London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Thames Watermen.


THE character of the Thames watermen in the last century was what might have been expected from slightly-informed, or uninformed, and not unprosperous men. They were hospitable and hearty to another, and to their neighbours on shore; civil to such fares as were civil to them, especially if they hoped for an extra sixpence; but often saucy, abusive, and even sarcastic. Their interchange of abuse with another, as they rode on the Thames, down to the commencement of the present century, if not later, was remarkable for its slang. In this sort of contest their fares not unfrequently joined; and even Dr. Johnson, when on the river, exercised his powers of objurgation to overwhelm some astonished Londoner in a passing boat. During the greater part of the last century the Thames watermen were employed in a service now unknown to them. They were the carriers, when the tide and the weather availed, of the garden-stuff and the fruit grown in the neighbourhood of the river from Woolwich and Hampton to the London markets. The green and firmly-packed pyramids of cabbages that now load the waggons were then piled in boats: and it was the same with fruit. of the most picturesque sights Sir Richard Steele ever enjoyed was when he encountered, at the early dawn of a summer"s day, "a fleet of Richmond gardeners," of which " sail of apricot-boats" formed a prominent and fragrant part. Turnpike-roads and railways have superseded this means of conveyance, which could only be made available when the tide served.

The observances on the Thames customary in the olden time still continue, though on a very reduced scale. The Queen has her watermen, but they have only been employed as the rowers of her barge twice since her accession to the throne; once when Her Majesty and Prince Albert visited the Thames Tunnel; and again when Prince Albert took water at , and was rowed to the city to open the Coal-exchange. Besides the Queen"s watermen, there are still


extant the dukes" and lords" watermen; the Lord Mayor"s and the City Companies", as well as those belonging to the Admiralty. The above constitute what are called the privileged watermen, having certain rights and emoluments appertaining to them which do not fall to the lot of the class generally.

The Queen"s watermen are now only eighteen in number. They have no payment except when actually employed, and then they have for such employment. They have, however, a suit of clothes; a red jacket, with the royal arms on the buttons, and dark trousers, presented to them once every years. They have also the privileges of the servants of the household, such as exemption from taxes, &c. Most of them are proprietors of lighters, and are prosperous men.

The privileges of the retainers of the nobles in the Stuart days linger still among the lords" and dukes" watermen, but only as a mere shadow of a fading substance. There are or men now who wear a kind of livery. I heard of no particular fashion in this livery being observed, either now or within the memory of the waterman. Their only privilege is that they are free from impressment. In the war time these men were more than times as numerous as they are at present; in fact they are dying out, and the last "dukes," and the last "lord"s" privileged watermen are now, as I was told, "on their last legs."

The Lord Mayor"s watermen are still undiminished in number, the complement being . Of these, are water-bailiffs, who, in any procession, row in a boat before the Lord Mayor"s state-barge. The other are the rowers of the chief magistrate"s barge on his aquatic excursions. They are all free from impressment, and are supplied with a red jacket and dark trousers every years, the city arms being on the buttons.

of these men told me that he had been a Lord Mayor"s man for some years, and made about journeys a-year, "swan-hopping and such-like," the show being, as he said, a regular thing: a voyage was paid each man. It was jolly work, my informant stated, sometimes, was swan-hopping, though it depended on the Lord Mayor for the time being whether it was jolly or not. He had heard say, that in the old times the Lord Mayor"s bargemen had spiced wine regularly when out. But now they had no wine of any sort—but sometimes, when a Lord Mayor pleased; and he did not always please. My informant was a lighterman as well as a Lord Mayor"s waterman, and was doing well.

Among other privileged classes are the "hog-grubbers" (as they are called by the other watermen), but their number is now only . These hog-grubbers ply only at the ; they have been old sailors in the navy, and are licensed by the Trinity house. No apprenticeship or freedom of the Waterman"s Company in that case being necessary. "There was from to of them, sir," said a waterman to me, "when I was a lad, and I am not , and fine old fellows they were. But they"re all going to nothing now."

