London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
OF all the great capitals, London has least the appearance of antiquity, and the Thames has a peculiarly modern aspect. It is no longer the "silent highway," for its silence is continually broken by the clatter of steamboats. This change has materially affected the position and diminished the number of the London watermen, into whose condition and earnings I am now about to examine.
The character of the transit on the river has, moreover, undergone a great change, apart from the alteration produced by the use of steam-power. Until the more general use of coaches, in the reign of Charles II., the Thames supplied the only mode of conveyance, except horseback, by which men could avoid the fatigue of walking; and that it was made largely available, all our older London chroniclers show. From the termination of the wars of the Roses, until the end of the century, for about years, all the magnates of the metropolis, the king, the members of the royal family, the great officers of state, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noblemen whose mansions had sprung up amidst trees and gardens on the north bank of the Thames, the Lord Mayor, the City authorities, the City Companies, and the Inns of Court, all kept their own or their state barges, rowed by their own servants, attired in their respective liveries. In addition to the river conveyances of these functionaries, private boats or barges were maintained by all
|whose wealth permitted, or whose convenience required their use, in the same way as carriages and horses are kept by them in our day. The Thames, too, was then the principal arena for the display of pageants. These pageants, however, are now reduced to — the Lord Mayor"s show. The remaining state barges are but a few, viz. the Queen"s, the Lord Mayor"s, and such as are maintained by the City Companies, and even some of these are rotting to decay.
Mr. Charles Knight says in his "London:"— "In the time of Elizabeth and the James, and onward to very recent days, the north bank of the Thames was studded with the palaces of the nobles; and each palace had its landing-place, and its private retinue of barges and wherries; and many a freight of the brave and beautiful has been borne, amidst song and merriment, from house to house, to join the masque and the dance; and many a wily statesman, muffled in his cloak, has glided along unseen in his boat, to some dark conference with his ambitious neighbour. Upon the river itself, busy as it was, fleets of swans were ever sailing; and they ventured unmolested into that channel which is now narrowed by vessels from every region. Paulus Jovius, who died in , describing the Thames, says: "This river abounds in swans, swimming in flocks, the sight of whom, and their noise, are vastly agreeable to the fleets that meet them in their course." The only relics of the palatial "landing-places" above alluded to, which is now to be seen, is the fine arch, or water-gate, the work of Inigo Jones, at the foot of . This was an adornment of the landing-place from York House, once the town abode of the archbishops of that see, but afterwards the property of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. In front of this gate, or nearly so, the Hungerford steam-boat piers are now stationed; and in place of stately barges, directed by half-a-dozen robust oarsmen, in gorgeous liveries, approaching the palace, or lying silently in wait there, we have halfpenny, penny, twopenny, and other steam-boats, hissing, spluttering, panting, and smoking."
Moreover, in addition to the state and private barges of the olden times, there were multitudes of boats and watermen always on hire. Stow, who was born in , and died at years of age, says that in his time watermen were employed on the Thames. This, however, is a manifest exaggeration, when we consider the population of London at that time; still it is an over-estimate common to old chroniclers, by whom precise statistical knowledge was unattainable. That Stow represents the number of these men at , shows plainly that they were very numerous; and proof of their great number, down to the middle of the last century, is, that until years ago, the cities of London and had but bridge—the old London-bridge—which was commenced in , completed in years, and after standing years, was pulled down in . The want of bridges to keep pace with the increase of the population caused the establishment of numerous ferries. It has been computed, that in the ferries across the Thames, taking in its course from Richmond to Greenwich, were times as numerous as they are at present. Westminsterbridge was not finished until ; Blackfriars was built in ; Battersea in ; in ; Waterloo in ; in ; the present London-bridge in ; and Hungerford in .