For centuries, the quickest and most convenient way to travel within the City, or cross the river, or east or west from London, was by water. London Bridge was the only dry crossing over the River Thames in the immediate London area until the early 18th century but it was narrow and congested. The roads into and out of the capital were in a poor state. It was easier to take a ferry, or a wherry rowed by a waterman. The Thames was London’s highway.
After the old Roman roads decayed, goods were thereafter transported by pack-horse. Personal travel was undertaken on horseback or on foot until the mid-18th century. Carriages only began to appear on London’s streets from the mid-16th century but were soon causing congestion. Heavy goods, such as grain or coal, reached the capital by barge or ship.
In his A Survey of London, published in 1598, John Stow stated: “there pertaineth to the cities of London, Westminster, and borough of Southwark, above the number, as is supposed, of 2000 wherries and other small boats, whereby 3000 poor men, at the least, be set on work and maintained.” That was at a time when London’s population stood at around two-hundred thousand.
Wherries could be hired at many stairs that led down to the Thames. Watermen gathered at each, jostling for custom, crying “oars oars sculls oars oars”. ‘Long ferries’ transported passengers along the river, such as from Billingsgate to Greenwich. Working a passenger wherry, ferry, or barge on the Thames in all weathers and tides required knowledge and skill, with tides used to achieve remarkably quick journeys up and down river. The men who operated such craft, as well as those who transported goods by barge or lighter, were a special breed, whose families undertook the same work for generations.
By the Tudor period there were royal palaces along the river at Windsor, Sheen, Hampton, Westminster, Bridewell (on the west side of London), the Tower of London, and Greenwich. They were sited on or close to the riverside because royal barges could quickly and relatively easily transport the monarchs and their servants between them. Similarly, many of the nobility and senior clerics kept palaces fronting onto the river. All these wealthy people, as well as many of London’s Livery Company’s, owned extravagant barges and employed a retinue of watermen to steer them.
There were regular ferry services at various points, which could transport horses and wagons as well as pedestrians across the river. An example was the Lambeth Horseferry between the Palace of Westminster and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace. The Woolwich Ferry was mentioned in a document of 1308. It became increasingly important with the establishment of Henry VIII’s dockyards at Woolwich and the Royal Arsenal ordnance depot. The Tilbury to Gravesend ferry that links Essex to Kent has ancient origins. When the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I) crossed on it incognito with the Duke of Buckingham in 1623 they lacked small change for the fare. They attempted to pay with a gold piece but the ferryman had them arrested as spies. Ferries were a lucrative and valuable business usually owned by the Crown or an aristocrat and were part of an inheritance. The ferry owner then leased the right to operate the ferry to a ferryman. Occasionally the rights to a ferry service were sold on, each time for large sums of money.
Whenever a bridge was proposed there was a petition against it from watermen and the ferry-owner and that was one of the reasons London Bridge remained the only crossing until the early 18th century. If a bridge was built, large amounts of compensation were paid by the bridge owner to the Watermen’s Company to be distributed to its members, and perhaps to a ferry owner. The opposite was the case at Chelsea. The ferry there required considerable skill from the ferrymen due to the river current. In 1766 the local inhabitants of the growing villages of Chelsea and Battersea petitioned the House of Commons complaining of the danger and inconvenience of the ferry. The owner, Earl Spencer, decided he could make more money from a toll-bridge, leading to the construction of Battersea Bridge.
A ferry service between the City and Southwark dated back before the building of the medieval London Bridge. One of London’s many legends is that the ferry was inherited by Mary Overs on the death of her ferry-operator father John. It is said she was so overcome with grief when her lover died that she used the income from the ferry to establish a convent. She was canonised, and the convent became known as St.Mary Overy, which is today’s Southwark Cathedral.
The narrow arches and piers of the medieval London Bridge held the river back, acting as a weir. It was dangerous to take a boat under the bridge when the tide was flowing but it was the speciality of some watermen to ‘shoot the bridge’, resulting in regular drownings. Those wishing to travel along the river normally disembarked at a stairs, travelled past the bridge on foot, and took a new wherry or barge on the far side. Typically, the stairs at Three Cranes Wharf (above the bridge) and Billingsgate (below) were used for that purpose.
