Blackwall Pier! The name strikes the ear with that half-lost, time-agone familiarity which is the inseparable association of Vauxhall Gardens, the Barn at Highbury, and the Eagle Tavern. Blackwall is not as it was. Anyone you meet, from the grimy lounges at the pier-wall to the tradesman behind the most pretentious 'front' in High-street, Poplar, will give you the same words - 'Ah! Blackwall isn't what it was; Poplar isn't as it used to be.' The days looked back upon so regretfully by the local Jeremiahs are the days of East End Commercial prosperity and the days when there such a thing as a Blackwall whitebait dinner, the days of Albert Smith's first novel, brightener of our youthful leisure. 'There's Blackwall!' ejaculated Johnson, looking out through one of the glazed portholes that form the cabin windows, 'many a prime dinner I have had at the Brunswick, after fourpenn'orth of rope on the rail. Do you like whitebait?' The 'four-penn'orth of rope on the rail,' with a reference to which the mind of the respectable Mr. Ledbury was thus illuminated, is another departed glory of the district. Any number of indubitable specimens of the 'oldest inhabitant' genus are prepared to furnish the inquiring stranger with an extensive collection of things which are not facts dating from the era in which the Blackwall railway from Fenchurch-street was almost the only line of rails in the country, and when the window-less and roofless carriages were dragged to and fro by a rope from a stationary engine on a principle not unlike that of the cable-tramway on Highgate-hill at this moment.
Postulating that a devious approach along a stony, wall-bound road in the gathering twilight has brought us upon Blackwall Pier, we will see what is to be seen of Blackwall Pier of to-day - or of to-night, if more it please you. Still, try as we may to contemplate it and its surroundings in the light thrown upon them by present circumstances, it is difficult. The pier itself is not of very ancient date, but straight across the river there - the low dim shore with a small building or two upon it - is Blackwall Point. Criminals' bodies swung from the tall gibbets on that dreary marsh in the years that are gone. Here on our right is Green's shipbuilding yard, where many a good old oak clad the ribs of long since forgotten vessels, when an iron ship would have been placed at the head of the category of innocent humbugs in which putty medals and the horse marines hold eminent positions. And further on, past this, is Blackwall Stairs, to which George the Third used actually to come to inspect portions of the navy, and upon which (near the site of the house once occupied by Sebastian Cabot, and afterwards by Sir Walter Raleigh) stands the old wooden Artichoke Tavern. Local tradition relates that from this inn, upon the occasion of one of King George's visits, there emerged a loyal and unsophisticated Jack Tar, laden with a pot of ale for the refreshment of 'his honour the King,' which pot of ale, or part of it, the King drank. But alas! the old Artichoke is destined to speedy demolition, to make way for the new Blackwall Tunnel. And it is with his scene laid here, on Blackwall Stairs, that Defoe, in his 'History of the Great Plague,' describes an affecting family affection which -- Phew! A breath of easterly wind, laden with olfactory evidence of the existence of a guano works farther down the river - and we are back again in 1888 at once.
Let us stay there. Be a town never so poor and dreary, be any district never so uniformly mean and sordidly uninteresting, there are always some among the humble inhabitants thereof who, by an instinct they may be but lightly credited with, habitually resort to the least dull and ugly spot in its vicinity. These are the lovers. The heavy masonry of Blackwall Pier, just at this time in the evening, when they have been let loose from their daily labour prisons, draws, as a loadstone, all the lovers of Poplar and Blackwall toward itself. The darker blue has crept across the sky, and following it, the moon shows large and low in the East. All through the evening, as it rises and shrinks and brightens, the seats and pebbly promenade of Blackwall Pier will be peopled with lovers - looking at it. The moon is very beautiful, and the silver-edged clouds are very beautiful, and even the thickened smelly river and the dusty pier, as it lies in the moonlight and shadow, seem beautiful by comparison with the mean sordid streets and the colourless routine of daily mechanical labour. And in ill-fitting clothes, and patchy, they sit or stand together, hand in hand, and their hearts are very full and their heads are very empty, and they are very happy. Here, perhaps, would muse the democratic observer, are no social distinction - here all men are equal. Arcadian republic of Blackwall! Happy province of peaceful anarchy! But the democratic observer would be making a mistake. Miss Sarah Ann Potts that keeps company with Mr. Sam Balder, which is in the plumbing, would sniff a most imperial sniff at the rash leveller of social grades who should attempt to class her with Beller Mivins (the lady there with the very large bonnet), which walks out with Jim Puddles, as drives a wan. And Jim Puddles, poor fellow, in all the pride of his evening clothes and a thin-brimmed felt hat with a little bit of bone hanging at the back by a string, can doubtless mention a good many people who would be looked upon with an eye of austere superiority by own particular set. Socialism has a lot of work before it if it is to be thorough.