The Admiralty watermen are another privileged class. They have a suit of clothes once every years, a dark-blue jacket and trousers, with an anchor on the buttons. They also wear badges, and are exempt from impressment. Their business is to row the officials of the Admiralty when they visit Deptford on Trinity Monday, and on all occasions of business or recreation. They are now about eighteen in number. They receive no salary, but are paid per voyage at the same rate as the Lord Mayor"s watermen. There was also a class known as "the navy watermen," who enjoyed the same privileges as the others, but they are now extinct. Such of the city companies as retain their barges have also their own watermen, whose services are rarely put into requisition above twice a-year. The Stationers" Company have lately relinquished keeping their barge.

The present number of Thames watermen (privileged and unprivileged) is, I am informed by an officer of the Waterman"s Hall, about . The Occupation Abstract of gives the number of London boat, barge, and watermen as . The men themselves have very loose notions as to their number. man computed it to me at ; another at . This is evidently a traditional computation, handed down from the days when watermen were in greater requisition. To entitle any to ply for hire on the river, or to work about for payment, it is provided by the laws of the City that he shall have duly and truly served a -years" apprenticeship to a licensed waterman, and shall have taken up his freedom at Waterman"s Hall. I heard many complaints of this regulation being infringed. There were now, I was told, about men employed by the Custom-house and in the Thames Police, who were not free watermen. "There"s a good many from Rochester way, sir," waterman said, "and down that way. They"ve got in through the interest of members of Parliament, and such-like, while there"s many free watermen, that"s gone to the expense of taking up their freedom, just starving. But we are going to see about it, and it"s high time. Either give us back the money we"ve paid for our rights, or let us have our proper rights—that"s what I say. Why, only yesterday, there was accidents on the river, though no lives were lost. Both was owing to unlicensed men."

"It"s neither this nor that," said an old waterman to me, alluding to the decrease in their number and their earnings, "people may talk as they like about what"s been the ruin of us—it"s nothing but new . When my old father heard that the old bridge


was to come down, "Bill," says he, "it"ll be up with the watermen in no time. If the old bridge had stood, how would all these steamers have shot her? Some of them could never have got through at all. At some tides, it was so hard to shoot (to go clear through the arches), that people wouldn"t trust themselves to any but watermen. Now any fool might manage. London-bridge, sir, depend on it, has ruined us.""

The places where the watermen now ply, are, on the Middlesex shore, beginning from , down the river, Somers Quay, Upper Custom-house Quay, Lower Customhouse Quay, , Irongate Stairs, St. Katharine"s, Alderman"s Stairs, , , , , , Dock, New , , King James"s Stairs, Cold Stairs, , , Duke"s Shore, Hole, Chalk Stones, Masthouse, and . On the Surrey side, beginning from Greenwich, are Greenwich, Lower , Upper Water--gate, George"s Stairs, Deptford Stairs, Dog-and-Duck Stairs, Cuckold"s Point, , , King-and-Queen Stairs, Surrey Canal Stairs, Hanover Row, , , Prince"s Stairs, Cherry Garden, Fountain High Stairs, , , Horse and Groom New Stairs, George"s Stairs, Horse and Groom Old Stairs, , , and Stairs.

