London Monumental. Photos & text: David Secombe (2/5)

Raine Monument, churchyard of St. George in the East, Wapping. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.

From The Hole in the Wall, Arthur Morrison, 1888:

The Blue Gate is gone now – it went with many places of a history only less black when Ratcliff Highway was put to rout. As you left High Street, Shadwell, for the Highway – they made one thoroughfare – the Blue Gate was on your right, almost opposite an evil lane that led downhill to the New Dock. Blue Gate Fields, it was more fully called, though there was as little of a field or a gate, blue or other, about the place, which was a street, narrow, foul and forbidding, leading up to Back Lane. It was a bad and a dangerous place, the worst in all that neighbourhood. The sailor once brought to anchor in Blue Gate was lucky to get out with clothes to cover him – lucky if he saved no more than his life. Yet sailors were there in plenty, hilarious, shouting, drunk and drugged. Horrible draggled women pawed them over for whatever their pockets might yield, and murderous ruffians were ready at hand whenever a knock on the head could solve a difficulty.

Bluegate Fields, a.k.a. Blue Gate Fields, was a Victorian slum north of the Wapping docks. Two streets were once named Bluegate Fields, the ones now known as Dellow Street and Cable Street, streets which border St. George’s in the East churchyard on the east and northern sides respectively (St. George in the East is one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s six great London churches). Bluegate Fields is name-checked in The Picture of Dorian Gray as the den of vice where Dorian goes to corrupt his soul. Unlike Arthur Morrison, however, Oscar Wilde never visited Bluegate Fields. The area features in Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor which fictionalises the real Hawksmoor (in the novel he is called Dyer, whilst a 1980s detective is called Hawksmoor) as a shamanic figure and draws on the dark  history of the East End, presenting the wilder side of the city as a place that is permanently wrong.

I took the above photograph in 1988, during a rather aimless wander across the East End with a newly-acquired Hasselblad. Last year I revisited the churchyard for the first time in twenty years and was dismayed by the state of the Raine monument. They have at least put iron railings around it now, but persistent vandalism and successively desperate attempts at cleaning have rendered it as white and featureless as a corpse pulled from the river. As I lamented the damage, youths who might well be the sons of the vandals responsible for the decoration seen above cheerfully urinated against the church wall. Peter Ackroyd’s theories of Psychogeography are much mocked, but I confess that on this visit I wondered whether he might be on to something. The persistence of sadness, decay and deprivation in this bleak spot are hard to ignore: the spirit of Bluegate Fields lingers on, albeit in a different register.

© David Secombe 2011.