The Custom House. George Seymour. c. 1883-84. Source: Watson, “The Lower Thames —III,” 254.

The Custom House is a clear space of shining white stone in a dusky setting of smoke-dried walls and slated roofs. Seen from London Bridge it plays the same part in the picture as does Somerset House from Waterloo. The smoke of the river steamers cannot blacken it, for the soft leprous-looking stone crumbles at its touch; and so, by the manner in which it stands out from its surroundings, the Custom House draws the eye more towards it than is justitied either by its size or its style. The quay in front is a public promenade, frequented by nursemaids, retired fish-salesmen, and those half-labourers half-tramps who are always “on the look-out for a job,” and have the happiest knack of not finding it. At the commencement of their new year the Jews come here to pray, in remembrance of that captivity when they sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept. Here, too, once came the poet Cowper, insane, and trembling at the wrath of God. It was his inten- tion to commit suicide, “but,” he afterwards wrote, “I found the water low, and a porter sitting on some goods there, as if on purpose to prevent me. This passage to the bottomless pit being mercifully closed against me, I returned to the coach.” And a very sensible thing, too!

This reminiscence of Cowper calls to mind an- other poet of more cheerful soul, that great and perfect artist, Geoffrey Chaucer. It was on this very spot that he fulfilled those official duties which, it has been somewhat doubtfully said, brought him into financial difficulties. He was the first controller of Customs in England, and it may well have been that as he watched from some loophole of the Custom House a band of pilgrims riding slowly, yet withal merrily, over London Bridge, there came to him the first thought of that scheme which he carried out in the Canterbury Tales. Probably the "Tabard," the roof of which must then have been within sight from the north bank of the river, — was his own favourite house, and it may be that on many an evening his stoup of wine has been handed to him, [254]

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Image capture and formatting by George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Internet Archive and the University of Toronto and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Watson, Aaron. “The Lower Thames —III.” The Magazine of Art. 7: (1883-84): 251-57. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 8 November 2014

Last modified 14 November 2014