Above , the watermen"s stairs or stations on the Middlesex shore are, , All Hallows, , Paul"s Wharf, Blackfriars, Foxunder- the-Hill, , Hungerford, , , , , and Hammersmith. On the opposite shore are , Horseshoe Alley, , , Blackfriars Hodges, , , , , , Elms, and the Red House, Battersea. Beyond, at Putney, and on both sides of the river up to Richmond, boats are to be had on hire, but the watermen who work them are known to their London brethren as "upcountry watermen"—men who do not regularly ply for hire, and who are not in regular attendance at the river side, though duly licensed. They convey passengers or luggage, or packages of any kind adapted to the burden of a boat of a light draught of water. When they are not employed, their boats are kept chained to piles driven into the water"s edge. These men occasionally work in the market gardens, or undertake any job within their power; but, though they are civil and honest, they are only partially employed either on or off the river, and are very poor. Sometimes, when no better employment is in prospect, they stand at the toll-bridges of Putney, Hammersmith, or Kew, and offer to carry passengers across for the price of the toll. Since the prevalence of steam-packets as a means of locomotion along the Thames, the "stairs," (if so they may be called), above bridge, are for the most part almost nominal stations for the watermen. At stairs (Middlesex side), there now lie but boats, while, before the steam era, or rather before the removal of the old , times that number of boats were to be "hailed" there. At Waterloo and bridges, a man stands near the toll-gate offering a water conveyance no dearer than the toll; but it is hopeless to make this proposition when the tide is low, and these men, I am assured, hardly make eightpence a-day when offering this futile opposition. The stairs above bridge most frequented by the watermen, are at the Red House, Battersea, where there are many visitors to witness or take part in shooting-matches, or for dinner or picnic parties.

Down the river, the Greenwich stairs are the most numerously stocked with boats. Ordinarily about boats are to be engaged there, but the business of the watermen is not - so much to convey passengers as to board any sailing vessels beating up for London, and to inquire with an offer of their services (many of them being pilots) if they can be of any use, either aboard or ashore.

The number of "stairs" which may be considered as the recognised stations of watermen plying for hire, are, as I have shown by the foregoing enumeration, . The watermen plying at these places, I am told, by the bestinformed men, average a "stairs." This gives men and boats, but that, however, as we shall presently see, presents no criterion of the actual number of persons authorised to act as watermen.

Near the stairs below bridge the watermen stand looking out for customers, or they sit on an adjacent form, protected from the weather, some smoking and some dozing. They are weather-beaten, strong-looking men, and most of them are of, or above, the middle age. Those who are not privileged work in the same way as the privileged, wear all kinds of dresses, but generally something in the nature of a sailor"s garb, such as a strong pilot-jacket and thin canvas trousers. The present race of watermen have, I am assured, lost the sauciness (with occasional smartness) that distinguished their predecessors. They are mostly patient, plodding men, enduring poverty heroically, and shrinking far more than many other classes from any application for parish relief. "There is not a more independent lot that way in London," said a waterman to me, "and God knows it isn"t for want of all the claims which being poor can give us, that we don"t apply to the workhouse." Some, however, are obliged to spend their old age, when incapable of


labour, in the union. Half or more than onehalf of the Thames watermen, I am credibly informed, can read and write. They used to drink quantities of beer, but now, from the stress of altered circumstances, they are generally temperate men. The watermen are nearly all married, and have families. Some of their wives work for the slop-tailors. They all reside in the small streets near the river, usually in single rooms, rented at from to a-week. At least -fourths of the watermen have apprentices, and they nearly all are sons or relatives of the watermen. For this I heard reasons assigned. was, that lads whose childhood was passed among boats and on the water contracted a taste for a waterman"s life, and were unwilling to be apprenticed to any other calling. The other reason was, that the poverty of the watermen compelled them to bring up their sons in this manner, as the readiest mode of giving them a trade; and many thus apprenticed become seamen in the merchant service, and occasionally in the royal navy, or get employment as working-lightermen, or on board the river steamers.

At each stairs there is what is called a "turnway and causeway club," to which the men contribute each per quarter. of the regulations of these clubs is, that the oldest men have the turn on Monday, and the next oldest on Tuesday, and so on, through the several days of the week, until Saturday, which is the apprentices" day. The fund raised by the subscription is for keeping the causeway clean and in repair. There is also a society in connexion with the whole body of watermen, called the "Protection Society," to proceed against any parties who infringe upon their privileges. To this society they pay per week each. The Greenwich watermen are engaged generally as pilots to colliers, and other small crafts.

