cheerful, affectionate, and  jewelled. It is a neighbourhood perfectly  nautical in all its habits. It is decidedly a
low  neighbourhood, but redeemed from
being of the  lowest by that very
nautical element. Let the  reader compare
Ratcliff-highway with the New  Cut,
Lambeth, and he will understand this. It  is a neighbourhood of canvas trousers, and  sou’-wester hats, of sextants and the boxing
of  compasses. It abounds, too, in
negroes, gay in  their clothing, and more
gay in their  countenances. It abounds in
American skippers with  brown and lantern
jaws; thin and tough and  tawny. It
abounds in mysterious seamen, too,  who
wear black satin waistcoats and have worked  fronts to their shirts and ear-rings in their
ears.  There are herrings, too, in this
region, and life  belts, and
block-makers’ warehouses, and awful  advertisements published by the Trinity House  concerning wrecks, and buoys, and light-ships  in remote and lonely places far away at sea.  Cranes, too, and bales of goods such as are  brought in in pantomimes, and, being slapped,  turn to other things. The bales of goods are  not swinging from the cranes, because it is  Sunday, but one catches sight of them through  open warehouse doors, and in passing great  stores that smell of turmeric, and many other  drugs and goodly spices.

Such was the neighbourhood through which  the Eye-witness wandered, a not displeased observer of all these new and
characteristic  circumstances. It was in
this neighbourhood that  he partook of
such a modest luncheon as might  fit him
for the fatigues of the day, and all the  items of which were flavoured with, the  herrings with which it has been already said  (as with other salt fish) the native kites are
 fatted.

 

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