Monday, December 21, 2015

Cerise asks, What do gin, smuggling, shoes and London docks have in common during #Regency period?

Women's slippers, circa 1829
During the Regency, all was not serene decorum in this bustling, growing city. While the ton dined and danced and courted especially in our Regency romances, the commerce that kept them on their toes and money in their pockets could be a raw and nasty business on the east end of town where the ships from all ports docked.

I doubt anyone would want to walk in these dockland areas if they could help it. Or even try because to walk the approximate 4+ miles from the docks to (for example) Mayfair would be dangerous. Plus the general challenge of walking over cobbles and uneven surfaces in what were (I cringe every time I see them) terrible shoes or boots seems daunting. And for a refined lady to walk in these rough and tumble dock areas would be unthinkable.

West India completed docks, 1802.
Public domain.
West India Docks, East India docks and London docks were areas inhabited by shipwrights, seamen of merchant marine and Royal navies. With men and goods of all kinds going in and out, it was a bustling area and, except for the demands of the Customs officials, largely unregulated. So you have ships coming in, being unloaded, goods stored in warehouses and transported from there. The nature of the activities there would inspire much criminal activity. Smuggling was the biggest problem and the private companies employed their own watchmen (later maritime police) to try to deal with it. Lawlessness of all types occured, including theft, avoidance of import taxes, prostitution and gaming. Add to this drunkenness, brawling and general poverty, and this area is not a safe place.

East India dock looking south towards the River Thames, 1806.
Public domain.
Indeed in 1824 when the bill for the building of St. Katherine's Dock (next to the Tower) was introduced in Parliament, much of the debate discussed not just commercial need for another dock (and its destruction of thousands of homes and displacement of people there to make way for it) but also the fact that those who remained would be subject to similar disastrous social conditions. Years later, when Parliament later debated the bills for establishing a police force, they'd cite not only love of gin among laboring classes, but also the lawlessness of those in the dock areas as justification for a group for regular law enforcement.
To view a map of London's docks, plus other sections of the city, see this 1830 map in high resolution:

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