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Watermen are river workers who transfer passengers across and along city centre rivers and estuaries in Britainmarker and its colonies. Most notable are those on the River Thames and River Medway, but other rivers such as the River Tyne and River Dee, Wales also had their watermen who formed guilds in mediæval times.


Watermen or Wherrymen were an essential part of early London. Using a small boat called a wherry or skiff they would ferry passengers along and across the river. With bad rural roads and narrow, congested city streets, the Thames was the most convenient highway in the region. And until the mid-18th century London Bridge was the only one below Kingston.

In 1197 King Richard I sold the Crown's rights over the Thames to the Corporation of the City of London, which attempted to issue licensing to boats on the river. It remained under royal prerogative until 1350 when King Edward III passed an Act of Parliament prohibiting the obstruction of the River. Structures had been built out into the river for fishing and milling purposes making the river unnavigable and an unregulated chaotic mix of boats. In 1510 Henry VIII granted a licence (a form of licensed public transport) to watermen that gave exclusive rights to carry passengers on the river. In 1545 almshouses for watermen, called "The Hospital of St. Stephen" were built by Henry VIII in the Woolstaple, New Palace Yard, Westminster. An Act of Parliament in 1555 formalized the trade by setting up a company to govern tariffs and reduce accidents. The new company had jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act empowered the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the "best sort" of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations. It also specified a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were now required to pay quarterage, or paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to "free" apprentice watermen.
Westminster Bridge 1746
A twenty-year campaign by the rank-and-file of the watermen, to introduce a more representative government in their company, resulted, on the eve of the English Civil War in 1642, in the introduction of a form of indirect democracy. The watermen at the 55 "leading towns and stairs" were empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. The representatives or "electors" also sat with the rulers in the company's hall and collectively made regulations "for the better government of the company". This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical form of government.

London's lack of bridges and rolling marsh filled landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. In the 1400 and 1500's the narrow spans of the Old London Bridgemarker restricted the flow of the slow moving and meandering river Thames allowing it to freeze during the winter months complete with frost fair so that Londoners were able to simply walk across the frozen river.

The Oxford-Burcot Commission appointed by James I, in an Act of Parliament in 1605 was an attempt to manage the river and in 1630 built the first of three locks on the Thames. A large proportion of watermen's income came from the ferrying of passengers across river to the theater. The arrival of the horse-drawn coach in 1630, Sedan Chairs and the relocation of most London theatres and pleasure gardens from Bankside on the South Bank to the north bank resulted in the drastic reduction of in their numbers and financial hardship. During the English Civil War watermen were free from impressment and were even able to negotiate higher rates of pay from the navy. Samuel Pepys [213732] who commuted by water from his home to his job at the Admiralty, refers to the death of his waterman in his diaries of 1665 revealing the particular vulnerability of Thames watermen to infection during the Great Plague of London. In 1700 Watermen, combined with their colleagues in cargo to form the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. The free water clause, introduced by the West India Dock Act of 1799 and the gradual construction of a greater number of bridges, especially Westminster Bridgemarker in 1750, forced great change on the river trade during this period of Industrial Revolution. Freight could now be moved along a river and canal system with waterway access to the Midlands and Bristol. The port provided London with its great wealth and relied heavily on the transshipping skills of watermen and lightermen to run smoothly. This was the boom time for Lighterage and fortunes were made by the captains of the distinctive red sailed Thames sailing barges at this time.

Thames watermen in times of war were always the first to be enlisted, and until 1814 pressed, to crew on royal naval or merchant marine vessels and acted as a reserve of skilled mariners. After The American War of 1812 many decided to settle in the USA at the cessation of hostilities. The arrival of steamboats in 1819 and steam launches rendered the small Wherry, with its limited capacity, obsolete for mass public transport use, often the heavy wash from steamers rocked or sank small wherrys and frightened potential passengers away. The Woolwich Steam Packet Company was established in 1834 and soon amalgamated with the Watermen's Steam Packet Company creating the London Steamboat Company which emerged as the leading carrier.In the latter part of the 1870s-1890's the growth of railways increased the use of the river for pleasure boating. Villages outside London such as Maidenheadmarker and Pangbournemarker flourished as people came to hire skiffs and punts for a day on the river.