But they are not all lovers who come upon Blackwall pier. The ungilded youth of the district frequently organise parties devoted to the invigorating pursuit of 'fly the garter,' and with many shouts and much 'larking' sadly rend the gossamer dreams of amorous Poplar. The approach of such a party is heralded, even as we speak, by sounds as of much trampling and thumping and bounding, accompanied by a loud, untuneful declaration of the characteristics of a gentleman who is 'all right when you know him, but you've got to know him first.' Here they come. Their manners are not refined, and they are very hilarious, but why grudge them their uncouth fun who see nothing better all their lives? They are most shocking, noisy cads, no doubt, in the eyes of the bloated aristocracy of Poplar, who live in the East India-road, but this never seems to make them unhappy. Occasionally they break out, it must be admitted, in a manner which is not to be tolerated, and have even been known to perpetrate conduct only excusable in gentlemen of social position and superior education, thus adding insolent and revolutionary presumption to their other sins of ill-behaviour.
Suddenly there is a commotion just behind us. The lovers have stopped dreaming, and are hurrying toward the edge of the pier wall. The noisy larking-party is making for, and disappearing down, the wooden slope used as a landing stage for small boats. A long man in a short steam-tug is leaning alarmingly over the side, with many shouts and a coil of rope. With the rest, we run to the top of the slope, to be confronted, alas, with sad evidence that even unsophisticated Blackwall harbours its share of sin, and shame, and misery. Two burly watermen are coming up from their boat, half leading, half carrying between them a dripping, bonnetless, gasping woman. Her head lolls from side to side, and her long, wet hair clings across her face. We query a bystander. 'Tried to drownd 'erself,' is the laconic reply. Then we learn that, unobserved by any upon the pier, she a minute ago flung herself into the river from the wooden causeway, scarcely, however, an instant before a boat passed and the watermen seized her. She is led to the door of a small office in the depot, and waits, supported in the arms of the watermen, while somebody runs for the key. It is curious to observe the mingled awe and tenderness with which these broad, shaggy-bearded boatmen handle her, who had, scarcely a moment before, her hand upon the gate of the final mystery. Around the little group, silently or with whispers, stand all the company of our half-hour upon Blackwall Pier. She is young, they notice, and dressed well. With black hair, and probably pretty, but pale - deadly, blue pale. The noisily-inclined revellers are mute. Some of the lovers whisper. Miss Bella Mivins is heard to remark, in a subdued tone, 'Poor gal! I expect her young feller's treated her bad.' They have brought the key and opened the door of the dark little office; but as the men prepare to enter she sets her feet firmly, and her voice is heard for the first time. 'Not in the dark! No, not in the dark! Oh, my God, no! Don't , don't! Oh, you won't, will you? - no, not in the dark!' The men glance at each other in absolute awe. The thought of the workings of that poor wandering mind in the black horror of a dark prison - the frightful, growing conviction that the bourn has been passed , and it is the black grave all round her - the grim terrors of her disordered senses - forces itself upon their matter-of-fact workaday wits, and forthwith a match is struck and the gas lit in the office, just as a policeman arrives with great deliberation and majesty, follows them in, and shuts the door in the faces of the small crowd.
And then the small crowd dissolves, and the lovers, with more thoughtful faces, resume their contemplation of the moon and the black-sailed barges stealing down the river. And Miss Beller Mivins, who has been feeling a hard lump in her throat getting bigger and bigger for the last five minutes, retires to a remote seat with Mr. Jim Puddles as drives a wan, and, as she afterwards expresses it, 'has a good cry,' to the inexpressible embarrassment and perplexity of Mr. Jim Puddles, who experiences a vague, slightly choky feeling himself, combined with a savage but indefinite anxiety to punch somebody's head, for no absolute reason in particular. While Miss Sarah Ann Potts relates to Mr. Sam Balder which is in plumbing, the exact and full particulars of what she said to Susannah Jane Tuckles on a recent and memorable occasion, and what Susannah Jane said to her. And the complete restoration to good spirits of the chaffing-party is indicated by the words of 'They're all very fine and large,' facetiously sung to the tune of 'The Lost Chord,' falling upon our ears as we pass the iron gates behind the 'Brunswick' and turn our backs upon Blackwall Pier. - Globe.