Giving Berth: A Review of “Unto the Tideway Born”

Pic 1 The latest book from rowing journalist, author and historian Chris Dodd.
The latest book from rowing journalist, author and historian Chris Dodd.

Tim Koch writes:

It is famously and frequently said that the River Thames is ‘Liquid History’. If this is so, then in his latest work, Unto the Tideway Born: 500 Years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen, the rowing journalist, author and historian Chris Dodd has successfully distilled half a millennium’s worth of this precious fluid into the 300 pages of this highly readable and delightfully illustrated book. It is, Chris says, designed to supplement and complement the existing ‘copious volumes about London’s great river’ by ‘giving voice’ to those who have worked it.

Making use of wide and meticulous research, Unto the Tideway Born is illuminated where possible by original source material and with contemporary accounts, art and literature. The emphasis on the human aspect of the story of the men who have worked the Thames is one of the things that will engage those with a general interest in history as well as anyone with a special fascination for ‘all things watery’ and also to all with a personal connection to the river through work, sport, leisure or ancestry. There is broad appeal too in the wonderful pictures that enhance every page, the polished layout of which will be familiar to anyone who knows the author’s history of London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft (2006). Readers of Chris’s previous works will also be aware of his accessible and engaging writing style, presumably a result of 25 years as a Fleet Street sub-editor, turning mangled journalistic prose into accessible English. He also has an eye (and an ear) for a nice turn of phrase and a talent for dry humour.

Unto the Tideway Born marks 500 years of the regulation of Thames Watermen, who carry passengers, and Thames Lightermen, who carry goods (though it is often convenient to refer to both as ‘watermen’). Of course, these sons of the Thames existed long before attempts were made to control their activities. In the days of poor and dangerous roads ‘conveying people and goods on the river was not only essential but increased in importance as trade, shipping, naval activity and population grew. Hundreds, thousands of small boats plied the tidal river on a daily basis, unregulated’.

Pic 2 A Fare Table of 1671.
A Fare Table of 1671.

The first regulation came in 1514 when Henry VIII approved an Act of Parliament setting out fares to be charged on the tidal Thames and Medway – but failed to put in place any method of enforcing compliance. This was corrected in 1555 when Parliament decreed that:

Eight men most wise, discreet, and the best sort of watermen…… between Gravesend and Windsor….. be appointed to oversee waterman and their activities.

The Act also demanded the establishment of apprenticeships and regulated boat construction. In effect, the Watermen’s Company was born and 145 years later it was joined by the Lightermen. The tensions arising from continuing regulation are neatly encapsulated by Chris when he notes that:

Those who use the river are keen to control it while those who work it regard it as their own.

’Twas ever thus.

To deal with the vast amount of material that 500 years of history has produced, the book is divided into three parts; ‘The Waterman’s World’, ‘The Lighterman’s World’ and ‘The Company It Keeps’, the latter an examination of the future of the Watermen and Lightermen and their Company. Many of the chapters that make up these parts are ‘stand alone’ pieces and this allows for much information to be included in a very accessible way without unnaturally or uncomfortably forcing it into some chronological or other structure. Some chapters are essays which may not have a particular or close connection to the Watermen’s Company or its members but, like a tributary stream, they all seem to eventually flow into the main body of water, the mighty Thames. This means that much of Unto the Tideway Born is a work that can, if the reader is so inclined, be ‘dipped into’ at leisure (excuse the possible pun).

Pic 3 The Grand Metropolitan Regatta 1849 by James Baker RA (River and Rowing Museum).
The Grand Metropolitan Regatta 1849 by James Baker RA (River & Rowing Museum).

