Our Mutual Friend – Dickens London

Over the last several blogs I’ve been dwelling rather a lot on murders and disappearances.

So, today, I thought I’d lighten the mood a bit and venture into the London of Charles Dickens, specifically the London of his penultimate novel Our Mutual Friend, which appeared in monthly instalments between 1864 and 1865, and which has the distinction of being his last completed work.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

However, no sooner had I started this article than I remembered that the aforementioned Dickens novel actually begins with a murder; so, apologies, but I perhaps won’t be making that much of a departure from the previous blogs and their murderous theme after all!


Our Mutual Friend is a book that has the River Thames, quite literally, coursing through its pages.


Indeed, it the narrative itself actually opens on London’s river with Dickens telling of:-

“…a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.

A view of the stone arches of Southwark Bridge.
The Southwark Bridge That Dickens Knew

The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter.

The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror….”


Evidently Lizzie Hexam, the girl, is not as keen on the activity that she and her father, Jesse “Gaffer” Hexam are involved in, albeit she rows on, evidently out of loyalty to her father.

Gaffer and Lizzie in a boat on the Thames. Lizzie is rowing and Gaffer is looking into the River.
Jesse “Gaffer” And His Daughter Lizzie Hexam

But, suddenly, “a slant of light from the setting sun glanced into the bottom of the boat, and, touching a rotten stain there which bore some resemblance to the outline of a muffled human form, coloured it as though with diluted blood. This caught the girl’s eye, and she shivered…”

Noticing her distinct unease, Gaffer quizzes her. “What ails you…. I see nothing afloat?’


However, the moment passes, and the boat continues ploughing its way through the dirty waters of the Thames:-

“Wheresoever the strong tide met with an impediment, his gaze paused for an instant. At every mooring-chain and rope, at every stationery boat or barge that split the current into a broad-arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy water, at the floating logs of timber lashed together lying off certain wharves, his shining eyes darted a hungry look. After a darkening hour or so, suddenly the rudder-lines tightened in his hold, and he steered hard towards the Surrey shore.

Although the boat had, at first, remained around one spot, Lizzie now started rowing downriver, “and the deepening shadows and the kindling lights of London Bridge were passed, and the tiers of shipping lay on either hand…”

A view of the Victorian London Bridge with horses and carts crossing it.
London Bridge As Dickens Knew It


At this point Gaffer’s intense perusal of the murky river yields a dividend and “the upper half of the man came back into the boat. His arms were wet and dirty, and he washed them over the side. In his right hand he held something, and he washed that in the river too. It was money. He chinked it once, and he blew upon it once, and he spat upon it once,—’for luck,’ he hoarsely said—before he put it in his pocket…”

Lizzie is still, apparently uneasy about their activity, and her disquiet increases dramatically when Gaffer demands that they swap places in the boat, a move that will place Lizzie closer to the bundle they are towing in their wake:-

“‘Here! and give me hold of the sculls. I’ll take the rest of the spell.’

‘No, no, father! No! I can’t indeed. Father!—I cannot sit so near it!’


An image of the blue front cover of one of the instalments of Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend.
The Front Cover of An Instalment of Our Mutual Friend.

He was moving towards her to change places, but her terrified expostulation stopped him and he resumed his seat.

‘What hurt can it do you?’

‘None, none. But I cannot bear it.’

‘It’s my belief you hate the sight of the very river.’

‘I – I do not like it, father.’

‘As if it wasn’t your living! As if it wasn’t meat and drink to you!’

At these latter words the girl shivered again, and for a moment paused in her rowing, seeming to turn deadly faint. It escaped his attention, for he was glancing over the stern at something the boat had in tow.

‘How can you be so thankless to your best friend, Lizzie? The very fire that warmed you when you were a babby, was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges. The very basket that you slept in, the tide washed ashore. The very rockers that I put it upon to make a cradle of it, I cut out of a piece of wood that drifted from some ship or another.'”


At this point a second boat, similar to theirs but in slightly better trim, came out of a dark place and “settled alongside them.”

