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    The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.

    by Molly Poulter


    15 MARCH 2007

image of poster for March 2007 Talk

At the meeting on 15th March Molly Poulter gave an illustrated talk about The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.

The Normans constructed a bridge over the Thames in 1176, but watermen rowed passengers over the river and lightermen carried goods. The Archbishop of Canterbury owned the horseferry which carried a carriage, passengers and the horses to a landing at Horseferry Road. The “Company” was created to protect the interests of the Watermen and Lightermen. The Court, a group of eminent men, made rules to maintain standards of safety and set fees for the service of being rowed across the river. They also tried to curb the appalling language of the watermen! A waterman’s boat is called a wherry; a lighterman’s a querry.

Each year 20 new boys were apprenticed for five years, often to a father or uncle and were bound to refrain from gambling, cards and dice, visiting a playhouse or marriage. Apprentice Watermen and Members of the Court were immune from the pressgang. When the river froze over people could walk across on the ice and as a result the watermen had no work or income. The Court awarded charity payments in compensation and also supported widows and families of watermen.

Protection of their profession was important and the Court constantly fought against proposals for the construction of new bridges and tunnels. They successfully delayed but eventually could not stop the building. In 1634 the Hackney carriage was opposed as it was taking some of the watermen’s work. A license for the first steam powered passenger ferry was applied for in 1801and the Company managed to delay it’s granting until 1833. Despite its capacity to carry 109 passengers the number of watermen by 1850 was 1,500. However, this was the first of the penny steamers that eventually carried passengers on day trips to Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend.

Thomas Doggett, a theatre owner, frequently took the waterman’s ferry home late at night and in 1815 founded a race for newly freed apprentices. It took a tremendous amount of strength to row a wherry against the tide from the Swan PH at Chelsea to London Bridge. The winner won the coveted Doggett’s Coat and Badge and the honour of being attendant at official functions. The race continues to today and you will still see these watermen in the Lord Mayor’s Parade in London.

Despite the efforts of the “Court” new ways of crossing the Thames eventually prevailed. The Hackney horse was replaced by the internal combustion engine and rowing passengers across the Thames in London is no more.

Last Revised: 19-Mar-2007

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