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My copy of Dicken's Dictionary of the Thames 1887 ranks as one of my best book bargains. I bought it a few months ago from a branch of The Works that was closing down, and so offering 75% off all prices including sale ones. Therefore I bought a new copy for 25p! It is a book that I had read before, courtesy of the library, so I knew that I was going to enjoy meeting it again.
CHARLES DICKENS...BUT NOT THE ONE YOU ARE THINKING OF
The book's author may be called Charles Dickens, but it is not the famous author. The man in question is his son and namesake. Charles Junior was a writer in his own right although not of fiction. At the time this dictionary was published, he had already written a guidebook to London, the success of which led to him write this volume. I think something of the father is apparent in the son's writings - the spirit of social campaigning perhaps. He targets the authorities responsible for maintaining the river, and it's trade and can do a spirited call to arms against their percieved self interest. It is safe to say though, that even if you hate the works of his father, that needn't prejudice you against the son as the writing is still quite different.
READING A DICTIONARY FOR FUN?
This book isn't a dictionary in the general sense. It does define the meaning of some words connected to the river, but it is cheifly an aphabetical listing of places along the Thames, along with random entries on other connected subjects. For example, there are alphabetical entries describing types of freshwater fish, boats, rowing clubs and regattas, as well as advice on saving the drowned and organising a "water party". When the book was first published in 1887, the author said in his introduction that the book was intended to be a source of practical information for those "directly connected with the river" as well as Thames-side residents and day trippers. As a modern reader, it is the social history aspect of the book that appeals to me.
THE BOOK ITSELF
The copy I have is a facsimile edition of the first edition. It is published by Old House Books who specialise in this kind of material. The book looks attractive as it is has a paper jacket depicting a contemporary painting of Boulters Lock, full of rowing boats and ladies with parasols enjoying the view. There aren't any pictures inside other than in a few advertisements, although there are a few maps. These last are quite helpful because the places mentioned are listed alphabetically and not as they come when travelling up or down the river. The maps therefore help you place unfamiliar towns.
Being a facsimile edition, the print appears as it does in the original - this means it is small and close together. It is by no means the easiest book to read. There are a few "typos" carried over from the original too, but they are few and far between. I think these add character really!
AN UNCONVENTIONAL HANDBOOK
The above is the books subtitle and I think it still applies. The range of subjects covered is vast and many are amusing. I know many Thames side towns very well and it is fun to read their entries in the book. The author doesn't stick to dry listings of hotels and post offices, but likes to sprinkle in a comment or two to catch the spirit of a place. He is not afraid to declare a town dull and not worth visiting, and does so quite a lot. I think that even if you have no connection to the river at all, there is nevertheless plenty of interest inside. You can for example read cocktail recipes aimed at riverside parties, discover how to revive the drowned, [a don't try this at home sort of entry!] and hear about a day in the life of Billingsgate fish market. Some entries have especially stayed in my mind. There is a recommendation that gentleman who are in the habit of bathing nude after a rowing session should remember the possibility of a party of ladies suddenly appearing on the horizon. Another page describes the method of chewing up ox brains and spitting them out into the river as a method of attracting the fish known as chubb! Not all entries are quite so entertaining. I personally skipped over pages listing winners in the various regattas and river races of the 1886 season. If you had an ancestor who was a keen rower, you may find a mention of them!
It seems a cliche to describe the Victorian era as one of contrasts but there are enough entries in the book to convince that the description is apt. There is the image of "Three Men In A Boat" and leisurely punting, and then the sheer grime and hard work of labouring in the London docks and markets. Although the author says his book is one for all river users, it becomes clear that it is for some more than others. The idea of merrily mixing alcoholic punches on your hired steam launch is treated as a harmlesss piece of fun, whereas drunkeness among river workers is treated as a sign of innate bad character. In one breath Mr Dickens describes "dumb barges" [those powered by oars alone], as being virtually impossible to steer or keep straight. In the next he is critical of their pilots for failing to get out of the way of other river craft. I think that if I was a "bargee" being shouted at in such circumstances, I may have engaged in some of the the colourful language and "vulgar gestures" they were apparently famous for!
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE BOOK?
I think that if you are interested in either social history or the Thames, you will find something of interest in this book. It would probably make a good present for a modern rower or boatsman who could see how things have changed [or not]. I have read many Victorian travel guides and "how to" books, both originals and facsimiles such as this one but I still found new and interesting facts amongst the pages. I think it is because it isn't just a guide to places that happen to be on the Thames, but every entry is really tied to the river. If a town is mentioned, it will come with descriptions of the nearest landing stage, lock and bridge, and not just the usual information about local history and the nearest telegraph office. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it, especially given how little I paid! The full price for the book is £12.99, and a new copy on Amazon costs £8.96 with used copies slightly less. It would obviously be worth checking a local branch of The Works before paying out though. My copy had a sticker on to say it had previously been sold at £1.99 so you may get it for around that even if the branch isn't closing down!
Hardback, 320 pages.