‘HTBS Types’ may quickly turn to the chapter titled Oars At Play, which is largely a fascinating glimpse of some the numerous wild and wonderful regattas and aquatic events that the Thames has hosted over the years. These include a grand regatta at Ranelagh, Chelsea in 1775, when a 240-strong orchestra entertained 1,300 members of society as they viewed watermen’s races while a great mêlée of spectator boats formed a ‘floating town’ on the water. Only four people were drowned in the excitement. In 1844, a music hall clown was successfully drawn along the river from Vauxhall to Westminster in a wash tub pulled by two geese. In 1788, two eight-oared cutters raced from central London to Richmond against the wind and tide for a wager of 60 guineas. In a close race all the way, one participant ‘died at his oar’ near the finish. Clearly, goose power was a safer way to travel. The chapter concludes by noting the rise of amateur rowing. Chris holds that for about one hundred years the ongoing conflict over what defined an amateur oarsman ‘befog(ed) the transformation of rowing from a way of life to a pastime of sport and leisure’ . However, he believes that it is now clear that modern rowing ‘owes its roots and skills to men who worked waterways as much as to its Johnny-come-lately amateur pioneers’.

Another nice example of something that could also be enjoyed on its own is the chapter on the ‘Water Poet’, the writer, satirist, pamphleteer and campaigner for watermen’s rights, Honest John Taylor. Typical of Taylor’s works was one of 1623 attacking the Watermen’s great competitors for passengers, the horse-drawn carriage trade. He wrote that:

…never land hath endured more trouble than ours, by the continued rumbling of these upstart four-wheeled tortoises.

In verse, Taylor put it like this:

Carroches, coaches, jades and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares;
Against the ground we stand and knock our heels,
Whilst all our profits runs away on wheelees.

Pic 4 London Bridge 1745 (Reginald Francis Print Collection).
London Bridge 1745 (Reginald Francis Print Collection).

Coaches may have been one of the first threats to the livelihood of watermen, but they were from far the last. A later chapter on London Bridge notes that, while the Romans first erected a pontoon bridge on the site in AD50, perhaps the most famous of the many ‘London Bridges’ was completed in 1209. Its 19 narrow arches often produced a two-metre difference in water levels above and below the crossing and only a few specialist watermen would attempt to shoot the bridge when the tide ran. However, they were not always successful, hence the phrase that London Bridge was for ‘wise men to pass over and fools to pass under’. More importantly, for many years it was the only span over the Tideway but, as more bridges were built, so the watermen’s ferry trade, taking people across the river from bank to bank, was reduced.

If bridges reduced the trade across the river, the coming of steam power reduced trade by oars and sculls along it. In 1818, the Waterman’s Company gave the first license to a waterman formally qualified to drive a steamboat. However, while traditional watermen’s work as a water taxi declined rapidly in the second half of the 19th century:

…growing numbers were engaged on and about steamboats and tugs while work for lightermen grew with burgeoning trade and industry.

Pic 5 The barge ‘America’ (Michael Wenban).
The barge America (Michael Wenban).

In Part 2, ‘The Lighterman’s World’, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the Thames is recorded. The growth of British industry and empire and the consequent expansion of international trade, the coming of the docks and warehouses, and the increasing demand for coal transported by barge meant that:

The public face of pomp, parade and wealth now eschewed the river and took to the streets, while the real wealth and real poverty grappled with each other in the ebb and flow of what became an awesome backwater, lined with satanic stores and larders.

With the London Docks as the ‘Emporium of the World’, John Masefield could write:

You showed me nutmegs and nutmeg husks,
Ostrich feathers and elephant tusks……
Cinnamon, myrrh, and mace you showed,
Golden paradise birds that glowed,
More cigars than a man could count
And a billion cloves in an odorous mount
And choice port wine from a bright glass fount.
You showed, for a most delightful hour,
The wealth of the world and London’s power.

The suffering and service of the London Docks and of London Watermen and Lightermen in two World Wars is brought to life with some fine research as is the eventual post-war decline of the Port of London and of the jobs of the men who serviced it, a whole way of life becoming a folk memory in less than a generation.

Pic 6 The Waterman’s Company 500th Anniversary Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral on 5 February 2014.
The Waterman’s Company 500th Anniversary Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral on 5 February 2014.

