Puddle Dock, EC4
It was not just the Great Fire of 1666 or the German bombers in the early 1940s that wrought a significant change to the topology of London – it was also the town planners in the 1960s. One victim of their zeal to reclaim the foreshore of the Thames and to make Upper Thames Street a main road was Puddle Dock, now a pale shadow of its former self linking the reconfigured road with Queen Victoria Street. As its name suggests it was once the site of a dock, although what was stored and conveyed there was not the usual merchandise.
Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864/5, has the Thames running through it as one of its major motifs and the memorable opening scenes feature Lizzie Hexam and her father, Jesse, rowing along the river on the look-out for dead bodies to fish out. But it wasn’t just bodies that found their way into the water. For a city with a population that was growing like topsy and with rudimentary sanitation at best, the Thames was a convenient receptacle for the detritus and excrement accumulated during the day. At Puddle Dock was sited a laystall which is where cattle were held before they went to market and where dung and other forms of detritus were stored before being disposed of by the fives barges which operated from the dock somewhere downstream into the Thames. It must have stunk to high heaven.
As often is the case, John Stow, in his invaluable Survey of London, published in 1598, gave some insight as to what went on there and the origin of the name. He wrote, “then there is a great Brewhouse, and Puddle wharf, a water gate into the Thames, where horses use to be watered and therefore filed with their trampeling, and made puddle, like as aso of one Puddle dwelling there: it is called Puddle Wharfe.” The dock is shown on John Rocque’s 1746 map and marked as Dung Wharf. A newspaper article from 5th July 1722 gives a sense of the hustle and bustle of the area and the tragedies that could befall the unwary – the use of the pronoun another suggests that it was not unusual. “Another Misfortune happened Yesterday at Puddle-Dock, where a little Boy was killed by a Cart loaded with coals. The Child was stooping down to take up some thing from the Ground when the Cart Wheel ran over his head, and crushed it to Pieces. The Carman is absconded”, the report noted ruefully.
William Maitland’s The History of London, published in 1756, provides a succinct summary of what went on there at the time; “on the banks of the River Thames are the Wharfs of Puddle-dock, used for a Laystall for the Soil of the Streets, and much frequented by Barges and Lighters for taking the same away, as also for landing of Corn and other Goods.” A sense of the stench and inconvenience to all is provided in a report of a case, the King v Gore, to be found in the Evening Mail of 25th November 1836. There we read that “the affidavits of several persons residing near Puddle-dock were read, in which they stated that their health was impaired in consequence of the stench arising from the filth which was allowed to accumulate at this dock.” The defendant argued that “he was obliged, by the covenant of his lease, to allow all persons to place any filth they chose there” and that there had been “a laystall ever since the great fire of London.” The case was unresolved.
In more recent times, the Mermaid Theatre could be found there until it closed in 2003. Now it is just a nondescript, if considerably more fragrant, street but one with a fascinating history.