London to the Nore 2


Part One of my article on W.L.Wyllie’s paintings from the book London to the Nore, 1905, covered the stretch of the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge. The paintings posted here follow the river from Tower Bridge to Belvedere. Along this stretch, as throughout the book, Wyllie’s pictures are accompanied by his wife Marion’s descriptions of their journey. Her writing draws the reader in, and I have chosen a few pieces for this next section to give you a feeling of the river as she saw things: its beauties, its less attractive though always interesting aspects, and how busy it was.

“Irongate Wharf […} is between Tower Bridge and the gates to Saint Katherine’s Dock [sic], which is surrounded by tall warehouses, so that only the masts of the ships can be seen from the river. These docks have the trade in wine and brandy, tobacco and rice, and for years were the rivals to the East and West India Docks.” Unlike today, when most goods arrive anonymously in containers, Marion notices a whole variety of merchandise waiting for distribution, “the quays piled with great new wine-barrels, currants, slates, corks and Spanish onions.” And a nice detail: “In one corner stands the Queen’s pipe, where all the contraband tobacco seized is burnt.”


As they sail past Limehouse, a favourite spot of Whistler’s, Marion remarks that “for a short part of its frontage, it has the quaintest group of houses to be found up or down the river. […] They are small, very narrow, and squeezed tight against one another, each painted in a bright contrasting colour; they have little balconies full of flowers, old world bow-windows, and odd storage places below. From the top of more than one flies the family washing.”

Turning again to the river she sees “more and more craft come crowding up [with the tide] pushing their way among the drifting dumb barges.” Among them: a Swedish ship carrying timber; a red and black fruit steamer; tugs with long winding tows of coal lighters; sailing barges; steamers from the General Steam and Netherlands Companies “some with big rope fenders artfully slung across their stems close to the water, so that they can push their way through the drifting dumb craft when there is no lane of open water to steer for; and on the Rotherhithe bank, Guernsey schooners shooting broken granite into dumb barges.” She describes watermen and bargees at work, their rowing skills and their repartee “at this they beat cabmen hollow”, and brings the varied sounds of intense river activity to life: myriad calls; rattles; anchor chains crashing as they’re let go; clanking of windlasses; the clang of shipwrights’ and engineers’ hammers, groans and creaking, the plash of oars, and a whole symphony of sound echoing across the water. And beyond, on Plumstead Marshes, heavy guns booming on the practice range. It is easy to imagine her sitting on deck writing descriptions in real time.

Greenwich Hospital

There were quieter moments too. Marion describes an afternoon moored off Greenwich where her husband is working and the family are spread about “sitting comfortably on deck, each one at his own or her own pursuit.” She conjures up the scene so well. There “are Corbett’s sheds, with boats of all kinds on hire, from which a waterman has pushed off with a baby girl dressed in pink flannelette gravely sitting in the stern hugging a doll.” Turning, she sees “a grubby-looking old man with an ancient boat with a great part of her bulwarks torn away, and he has to put a list on her to keep the wounded side out of the water. […] Three or four small boys rush down to the shed to meet him; they jump on board with a fine model yacht, which, when put in the water, sails off a a great rate.”

Atlas No 3

Just as Wyllie was interested in recording the industrial stretches of the Thames, his wife took the trouble to explain some of the structures. Atlas No 3 in the painting above was a floating pontoon with ten or twelve cranes on board whose hydraulic arms dropped ‘giant claws’ into the holds of the colliers, grabbing the coal and swinging it round to let it fall into the barges on the other side. Tugs would then tow them on to their destinations, providing fuel for London’s industries and homes.

The breaking up of The Hannibal and The Duke of Wellington

The busy scene of Castle’s ship-breaking wharf not only caught Wyllie’s attention but his wife’s as well. She was particularly struck by the breaking up of The Duke of Wellington, Admiral Sir Charles Napier’s famous flagship. She writes: “She is here – a mere husk of a ship. The graceful sheer of her line of ports has drooped away; and her bow, from which the figure-head has been cut, grins noseless like a skull. All round the poop her ribs stand naked to the sky…”

The Jetty, Becton Gas Works

Marion also records the variety of smells on this stretch of the river including: the pungent odour of the chemical works “catching you in the throat”; Peruvian guano; Dundee marmalade; and “the great gasworks on Lea Ness pouring out a savour all of its own”. As they anchor on ‘Bugsby’s Reach’ among a large group of coal barges from where Wyllie can draw a view that has caught his attention, the air is thick with coal dust. But Marion doesn’t mind: “It will wash off”. However she is less enamoured of the stink emanating from a number of industries “that make dreadful smells” particularly of “some tall chimney-shafts. Even at three miles away the sickening reek makes you feel bad.” And then there were regular releases of noxious untreated sewage into the river. On the night of September 3rd, 1878 this pollution added a tragic dimension to the collision between pleasure boat SS Princess Alice and collier Bywell Castle in Gallions Reach, for not only were some of the 640 victims drowned at the time, many died later from infections picked up from the contamination of the water.