From of the watermen, plying near the Tower, I had the following statement:—

I have been a waterman eight-and-twenty years. I served my seven years duly and truly to my father. I had nothing but my keep and clothes, and that"s the regular custom. We must serve seven years to be free of the river. It"s the same now in our apprenticeship. No pay; and some masters will neither wash, nor clothe, nor mend a boy: and all that ought to be done by the master, by rights. Times and masters is harder than ever. After my time was out I went to sea, and was pretty lucky in my voyages. I was at sea in the merchant service five years. When I came back I bought a boat. My father helped me to start as a waterman on the Thames. The boat cost me twenty guineas, it would carry eight fares. It cost 2l. 15s. to be made an apprentice, and about 4l. to have a license to start for myself. In my father"s time—from what I know when I was his apprentice, and what I"ve heard him say—a waterman"s was a jolly life. He earned 15s. to 18s. a-day, and spent it accordingly. When I first started for myself, twenty-eight years ago, I made 12s. to 14s. a-day, more than I make in a week now, but that was before steamers. Many of us watermen saved money then, but now we"re starving. These good times lasted for me nine or ten years, and in the middle of the good times I got married. I was justified, my earnings was good. But steamers came in, and we were wrecked. My father was in the River Fencibles, which was a body of men that agreed to volunteer to serve on board ships that went on convoys in the war times. The watermen was bound to supply so many men for that and for the fleet. I can"t call to mind the year, but the full number wasn"t supplied, and there was a press. Some of my neighbours, watermen now, was of the press-gang. When the press was on--there was a terrible to do, and all sorts of shifts among the watermen. The young ones ran away to their mothers, and kept in hiding. I was too young then,— I was an apprentice, too,—to be pressed. But a lieutenant once put his hand on my poll, and said, "My fine red-headed fellow, you"ll be the very man for me when you"re old enough." Mine"s a very bad trade — I make from 10s. to 12s. a-week, and that"s all my wife and me has to live on. I"ve no children—thank the Lord for it: for I see that several of the watermen"s children run about without shoes or stockings. On Monday I earned 1s. 9d., on Tuesday, 1s. 7d., on Wednesday, which was a very wet day, 1s., and yesterday, Thursday, 1s. 6d., and up to this day, Friday noon, I"ve earned nothing as yet. We work Sundays and all. My expenses when I"m out isn"t much. My wife puts me up a bit of meat, or bacon and bread, if we have any in the house, and if I"ve earned anything I eat it with half-a-pint of beer, or a pint at times. Ours is hard work, and we requires support if we can only get it. If I bring no meat with me to the stairs, I bring some bread, and get half-a-pint of coffee with it, which is 1d. We have to slave hard in some weathers when we"re at work, and indeed we"re always either slaving or sitting quite idle. Our principal customers are people that want to go across in a hurry. At night—and we take night work two and two about, two dozen of us, in turn—we have double fares. There"s very few country visitors take boats now to see sights upon the river. The swell of the steamers frightens them. Last Friday a lady and gentleman engaged me for 2s. to go to the Thames Tunnel, but a steamer passed, and the lady said, "Oh, look what a surf! I don"t like to venture;" and so she wouldn"t, and I sat five hours after that before I"d earned a farthing. I remember the first steamer on the river; it was from Gravesend, I think. It was good for us men at first, as the passengers came ashore in boats. There was no steam-piers then, but now the big foreign steamers can come alongside, and ladies and cattle and all can step ashore on platforms. The good times is over, and we are ready now to snap at one another for 3d., when once we didn"t care about 1s. We"re beaten by engines and steamings that nobody can well understand, and wheels.

"Rare John Taylor," the water-poet in the days of James I. and Charles I., with whose name I found most of the watermen familiar (at least they had heard of him), complained of the decay of his trade as a waterman, inasmuch as in his latter days "every Gill Turntripe, Mistress Tumkins, Madame Polecat, my Lady Trash, Froth the tapster, Bill the tailor, Lavender the broker, Whiff the tobacco-seller, with their companion trulls, must be coached." He complained that wheeled conveyances ashore, although they made the casements shatter, totter, and clatter, were preferred to boats, and were the ruin of the watermen. And it is somewhat remarkable that the watermen of our day complain of the same detriment from wheeled conveyances on the water.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men