We used to play and cruise on these
grand old paddleboats and remember them with much fondness.
As a young kid I would pack some sandwiches
and an apple and take off for a great day full of promise and
I could decide to go on the tram, cost 1d, or walk and buy some
sweets with the penny.
The ferry trip was always full of interest.
The sight and sound and smell of the large coal-fired steam
engines that drove the two large side paddle wheels. The constant
ringing of the telegraph bells that signalled the many changes
in the speed and paddle direction as these busy ferry boats
negotiated this very active stretch of the Thames river.
On the other side, in North Woolwich,
we would get off and head along to the docks. The first docks
had the two drawbridges that would hold up the traffic as they
were raised to let the large ships pass into the King George
V dock, or into the lock gates on its way out of them. The second
bridge, about ¼ mile further on, was the swing bridge.
This would swing sideways to let the ships in and out of the
Royal Albert Dock and lock gates. These particular docks had
the famous 'Samson', a floating crane, moored in the dock next
to the road. It was the largest floating crane in the world
in those days.
The two docks were also the largest docks in the world
at that time. Many famous old ships passed through and
used these docks and were very busy and often packed full of
interesting ships from every corner of the world.
As kids we would watch these ships as
they passed through the lock gates. These gates regulated the ever-
changing tidal water levels of the Thames, thus keeping the
docks at a constant water level. Huge ocean-going passenger
cargo ships to smaller cargo steamers would be towed skilfully
through these busy and narrow lock gates by tough, sleek
little shiny black tugs that were dwarfed by some
of the huge ships that they had to control. They would push
them with their bows, that had massive spliced rope fenders
strung around them, or they would pull and hold back the
ships' foreword momentum with great, thick, woven lines. I remember
when some steel cables were being used for this task when suddenly
one snapped under the huge load. It cracked with the sound
of a cannon and whipped back viciously and would have cut a
person in two like butter if they had been in its way. (I saw
two cables snap like this in the lock gates over the years.)
We would call up to any seamen we spotted
on the ships whilst their ship was in the lock gates and ask
them for any matchboxes, to add to our collections of foreign
matchbox labels, along with different foreign brands of cigarette
packets. Sometimes it was difficult to convey to the foreign
seamen what we were requesting. We would mime striking matches
and smoking and would sometimes get tossed down a fag, or even
a foreign coin from their particular country.
the entrance to the lock gates were wooden piers with steps
leading down to the Thames River, where we would play, dodging
the waves and, if the tide was out, we would search along the
muddy beach for any treasures. We would slowly get caked in
stinky smelly Thames mud and truly look like happy little London
mud larks, proper flipping urchins, with our splotched muddy
hands, legs and clothes.
On the way home the choice was either
go back via the tunnel or on the ferry. If the tunnel was chosen
it was then either go down to the tunnel by the lift, or to
race the lift down by running down, spiralling round and around
the stairs, that wound their way around the descending lift to
the bottom and the start of the long ¼ mile paved
foot tunnel. It was good fun walking along, in childish awe,
in the knowledge that I was actually walking under the
cold dark water and mud of the Thames. We loved running
and racing each other along this white glazed brick tube, lit
up with lights that disappeared into the narrowing distance, that
would echo back at you when we shouted and screamed with
our young childhood exuberance and playful happiness.
Then we would race the lift up, at
the other end, back to the bright daylight world that existed
above ground. We could do all this activity without getting
out of breath; flipping amazing!
Yes, and with only a flipping penny,
a good long and very cheap day out for us young Common
Colin Weightman ......A Common Kid .