Filby: Ice on the Thames

In 1895 the ice on the Thames was, in places, five feet thick. The river was all but dead. The sounds of life, the shouts, the horns, the whistles, the clanking machinery, had all been replaced by an eerie silence save for the ice hissing and rasping with each breath of the tide. It was a frozen, lifeless percussion. With each tide fresh ice collected on chains, piles and posts, and on the ebb crashed down on to the retreating surface. Tide and ice lifted barges and lighters from their moorings, setting them free to drift up and down the river with enterprising salvage operators using grappling hooks and ropes to fish for them from bridges.

Trying to enter the city from the estuary even large ocean-going liners found it difficult to navigate the river above Gravesend and all movement was impossible beyond Tilbury Docks. The heart of the Empire was brought to a virtual standstill. All transport had to be by cart and the shortage of coal meant that most companies were unable to work which, in turn, brought mass unemployment. The story was the same across the country with rivers, lakes, ponds, and canals, including the Manchester Ship Canal, all frozen. Even the sea froze over at Lytham while in Scotland, the lowest temperature ever recorded in the UK was the -27 degrees celsius at Braemar.

For days nothing moved on the river except the restless heaving mass of ice, and each day the rush of the tide grew faster as the channel between the frozen shores grew narrower. Nothing had moved since the previous Monday when a particularly high tide had stretched the ice apart, opening a narrow gap mid-channel for two small tugs to make their way upstream prompting enthusiastic cheers from the crowds that lined the bridges and embankments.

Filby had been amongst those who had cheered. It was not normally in his nature to be so demonstratively enthusiastic but there had been something about the pluck of the little boats that warmed his heart. Like many of those who had stood with him on the embankment, the extreme cold had frozen his spirits just as it had frozen the river. There was a heaviness to life that made every small task a toilsome drudge.  Everything seemed subservient to the necessity of keeping warm. To be sure, there were many who revelled in these extreme conditions. Every day thousands of people could be seen skating in the different parks and open spaces around London with The Times giving regular reports on the conditions of the ice at each one of them; but daily life, ordinary life, needed extraordinary strengths to be coped with; from the extra layers of clothing that made movement more difficult, to the gas fires turned up full making rooms even more stuffy and soporific.

This was why those plucky little boats had cheered him so much. “Come on,” they seemed to say, “there is nothing to stop us here. Let us through, nothing unusual, life as normal.” The common foe, the cold, the ice, had been beaten and the crowd had cheered. There was something about their dogged progress that Filby admired and wished could be more part of his own life; a sense of where to go and an indominatable determination to get there, nothing heroic just a quiet perserverance.

Such were Filby’s idle thoughts as he sat in the carriage of the Metropolitan Underground Railway, staring blankly through his own reflection in the window into the black of the tunnel. He tried to keep to the routine of a daily visit to his workshop off Hatton Garden. His father’s legacy was not large but did provide enough for his rooms and a maid to keep them in order. While he did not have to work to keep body and soul together, it would need some stretch of the imagination to describe him as a man of leisure – think more of a senior clerk with light duties. Those duties were self-imposed and, for the most part, consisted of this daily visit to the workshop – although, once there, his activities were more by way of hobby than work. Nothing depended on the success or failure of his experiments and maybe this dulled the edge of what would otherwise have been a sharp mind. His broad knowledge of the latest developments in science and technology was as good as anyone’s and better than most, but he was never able to build on that knowledge to make his own unique, individual contribution. He was not shy of hard work, spending long hours at his bench and often working through the night, but his talents seemed to lie in being very good at reproducing the work of others.

Maybe this was why he had cheered the boats. Maybe their quiet, essential perseverance, like his own, really could be seen as heroic. On good days this might have been enough to ensure his continued work at the bench, but today was extra cold, the workshop uninviting. It would be lunchtime before it would be warm enough for him to work properly. The carriage was warm and the sulphurous smell in the tunnel, obnoxious to most travellers, was familiar and comforting. He loved the smell of hot metal carried by the steam of the engine, bringing with it a sense of untold power. Like the tangy air that came from electric dynamos, this was the smell of the future and it was the future that Filby longed for more than anything.

The train pulled in to Baker Street. Normally he would continue on to Farringdon but he could get out at Gower Street and take the tram to Camden Town. A short walk from there would bring him to tea and toast with friends in Mornington Road. He even had a good story to tell them.

He had been walking down a passage way as a shortcut to the station when he heard the sound of a child’s laughter coming from a nearby yard. So delightful was the sound on such a cold, grey day that he stopped to see if he could find out what had caused it. On his left a row of doors was set into a long wall. Most were shut, but the laughter was coming from one of the few that was open. He looked through the door into a small yard where a young boy, not more than four or five years old, was doubled up with sheer glee. A stout woman, presumably his mother, was also laughing freely; the laughter from one triggering even more laughter from the other. At first Filby could not see what might have started this whole cycle, but then the mother moved to one side and revealed a strange figure standing on the ground between them. The figure was mute, motionless and without a head.

In those cold days, washing that had been left out on the line to dry would freeze solid. Sheets and clothes would have to be folded like cardboard before being taken indoors. And here was the source of the laughter and of Filby’s story. The woman had carefully balanced a stiff, frozen shirt on top of a frozen pair of trousers. It looked for all the world as if they were being worn by an invisible man. H.G. would like that.