The Foofication Of London


foofy (adj) – fussy, fluffy, frilly, upper class or fancy

Jacob’s Island was the roughest part of London. It’s where Dickens chose to send Bill Sykes to his death, a rookery of mud and sewage that was virtually in the river Thames itself. The filthy waters in the creeks that bisected it rose and fell, leaving silt and animal corpses, so the surrounding hovels were perpetually damp. Dickens described it unflatteringly (and I have to go by memory because I couldn’t find the reference) as ‘the Venice of drains’.

Overcrowded and impoverished, it lay beside the Neckinger tributary which branched into streams and reservoirs used for ablutions and washing, so sickness abounded. Worse, the industry that surrounded it was of the most antisocial kind imaginable; tanning, for which you needed leather hides and a lot of dog shit, and soap-making, which stank. Jacob’s Island was a ‘Liberty’, meaning it operated beyond City of London jurisdiction, so it was the place to head for if you wished to avoid the police. It has been eradicated. All that remains is a chimney and a faded marker plaque.

When I was very young this area and all the way along to Deptford and the Isle of Dogs was ‘Venetian’ only insofar as there were a huge number of bridges across the inlets, all of which seemed to open and close in different ways. I associate the area with bad times, bad smells, dirty pubs and visiting my ancient toothless Aunt Nell, who lived in a basement slum and kept a foul-mouthed mynah bird.

So this week, in a quest to include more South London locations in the Bryant & May books, I revisited the area, starting with Bermondsey Market (see columns passim). Inevitably, I wandered off the path I’d intended to take and found myself in Vinegar Park. Yes, those are giant red ants over a tube carriage; no, I don’t know why.

The first thing to note about Bermondsey Market is; it’s gone.

Where a triangular park once existed are now just mean-looking apartment buildings. The ‘market’ is apparently still there on Friday mornings but must be very small indeed to cram into the tiny space that’s been left for it. Where once antique specialists sprawled through collapsing warehouses in every direction, selling everything from marine chronometers to Victorian bibles, there’s now a little bit of tarmac provided as a sop to the ‘community’.

Nearby Shad Thames, where John May lives, was once packed with orange-handed porters lugging sacks of saffron and cinnamon. Now it is squeaky clean, filled with hanging baskets and sandblasted brick, and completely dead, because all that’s here now are expensive flats people barely live in. It’s so much the home of office workers that the shops don’t even bother opening on weekdays, just at the weekends for tourists.

Bermondsey Street has been foofy-fied for years, with pretty little shops surrounding the green-tiled Garrison pub. This area was also called Dock Head, but the only memory of that is ‘The Ship Aground’ pub, which I think was once called the Dock Head. What strikes me now is how incredibly prosperous this once-impoverished part of London now is – formerly forgotten areas, those liminal spaces created by railways and arches, have been prettified and filled with street markets selling hipster food and knick-knacks. They sell to the workforce, who drift into the bars and pubs at five and leave for the suburbs soon after seven.

London Bridge Station has a beautiful new design that solves the old problematic space; it’s raised on arches, so access was always nightmarish, dirty and dark and crowded. Now it’s full of light and air – and shops. Retail units are everywhere, including over at Vinegar Park, yet another street food park for workers.

For me the biggest shock was seeing the old view of Tower Bridge utterly ruined by the Walkie-Talkie. Until recently you could take tourists to the Angel, Rotherhithe, and show them the sun setting between the towers; no more. Make no mistake, London is all about the workforce now. Perhaps it always was in the London Bridge area. But as I walk along the river’s edge all I see are crammed flats with skeuomorphic balconies and mean little entrances. Perhaps we’ve swapped one kind of unacceptable housing for another. It would be interesting to know which had the smaller living space, slum houses or modern flats.

