Sad news: Bill Pearson, a sometime contributor to The London Column, died suddenly at the beginning of March. By way of a tribute, we present here some of his atmospheric photos of the vanished hinterland of riverside London (Bow Creek, Surrey Docks, Erith, etc.) from the ‘8os and ’90s. RIP. DS.
All photos © The Estate of Bill Pearson. (Thanks to Felicity Roberts for passing on the sad news.).
Happy New Year from The London Column.
Steamboat, off Rainham Marshes, Essex. © Bill Pearson.
Bill Pearson writes:
There used to be a pub called The Princess Alice on Commercial Street in Whitechapel. I passed it every morning on my way to work; it intrigued me because it had a weird pub sign depicting a woman in a Victorian outfit – which, on closer examination, you saw was actually a corpse wearing a crinoline dress. I didn’t make any connection between the name of the pub and the significance of the sign until I spent a day walking along the Thames with a friend who is intimately acquainted with the history of London and the Thames Estuary in particular. He told me the story of the Princess Alice, a Victorian paddle steamer at the centre of London’s greatest peacetime disaster, a disaster especially significant for London’s East End.
Seawall, Canvey Island. © Bill Pearson.
The Princess Alice was a passenger vessel used for pleasure cruises and day trips, opportunities for working class Londoners to visit places like Southend on Sea, Sheerness and Gravesend. On Sunday 3rd of September 1878 she was returning from one such trip, packed with east enders who had paid two shillings each for the privilege of visiting Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. At about 7.40pm she was almost in sight of North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark, when the Newcastle-bound collier Bywell Castle – a 900 ton coal barge steaming with the outgoing tide – came into view. Apparently the skipper of the Bywell Castle, Captain Harrison, had spotted the lights of the Princess Alice and had correctly set a course to pass to the starboard of her. However, the skipper of the Princess Alice, Captain William Grinstead, followed an old seaman’s practice of finding the slack water of an out going tide and this put the two vessels on a direct collision course. Harrison attempted to reverse engines, but to no avail; his heavy iron ship rammed the dainty pleasure cruiser and split her in two.
West of Grays, opposite Erith. © Bill Pearson.
To compound matters, raw sewage from the pumping stations at Barking and Crossness had been discharged into the Thames just an hour earlier. The Princess Alice sank in less than four minutes, and the hundreds of passengers on board were engulfed in a river of filth. Over 650 died, although the exact figure is unknown. After the disaster a Board of Trade inquiry found that Captain Grinstead, who had drowned in the tragedy, was responsible, although this verdict was widely disputed. The inquiry also found that the Princess Alice was substantially overloaded and offered inadequate means of escape for her passengers. As a result of the disaster a Port to Port regime “with no exceptions” was instigated for shipping on the River Thames, and this stands to this day.
Wood ship, near Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury. © Bill Pearson.
A memorial cross paid for by public subscription was raised at Woolwich Cemetery , and there is a stained glass window commemorating the disaster in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in the same borough. An information plaque about the disaster is at Tripcock Point (marked on ordnance Survey map as Tripcock Ness, roughly opposite Creekmouth/Barking Barrier, where the Outfall Sewer walk finishes). And, it would seem, a public house was re-named to commemorate the tragedy. In fact, it seems likely that the name ‘Princess Alice’ may have been chosen due to the supposed Jack the Ripper connection to the disaster. Jack’s third victim Elizabeth Stride had claimed that she was a survivor of the shipwreck, and that her husband and children had been lost in the disaster. The unfortunate Elizabeth was murdered ten years after the Princess Alice tragedy, and was killed just a few yards away from the location of the pub. However, her story was a pathetic fabrication, as her husband had succumbed to TB and the couple had never had children. In any case, the tenuous link to Whitechapel’s most infamous tourist attraction obviously proved irresistible to one publican, and it is not the first time that a Whitechapel hostelry has attempted to cash-in on the area’s grisly heritage. In the 1970s The Ten Bells was re-named The Jack the Ripper which, given the fact that some of Jack’s victims had been patrons of said pub, was in staggeringly bad taste.
West of Canvey Island, © Bill Pearson.
Before I could take a close-up of The Princess Alice’s sign, the pub was unexpectedly refurbished and re-named Culpeper; this is after Nicholas Culpeper, a Doctor, Herbalist and radical Republican who had set up a pharmacy in Spitalfields in the 1630’s. The Culpeper link is undoubtedly more appropriate for the 21st Century East End; where once was violence and grinding poverty, now there are designer outlets, stratospherically expensive houses and family-friendly pubs. Anyway, another link to London’s greatest ever civilian disaster seems to be lost, although the new owners of the Culpeper did tell me that they intend to keep The Princess Alice sign and put it on display. My own memorial to the tragedy is the pictures I have taken of the Thames Estuary, of the shores that would have been familiar to those aboard the Princess Alice, ghosts of the routes the doomed paddle steamer once plied.
