Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

Visited the London Docks—St. Katherine’s the London & the West India.—Gave me the best idea I have yet had of the immense trade & wealth of London. It is the heart of the civilized world & receives & propels the “vital fluid” which circulates through the whole body—And what a throbbing heart it is, how full of life and motion! We visited the Warehouses where the cargoes of ships are stowed away on their arrival. One room was filled with straw in bundles for bonnets, & with Leghorn braid which coming in that form pays less duty than in the flat, & can be sewed together in England. Another had raw silk in bales from Italy & Bengal to be manufactured here; of this silk some was of a fine gold colour, the rest a dirty white. I heard for the first time, that the silk produced in England is of inferiour quality to that of more southern climates, & that not many worms are reared here as they find it better to import the silk itself. It comes in hanks and the thread is exquisitely fine.—One large room was filled with bags of Cinnamon, another with Pimento or Allspice, and we were told that in consequence of the disturbed state of the English West Indies, the crops of this last spice were likely to fail, when the price would, of course, rise.

The Wine Vaults at the London Docks are of immense size, arched over & with groined ceilings, entirely dark & excessively damp, ventilated by means of pipes & containing when I saw them, thousands of casks of Sherry. Our party of four, were each provided with a lamp fastened to a flat stick or handle. These we held above below to one side or the other as we desired to explore around us. The casks were piled on each other with open spaces or lanes between them. Against the walls were a few lamps with concave reflectors, but we depended principally on those which we held in our own hands. They shewed us the darkness visible of the place, the groined roof almost dripping with moisture, cobwebs in plenty, and the pillars which supported the ceiling and floor above. The temperature of these vaults is, at this season, much warmer than that of the external air. Above is a store house for Madeira, and there are large vats in which pipes of different age and flavour can be mixed and mellowed together. These huge vats go up from the floor to a sort of second story whither we ascended & saw the manner in which the pipes discharged their contents into the mouth of the vat, four at a time. One of the vats was full, and the guide, to convince us of the fact, dipped his dirty hand into the wine. The mouth of the vat was large enough to receive the body of any individual chusing to die the death preferred by Clarence, the being drowned in wine. The duty upon all wine is about 5.s.6d. a gallon, except what is made at the Cape which being a British settlement, the product of it’s vineyards is taxed in only about half the amount of duty on foreign wines.

The Tobacco Warehouse which we visited next, filled with hogsheads of tobacco, reminded me of home, my old home of Virginia, and Mr Vaughn informed me that quantities are still imported from the old State, exhausted as her soil has been by the culture, continued throughout so many years. Numerous boxes of Havana segars shewed the prevalence of a taste the most artificial that man has ever succeeded in engrafting upon his nature.—The West India Docks, the largest of all, have two Basins, one of twenty four acres the other of about thirty.—these, with the buildings attached to them, are enclosed by a wall; the ships lie close to the Quai, and there are immense Warehouses containing numbers of hogsheads of sugar, rum &c &c. Formerly no products but those of the West Indies were admitted here, but this is no longer the case.—The rum is in a kind of cellar partly under and partly above ground; light is admitted through windows high above the floor, and, as no lamps or fire in any form is permitted within these walls, the persons who wish to examine the casks have what are called Reflectors, large flat pieces of wood covered with tin, and with handles by which they are held and turned to the light so as to reflect it upon the object to be examined. Besides Warehouses there are simple sheds, looking something like Market Houses open at the sides, which furnish sufficient protection for many articles and enable the ships to discharge their cargoes without exposing them to the weather. The climate of England is too wet and rainy not to make such a precaution desirable. I was much struck at the West India Docks by the immense size of the Mahogany logs exposed on the Wood Quai. One, measured by Mr Vaughn with his stick, was four feet in diameter. These logs when well-veined are of great value; one was landed, not long since, which from it’s size and markings, was rated at upwards of £600.—The roof of one of the buildings or sheds at the West India Docks was pointed out to me as worthy of attention, being a frame work of iron covered with slate. Another, I think at the London Docks, consists of sheets of what Mr Vaughn called corrugated iron; iron crimped like a lady’s frill by which it is enabled to support a greater weight.—Of the vast stores collected in the Magazines of these London Docks a great part are for exportation not home consumption, being brought to London as the centre of the world’s commerce, to be circulated thence through other countries.—

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 83–6.