Come with me to the Docklands museum!

The London Museum of the Docklands is a delightful place to spend a few hours learning new docklands-museumthings, one of my favorite activities. They offer well-curated exhibits about shipping and trade from the late 16th century to the present, including an extended section on slavery. Each exhibit included curious objects in glass cases, as one would expect, but there were also lots of maps and paintings of the docklands from the period in question, along with excellent notes.

I took the tube to Canary Wharf and followed the ever-present signs directing tourists to the fun stuff. The streets here are lined with tall, new office buildings. Lots of people in suits walking briskly to and fro. I stupidly went out to forage for lunch at noon and found every single eatery jam-packed with those people in suits. I ended up eating at a burrito place, though one does not normally travel from Texas to London to eat Mexican food. Ah, the irony.


Where we were

The modern Canary Wharf area spans the old parish of Poplar, Limehouse, and the Isle of Dogs. In isle-of-dogsElizabethan times, the Isle of Dogs was desolate marshland. Poplar was nothing; blink, and you’d miss it. Limehouse was a village with a bustling strip along the riverside. A couple of pubs have survived from that time to this: The Grapes and, closer to Wapping, the Prospect of Whitby. The characters in my latest Francis Bacon mystery, The Spymaster’s Brother, stop in at the Grapes.

In Victorian times, Limehouse was notorious, with narrow, filthy streets, big warehouses, and dodgy taverns. You took your life in your hands, wandering through those alleys at night. Naturally, Sherlock Holmes knew that terrain like his own violin.


Instruments of destruction

The museum calls them tools for weighing and measuring, but we writers of murder mysteries know better. You could sabotage some of these things, I’ll bet, though the curator failed to provide that sort of detail. You could certainly use them to cause seemingly accidental deaths. And then there are all these giant hemp baskets to hide the body in! You could probably nail your victim’s corpse inside a big barrel and set it where it will be loaded on the next ship to China. SO many options!

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I love these old barrels, for some odd reason. I’m thinking about a young woman —  a teenager, really — who hides in such a barrel to smuggle herself onto a ship, to travel to London to consult the great Sherlock Holmes. She’s clutching the tattered copy of The Strand which someone read to her, telling a tale about the brilliant detective. Somehow, she ends up consulting my Professor Moriarty instead, lucky for her!

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Life on the docks

I love the way they intersperse art from the period with the artifacts. Look at these sailors carousing in a Wapping alehouse. I’m pretty sure you won’t this sort of rowdy behavior at the Prospect of Whitby nowadays!


I take pictures of these things partly so I can share them with you, but also because it’s easier than taking notes. When I get home, I can look up the image and see who owns it. This one comes from the Guildhall Library. Hm.

They set up a few tableaux as well, so we can imagine our warehouse clerks and customs officials at their jobs. These exhibits are fun to look at, but hard to photograph because of the shiny glass and the somewhat dim lighting. But I try, because someday Moriarty is going to have to go down to this office to sneak a peek at some records while Angelina distracts the clerk.



At last, the whole story is told

All the museums I visit have updated their exhibits to include a period of English and American history that was suppressed for a long, long time. We’re talking about slavery, a great disaster perpetrated by one group against another. We’re still struggling to repair the damage wrought by those centuries of shame. Getting the story straight is part of that process. Here’s some of them well-written exposition from the Docklands exhibit.


This part of the exhibit was full of people, so I didn’t take pictures of the stuff, sorry. They also had a typical dock-workers home that kids could play in. Some kids were cheerfully demolishing it, so I didn’t get pix of that either. And then there were rows of boxes filled with fragrant stuff that you could open and sniff and try to guess which was what. They had vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon…  all the spices that came to England through the docklands. I opened all the boxes and found no opium, so it wasn’t perfect. (They never have opium in these exhibits!)

All along the waterfront

I take pix of the cards under paintings I want to study at home, like this one.


I found this one in Wikipedia, just as I hoped.


Greenwich Hospital by John Paul, 1835

And here’s another look at the life of the folk who lived and worked in the docklands.


The caption says, “The kitchen of one of the poorer lodging houses visited by Henry Mayhew around 1861. The lodgers are all eating because Mayhew provided them with a meal, but there are few chairs and virtually no cutlery.”

Henry Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor (1851), the result of his deep dive into the lower reaches of London life. I have a copy on my shelf, as it happens. If and when my Moriartys take their own dive into those precincts, I’ll read at least some of it. Pretty stiff stuff.

Where ideas come from

Sometimes people ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” One of my answers is, “In museums.” I looked at this exhibit and my mind exploded. What do you think: Moriarty Smells the Coffee? I think I may have to go to Jamaica for this one…


Customs officer drawing off a sample of whisky, around 1920.



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