Those interested in rowing history who read Unto the Tideway Born expecting a large section of it to be devoted to the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race will be disappointed. However, I can understand why Chris did not want to write ‘a book within a book’ as a complete history of Doggett’s is a work on its own. Thirteen pages are given to the actor Thomas Doggett and the now 300-year-old sculling race for newly qualified watermen that he founded. They are mostly a random but enjoyable collection of anecdotes from past races but they also stress the rather symbiotic relationship between watermen and the acting profession. Theatres, brothels and other disreputable places were concentrated on London’s south bank, away from the respectable city on the north side. Apart from London Bridge, the only way to cross the river to these places of pleasure was via the services of a waterman.

Chris later speculates on the future of Doggett’s. He sees three problems with the event in the modern age. Firstly, it is ‘unexciting for casual spectators’. Secondly, ‘its relevance to the art and science of watermanship can be questioned in a century when the only oars seen on the river are competitive or ceremonial’. Finally, the costs are ‘considerable’. Some low-level short-term sponsorship has temporarily fixed the latter and increasing attempts at ‘public relations’ are being made. However, the ‘bottom line’ is the continuing supply of those qualified to enter. The Watermen’s Rowing Officer, Simon McCarthy, is quoted as saying ‘If the flow of apprentices dries up, so will Doggett’s’.  One suspects, however, that it will be a cold day in Hell before Simon and the other Doggett’s men allow the race to die.

If Unto the Tideway Born has only one continuing theme, it is that the watermen’s and lightermen’s trade has been under threat from economic, social, political and technological changes from its very inception and for those who work the Thames, there are always bad times just around the corner. Is the end nigh? Part 3, ‘The Company It Keeps’, attempts to answer this.

Initially, there seems cause for optimism as the closure of the docks did not result in the complete end of the Thames as a working waterway. Chris writes that:

…..the port and the docks remained in business until the last quarter of the twentieth century…… High labour costs, bulk carriers, containers…. trains and lorries…… would eventually cause trade to abandon the Pool and the Tideway….. Oars would become redundant save for sport or ceremonial. But the skills of watermanship cling on so long as there are barges to move, tugs to move them, ferries and pleasure boats to operate and pilots to navigate the estuary.

London is rediscovering its river:

The Thames is transforming itself from the foggy backwater of empire towards the misty, Grand Canal of dappled water and city palaces that it once was.

Pic 7 Carrying commuters at each end of the day and tourists in the middle, the Thames Clipper ‘Tornado’ passes under the Millennium Footbridge of 2000, one of the many impressive new structures to be built on the 'rediscovered' Thames in recent times.
Carrying commuters at each end of the day and tourists in the middle, the Thames Clipper ‘Tornado’ passes under the Millennium Footbridge of 2000, one of the many impressive new structures to be built on the ‘rediscovered’ Thames in recent times.

The current question is, following the 2007 European Union directive transferring the granting of boatmasters’ licences from the Watermen’s Company to the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA), can the Company be part of this journey of rediscovery? The Watermen believe that a high degree of local knowledge is required on the Thames which they claim that the MCA does not fully teach. A former Master of the Company is quoted as saying words to the effect that the MCA thinks that local knowledge starts upstream of Putney while the Watermen believe that it starts at Teddington and goes downstream towards the sea. Fortunately, the same person also believes that the Company is still seen as a body of ‘huge relevance’ by all those involved in the Thames and that it still has ‘clout’. Chris feels that:

The continuing challenge for the Company is to re-position itself with the (Port of London Authority), looking at its role in training, qualifications, education and examination.

He concludes:

….after five hundred years the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company of the River Thames is poised between purpose and perpetuity.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the author of The Story of World Rowing has successfully tackled a further daunting topic, one that few would wish to attempt, not because of lack of material but because of the abundance of such. Well done Chris, Unto the Tideway Born is another successful birth.

Unto the Tideway Born: 500 Years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen is available price £35 plus £5 p&p from or click on the following link to get to an order form: Unto the Tideway Born – Order Form. For information on shipping coasts outside the UK, please contact: clerk-at-watermenshall-dot-org

One comment

  1. I have the book and agree its a brilliant achievement. It’s a shame that it is only available from Watermans Hall. It deserves a much wider exposure in my view.

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