Model of a steamship, built by d'Abbans in 1784.
Doggett's Coat and Badge.
The Hurricane Clipper.
Thames watermen played an important part in the very early movements that ultimately led to the creation of modern trade unionism in the United Kingdom, most notably in the writings of pamphleteer John Taylor (1580-1653) and later with the use of petitions or "petitions of grievances" in particular the petitions supporting the curtailment of the growth of hackney coaches in the 1600s. As far back as 1644, the House of Commonsmarker had specifically exempted them from land service—the use of watermen in land armies -- as a direct result of the group pressure exerted by watermen and it is clear that these spectacular early victories redefined the way they negotiated with those in power. The absence of an effective police force meant that Watermen often died prematurely in a city prone to riots and mob violence. Apart from the obvious occupational risks of the trade, death by drowning, watermen were particularly susceptible to Bronchial Diseases caught from working and living close to waters of the Thames. The invention of the humble flush toilet in the 1840s quickly turned the Thames into a giant sewer causing Typhoid and Cholera outbreaks and the Great Stink of 1858. It forced a redesign of the cities sewage system in The Embankment area, a popular area for watermen to ply their trade. Totally redesigned or embankedmarker it routed sewage away from the river but also removed the stairs and sloping incline to the river replacing the access points with piers. In 1859 an Act of Parliament abolished many privileges held by the Watermen's Company further it set up the Thames Conservancymarker creating two bodies with responsibilities for the Thames. In 1871 the Labour Protection League gave lightermen in particular the ability to negotiate better terms from their employers. Early thinkers interested in social reform, such as Charles Dickens, chose to study river workers, before vividly describing their grim lives in the novel Our Mutual Friend 1865 and watermen in a short essay entitled Silent Highwaymen in 1879, both works that sparked a new social conscience. Latter the sinking of the with the loss of 600 lives, would profoundly shock and change public opinion within Victorian era society. In 1889 following the lead taken by stevedores, watermen and lightermen joined the successful The Great London Dock Strike and the Amalgamated Society of Watermen, Lightermen and Bargemen was hastily formed in 1893 eventually merging with the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1922. Many watermen patriotically turned their barges over to government use during World War I. The transport of coal and goods was of particular importance during wartime, however, during the 1920s worsening conditions and industrial action again brought London's docks to a halt. The British Tugowners Association was founded in 1934. It allowed watermen to use their qualifications and skills, particularly in close quarter maneuvers, in ports overseas; skills that in recent years with the use of newer technology especially the introduction of bow thrusters have seen a decline in use. In the late 1930s speed trials took place on the Thames for Armed high speed launches some of which would latter form the fleet of boats used in Air Sea Rescue piloted by watermen during the 1940s. 400 barges or Thames lighters were turned over to military use as bumboats or simply beached during the Normandy landings of 1944.

Bombing during the Blitz of World War II severely damaged the docks and by the 1960s, newer container technology and relocation to Tilburymarker had made the lightermen's trade ːˑ lighterage, obsolete. In terminal decline most up river docks had been abandoned by the 1980s.

Some waterman encouraged by Festival of Britain 1951 set up river cruise companies in the late 1940s others in the 1980s but by careful consolidation of ownership and concentrating on passenger comfort, some offering night cruises, have successfully dominated the sector on into the new millennium. In the lighterage sector Cory Environmental, originally an amalgamation of eight companies, bucked the trend of this traditionally fragmented industry by capitalizing on an opportunity and used its empty coal barges, on return trips, to transport rubbish from London's streets generating enough extra revenue to buy up surplus barges from smaller lighterage companies as they sold up. Between 1967 and 1976 over 40 lighterage firms closed down.

Regular and fairly well paid work for Thames watermen in times of economic downturn was on the so-called Bovril Boats, which continued as they had done since 1887, to take London's sewage from Crossness and Becktonmarker to the Thames Estuary at Black Deepmarker, where the sludge was discharged. This practice continued until the 1990s when new EU legislation prevented the dumping of sewage at sea and forced this process to stop. It also corresponded with a fundamental change in public opinion on environmental issues and the use of marine resources. In 1999 Thames Clippers began operating a water-bus commuter service between eastern and central London. In 2003 a subsidy was made available by local government looking for the greener solution that reusing waterways provide. Passengers traveling by boat or river buses and the removal of London's rubbish by Lighter mean less traffic on London's streets and almost zero vibration from the movement of cargo.