22 comments on “The Foofication Of London”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    We lived in Rotherhithe for 6 years in the tarted up Surrey Dock area. Our MP, the Liberal Simon Hughes, got it right by pointing out that Jamaica Road split his constituency into 2 completely different areas: the affluent riverside developments on one side, and the much poorer council estates on the other.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    What part of the balconies mimic original forms? I had to look up skeuomorphic, which turns out to be a possibly useful word. Unfortunately, I can’t fit it into the balconies. Are they not real balconies, merely wall decorations that look like balconies? If so, I suppose they’d be protective railings to prevent you falling if you opened the windows behind them or were trying to escape a building fire and needed to jump to the (handsome) firemen’s net below.

  3. snowy says:

    Once again fixating on minor points, but I was intrigued…. [and had to find out more about.]

    Dickens describes Jacob’s Island in Chap. 50 of Oliver Twist, but the reference to ‘Venice of Drains’, [which is the phase that tickled my brain] comes from later source. It is apparently from an article that appeared in the Morning Chronicle cited by Thomas Beames in his book ‘The Rookeries of London: past, present and prospective’.

    [Ahhhhh! nothing quite like an itch scratched, is there.]

  4. snowy says:

    H, I suspect you have it with unparalled exactitude. If an Estate Agents particulars describe the property as featuring a Living Room with a ‘Juliet Balcony’, it means the front wall has a cheap plastic door in it behind a set of railings so thin you really wouldn’t want to lean on them too hard.

  5. Linda Evans says:

    How was dog shit used in tanning?
    Went for a walk round Greenwich yesterday. Travelling on the DLR the view was of endless blocks of anonymous, new, shining, empty flats/building sites and cranes. And more cranes.

  6. Jo W says:

    Bermondsey,where I was born and grew up,I loved it. Now when we wander around, it is slightly depressing to see the changes. A line of song goes through my head- “look what they’ve done to my town,Ma” Was that from Joni Mitchell? Someone out there will tell me,I’m sure.
    Vinegar Park? Is that some sort of ‘posh’ name for the flats they made out of the old Sarsons vinegar brewery? We often wonder if anyone lives in the old barrels?( Whose turn is it?) 😉

  7. admin says:

    You answered your own question, Helen. The balconies are there as reminders of what balconies are like, but are mostly too narrow for use and therefore purely act as a reminder of the real thing.

    Linda, dog faeces contain enzymes that break down collagen in hides, part of the tanning process called “bating.”

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Yes, dog shit was very much prized – See Tony Robinson’s book ‘The Worst Jobs in History’, dog turds were collected by people called Pure Finders and the best pure for fine leather, ladies gloves etc., was ‘white pure’ which was white excrement (nobody walked their dogs with little dolphin-killing plastic bags in those days).
    What was the worst job was collecting normal dog turds and dipping them in lime and flour so they looked white and so commanded a higher price.
    Victorian London actually had people whose job was to counterfeit dog droppings.
    Maybe the worst job of all was inspecting dog turds at the tannery so as to catch these miscreants.

  9. Ian Mason says:

    I’ve spent two stints working in the London Bridge/Bermondsey area, back at the start of the 90’s and about 15 years ago. A few weeks ago I stopped off in the area a couple of times. Once at the Bunch of Grapes in St. Thomas Street and once at the George in Borough High St. I coudn’t get over how much the area has changed. It was starting to get a bit Hipsterish 15 years ago, but now it seems to have completely lost all the character it once had.

    Borough High Street now seems to be a destination for large noisy crowds of folks ‘out partying’ (but is still as tatty as ever) and as Chris says, all the interesting little nooks and crannies have filled with dull, tiny, expensive flats and rather boring boutique style retail.

    I daren’t wander into the area behind the Cathedral where I used to spend a lot of time drinking with colleagues. I always though it apt that a bunch of Journos were drinking in an area that had always been associated with the dregs of London. I fear that all the interesting demi-monde local pubs will have been replaced with wine bars and bijou gastropubs. The area holds many fond and formative memories and I’m not sure I want to taint them with seeing how it has now become.