© Bill Pearson. For more detail on the Princess Alice tragedy, see the page on the Thames Police Museum site.
Robert Hughes, The New Shock of the New:
People need beauty. … And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling. Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride. They are the new cathedrals. And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.
Robert Hughes’s eloquent classification of galleries as cathedrals (from his 2004 documentary) is especially apt for Tate Modern. This post-industrial monument, the most popular modern art gallery anywhere, is situated plumb south of St Paul’s: twin bastions of belief squaring off across the Thames. You don’t have to be a religious person to love St Paul’s; but I don’t know how Christians who have lost their faith feel about it, or any other cathedral. Does it become a poignant symbol of loss, a reminder of disappointment?
Tate Modern has just announced that Hyundai has taken over (from Unilever) the sponsorship for its major space for new work, the Turbine Hall. The inaugural work for the Hall, Louise Bourgeois’s majestic Maman, was bound to be a tough act to follow, but since those spiders we’ve been treated to Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan ear trumpet, Dorothy Salcedo’s vandalism of the floor (which injured at least one unsuspecting elderly lady) and Carsten Holler’s slides, the hit of half-term: ingratiating, family-friendly, corporate-friendly installations that make good copy for broadsheet and tabloid alike. It has been hard to escape a growing sense that the Hall has become a sort of Battersea Funfair for the Boden set, a place where entertainment masquerades as cultural engagement.
Away from the vast Hall, the nannyish curation of the regular galleries seems intended to prevent the art from speaking for itself: one feels manipulated by an entity determined to impose itself between the art and the viewer. An unsympathetic observer might see Tate Modern as a temple underwritten by the bling of ‘BritArt’, an edifice dedicated to the Traceys and Damiens beloved of feature writers and plutocrats alike. Outside its walls one sees the monolithic, zone-changing retail development that follows artistic success like a blight: the contemporary equivalent of trinket-shit peddlers blistering the walls of medieval cathedrals. Bankside is Southbank east. (Psychogeographers will doubtless point to the golden age of Bankside, when The Globe, The Rose and The Swan premiered Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whilst punters not interested in the fate of Desdemona or the Duchess of Malfi could watch the bear-baiting. Modern Bankside doesn’t offer any bear pits, but there’s a Pizza Express and at least one Starbucks.)
But the building remains sublime, even if its function as a gallery is compromised by the fact that (like the Guggenheim galleries in New York and Bilbao) its architecture overpowers the greater proportion of its content. And it would be bilious to deny that the Turbine Hall occasionally hosts something really good. As Robert Hughes concluded in The New Shock of the New: ‘We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs. You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling. People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god’.
‘The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever. The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art. It fulfils a deep human need. And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal’.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Late August ’87 by Stephen Watts:
Thunder on the Greenland Dock.
A few kids. Wet sand. Fishing.
All of us feel the vatic lack.
Girders. Cranes. New roads.
Bright sciatic colours. Cans.
Concrete. Cables. Coiled wire.
Flesh still curt to our bone.
Autumn thunder on the Greenland
Dock. Suddenly – houses rearing up.
That pall of human indifference.
Heart of the heart ripped out.
Yellow air. Pipes of cloud.
A sky that’s been lifted from Bihar.
Houses with archways of walled wood.
Our lives. A crushed heat of air.
Cranes. Wet sand. Girders.
The kids laugh. And then scatter.
Dear body. The poor in their lack.
The rich in their whorl of languor.