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen

Watermen's Hall (1778-80), by William Blackburn.
Company of Watermen and Lightermen is a City Guild without Grant of Livery and licenses Thames Watermen. Its ancient apprenticeship index is a unique resource to genealogical research however despite its mediæval guild roots it is an active lobbying force today. Working alongside The Passenger Boat Association, it consults and negotiates with national and local government and its agencies on behalf of its members. In 2003 funds were made available via CWL using government grants, to assist apprentices from the riverside east London boroughs of Tower Hamletsmarker and Newhammarker.The Doggett's Coat and Badge, which was first raced in 1715, is the oldest continuously run river race and is now claimed to be the oldest continually staged annual sporting event in the world.

In 1975 a charity called Transport On Water (TOW) was founded by watermen and lightermen and people in public life. It aims to maintain the Thames and other waterways, including the river Medway, as working rivers. TOW has organised The Thames Barge Driving Race which has taken place annually in June, since 1974.

Transport strategy for London

More than 2,000 commuters a day now travel by river which added up to three million people in 2002, a figure that is set to increase with preparations for the 2012 Olympics and tourist traffic during the games. Ken Livingstone's Transport Strategy for London 2005 states that: The safe use of the Thames for passenger and freight services should be developed. Passenger services will be encouraged, particularly services that relate to its cultural and architectural excellence and tourism. Use of London's other navigable waterways for freight, consistent with their roles for leisure use and as ecosystems, will be encouraged. Transport for London now has a river transport arm, London River Services, to regulate and promote travel on the Thames as a public transport service.

National Boatmasters’ Licence

New legislation that came into force in 2007 set up a new national licence system, covering all inland waterways. Rather than a five year apprenticeship, it enables anyone to become a captain after a less onerous qualification period of just two years plus six months of "local knowledge" training on the central stretch of the Thames. The licence brings UK regulations into line with EU licensing standards. Critics claimed it would make the Thames, a tidal river below Teddington lock, more hazardous to travel on. Under the old licence system approximately 23 per cent failed their first year apprenticeship exam. It is estimated that 600 Watermen and Lightermen currently work the Thames.
Date Total Watermen working the Thames
1628 2,453
1850 1,500 Mayhew
2006 600

A Muster dated approx.1628 shows a total of 2,453 Watermen "for the towns and stairs from Windsormarker to Gravesendmarker".

Watermen In Australia

As well as in Britain itself, the term "watermen" was used to describe boatmen performing essentially similar duties on coastal waterways in the British colonies. This was especially the case on Sydney Harbourmarker and in Van Diemens Landmarker, on the River Derwentmarker around Hobartmarker and the River Tamarmarker around Launcestonmarker.

Regular ferry services across the Derwent existed by 1810, and the first known licensed ferryman was Urias Allender in 1816. By the 1830s these ferrymen were known as "watermen" in official records and the term continued to be used until the last licenced watermen retired in the 1940s. The heyday of Hobart Town's watermen was from the 1840s to the mid 1850s, when over 200 licences were issued to different individuals, but with improved steam ferry services the numbers declined and in 1896 only 21 were licensed. By this stage they were mostly operating water taxi and excursion services around the port. They were held to be distinct from other categories of maritime workers such as the "boatmen", "craftsmen" or "bargemen" who operated sailing vessels in the river trade, and those men operating on the steam ferries and river steamers that also operated out of the port.

Tasmanian watermen's boats varied widely in size and style, from small dinghies for hire up to large sailing-rowing excursion boats around 28 feet in length. The largest of these, the 8-oared, 28-foot Admiral built in 1865, is currently undergoing restoration (as the last known 19th century Tasmanian waterman's boat). During the 1900s motor launches up to 48 ft in length were licenced as waterman's boats, although the term has now slipped from common usage in favour of "excursion boats" or, incorrectly, "ferries." There are currently about ten vessels offering excursions out of the Port of Hobart.

The main base for watermen in Hobart from the 1830s to the 1940s was at Waterman's Dock at the end of Murray Street in front of Parliament House. Watermen's licences were also issued for boatmen operating elsewhere in south-eastern Tasmania including Port Arthurmarker and the D'Entrecasteaux Channelmarker.