    I remember sitting one Friday night, drinking with said scrivener colleagues, on the the river balcony of the Old Thameside in Clink Street, the Golden Hinde sitting in the dock on my right and a plume of smoke rising from the City across the Thames in front of me because the IRA had just blown up the Baltic Exchange. A few weeks earlier myself and those colleagues had all been inside the Baltic Exchange at the public launch party for the magazine we all worked on (the private, staff only launch party had been held in the Clink – whence the slang term for prison comes from – which also seemed apt to the participants).

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    And the reason you don’t see white dog turds is diet, dogs that are given ‘big meaty bones’ produce white. If only fed the finest cuts or just dog food you get the brown.

    North Manchester and parts of Salford are going this way, the old Colgate/Palmolive plant is now The Soap Works, flats for the already homed. At least Ordsall Hall has been done up, there was a time it looked like it would be lost. Salford Quays have changed out of recognition, at least Lowry is celebrated there.


  11. snowy says:

    It seems this thread has back to ‘gone to dog-s__t’ again.

    *Goes back to the bookmarks from last time this happened*

    All roads for this period sem to lead to Mayhew.

    Who produces a very long account, much too long to quote in its entirety, so to select portions.

    He begin with an exordium thus:

    The name of “Pure-finders,” however, has been applied to the men engaged in collecting dogs’dung from the public streets only, within the last or years. Previous to this period there appears to have been no men engaged in the business, old women alone gathered the substance, and they were known by the name of “bunters,” which signifies properly gatherers of rags; and thus plainly intimates that the rag-gatherers originally added the collecting of “Pure” to their original and proper vocation. Hence it appears that the bone-grubbers, rag-gatherers, and pure-finders, constituted formerly but class of people, and even now they have, as I have stated, kindred characteristics.

    Switching to the narratio

    The name of “Pure-finders,” however, has been applied to the men engaged in collecting dogs’dung from the public streets only, within the last or years. Previous to this period there appears to have been no men engaged in the business, old women alone gathered the substance, and they were known by the name of “bunters,” which signifies properly gatherers of rags; and thus plainly intimates that the rag-gatherers originally added the collecting of “Pure” to their original and proper vocation. Hence it appears that the bone-grubbers, rag-gatherers, and pure-finders, constituted formerly but class of people, and even now they have, as I have stated, kindred characteristics.

    Left turn into partitio

    In the wretched locality already referred to as lying between the Docks and , redolent of filth and pregnant with pestilential diseases, and whither all the outcasts of the metropolitan population seem to be drawn, either in the hope of finding fitting associates and companions in their wretchedness (for there is doubtlessly something attractive and agreeable to them in such companionship), or else for the purpose of hiding themselves and their shifts and struggles for existence from the world,—in this dismal quarter, and branching from of the many narrow lanes which interlace it, there is a little court with about half-a-dozen houses of the very smallest dimensions, consisting of merely rooms, over the other. Here in of the upper rooms (the lower of the same house being occupied by another family and apparently with little ragged children), I discerned, after considerable difficulty, an old woman, a Pure-finder. When I opened the door the little light that struggled through the small window, the many broken panes of which were stuffed with old rags, was not sufficient to enable me to perceive who or what was in the room. After a short time, however, I began to make out an old chair standing near the fire-place, and then to discover a poor old woman resembling a bundle of rags and filth stretched on some dirty straw in the corner of the apartment. The place was bare and almost naked. There was nothing in it except a couple of old tin kettles and a basket, and some broken crockeryware in the recess of the window. To my astonishment I found this wretched creature to be, to a certain extent, a “superior” woman; she could read and write well, spoke correctly, and appeared to have been a person of natural good sense, though broken up with age, want, and infirmity, so that she was characterized by all that dull and hardened stupidity of manner which I have noticed in the class. She made the following statement:—

    [This is big finish, the confirmatio]