The earliest known record of Thames watermen is a statute of 1514 during the reign of Henry VIII to regulate fares. In that same, year a group of eminent seamen formed Trinity House at Deptford. Amongst other responsibilities, Trinity House was authorised to license sailors between sea voyages to ply as watermen on the Thames in order that they refrain from idleness and for the relief of their families. That put these sailors at odds with regular Thames watermen, who termed Trinity House men as ‘hog-grubbers’. There were also regular brawls between the watermen of Gravesend and those of East London regarding their respective rights.
The Company of Watermen was formed by Act of Parliament in 1555 to both regulate and represent passenger-carrying watermen operating between Gravesend and Windsor. The Company was to draw up a register of watermen to prevent evasion of impressment whenever the navy required seamen. The Act also introduced an apprenticeship of one year. The Company is still recognised as a City guild but is not a Livery Company. An Act of 1603 censured watermen because people travelling between Windsor and Gravesend “have been put to great hazard and danger and the loss of their lives and goods, and many times have perished and been drowned in the said River through the unskillfulness and want of knowledge or experience in the wherrymen and watermen.” Thereafter apprentices under eighteen years of age were no longer allowed to carry passengers and the period of apprenticeship was extended to seven years. When an apprenticeship was completed, the waterman became a freeman of the Company. From at least 1626 pensions were distributed to poor freemen of the Company.
Self-government within the Company of Watermen evolved, and not without difficulty and controversy. At the end of the 17th century a Court of Assistants was created, consisting of fifty-five watermen representing each of the towns and stairs at which they plied. The system of popular election sometimes fell into disuse and ended in 1827. Watermen also formed very localised societies during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the ‘Friendly Society of Watermen usually plying at the Hermitage Stairs, in the Parish of St. John, Wapping’. The purpose was to guard against non-members working from their stairs and they were therefore known as Turnway Societies.
With the formation of the Thames Conservancy in 1857, the Watermen’s Company’s area of responsibility was curtailed to the tidal river below Teddington Lock. However, in an Act of Parliament of 1827 the Company became an independent body corporate with its own seal. The Company’s powers were extended by a further Act in 1859. During the 19th century it took on responsibility for fixing fares and appointing plying places, the registration of boats and barges, and control of watermen and lightermen. Most of those responsibilities, other than apprenticeships and the examination of applicants for licenses to become watermen and lightermen, were transferred to the Port of London Authority upon its formation in 1908.
There was continuous objection by watermen against anything that threatened their livelihood, such as the introduction of carriages on London’s roads. Together with the City of London, for decades the Watermen’s Company fought against any proposals to build new bridges across the river. During the 17th century the watermen’s spokesman was John Taylor who distributed verses about how their income was being taken by land transport.
Carroaches, coaches, jades, and Flanders mares,
Doe rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares
Taylor was unusually well-educated compared with other watermen. He was born in Gloucester in 1580, where he attended grammar school and learnt Latin. He came to Westminster to be apprenticed to a waterman but was press-ganged into the Navy on seven different occasions, making a total of thirteen voyages. He returned to the Thames after the siege of Cadiz in 1596. His prose, poetry and doggerel brought him patronage from the playwright Ben Jonson and he had success arranging water pageants and triumphs for the pageants of Lord Mayors. In 1630 he published All the Workes of John Taylor, the Water Poet. On behalf of the watermen he fought against the introduction of sedan chairs and hackney carriages. Together with the Watermen’s Company, Taylor achieved the restriction of all carriage journeys unless they ended at least two miles from the Thames, a regulation that lasted for thirty-five years. A portrait of Taylor continues to hang in Watermen’s Hall.
A major source of income for watermen during the latter part of the 16th century was the carrying of passengers to and from the City and the various playhouses at Southwark, such as the Globe and the Rose. When James I succeeded Elizabeth, restrictions on playhouses in the City were relaxed. In 1613 Taylor presented a petition aiming to prevent their movement across the river, arguing that the carrying of passengers was necessary for the relief of watermen returning from naval employment after the Spanish wars. It was met by a more successful counter-petition from the players. The subsequent transfer of London’s playhouses from Southwark to the City caused hardship for the watermen, as well as recriminations against Taylor who was accused of taking bribes from the players.
