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  • Andrew Dennison

The Thames, London's River.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE THAMES WATERMEN.














The River Thames after the Tudor period was no longer a defensive barrier, instead it became London's open space, of course, the Thames was far wider back then ( it was to be some two hundred and fifty years before Sir Joseph Bazelgette's Victoria Embankment ), the Thames used to stage elaborate pageants, especially by the London's Lord Mayors. The stagecoach was rare as a means of transport before the seventeenth century, so small boats or wherries as they were called, rowed by Watermen, were the standard mode of transport, and very comfortable they were too, with embroidered cushions laid across the seats, and a covering to protect from the elements.

Wealthy families, especially those living in the riverside mansions along the Strand, would often employ their own Watermen, the rest would ply for hire at stages or stairs along the banks of the river. To give you an idea of how many stages there were, along a small section from roughly where todays Tate Modern is, along to Southwark Bridge, there were no fewer than seven stairs or landing posts with such names as Horseshoe Alley Stairs and Masons Stairs.

At that time London only had one road crossing, and that was London Bridge, complete with houses, shops, and even a chapel, with a narrow road running in between. The bridge was comprised of nineteen arches, and travelling underneath could be very dangerous, and required great skill, the Watermen referred to this exercise as 'shooting the bridge'.

There was no shortage of men wishing to enter the trade of rowing people up and down and across the river, as this was a good living, and although subject to the vagaries of chance and season the Watermen were generally able to maintain their families very well. The Waterman's Company regulated fares, provided seven year apprenticeships for successful applicants, and at completion of which they became freemen of the company.

The result was a raising of status of what had been considered a rather rough profession, where Watermen had a reputation for smart backchat, bad language, and spreading malicious gossip, as well as fighting and drunkenness. When complaints were made against them, the Watermen often claimed it was is fact members of the public that were treating them badly, saying, groups of young drunken men would often hire a boat, tell the Waterman to wait, and then not return, thus evading the fare.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the company had acquired its own coat of arms, and a new Waterman's hall was built in Thames Street. Another trade operating on the river at this time was that of the Lightermen, who operated barges called Lighters, used to unload ships in the pool of London, thus making them lighter. Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, as a result of increased competition for the Watermen in the form of road traffic, and Hackney Carriages in particular, the Watermen joined forces with the Lightermen, to become The Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

However as time went on things were to change, by the mid eighteenth century, two new road bridges would open, Westminster Bridge in 1750 and The William Pitt Bridge (later Blackfriars) in 1769. Around the same time the houses were removed from London Bridge and the road was widened. Such was the influence of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen that the Watermen were given compensation for loss of trade, but their slow decline was unfortunately underway.




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