“Do you know anything about it?”
There I was in The Water Works in Lea Bridge Road sitting next to Mr Brannigan*, an 84 year old disabled gentleman with clear views about everything from Murdoch to the nearness of London 2012 . He’d invited me to sit on the bench overlooking the sluice gates by Thames Water’s House while he drank his juice and took an hour to eat one Rich Tea biscuit. Mallard ducks and coots swam below us .
“Me? I was born there, wasn’t I?”
Well, that was calling ‘Housey, housey’ to my ears. I didn’t have to ask questions, like I was practising oral history techniques a la Hermitage Community Moorings . Ole Brannigan just rolled on telling me all about how he used to lark about in the steps by the Water Police offices in Wapping High Street and he and his absolutely raggedy mates would fall into the water with all the dirt and the rats of Old Thames. He stressed many times about the starving poor population in the Docks in those days, about how men stole and went to prison in order to eat because there was no ‘social’ then. His mother with six kids sold clothes and shoes ‘on tick’ to her neighbours in order to feed her own whilst her husband worked all day then spent his time in the many pubs in the area especially Cable Street and The Highway. Dock Road(?) was dangerous for everyone. Young Brannigan rarely went to school.
I told him all about Wapping as it is now. He said, “You know when you’re on the bus and you’re in Wapping cos the bus jumps along on the cobbles!” True that.
He said, “People were starving in England, in Germany, all over. All the governments knew but did nothing. There was no help. My grandparents from Poland and from Ireland worked like slaves in those days.”
I can read all about stuff on the internet but to meet a Mr Brannigan is a thing to treasure. He had smelt the spices in the warehouses of Wapping, said how it pervaded the air on trading days. He told me how the place was noisy all the time and packed with people. Not like now when you come out of the station and neither see, hear nor smell anyone.
Before I’d reached the Water Works, Leyton Marshes, The Princess of Wales and Seymour Park in Leyton which has the Dagenham Brook stagnating through it, I’d walked through and around the old and scummy Leyton Industrial Village in Argall Avenue, Leyton. What a dump! I’d seen it in 1985 when it was emerging as the place for small businesses to be. Many men I knew had security jobs there . Students of photography came down to develop deep and avant-garde shots of “decay”. Nice. TRS foods was big there and Sunblest Bread had arrived. Rats swum up and down what may be part of Dagenham Brook. My car mechanic was established in one of the units. The Water Works was just that and the conservationists hadn’t found the delight of the triangle inside Leyton Marshes, an area inhabited by all sorts of weird people who hid in the cow-parsley. Not a good place to explore alone. The triangle was a section of railway where three lines passed. All cleaned up now.
I told Mr Brannigan all about Madge Darby and the Hermitage Community Moorings and the History Society of Wapping. His heart ached for the place but his legs were a nuisance. He’d never heard of the word “Wappea”.
Respect to senior seniors who tell it like it was.
* not his real name. He wouldn’t tell me.