August 1867, Thames
The children ran. Mud, still holding a little of the chill of the night, oozed between their toes and was shot out into sprays behind them. Older pedestrians, seeking a cleaner passage through the streets, clustered on the narrow timber walkways, shying away from the sludgy shower left in the children’s wake. The rhythmic rattle of the stamper batteries, crushing rock to grit on the hills behind them, failed to drown out their excited squeals as they scurried on. A small boy, brushing a cloud of floury dust from the baker’s front door, warm with the scent of fresh bread, stopped. He watched their wild, spritely passage.
“What’s happening?” he yelled after them,
“The barge is coming,” a grimy-faced young girl called back over her shoulder. The boy dropped his broom and dashed to catch up with them. Together, they darted between the spindly, black metal legs of the aerial conveyors, connecting the coast and the foothills, which churned continuously way above their heads. And the children all sprinted on towards the shore.
The water’s edge was already crowded: harnessed horses, muscular labourers, mumbling men in suits and a few ladies, the bottoms of their dresses trimmed in sandy mire. The children squirmed between legs. Carefully they avoided the kick of a nervy horse or the whack of a gentleman’s cane, until they had a clear view of the water before them. A heavy blanket of fog filled the gulf. The dense mist mingled with smoke from woodfires that were warming the houses in the town and the clusters of miners’ tents on the hillsides behind. Only the closest twenty yards of the harbour waters were visible; all else was hidden. They could hear the slap of the water against the flat, wide bow of a boat. They held their breaths and peered intently into the wall of white, waiting for a first glimpse.
And then, a growing, darkening patch of grey appeared amidst the thick white haar. First, a small wooden spire peaked out, high over the water. Then, below it, a triangular form with a glazed square that briefly reflected a flash of the hazy sun from way above the fog. Timber slats, tin cladding and decorative eaves: delicately carved columns and balusters, windows with net curtains still inside, all gradually materialised before them. The barge’s stately approach continued, revealing a grand two-storey structure with balconies and balustrades and an array of doorways and windows. It inched its way gradually towards the waiting assembly, casting them all in its majestic shadow, and then came to a stop. A few of the ladies and gentlemen clapped politely while the workmen readied their beasts of burden for the job ahead. The children cheered and whooped with delight, causing the horses to whinny anxiously. They excitedly ran, jumping into the shallows where the water rinsed away the mud from their caked feet. Graham’s Town’s newest hotel had arrived.
By Jacqueline MacDonald