© Stephen Watts
Bill Pearson writes:
I moved to New Cross Gate over the Easter weekend, 1981. My only previous experience of living in the big city had been a few years at Kingston upon Thames, very different in all respects to inner city south-east London. Exploring the new area I discovered empty, desolate docks and rundown industrial areas that reminded me of my homeland in the North of England. It was the early days of Thatcherism, before the Falklands War, before the inner city riots, and before the Miners’ Strike, when Thatcher was still the most unpopular Prime Minister there had ever been.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
My local Desolation Row was Surrey Docks – re-generated as Surrey Quays – but on walking and cycling trips I discovered the run down warehouses of Shad Thames (which still smelled of the spices they had once stored), Limehouse Basin, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs, which looked like a war zone. I remember rummaging around a warehouse in Wapping one day and hearing a roaring noise on the floor below. I rushed along to see what it was and discovered that the place had been set on fire by some local kids.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
The absent other in all of these photographs was Mr. Charles Fox. A Battersea Dogs Home graduate, selected for his fetching smile, his hairy ears and his endearing determination to escape from the Home by digging through the concrete floor. His name was chosen because nobody in our shared house was prepared to have the utility bills under their names, so Charlie the dog ended up taking responsibility for everything. He never seemed to mind. At the Post Office I would occasionally be asked, “are you Mr Fox?” – and when people from the utilities phoned up wanting to speak to Mr Fox and we would invariably say “He’s unable to speak at the moment”.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Charlie and myself covered a lot of miles on our walks. Sometimes I would carry my Canon AE1 and sometimes I would take my Bolex movie camera and sometimes I wouldn’t take either because I couldn’t afford any film. On these urban forays, I often encountered a fellow rambler who turned out to be another newcomer to south-east London, a political exile from Soweto who had wound up living on the Pepys Estate in Deptford. Not that I knew this at the time: I only learned the identity of Chief Dawethi a quarter-century later, when Chief and I found ourselves sharing an office. Sharing our reminiscences of living in south-east London in the early 1980s, we discovered that we were the ghosts on each other’s travels. I mentioned that I took a lot of photographs back then, and it was Chief’s suggestion that people might be interested in those images, as the area had since changed beyond recognition. Chief’s insight encouraged me to dig out the negatives and study them with fresh eyes.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Looking at them now, they appear as remnants of a lost world. ‘There is nothing more recent than the distant past’. It seemed unthinkable in the early 1980s that the purlieus of east London could ever become desirable, let alone exclusive. Yet the areas seen in these pictures is today the playground of those who profited from the sale of England; those inhabitants of the soulless apartments that are ruining the London skyline. Even Chief’s old stamping ground, the Pepys Estate, is home to Aragon Tower, one of the most up-scale of all gentrification projects, a block of high-rise council flats sold off and transformed into luxury riverside dwellings for the few that can afford them.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
What of Mr Charles Fox? He moved away to York with one of my housemates. We reasoned that he would have a much better life there than on the mean streets of south-east London. I saw him a few times after he moved and he seemed far happier in the North.
Text © Bill Pearson 2013.
© Bill Pearson 1982/85
Heart Of The City by Stephen Watts:
Grey sky. Fifteen cranes swing
between the road and the river.
A darkened ribcage of girders is
Fleshed out with granite slivers.
Slow bursts of cars stream past
and lead rises up to our rooftops.
It eats the aortas of our babies.
Wee kids who spiral at hopscotch.
We have savage material hearts.
Mine hangs just under my shoulder.
There are reds, yellows and ochres
if I think of colour in some order.
It hangs and pumps at my ribcage
as if a blue bag were slung there.
Full with wet fish & blae-berries.
Words – jump off my tongue here.
It is good to dream as dreaming
makes lucid our human potential …
The spiral of blood in our bodies.
Just where it pumps by my nipple.
Sunflowers. Asters. Fuchsia.
Whatever their colours they seem
held by tight and straitened stalks.
The sun will crash from its beam.
Too close to the savaged heart.
We live in the heart of this city.
Cranes that swing out on the dark
measure our hearts without pity.
© Stephen Watts.
Circles Within Circles: Photo © Mark Granier
Paul Carney: An Odyssey
I have a huge-mungulous love-hate thing going with the South Bank. On the one hand it’s almost the only place to which I ever escape, ergo overwhelming connotations of freedom, restored sanity etc. On t’other, I think it was designed specifically to kill me.
The whole experience is utterly surreal; out from among Embankment station’s gloomy pillars, I’m falling again, down those same four always-forgotten steps. A silhouette thrusts paper at me as I get up. Selling, collecting, petitioning for something. I wave my white stick in a signal that clearly reads please either lend a hand or bugger off. Would a Samurai battle-cry help at this point? Best not. A bit of wild fumbling and here is the handrail at the foot of the Hungerford Bridge.
At the top, I invariably bump (literally) into a man in a wheelchair who seems poised forever at the top of the 42 steps; it’s as though he’s being punished in a Greek myth. At least I haven’t collided with him this week. Halfway over the bridge an old friend and tripping hazard, Tattered Guitar Man, is still endlessly ringing in the Apocalypse with his one weary, toneless chord, and passers-by are always ridiculing him and he just strums all the more. I would drop him a coin, if I could ever see where he lays his hat.
The first time I ever crossed this bridge, there was a man walking ahead of me dressed as a giant green triangle, with scrawny legs in tights of a paler green, and people weren’t giving him a second glance, whereas assorted hot young women were pointing and giggling at me for having a white stick and a hi-viz jacket.
The South Bank Centre itself is allegedly a stunning view, but to Paulish eyes it looks like a cross between a construction site and Eliot’s Waste Land. I pull my baseball cap down and make myself look up. Remember the view! Some of these buildings have won awards… The magazine articles… A shipwreck on a rooftop… But I see no ships. There is no view. Only the Waste Land.