It immediately becomes apparent that Gaffer is no fan of the sole occupant of the second vessel who, throughout the course of their ensuing exchange, constantly refers to Gaffer as “pardner.”

Gaffer makes it known that the man is not welcome, causing the man to wonder aloud, “Arn’t been eating nothing as has disagreed with you, have you, pardner?”


“‘Why, yes, I have,’ said Gaffer. ‘I have been swallowing too much of that word, Pardner. I am no pardner of yours.’

‘Since when was you no pardner of mine, Gaffer Hexam Esquire?’

‘Since you was accused of robbing a man. Accused of robbing a live man!’ said Gaffer, with great indignation.

‘And what if I had been accused of robbing a dead man, Gaffer?’

‘You couldn’t do it.’

‘Couldn’t you, Gaffer?’

‘No. Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. How can money be a corpse’s? Can a corpse own it, want it, spend it, claim it, miss it? Don’t try to go confounding the rights and wrongs of things in that way. But it’s worthy of the sneaking spirit that robs a live man.’

‘I’ll tell you what it is—.’

‘No you won’t. I’ll tell you what it is. You got off with a short time of it for putting your hand in the pocket of a sailor, a live sailor. Make the most of it and think yourself lucky, but don’t think after that to come over me with your pardners. We have worked together in time past, but we work together no more in time present nor yet future. Let go. Cast off!’

‘Gaffer! If you think to get rid of me this way -.’

‘If I don’t get rid of you this way, I’ll try another, and chop you over the fingers with the stretcher, or take a pick at your head with the boat-hook. Cast off! Pull you, Lizzie. Pull home, since you won’t let your father pull.'”

And, with that, Lizzie rows ahead of the other boat – which has soon fallen behind – and she and Gaffer head for Limehouse Reach and home, with their gruesome cargo in tow.

Ships and boats on the River Thames at Limehouse Reach.
A View of Limehouse Reach


Evidently, what the two of them are doing is fishing dead bodies out of the River Thames.

Gaffer, it seems, is not averse to removing any coins that might be in the pockets of the cadavers that he finds, although, unlike the second man – who is in fact Rogue Riderhood – he is averse to taking valuables from them if, perchance, they are still alive!

So, as the head for him, towing the corpse that is, evidently, the cause of Lizzie’s extreme unease, Gaffer, according to Dickens can afford the luxury of:-

“…composing himself into the easy attitude of one who had asserted the high moralities and taken an unassailable position, slowly lighted a pipe, and smoked, and took a survey of what he had in tow. What he had in tow, lunged itself at him sometimes in an awful manner when the boat was checked, and sometimes seemed to try to wrench itself away, though for the most part it followed submissively. A neophyte might have fancied that the ripples passing over it were dreadfully like faint changes of expression on a sightless face; but Gaffer was no neophyte and had no fancies.”


In Chapter two, the narrative moves to a dinner party that is being hosted by a nouveau riche, social climbing couple, Mr and Mrs Veneering.

Dickens paints a wonderful picture of them and their social ambitions, describing them as:-

“….bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon [a picture gallery and furniture shop in, Motcomb Street, Belgrave Square, that had opened in 1830] without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings – the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky….”


Present at the dinner is Mortimer Lightwood, a solicitor whom, its is later revealed, has just one client, a recently deceased old miser who grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and who, “… lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust, – all manner of Dust.'”


Dust Mounds were a hugely lucrative business in Dickens day, and were a fairly common sight. Household garbage, which was largely made up of cinders and ash, was collected by contractors and then taken to their own private yards.

Here it would be sifted, to ensure that no valuables were present, and then it could be sold on to either be used for the manufacturing of bricks, or by farmers as fertilizer.

White linen rags were also searched for in the dust heaps, since they could be sold on for the manufacture of paper in the days, prior to the wood pulping techniques that became the norm in the latter half of the 19th century.

Whatever the final use of the rubbish, the dust contractors themselves were, according to Henry Mayhew in his series London Labour and the London Poor (1850 -1852), “..generally men of considerable wealth.”