    “I am about 60 years of age. My father was a milkman, and very well off; he had a barn and a great many cows. I was kept at school till I was thirteen or fourteen years of age; about that time my father died, and then I was taken home to help my mother in the business. After a while things went wrong; the cows began to die, and mother, alleging she could not manage the business herself, married again. I soon found out the difference. Glad to get away, anywhere out of the house, I married a sailor, and was very comfortable with him for some years; as he made short voyages, and was often at home, and always left me half his pay. At last he was pressed, when at home with me, and sent away; I forget now where he was sent to, but I never saw him from that day to this. The only thing I know is that some sailors came to me four or five years after, and told me that he deserted from the ship in which he had gone out, and got on board the Neptune, East Indiaman, bound for Bombay, where he acted as boatswain’s mate; some little time afterwards, he had got intoxicated while the ship was lying in harbour, and, going down the side to get into a bumboat, and buy more drink, he had fallen overboard and was drowned. I got some money that was due to him from the India House, and, after that was all gone, I went into service, in the Mile-end Road. There I stayed for several years, till I met my second husband, who was bred to the water, too, but as a waterman on the river. We did very well together for a long time, till he lost his health. He became paralyzed like, and was deprived of the use of all one side, and nearly lost the sight of one of his eyes; this was not very conspicuous at first, but when we came to get pinched, and to be badly off, then any one might have seen that there was something the matter with his eye. Then we parted with everything we had in the world; and, at last, when we had no other means of living left, we were advised to take to gathering ‘Pure.’ At first I couldn’t endure the business; I couldn’t bear to eat a morsel, and I was obliged to discontinue it for a long time. My husband kept at it though, for he could do that well enough, only he couldn’t walk as fast as he ought. He couldn’t lift his hands as high as his head, but he managed to work under him, and so put the Pure in the basket. When I saw that he, poor fellow, couldn’t make enough to keep us both, I took heart and went out again, and used to gather more than he did; that’s fifteen years ago now; the times were good then, and we used to do very well. If we only gathered a pail-full in the day, we could live very well; but we could do much more than that, for there wasn’t near so many at the business then, and the Pure was easier to be had. For my part I can’t tell where all the poor creatures have come from of late years; the world seems growing worse and worse every day. They have pulled down the price of Pure, that’s certain; but the poor things must do something, they can’t starve while there’s anything to be got. Why, no later than six or seven years ago, it was as high as 3s. 6d. and 4s. a pail-full, and a ready sale for as much of it as you could get; but now you can only get 1s. and in some places 1s. 2d. a pail-full; and, as I said before, there are so many at it, that there is not much left for a poor old creature like me to find. The men that are strong and smart get the most, of course, and some of them do very well, at least they manage to live. Six years ago, my husband complained that he was ill, in the evening, and lay down in the bed— we lived in Whitechapel then—he took a fit of coughing, and was smothered in his own blood. O dear” (the poor old soul here ejaculated), “what troubles I have gone through! I had eight children at one time, and there is not one of them alive now. My daughter lived to 30 years of age, and then she died in childbirth, and, since then, I have had nobody in the wide world to care for me—none but myself, all alone as I am. After my husband’s death I couldn’t do much, and all my things went away, one by one, until I’ve nothing but bare walls, and that’s the reason why I was vexed at first at your coming in, sir. I was yesterday out all day, and went round Aldgate, Whitechapel, St. George’s East, Stepney, Bow, and Bromley, and then came home; after that, I went over to Bermondsey*, and there I got only 6d. for my pains. To-day I wasn’t out at all; I wasn’t well; I had a bad headache, and I’m so much afraid of the fevers that are all about here—though I don’t know why I should be afraid of them—I was lying down, when you came, to get rid of my pains. There’s such a dizziness in my head now, I feel as if it didn’t belong to me. No, I have earned no money to-day. I have had a piece of dried bread that I steeped in water to eat. I haven’t eat anything else to-day; but, pray, sir, don’t tell anybody of it. I could never bear the thought of going into the ‘great house’ [workhouse]; I’m so used to the air, that I’d sooner die in the street, as many I know have done. I’ve known several of our people, who have sat down in the street with their basket alongside them, and died. I knew one not long ago, who took ill just as she was stooping down to gather up the Pure, and fell on her face; she was taken to the London Hospital, and died at three o’clock in the morning. I’d sooner die like them than be deprived of my liberty, and be prevented from going about where I liked. No, I’ll never go into the workhouse; my master is kind to me” [the tanner whom she supplies]. “When I’m ill, he sometimes gives me a sixpence; but there’s one gentleman has done us great harm, by forcing so many into the business. He’s a poorlaw guardian, and when any poor person applies for relief, he tells them to go and gather Pure, and that he’ll buy it of them (for he’s in the line), and so the parish, you see, don’t have to give anything, and that’s one way that so many have come into the trade of late, that the likes of me can do little or no good at it. Almost every one I’ve ever known engaged at Pure-finding were people who were better off once. I knew a man who went by the name of Brown, who picked up Pure for years before I went to it; he was a very quiet man; he used to lodge in Blue Anchor-yard, and seldom used to speak to anybody. We two used to talk together sometimes, but never much. One morning he was found dead in his bed; it was of a Tuesday morning, and he was buried about 12 o’clock on the Friday following. About 6 o’clock on that afternoon, three or four gentlemen came searching all through this place, looking for a man named Brown, and offering a reward to any who would find him out; there was a whole crowd about them when I came up. One of the gentlemen said that the man they wanted had lost the first finger of his right hand, and then I knew that it was the man that had been buried only that morning. Would you believe it, Mr. Brown was a real gentleman all the time, and had a large estate, of I don’t know how many thousand pounds, just left him, and the lawyers had advertised and searched everywhere for him, but never found him, you may say, till he was dead. We discovered that his name was not Brown; he had only taken that name to hide his real one, which, of course, he did not want any one to know. I’ve often thought of him, poor man, and all the misery he might have been spared, if the good news had only come a year or two sooner”.