As Britain’s navy grew in size it required more seaman than were willing to serve, particularly in times of war. It therefore resorted to sending out gangs to forcibly impress men with sea-faring experience. Being thus taken was a regular danger for watermen during the 18th and early 19th centuries. They already possessed some of the necessary skills required to crew a ship and were an easy target. There was considerable difficulty for many needing to gain their freedom from the Watermen’s Company at the end of the Dutch War in 1668 because they could not complete their apprenticeship, their masters having died at sea. Many watermen served in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. The Watermen’s company were called upon to look after those members who returned from war disabled, and for naval widows.
Watermen did not have an untarnished reputation, not least because of their foul speech, or ‘water language’. The Company of Watermen derived part of its income from fining freemen for bad behaviour and language. As Taylor put it: “I must confess that there are many rude uncivil fellows in our Company.” There is a well-known cartoon drawn by Thomas Rowlandson, made in 1812 as part of his Miseries of London series. A group of watermen are gathered at Wapping Old Stairs where they are accosting a plump lady, each attempting to gain her business.
The livelihoods of watermen and ferrymen were regularly put at risk by the effects of the weather. The narrow arches of old London Bridge held back the river, the upstream slow-moving water susceptible to freezing. Records have been kept at Watermen’s Hall of many severely cold winters during which the river froze over, putting watermen and ferrymen out of work. These record four times in the 13th century, three in the 15th century (including for fourteen weeks in 1408), and four in the 16th century (when in 1537 Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were able to travel along the ice to Greenwich on horseback). Freezing became even more frequent in the 17th and 18th centuries, leading to the famous frost fairs such as that of 1684. Things became so bad in the winter of 1762-3 that a public subscription was raised to relieve the watermen and their families, with King George III contributing a thousand pounds.
In 1715 the London-based Irish comic actor and theatre manager, Thomas Doggett, founded the ‘wager’ of a sculling race for Thames Watermen to celebrate the anniversary of the accession to the throne of King George I. It was open to six watermen who had completed their apprenticeship in the previous twelve months. It took place between Swan Stairs at London Bridge and the White Swan Tavern at Chelsea, a distance of about five miles, rowing against the tide. An unlikely old watermen’s tale relates that Doggett conceived the idea when he waited for a wherry at Old Swan Stairs in foul weather and a young waterman eventually agreed to tow him across the river. Due to such a high demand to enter the race, competitors were chosen by lottery. There was a cash prize but, more importantly, a prestigious orange livery coat with a large silver badge on the left upper-arm showing the white Hanoverian horse. The colour of the winner’s uniform represented both the House of Hanover and the Whig Party, of which Doggett was a supporter. The value of the badge was such that, if the waterman fell on hard times or needed a pension, it could be melted down for its silver. Although the race is open to watermen who have gained their freedom from the Watermen’s Company, Doggett arranged for it to be administered by the Fishermen’s Company. The Doggett’s Coat & Badge race continues annually from London Bridge to Chelsea and is now said to be the world’s oldest continuously staged sporting event.
Lightermen, who transported goods on barges, or ‘lighters’, typically from ship to wharf, were previously members of the Woodmongers’ Company. They petitioned Parliament to instead be brought under the Watermen’s Company, which occurred from 1700. Thereafter they were bound by the same regulations.
As theatres relocated to the City side of the river in the 17th century, roads improved in the following century, and an increasing number of bridges were constructed, there was a decreasing need for the services of watermen upriver of London Bridge. However, during the 19th century a vast complex of docks and wharves was established to the east of the bridge, with a need for the growing population of workers to cross the Thames. The continuous coming and going of ships prevented the opening of new bridges along that part of the river. Watermen continued to offer their services from the many stairs east of London Bridge. Henry Mayhew, writing in the 1860s, when there were already many bridges over the river, reported there were about 1600 watermen still working. However, it was a declining trade, particularly after the abolition of tolls on the Woolwich Ferry (1889), the opening of Tower Bridge (1894), the Blackwall Tunnel (1897), and the Rotherhithe Tunnel (1908). In the 21st century there are still a small number of new entrants into the trade each year, obtaining a Waterman’s Certificate from the Company of Watermen & Lightermen. Their services continue to be required to operate the many Thames trip boats and passenger services.
Sources include: John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’; Information from the Company of Watermen & Lightermen; Robert John Cottrell ‘Thomas Doggett Coat & Badge’; John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598); Di Murrell ‘Barges and Bread’.