Indeed, when you consider that each mound could fetch anywhere between £4,000 and £10,000. there can be little doubt that, as the saying almost goes, where there was muck there was, most certainly, brass!

And that is how the old man – whose wealth is central to the development of the narrative of Our Mutual Friend – has, according to Dickens, made his fortune.

A group of people rummage amongst the detritus of a dust mound.
People Sifting Through A Dust Mound


According to Lightwood’s narrative the man whose estate he is the legal representative for, derived the:-

“…highest gratification from anathematizing his nearest relations and turning them out of doors. Having begun (as was natural) by rendering these attentions to the wife of his bosom, he next found himself at leisure to bestow a similar recognition on the claims of his daughter. He chose a husband for her, entirely to his own satisfaction and not in the least to hers, and proceeded to settle upon her, as her marriage portion, I don’t know how much Dust, but something immense. At this stage of the affair the poor girl respectfully intimated that she was secretly engaged to that popular character whom the novelists and versifiers call Another, and that such a marriage would make Dust of her heart and Dust of her life – in short, would set her up, on a very extensive scale, in her father’s business. Immediately, the venerable parent -on a cold winter’s night, it is said – anathematized and turned her out.”

The girl soon died and, within a year of her demise, her husband had followed her to the grave.


It transpires, so Mortimer continues, that the girl had a brother, a boy aged fourteen, who was away at school in Brussels when his sister was expelled from their father’s household. However, when he heard of his sister’s fate, he hurried back to England and tried despearately to persuade their father to change his mind, but to no avail.

Indeed, as Lightwood so eloquently puts it in recounting the saga at the dinner table:-

“Venerable parent promptly resorts to anathematization, and turns him out. Shocked and terrified boy takes flight, seeks his fortune, gets aboard ship, ultimately turns up on dry land among the Cape wine: small proprietor, farmer, grower – whatever you like to call it.”

Since Mortimer doesn’t know which country the young man has carved out a successful living in, he refers to him simply as “the man from nowhere.”


However, with the old man’s recent demise, a will has come to light that was written shortly after his son’s flight. By the terms of the will the old man left:-

“…the lowest of the range of dust-mountains, with some sort of a dwelling-house at its foot, to an old servant who is sole executor, and all the rest of the property – which is very considerable – to the son. He directs himself to be buried with certain eccentric ceremonies and precautions against his coming to life, with which I need not bore you, and that’s all…”


But, it transpires that the inheritance is not to be as straightforward as it at first appears, for, as Lightwood tells the other guests:-

“…Except that the son’s inheriting is made conditional on his marrying a girl, who at the date of the will, was a child of four or five years old, and who is now a marriageable young woman. Advertisement and inquiry discovered the son in the man from Somewhere, and at the present moment, he is on his way home from there -no doubt, in a state of great astonishment – to succeed to a very large fortune, and to take a wife…”


At this point Mortimer’s narrative is interrupted by the arrival of a note, which is handed to him and which he reads several times, before turning to the other guests and observing:-

“This arrives in an extraordinarily opportune manner….this is the conclusion of the story of the identical man.”

The other guests began expressing their opinions as to what the conclusion of the story might be:-

“‘Already married?’ one guesses.

‘Declines to marry?’ another guesses.

‘Codicil among the dust?’ another guesses.”

At which point, Dickens puts them and us out of our misery by having Mortimer reveal:-

“Why no, remarkable thing, you are all wrong. The story is completer and rather more exciting than I supposed. Man’s drowned!”

And thus do we realise the identity of the corpse that Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam had fished out of the River Thames in the books opening chapter.

He is, in fact, the Our Mutual Friend of the title, Mr John Harmon, the son, heir and hero of Mortimer Lightwood’s story.


As was usual, Dickens wrote this, his penultimate novel – and his last fully completed work – in monthly instalments.

That meant that, to keep his readers coming back, he resorted to cliffhangers in order to encourage his readers to go out and purchase the next instalments.

So, in deference to the master himself, this seems like a good place to end this instalment of the blog as I leave you to ponder, for the time being at least, where Dickens was going with the story and how had John Harmon come to end up dead in the River Thames?