Tripcocks Reach – The Old Powder-Hulk “Thalia”

Marion was a keen observer of all aspects of life along the Thames. She records much of its history, its architecture, and details of surrounding towns and villages. Yet, even if most of it has been swallowed up or smoothed down by time, there is still enough in her observations to strike a chord with those who know the river well.

Further Information
White Dog Gallery where you can discover some of Wyllie’s work for sale.
W.L. and Mrs Wyllie: London to the Nore

London to the Nore 1

Westminster and the Houses of Parliament

A look back to early 20th-century images of theThames in the company of W. L. and Mrs Wyllie through their book London to the Nore, published in 1905.
William Wyllie was a well-known and distinguished marine artist who lived from 1851 to 1931. Born in Camden, London, son of artist William Morrison Wyllie, his talent was recognised when young, winning the Turner Gold Medal when he was only eighteen. In 1889 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. An enthusiastic sailing fan from his early youth, he was drawn to maritime subjects, painting and etching all kinds of boats from large naval vessels to fishing and sailing boats, which he was said to have executed in accurate detail. However, The Royal Naval Museum notes that: “It was his etchings and watercolours showing working life on the Thames and the Medway that brought him widespread popularity.” And reading this beautifully illustrated book you can see why.

Published by A & C Black, 1905

The text written by Mrs. Marion Wyllie, describes sailing and being towed up the river to their starting point at Westminster for the journey back downstream to the Nore. Marion Wyllie’s engaging style with its blend of history, knowledge of the river and boats, and details of family life aboard bring readers close to their experience.

An example of this might have some resonance today… One evening, after an outing ashore where she came across a thieves’ lodging house, which was still occupying her thoughts, she “became aware of a slight sound on the other side of our hull.” Her husband was asleep, and her sons busy talking had evidently heard nothing, she writes, “So I get up without noise and cross the deck, kneeling by the bulwarks and peeping over. The water is in deep shadow under our side, and at first I can see nothing; then I am sure I hear a whisper, and see something dark that I make out to be a boat close to our lee-board.” She wakes her husband who calls out “Hullo! What are you doing there? A very respectful voice answers ‘We are the water-police, sir, on the lookout for some men who have been stealing coal from this tier. I hope you don’t mind us holding on, as this bit of shadow is an advantage to us. Some of us will be here all night: so you will be all right.’ She adds that “with a great sense of security” everyone returned to their cabins.

Cleopatra’s needle and Somerset House

For around twenty years from the early 1870s, Wyllie was a regular contributor to the weekly illustrated magazine The Graphic, for which he drew black and white illustrations of all things maritime. He spent time at sea working for the White Star shipping line and served with the Royal Navy during the First World war spending a month on H.M.S. Revenge at the time of the Armistice in 1919.

But it was, as mentioned above, his series of etchings of the Port of London, its commercial and industrial life and the movements and variety of shipping, that really brought him to the attention of a wider and appreciative public.

St. Paul’s Cathedral seen from Flower and Evrett’s Wharf, Bankside
View of London from the upper span of Tower Bridge
The Upper Pool
Billingsgate fish market, with London Bridge and the Church of St. Magnus
The Custom House and Billingsgate
The Tower of London
Tower Bridge with the bascules up

Wyllie moved to Portsmouth in 1906 and became closely involved with the restoration of H.M.S. VICTORY, organising campaigns to raise the funds to move her into dry dock and overseeing the work on her preservation. He died in 1931 and was laid to rest with full naval honours at Portchester Castle.

William Wyllie had lived life to the full. In the foreword to W. L. Wyllie: marine artist: 1851-1931, published in 1981, Sir Hugh Casson wrote of Wyllie’s love of boats. “He designed them, cared for them sailed them and above all he never ceased to draw and paint them in every size and shape and in all weathers.” He adds that Wyllie drew them “accurately, affectionately and above all with deep practical understanding.”

In articles that follow their journey from Tower Bridge, I will post further images and occasional anecdotes from Marion Wyllie’s account of their journey from Westminster to the Nore.

Sources and further information
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The National Museum of the Royal Navy
We Were One, 1935, a biography of W.L. Wyllie by his wife M.A. Wyllie
W.L. Wyllie: marine artist, 1981 by R. Quarm and J. Wyllie