The underbelly of London

The underbelly of London on my Dad’s Vespa in the 1960s

In the early 1960s, my Dad would “explore” the underbelly of London on his Vespa scooter. He used to do his shameless gatecrashings at the dead of night, because he had an advanced sense of adventure and needed very little sleep.

Those were the times before the tsunami of North Sea oil wealth kicked off the infrastructure upgrade, and eventually led to the gentrification of the war scarred and still quite Dickensian group of villages which characterised large areas of London.

Of an age to share his adventurous spirit, I rode pillion to explore with him the alleyways of the Borough, famous historic Thameside pubs, and places like Clink Street, and Cardinal Cap Alley on Bankside.

Late one evening, on our way to the Docklands, my Dad stops to introduce me to a tall, slim, quiet older man with whom apparently he had long ago struck up a friendship. He was the warden of a group of Elizabethan (Elizabeth the First) almshouses. These were situated just to the east of London Bridge.

This dignified companionable, lanky man, who had never travelled, read and collected travelogues. He had bookshelves full. My Father would send him postcards from one of the sixty or so countries he visited on his travels in his work as a professional international conference interpreter.

I do not know for how many years he had been dropping by to greet and take tea late at night with his friend the guardian of Almshouses. But I do know there were several such ‘odd’, and in my Father’s eyes, highly esteemed friends, dotted about his wider world in several continents.

My memories of these streets and dark, oily, cobbled corners are numerous and precious. These living relics from centuries past, I remember them all in black and white! We always explored at night and much of the street lighting was puny by today’s standards.

The unselfconscious atmosphere of an animated island of activity, lifted from the fogs of deep past, was specially true of parts of the East End, and Whitechapel.

The poorly-lit residential streets round Commercial Road were interspersed with blitzed blocks, which had been cleared and left to go to weeds for twenty or thirty years.

My Father would ride the streets of London between about 2 and 5 in the morning, because he said they were at their quietest then. Not so today!

I carry one image seared into my visual memory. As we passed by one of these bombed sites at about 3 in the morning, I saw a couple huddled close to a small fire made from rubbish. They and we stared at each other as we passed slowly by. We seemed most alien to one another in that dingy place at that godforsaken hour.

My most vivid memories are of the Docklands, east of Tower Bridge on the South Bank. They were still extremely busy streets and filled with men at work, exactly in the manner of the faintly amusing old temporary street sign, which used to read: “Danger Men At Work”!

Cheery coarse language, shouted commands, and whistling. You no longer hear such whistle talk, maybe because the art of the two-fingered shrill whistle has died out of use.

A few years later, I would drive in the dead of night in my first secondhand banger on my own or with a friend to revisit one or two of the most memorable places.

Near Shad Thames was an opening which led to steps down to the Thames. It must have been typical of such access points for ferrymen and river traders all along the commercial stretches of the river.

These steps were marked on large scale street maps and had a name like StJohn’s Steps. The magic of this lonely location, which my Father loved and shared with so much pleasure with me, was the extraordinary clear view at water level to the west of Tower Bridge, not far distant.

Tower Bridge fascinated my Dad. He had spotted an iron gate which said “Staff Only No Admittance” on Tower Bridge Approach (north).

To my Dad, and thanks to his boyish enthusiasm and dedicated example, today in my eyes too, any public sign in forbidding capital letters which reads, “Private. Strictly No Entry, Authorised Persons Only” was placed there to be read as “Hey! You! This is your personal invitation. Come right on in!”

One night we parked his Vespa on the pavement, and together, in near darkness (as usual), we opened the gate and descended the external iron steps. At the bottom, he pushed open a door. He greeted the men there and was greeted by them in turn!

They were scummed with coke dust and gleaming with smiles on their glistening faces. These were the Coke Stokers who kept the furnaces of Tower Bridge burning and fired up, for it was necessary there be always a good head of steam to raise and lower Tower Bridge at all hours.

In his usual infuriating way, I was introduced to them as his “Kiddie”. I was no longer in any vaguest sense of the word a Kiddie. But this time I was too thunderstruck at the scenes I was witnessing to feel bothered.

Huge piles of coke lay seemingly randomly all over the place. I think there was a “pin-up” on one wall. As can be seen in today’s spruced up, open-to-the-paying-public “Tower Bridge Exhibition”, there were gigantic spanners, resting heavy on brackets attached to the stone wall. It would take at least two of these burley stockers to manhandle one spanner.

It saddens me that the modern custodians of such museums of old industrial sites fail to exhibit at least a few square yards of the muck and grime which were the common, ordinary and accepted working environments in the days before Health & Safety necessarily came along to sanitise the world of work.

The men kindly introduced me to their two black cats. They had names, but I unfortunately cannot remember them. They may have been the original “Black Cats In A Coal Cellar”!

In London in the early 1960s, the air was routinely thick with car exhaust, frequently dark blue or sooty black in colour. There were no politically correct clean zones, no face masks, no ear defenders.

Dustcarts would spew clouds of chokingly rank fumes and dust as the men upended their heavy galvanised iron dustbins. In the day,

Pneumatic drills smashed up the tarmac with merry clang at extreme decibels.

Nightwatchmen would ‘live’ in small red and white striped canvas tents by major roadworks, brewing tea in winter on braziers full of glowing coke, or flaming pieces of bituminised wooden road blocks.

As a young schoolboy, I would walk extra slowly past the road workers and their tarmac spreaders. I loved to inhale the sweet sickly smell of the fumes rising from the hissy cylinder gas-fired cauldrons of molten tar macadam.

The surfaces of London’s architecture benefitted from centuries of ingrained black grime from the coal fires of the Industrial Revolution by way of wartime bombed site fires and the general devastation of large-scale neglect.

In this context, I was only surprised at the unclean and inhospitable working conditions of the two Tower Bridge cats. All my worries were allayed when the men told me they fed exclusively on rats.

A few weeks later, with my first car, a very old but serviceable black Austin A40 – a gift from a motor-minded class mate just after leaving secondary school – I repeated the experience.

On this occasion, I took my girlfriend Jane past the forbidding sign and down into the dimly lit private world of the Tower Bridge coke stokers.
We were both aroused, as I often take great pleasure in clearly recalling, by the slow, steamy, well-oiled motions of the supersized Tower Bridge engine room pistons!

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