A Rowing Coat of Arms

Photograph from the website of The Company of Watermen & Lightermen of the River Thames.

Rowing historian Bernard Hempseed writes from New Zealand,

I was reading a heraldry book published in 1842 and came across the following item. From the watermen developed the professional rowing of the 19th century.

“The Watermen’s Company of London, whose business it is to row their boats on the river Thames, may be supposed very ancient; but it was not incorporated until the reign of Queen Mary in 1556. The lightermen, who are employed amongst the shipping, were afterwards united to the company.

Their arms, barry wavy argent and azure, a boat or; on a chief of the second, a pair of oars saltierways of the third, between two cushions of the first, are supported by two dolphins proper; the crest is a hand holding an oar and their motto is Jussu superiorum, being ever at the command of their superiors”

Then follows a black and white drawing of the arms (above). The heraldic description of the arms is called a blazon and the language is fairly obscure so here is a translation.

Firstly the shield is described. Barry means horizontal bars (six if not otherwise stated) across the shield but wavy means they are like sine waves. The bars are alternatively coloured silver or white (argent) and blue (azure.) to represent water. Then the item on the shield is noted, in this case a boat and also its colour which is gold or yellow (or.)

A chief is a horizontal band across the top of the shield and its colour is the second mentioned, in this case blue. On the chief are a pair of oars crossed (saltierways) and their colour is the third mentioned, vis gold. These oars are between two cushions coloured the first colour mentioned, vis white. The cushions are supposed to represent what a passenger would sit on while being transported in a boat. The supporters are a dolphin on either side of the shield and their colour is supposed to be as they are in nature (proper.)

The crest is the part above the shield and consists of a hand holding an oar. Normally the colours of these objects would be also noted in the blazon. Crests rest on a twisted two-coloured piece of material usually being of the primary shield colours.

Hunting around on the net, I found a coloured version which has a few differences from the illustration in the book but is more or less the same. Different heraldic artists will draw a coat of arms in a slightly different style while retaining the salient points.

However, I don’t think the coloured drawing is all that good as there is a large blank space above the boat which is a bit of a no-no in heraldry. Also the artist has clothed the arm which is not in the blazon and it is pretty poor looking oar. The colour of the boat is wrong too. The crossed oars look like rolls of paper.

The motto has also been put into English. Mottos do not normally form part of the blazon and may be changed at will. The dolphins are described in the blazon as natural coloured (greyish?) but the artist has rendered them in the heraldic colours of white and gold which is maybe better. They also have a grander look than the 1842 version. When the blazon was written perhaps little was known about dolphins and heraldically they may always have been drawn in similar colours. They are also standing, if that is the right word, on waves. Supporters have to stand on something even if it is only the motto scroll.

The helmet and the mantling do not constitute part of the blazon of the arms and the 1842 drawing omits them entirely. Their depiction is at the whim of the artist.

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