    [Note * It is difficult to estimate how far she travelled in that account, drawing lines on modern maps gives various estimates between 20 and 40 miles, in 12-16 hours and all she made was sixpence.]

  12. snowy says:

    That’s went a bit typo-tastic, but you are all very clever and can figure it out yourselves.

  13. snowy says:

    Oh ffs!

    *Gives up*

    *Goes off to smash keyboard repeatedly into face, until symptoms pass*

  14. Richard Burton says:

    Weirdly I was always happier on the south side of the river, i only tried living north of it once and it felt wrong somehow.
    Shad Thames was pretty bleak in the eighties, I think it was mostly derelict. There’s a episode of Peter Davison Doctor Who with Daleks trundling around it I think.
    London Bridge was bloody awful in the nineties, the entrance area especially. It was nice to cross the road and go down the steps by the cathedral to the lower level, past the Clink and the Globe though, it felt like a deserted bit of old London at times.
    I spent quite a bit of time around Upper Ground as well, doing research on either The Graphic or Illustrated London News (one of them had its library of old copies there). The first time I went there I was bizarrely happy to see the LWT building. I’d seen it at the start of the news on telly for years, but hadn’t thought it was real for some reason 🙂 It was like meeting a celebrity.

  15. chazza says:

    My Dad had a shop in Lower Road, Surrey Docks since 1948 which he had inherited from his dad. As a youngster, I loved this area of cobbled damp streets, quivering gas lamps and smoggy green skies. Lovely locals, drunken sailors and lurid pubs full of shouting and mayhem. The days when local people could call it their area before the hipster prats took over. Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) was prescient…

  16. Peter Dixon says:

    I’m glad someone has cleared the shit up.

