Chapter 10. The River

by Charles Dickens

‘Are you fond of the water?’ is a question very frequently asked, in hot summer weather, by amphibious-looking young men.  ‘Very,’ is the general reply.  ‘An’t you?’—‘Hardly ever off it,’ is the response, accompanied by sundry adjectives, expressive of the speaker’s heartfelt admiration of that element.  Now, with all respect for the opinion of society in general, and cutter clubs in particular, we humbly suggest that some of the most painful reminiscences in the mind of every individual who has occasionally disported himself on the Thames, must be connected with his aquatic recreations.  Who ever heard of a successful water-party?—or to put the question in a still more intelligible form, who ever saw one?  We have been on water excursions out of number, but we solemnly declare that we cannot call to mind one single occasion of the kind, which was not marked by more miseries than any one would suppose could be reasonably crowded into the space of some eight or nine hours.  Something has always gone wrong.  Either the cork of the salad-dressing has come out, or the most anxiously expected member of the party has not come out, or the most disagreeable man in company would come out, or a child or two have fallen into the water, or the gentleman who undertook to steer has endangered everybody’s life all the way, or the gentlemen who volunteered to row have been ‘out of practice,’ and performed very alarming evolutions, putting their oars down into the water and not being able to get them up again, or taking terrific pulls without putting them in at all; in either case, pitching over on the backs of their heads with startling violence, and exhibiting the soles of their pumps to the ‘sitters’ in the boat, in a very humiliating manner.

We grant that the banks of the Thames are very beautiful at Richmond and Twickenham, and other distant havens, often sought though seldom reached; but from the ‘Red-us’ back to Blackfriars-bridge, the scene is wonderfully changed.  The Penitentiary is a noble building, no doubt, and the sportive youths who ‘go in’ at that particular part of the river, on a summer’s evening, may be all very well in perspective; but when you are obliged to keep in shore coming home, and the young ladies will colour up, and look perseveringly the other way, while the married dittos cough slightly, and stare very hard at the water, you feel awkward—especially if you happen to have been attempting the most distant approach to sentimentality, for an hour or two previously.

Although experience and suffering have produced in our minds the result we have just stated, we are by no means blind to a proper sense of the fun which a looker-on may extract from the amateurs of boating.  What can be more amusing than Searle’s yard on a fine Sunday morning?  It’s a Richmond tide, and some dozen boats are preparing for the reception of the parties who have engaged them.  Two or three fellows in great rough trousers and Guernsey shirts, are getting them ready by easy stages; now coming down the yard with a pair of sculls and a cushion—then having a chat with the ‘Jack,’ who, like all his tribe, seems to be wholly incapable of doing anything but lounging about—then going back again, and returning with a rudder-line and a stretcher—then solacing themselves with another chat—and then wondering, with their hands in their capacious pockets, ‘where them gentlemen’s got to as ordered the six.’  One of these, the head man, with the legs of his trousers carefully tucked up at the bottom, to admit the water, we presume—for it is an element in which he is infinitely more at home than on land—is quite a character, and shares with the defunct oyster-swallower the celebrated name of ‘Dando.’  Watch him, as taking a few minutes’ respite from his toils, he negligently seats himself on the edge of a boat, and fans his broad bushy chest with a cap scarcely half so furry.  Look at his magnificent, though reddish whiskers, and mark the somewhat native humour with which he ‘chaffs’ the boys and ’prentices, or cunningly gammons the gen’lm’n into the gift of a glass of gin, of which we verily believe he swallows in one day as much as any six ordinary men, without ever being one atom the worse for it.

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