[A Young Man ... All Dirty and Shiny and Slimy]
Edward G. Dalziel
Dickens's "A Young Man ... All Dirty and Shiny and Slimy," from "Wapping Workhouse," chapter three in The Uncommercial Traveller
The descriptive passage "Stood a creature remotely in the likeness of a young man, with a puffed, sallow face, and a figure all dirty and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy old father, Thames" (p. 9) is realized in this three-quarter-page woodblock illustration positioned three pages later than the passage in which the narrator encounters the navvy at the lock on Wapping Stairs on the Thames.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham
[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Long before I reached Wapping, I gave myself up as having lost my way, and, abandoning myself to the narrow streets in a Turkish frame of mind, relied on predestination to bring me somehow or other to the place I wanted if I were ever to get there. When I had ceased for an hour or so to take any trouble about the matter, I found myself on a swing-bridge looking down at some dark locks in some dirty water. Over against me, stood a creature remotely in the likeness of a young man, with a puffed sallow face, and a figure all dirty and shiny and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy old father, Thames, or the drowned man about whom there was a placard on the granite post like a large thimble, that stood between us.
I asked this apparition what it called the place? Unto which, it replied, with a ghastly grin and a sound like gurgling water in its throat:
"Mr. Baker's trap."
As it is a point of great sensitiveness with me on such occasions to be equal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation, I deeply considered the meaning of this speech, while I eyed the apparition — then engaged in hugging and sucking a horizontal iron bar at the top of the locks. Inspiration suggested to me that Mr. Baker was the acting coroner of that neighbourhood.
"A common place for suicide," said I, looking down at the locks.
"Sue?' returned the ghost, with a stare. "Yes! And Poll. Likewise Emily. And Nancy. And Jane;' he sucked the iron between each name; 'and all the bileing. Ketches off their bonnets or shorls, takes a run, and headers down here, they doos. Always a headerin' down here, they is. Like one o'clock."
"And at about that hour of the morning, I suppose?"
"Ah!" said the apparition. "They an't partickler. Two 'ull do for them. Three. All times o' night. On'y mind you!" Here the apparition rested his profile on the bar, and gurgled in a sarcastic manner. "There must be somebody comin'. They don't go a headerin' down here, wen there an't no Bobby nor gen'ral Cove, fur to hear the splash." 
The Cockney expression for a naive member of the gullible general public, "a General Cove," reinforces the bantering tone of the Uncommercial Traveller's working-class interlocutor, not a "Poor Mercantile Jack" in the sense of a "pitiable merchant sailor" (obliquely the subject of the fifth chapter), but a young navvy, a dockyard mechanic, technician, and lock-keeper. Originally published in All the Year Round on 18 February 1860, the journalistic piece entitled "Wapping Workhouse" is an exposé of the plight of women who must, out of extreme desperation, resort to the union workhouse. A Police Court Magistrate, Henry Selfe, in The Times for 23 January 1860, had identified the establishment at Wapping on the Thames was "a perfect bear-garden" (cited in Slater and Drew, 41) in terms of its deplorable conditions for the reception of female paupers. Before the end of January 1860 Dickens had gone down to Wapping to verify Selfe's remarks, which he found a considerable exaggeration. Prominent in Dalziel's illustration and in Dickens's account of his encounter with a navvy is the swing bridge machinery of "Baker's Trap," which connected the halves of Old Gravel Lane separated by two of the London Dock basins. A favourite with suicides (hence the poster "Found Drowned" in the left foreground), it was known to locals as "The Bridge of Sighs" (Dickensian, 1906, 42-43, cited in Slater and Drew, 42), after the bridge in Venice so called by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Built in 1602, the white limestone covered span connects the courts in the Doge's palace and the interrogation rooms in the New Prison on either side of the canal. The comparison of the Thames swing-bridge to the celebrated passage between life and death is appropriate as denoting a place where desperate women breathe their last before committing suicide in the murky waters of the Thames.
At the beginning of the article, Dickens's highly observant and socially conscious persona, the Uncommercial Traveller, determines to travel to Wapping Stairs to inspect the Union workhouse there.Dickens's persona mentions that his trip downriver has been motivated by the remarks of a police magistrate, recently reported by one of the metropolitan morning newspapers, "that there was no classification at the Wapping Workhouse for women" (9). Dickens produces a characterisation of the "slimy" young man leaning on the swing-bridge partly through telling description and partly through the navvy's voluble dialogue in dialect. He communicates a disaffected attitude towards those whose bodies are "found" nearby, drowned. Augmenting these effects, Dalziel's character study — one of his finest woodcuts — creates a sense of the dock-worker as proud, self-confident, and comfortable at his post. For Dickens the plucky labourer is merely a vehicle for commenting upon the plight of women who sometimes fail in their attempts to drown themselves. Dalziel, on the other hand, only obliquely alludes to that subject through the poster on the "granite post" or pylon in the foreground, left: "Found Drowned" [image] The "jack" or labourer, having been entrusted with the responsibility to open and close the sluice-gates of Baker's trap, assumes a proprietary air in the illustration.
The nature of the neighbourhood Dalziel implies by the rows of tenements and marine sheds in the background. The strong verticals of the backdrop effectively complement the horizontal lines of the swing-bridge. Whereas Dickens uses pejoratives to describe the youth ("slimy," "dirty," "shiny," "filthy," with a "puffed sallow face"), Dalziel captures a certain nobility in this "son of Thames," showing us something admirable in his self-confidence and technical knowledge of the lock. He is not the "Poor Mercantile Jack" of the Liverpool waterfront in a later essay; this youth is hardly pitiable as he serenely surveys wharfs and ships; rather, he is the incarnation of the practical, work-a-day aspects of the commercial river. His jaunty pose and rakish top-hat — not of the newest, admittedly — betoken supreme self-satisfaction with his calling in life.
Other urban scenes
- Poor Mercantile Jack
- Mr. Grazinglands looked in at a pastry cook's window
- Blinking old men . . . let out of workhouses
- He was taken into custody by the police
- Mr. J. Mellows
- Look at this group at a street corner
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.
Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.
Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.
Last modified 13 August 2012