There are, says the legend, doors all over the place here. But only one entrance is my entrance, whence I can feel my remembered way to a lift. And don’t get me started on the indoors of the Royal Festival Hall! Only in the company of a certain genius poetry tutor I know do I brave it…
One thing I’ve never come across is the beleagured skateboard park – I’ve never made it that far – but since it is clearly doing Paul no harm whatsoever (UNlike the new pre-fab restaurant that blocks my route and has caused multiple injuries!), I’m now passionately in favour of letting it be. Why shouldn’t the young’uns have somewhere to whizz about on wheels? It does actually sound like fun.
Pigeons get into this building. Often, the clatter of wings above has startled me. Does some slow-ambling, gently dolorous janitor finally come by night to sweep up their small bones? Should I get out on the wrong floor, he would probably find my bones too, in due course. Elevator, take me straight to the Fifth, and only to the Fifth … There, all will be daylight and space. Windows and pale columns. Got to be wary of those columns, though – inexplicable shelf-things protrude from some of them at vital-organ height. But I am way-wise on the Fifth, now. Ha! Or at least that part of it that is touched by the sun. I was told that the Poetry Library is right here, in this place and on this floor. Down the Dark Stairs, past the Lesser Toilets and farther into the Realm of No Light Whatsoever.
Poetry? Here? Sometimes I have tried picturing poems – I see them as the little frail white moths of childhood – flitting among all the unlovely columns, slabs and balustrades. Can poetry truly live here?
I have a table. I have chairs. I have my back to the sun, the river and the Telecom Tower. I can breathe now, and take off my luminous jacket. I will hang it on the empty chair – it will be my flag, proclaiming this furniture is taken. It is ours alone. She will find me here when she comes, and she will yell out my name, dancing and waving her arms above her head.
© Paul Carney
Ship and Whale, Rotherhithe. © Geoff Howard 1975.
From Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, 1966 ( revised 1988):
Mostly a terrible disappointment, with the dock buildings low and mean, and the horrible pre-war flats along Rotherhithe Street meaner still. But just once the conglomeration of utilities cracks into poetry, and it takes a bit of finding. In Gulliver Street, off Redriff Road, is a pub called the Ship and Whale. Beside it, a walled alley leads south. Walls give way to wooden slats with intermittent views of barges – if you run fast enough they coalesce like a movie strip. The slats in turn lead to a swing bridge, just a few feet higher than the rest, and the whole place suddenly unfolds. This is the main entrance to the dock, the Thames is only a few feet away, and the view all round the clock is water and ships, with the domes of Greenwich inflecting the horizon.
From the forward to Rotherhithe Photographs, 1971-80 by Geoff Howard:
Rotherhithe was a riverside village to the east of London in medieval times, but the real development of the area started with the major dock building in the first half of the 19th century; these docks were amalgamated into the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1864. Surrey Docks are only a part of Rotherhithe, but people tended to use the two names almost interchangeably. Surrey Docks underground station is at the south end of the docks; Rotherhithe Street itself follows the bend of the river Thames around the north side of the docks. Rotherhithe Street – the longest street on London – or was it in England – bordered by high walls hiding the docks, with just occasional gaps at a gate or bridge, with glimpses of water or warehouses, and like all the surrounding streets mostly deserted, a ghostly, uninhabited feeling, broken by small estates of council flats, a few pubs, some newsagents or little corner shops. The river on the other side of the road, often just a few steps down to the water.
While these photographs date from 1971 to 1980, the majority were taken between 1973 and 1975. It was the time after the closure of the docks in 1969 but before the complete redevelopment of the whole London docklands area, north and south of the river Thames, during the 1980s.
In 1978 Sally Williams of the Whitechapel Art Gallery put on a small exhibition of my work entitled Rotherhithe Photographs in the front gallery, and it is from those pictures that this book originated. The exhibition felt like a sort of completion to my project; I had done the things which had originally struck me and had made the area special. However, I continued to photograph from time to time, and in 1980 Tony Garrett of New Society magazine asked me to photograph the Downtown area for a story entitled Closedown in Docklands. When the London Docklands Development Corporation got round to the area south of the river, everything changed. What I had found there was gone, and I stopped photographing Rotherhithe. If I went there, I got lost; there were new roads everywhere. The mysterious passage which started beside The Ship and Whale pub and ran alongside the river, which had been for me the secret heart of the area, now no longer existed. And I still wonder, whatever happened to Dave and Carole? But the painted wall on which they marked their years together is gone too.
The lives here were more than 30 years ago. So much has changed and vanished. Time really is the strangest thing.