Director’s Diary: The Honourable United East India Company

It is still cold and bright along the river, but Wassail provided hot rum punch and a listing and photograph in Time Out’s page Your Perfect Weekend. Quite right!

If you missed out, there are still some tickets left for our Valentine’s event on February 11th when we promise torchsongs for the loved up, the hopeful, the curious and the cynical. And a descent into Brunel’s dark, underground love cave for readings from his diary. The Thames Tunnel was built for cargo, in fact built principally for shipping agencies like the East India Company, but this is also where lovers met, including a very young Brunel and a romantic teenager Fanny Kemble. Fanny wrote about her visit – with fabulous metaphor and innuendo! – in her diary, extract reprinted in our own book The Brunels’ Tunnel:

Mr Brunel, who was superintending some of the works, offered to conduct us to where the workmen were employed -an unusual favour, which delighted us all. We left our broad, smooth path of light, and got into dark passages, where we stumbled among coils of ropes and heaps of pipes, where springs were welling up and flowing about in every direction.

Fanny was later to become the most famous actress of her generation, and even more significantly, gained notoriety as an abolitionist married to a slaver. She struggled with her conscience and sensibilities, and her role as wife and mother, but eventually divorced and published a highly contentious account of her life married to a plantation owner. Difficult and controversial, but this is the only authentic Tunnel of Love. Visit our website for details…

Slavery and the East India Company and many other uncomfortable controversies dominate TABOO. I am enjoying this Saturday night drama, not least because The Brunel Museum heritage boat tours – daily 10.40 Embankment tube (not Sunday, Monday) – cover lots of East India Company ground. Tom Hardy’s series is not for the faint hearted: it is visceral and so are the East India, a greedy, vicious and unprincipled set of businessmen. The Thames is a very dark and dangerous place. This is not just the Rotherhithe of Charles Dickens (Old Mortuary, Resurrectionists, Trotwood, Wickfield and Dombey House), this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Elephant Lane, Ivory Court). Rotherhithe is an old East India Company Town. It’s not just the street names – Rupack Street, Bombay Court, East India Court, Ceylon Wharf – here, away from the bustle upriver, we hear the ageless, endless lapping of the Thames. High romance from the pen of onetime mariner Joseph Conrad:

A change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. From Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests – and that never returned. Adventurers and settlers, kings ships and ships of men, captains, admirals interlopers of the Eastern trade and generals of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream. The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.

East India ships lined the wharves at Rotherhithe. The old school house – still standing – was endowed by East India captains, and the church (John James after Christopher Wren) was rebuilt by the Company’s mariners. The Honourable East India Company paid for the memorial stone in the local churchyard, commemorating the brave actions of Prince Lee Boo, the black prince of Rotherhithe, who saved the lives of mariners on the Antelope, plucked from storm seas off the Island of Palau. The Antelope was on a secret mission for the East India Company, making charts to bring the spices home. Nutmeg had a hugely inflated price because it was believed to offer protection from the plague: you could buy a man’s freedom for one nutmeg. There was more money to be made trading spices than ransacking every Spanish galleon that left port. Not so much ‘pieces of eight’ more ‘pieces of nutmeg’. It was nutmeg led to the wreck of the Antelope.

I shall have more to say about the East India Company as the drama unfolds…

Next week we have the usual heritage walks and boat tours every day. During engineering on the pier, we continue to meet at Embankment tube and walk to Westminster Pier.

Sunday 22nd January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 23rd January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 24th January
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Wednesday 25th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 Tower Hamlets U3A
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 26th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Friday 27th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 28th
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

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