    As Spike Milligan reported of a conversation with a public toilet attendant; ‘It might just be shit and piss to you, but its bread and butter to me’

  17. Helen Martin says:

    The narrative of the pure finder was fascinating. I wonder what the Guardians would have suggested she might have done to prevent ending up as she did. Probably just shrugged and muttered about God’s will.
    Did I miss someone explaining why it was called “pure”? It had to be unadulterated by any other sort of fecal matter? Huh?

  18. snowy says:

    Dah! there is a whole passage missing! Section II describes adulteration as mentioned by Peter and should read:

    The pure-finders meet with a ready market for all the dogs’-dung they are able to collect, at the numerous tanyards in Bermondsey, where they sell it by the stable-bucket full, and get from 8 d. to 10 d. per bucket, and sometimes 1 s. and 1 s. 2 d. for it, according to its quality. The “dry limy-looking sort” fetches the highest price at some yards, as it is found to possess more of the alkaline, or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality. Strange as it may appear, the preference for a particular kind has suggested to the finders of Pure the idea of adulterating it to a very considerable extent; this is effected by means of mortar broken away from old walls, and mixed up with the whole mass, which it closely resembles; in some cases, however, the mortar is rolled into small balls similar to those found. Hence it would appear, that there is no business or trade, however insignificant or contemptible, without its own peculiar and appropriate tricks.

    An exact an accurate account of the derivation of ‘pure’ is probably impossible as it is an very, very old usage. But if allowed a little imagination something can probably be fashioned.

    Word chain ahoy!

    Latin – French – Olde English – English

    The root that gives ‘putrid’
    puteō – puir – puer – pure

    Compare that with the root that gives ‘pure’, as in untainted
    purus – pur – pur – pure

    Given that the English have an insaitiable love of irony* it is probably not surprising that puer, stinking, fetid became pure, wholesome, unsullied by dirt.

    [* Usually found in regions that also have large deposits of coaly.]

  19. snowy says:

    After all that, I seem to have the words Conflated, Cognate and Contronym leftover in the bucket. If anybody can spot where these have fallen out from the above explanation! Be an angel and just slot them in.

    Yours etc.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    The term ‘Pure’ may also have been used to make the job seem better than it was. Would you rather talk to a bloke in the pub who says:
    “I collect stuff called ‘Pure’ for use in tanning leather.”
    Or the bloke who says:
    “I pick up dogshit for a living.”
    You’d probably edge down the bar in the general direction of ‘away’. A friend of mine had a theory that white dogshit started to disappear from the streets when Italian restaurants became popular in the 1970’s. He reckoned it was collected, processed, and sold as ‘Grated Parmesan’ in those little tubs. I haven’t been able to eat the grated stuff since then.

  21. Peter Tromans says:

    Ian’s last comment reminds me of Dave Allen’s story set in a bar in America.

    An Irish tourist sitting in a bar is approached by a local ‘trader.’
    Local, furtively, “Man, you looking for some shit.”
    Irishman, baffled, “Er, what?”
    “You wanna buy some shit man?”
    “You sell shit?”
    “How much does it cost?”
    “$ 100 for …”, holds fingers together to indicate a few grains
    Irishman counting on fingers and thinking, once or twice a day at so much per go, why that’s ££££££ per year. Irishman rushes out to bathroom.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, how I loved the late, great Dave Allen. Probably my first exposure to proper, grown-up, dark, and sometimes properly dark, humour, as a kid. My dad loved his humour, but I wasn’t supposed to watch his show. But if mum went out, then I could. A superb comedian, who also made a lovely show in the early 1980’s about odd stuff, like follies, etc.
    The Doctor Who story set in Shad Thames, was the horrendously complicated ‘Resurrection Of The Daleks’, the highpoint of which was a Dalek being pushed out of a warehouse, by The Doctor’s fifth incarnation – there is only one Doctor, but many incarnations – played by Peter Davison. The story annoyed the Metropolitan Police, for it’s inclusion of two androids in Met. uniform – and carrying suppressed MAC-10 sub-machineguns, which they use often.

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