1840- Life in Waterloo Place

Today you walk along Island Wall and into Waterloo Road. It seems more spacious here than in many of the roads of terraced houses that lead off Harbour Street.

Waterloo Road today, from Island Wall. To your left a modern building of retirement flats, The Saltings, attempting in style to look like they belong here, and further along the Over 60’s Day Centre. To your right a terrace of cottages, well kept and bright, ending at the entrance to Cornwallis Circle. Straight ahead the road curves up to join Middle Wall. If you ignore the parked cars in looking to the right you could well imagine the scene as it was 160 years ago and romance about the Oyster Dredgermen passing you as they went to catch the tide, children playing with hoops and waving their father’s off to work. Idyllic isn’t it?

Well your wish is our command, so we will take you there, but remember that what you are about to see was typical about many towns in England at this time. Now close you eyes and go back in time….

Here you go…

You still have your eyes closed and you’re frightened to open them. Your feet are no longer on a firm solid pavement but soaking wet in something cold and squenchy. You sum up the courage to take a look. Those fashionable canvas ‘deck-shoes’ you’ve just bought for your visit to the seaside are now stuck in a slimy black quagmire of what you hope is just mud.

Then the smell permeates your nostrils making you feel quite nauseous. What is it? Have you landed in some massive communal cesspit? Well, look to the right again, past the terraced cottages that you first admired. You can see all the way along The Salts. This is the reclaimed area between the ‘walls’ that’s still at sea level. Now look at the drainage ditches that criss-cross and surround this area. See how the rear of the house’s gardens that back onto the ditches have small shed like structures overhanging the ditches. Yes, you are quite correct. Those are toilets. Not as we know them today in our hygeinised society where everything unpleasant just disapears at the pull of a handle, but wooden seats with holes in them to deposit discharges into the ditch. In fact in some cases you can see the fresh excretia built up on the banks of the ditch where it hasn’t yet been washed away.

Horrified? Don’t be, these people aren’t. It’s just part of life. Some of them have toilets with boxes underneath so that they can collect the soils and dig them into the ground. Posh, eh?

The sanitary problem here was many fold. A damp area that was frequently flooded by rainwater and the sea, on top of a layer of London Clay so the moisture couldn’t seep away easily, and a rapidly increasing population that was putting more demands on the drainage that did exist.

Are you going to stand there all day?

You look a right mess there wallowing in the mud, swatting flies and looking ready to throw up. There’s no point in coming this far unless you interact with the people. There’s a woman coming out of one of the tar-coated wooden cottages to your left. She’s calling you.

Ooh-eeh, are you all right Mat?

You mumble back, “I think I’m lost. I thought this was Waterloo Road.

She smiles. She’s sussed you as some sort of simpleton. “No, this here’s Waterloo Place. Never ‘as been a Waterloo Road as far as I can remember. A road goes somewhere. This don’t, see?” She motions in the direction of the top of the road, where it joins Middle Wall, except it doesn’t. It’s a cul-de-sac only, reaching the rear of houses in Middle Wall.

You’re looking very confused now but she takes pity on you. “Why don’t you come inside and I’ll make you a cup of tea. The pots already hot.

Go on then, you’ll never have this chance again, follow her in.

She leads you through the front room and into the back room past the stairs. You shiver with cold and the dampness of the house. She chatters as she makes the tea.

You wanna be in one of those new brick houses. They’re really wet. Least with this place it dries out quicker.” She laughs, “Cept for old scratchy’s place acrross the road. Did you see it, the one with no windows and doors? He spends all his money over the bar at The Guinea and he ain’t paid his rent for so long the landlord took them out hoping he would leave. Trouble is he’s so sozzled he ain’t noticed. Poor old fosser, he’s never bin the same since his wife and kids died with that there cholera.

You sip the tea she gives you. It’s pretty revolting but it perks you up and you become more sociable. “Have you any children?” You ask.

She nods proudly. “Yes we’ve had nine in all, but only four of them reached their fourth birthdays. Now we’ve only the two at home, James, he’s twenty and young William, he’s fourteen. There both out working with their dad now, gone to France to get a load of spat.

You ask, uncertainly, “Oyster Men?

She appraises you again as she replies, “Yes drudgers, what else? James is hoping to get his own boat soon, but William’s got six years before he can be a freeman. You should see his poor ‘ands when he comes home. Red raw with working the ropes they are. Still his skin’ll soon harden up, just like his brother’s and dad’s did when they was younger.

Don’t you wish you could live somewhere warmer and drier?” you ask tentatively.

She shakes her head. “I don’t reckon I do. I goes to Cannerberry sometimes to help out in the fish-market. It’s alright there I supposes but what I likes best is getting back home. Anyway Oystermen have to live near the beach. This is where we was born and this is where we’ll die, those what the sea don’t take for itself.

She raises her head to look up into your eyes. She can’t be over five foot tall you think. She asks you, “Where do you live then Mat, I can tell you’re not Whitstable?

You struggle to answer, instead you get ready to leave, then your guilt gets the better of you. “I come from a long way away where things are very different from here but inside I think that I belong here too.

She sees you to the door. “Well goodbye then Mat, I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Then she tells you her name.

The colour drains away from your face as you realise you are talking to your gggGrandmother. It’s time to bring you back to today.

So many questions…

Yes I know. Why did she call you Mat? How could she be so uncomplaining? Were all people that small in the town then? At what point did the life expectancy change from what it was then too the high age that Whitstable is now renowned for? Did these little Oyster Yawls really sail as far as the French coast and why? What was so normal about the sons of Oyster Dredgers working at the age of fourteen?

The answers, my friend, are not blowing in the wind. They are within these pages.

In the meantime have you noticed that the flies seemed to have travelled back with you? What is that awful smell? Oh, sorry. it’s you. Perhaps it might be a good idea if you had a shower and a change of clothes. Phew!