London Bridge as it crosses into Southwark was the setting chosen by Dickens for Nancy's fateful rendezvous with Rose Mayew and Mr Brownlow. Not knowing that she has been followed, she innocently meets the couple at midnight on the steps leading to the Surrey Pier and gives them crucial information about Oliver's whereabouts. The author gives a chilling account of the kindness that was to cause her death.
"The church clocks chimed three quarters past eleven, as two figures emerged on London Bridge. One, which advanced with a swift and rapid step, was that of a woman who looked eagerly about her as though in quest of some expected object; the other figure was that of a man, who slunk along in the deepest shadow he could find, and, at some distance, accommodated his pace to hers; stopping when she stopped; and as she moved again, creeping stealthily on: but never allowing himself, in the ardour of his pursuit, to gain upon her footsteps. Thus, they crossed the bridge, from the Middlesex to the Surrey shore, when the woman, apparently disappointed in her anxious scrutiny of the foot passengers, turned back. The movement was sudden: but he who watched her, was not thrown off his guard by it; for, shrinking into one of the recesses which surmount the piers of the bridge, and leaning over the parapet the better to conceal his figure, he suffered her to pass on the opposite pavement. When she was about the same distance in advance as she had been before, he slipped quietly down and followed her again. At nearly the centre of the bridge, she stopped. The man stopped too.
It was a very dark night. The day had been unfavourable, and at that hour and place there were few people stirring. Such as there were hurried quickly past; very possibly without seeing, but certainly without noticing, either the woman, or the man who kept her in view. Their appearance was not calculated to attract the importunate regards of such of London's destitute population, as chanced to take their way over the bridge that night in search of some cold arch or door-less hovel wherein to lay their heads; they stood there in silence: neither speaking nor spoken to, by any one who passed.
A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharves, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks. The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon the water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes. The tower of old Saint Saviour's Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest of shipping below the bridge, and the thickly scattered spires of churches above, were nearly all hidden from the sight."
St. Saviour's church was Southwark Cathedral, one of the great hidden gems of the city.
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
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