Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Company of Watermen & Lightermen of the River Thames

I had great pleasure  being part of a group privileged to enjoy a conducted tour of Watermen’s Hall by Carol Ratcliffe, Assistant Clerk, a lady who obviously lives and breathes her job and whose enthusiasm was infectious.

We began in the Silver Room on the ground floor where the walls were lined with reclaimed wood and engraved with the names of the elected Masters, from the first, Francis Theodore Hay, in 1827, to the present day. Prior to that the Company was governed by the Rulers.  The Watermen’s Company celebrated five hundred years last year, having received Royal Assent from King Henry VIII and created by an Act of Parliament in 1514. With this Act came the introduction of apprenticeships and to this day the company is a working guild, one of only two, I believe. Livery Companies were by contrast created by Royal Charter. The Watermen were joined by the Lightermen, carriers of cargo, in 1700.

There was much to see in this first room alone but outstanding for me was a model of a wherry, something of which I’d heard but didn’t know what it was, and the story behind it. Wherries were passenger boats in the style of a rowing boat and carried eight to ten people. They could be hailed from their position midstream by someone on the river bank, much in the same way one would hail a black cab in the street today. If they didn’t like the look of you they stayed where they were! It was no easy job and the skill and bravery of these men was outstanding.

Also on ground floor level was The Parlour Room with its beautiful stained glass window and display cases which house some of the Company’s artefacts.

We went up the rather beautiful staircase to The Court Room, the heart of the original Georgian building. It is the only original Georgian Hall left in the City of London. Those of you who are aware of my work in progress, a novel set in Regency times, will appreciate my interest in this particular room. It is thought that there might have been some influence by Josiah Wedgwood as the ceiling is in that style and he and designer, William Blackburn, were contemporaries, though there is no proof that they ever met. The walls and ceiling, at some time painted yellow, have been restored to their original blue, the ceiling picked out in pink and gold leaf. The marble fireplace is believed to be designed by John Sloane and above it hangs the Company coat of arms. Some of the contents of the room are the amazing Master’s Chair, a portrait of the first Master and, in one corner, a fabulous barometer which dates from 1693. To this day the apprentices stand before the Master and other members of the Court to receive their Freedom and become known as Journeymen Freemen.

Moving into the adjacent room we were told that this wasn’t part of the original building but that two adjoining buildings had been incorporated at a later date. These had suffered severely from war damage but the exteriors were intact. They have now been sympathetically renovated and decorated and are used as function rooms for commercial hire, as well as by the Company itself.

Carol gave us many more details. She told us about “The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager”,  a sculling race purported to be the oldest continuously run annual sporting event in the world. It is held in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and has been going for 300 years. We heard of the part the Watermen played in the evacuation of Dunkirk and how their skills then, and on many other occasions, were effective in saving lives. We learned that there are fifty-one alms houses in Hastings used for the benefit of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames or their widows or widowers. 

I learned much about the river which I have lived close to all my life, some of which I hope will find its way into my book. Whether it does or not, this was a day to be treasured; one which highlighted the bravery and enterprise of man and the comradeship of the members of this historical society right through to the present day.

Guided tours take place on Mondays only. I highly recommend that you go.



  1. A lovely piece. This is a subject that has fascinated me since was a child. Erith, where I was born and bred, is a town by the Thames and many locals were Thames Waterman. I have known people whose ancestors won the Doggett's Coat and Badge and came from my town. A shame that Doggett died a pauper (buried in Eltham) but wonderful that his name lives on. I'd hoped to include the race in one of my books but for obvious reasons it did not run during much of WW2

    1. Thank you, Elaine. One of the things that struck me quite forcibly was the way the members pull(ed) together - and I don't mean by using their oars. So much history - I barely touched on it in this piece. If anybody fancies getting a group together I'd certainly go again!

  2. Hi Natalie,
    A fascinating piece.
    When I was a junior officer, on ships running up the Thames to the old East India Docks, we would take a pilot as usual to guide us up the river. We would also take a waterman, a guild member, who would steer the ship under the Pilot's advice. The Pilots would be Trinity House trained and certified, but the Watermen would all come from the Watermen and Lightermen's guild.

    As you pointed out a great example of a "Working Guild"



    1. So glad you enjoyed it, John. I left so much more out of the piece than I was able to put in.