Watermen In The United States

Some evidence suggests that a number of English watermen involved in the American War of 1812 settled in the Chesapeake Bay area, in the United States in small waterside communities on Tangier Island and Smith Island that have retained a unique character and dialect to this day. It was also an area that was simultaneously settled by Afro American watermen. Though the evidence is largely undocumented, African American watermen were expert fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay area and border state of Marylandmarker's Eastern Shore. With the arrival of Steamboats in the 1800s many found work as river workers. Traditional watermen shyed away from the considerable risks such as boiler explosions or fires that were involved with early Steamboats and Afro American watermen went on to gain financial success and freedoms by specialising in the crewing of these boats within The Mississippimarker River Steamboat economy of the 1840s.


"If watermen were the equivalent of today's taxi-drivers, the lightermen drove the lorries" A Brief History of Watermen and Lightermen Bob Aspinall, Librarian, Museum in Docklandsmarker, Docklands Library

Famous watermen

John Taylor (1580-1653), the Water Poet.

See also

Thames Reaches:
Reach 1: Upper Pool, Lower Pool and Limehouse Reach
Reach 2: Limehouse, Greenwich and Blackwall Reach
Reach 3: Bugsby’s and Woolwich Reach
Reach 4: Gallions and Barking Reach
Reach 5: Halfway and Erith Reach
Reach 6: Erith Reach, Erith Rands and Long Reach
Reach 7: Long Reach and Fiddler’s Reach
Reach 8: North Fleet Hope
Reach 9: Gravesend Reach


  • The River Thames - its management past and present by Ian J Hart 2005 .[213733]
  • Making waves, The Guardian July 16, 2003, Graeme Ewens .[213734]
  • The Thames Watermen in the Century of Revolution by Christopher O'Riordan 2000. [213735]
  • The Mariners' Museum 2002 Watermen. [213736]
  • A Chesapeake Bay Waterman, 1872 Scribner's Monthly, March 1872 The Library at The Mariners' Museum. [213737].
  • 'Civil war' on the Thames between the watermen and City authorities. Illustrated London News 1846. [213738]
  • The Thames Watermen in the Century of Revolution by Christopher O'Riordan 2000. [213739]
  • The British Tugowners Association. [213740]
  • River Cruises-Silverfleet. [213741]
  • River Cruises-City cruises. [213742]
  • Seamless WiFi network. [213743]
  • Cory Environmental Management Limited, History. [213744]
  • Transport for London Press Release London River Services 11 September 2003. [213745]
  • Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section, Leaflet Guides to Records, September 2006. [213746]
  • Watermens hall, Doggett Coat and Badge Race. [213747]
  • Thames clippers. [213748]
  • Thames Festival Trust 2007. [213749]
  • The Mayor’s Transport Strategy , 4M River Thames and other waterways Greater London Authority 2003-02-28. [213750]
  • The Guardian Patrick Barkham January 2, 2007 .[213751]
  • Hansard 10 January 2007. [213752]
  • Wikipedia Marchioness disaster. [213753]
  • Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence to be published as HC 320 - i - 21 February 2007, United Kingdom Parliament. [213754]
  • Transcript of the Admiralty muster or census of the Thames watermen, 2 February 1628/9 (Public Record Office, SP 16/135, piece 4). [213755]
  • London ancestor, The Illustrated London News, Vol. LIV, 27 March 1869, p. 321. [213756]
  • Steps, stairs and landing places on the tidal Thames, The Port of London Authority 1995. [213757]
  • City of London, Unitary Development Plan 2002 Supplementary Planning Guidance - Riverside Appraisal p. 23. [213758]


  • Watermen
  • Watermen early history
  • The Watermen Revolt of 1621-23
  • Royal Watermen
  • Watermen 1816
  • Waterman’s apprentice indenture
  • Thames wherry
  • Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877
  • Amalgamated Society of Watermen, Lightermen and Bargemen 1893-1921
  • Steps, stairs and landing places on the tidal Thames
  • DPPL riverside appraisal 2002
  • Proposed National Boatmasters Licence

External links

  • Watermans Hall
  • Apprenticeship Indexes for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames 1692-1949
  • The Passenger Boat Association
  • The Commercial Boat Operators' Association
  • The River & Rowing Museum
  • Thames Regional Rowing Council
  • Thames barge driving race
  • The Annual Thames Barge Driving Race Summer 2001
  • Port of London Act 1968
  • African-American watermen
  • Laid up,0.182025&spn=0.001241,0.002908&t=k&om=1&iwloc=addr

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