The Jolly Young Waterman

21 July 2016

HTBS good friend and occasional contributor, Peter Mallory, author of The Sport of Rowing (2011) in four volumes, is presently researching the early days of “gentlemen amateur” rowing on the Thames Tideway during the first half of the 19th century. Those were also the waning days of the professional Thames waterman, whose plight was well described in the following poem from 4 September 1831 issue of Bell’s Life in London.

In a comment about the poem “The Jolly Young Waterman”, Mallory writes: ‘In a section of the newspaper titled “Gallery of Comicalities,” this poem and the accompanying portrait represents a not particularly flattering but nevertheless affectionate caricature of the Cockney-speaking, hard-working men who for centuries had rowed their customers up, down and across the River Thames, now watching their livelihoods endangered by ever more bridges and steam power.

The Jolly Young Waterman



A boat, my master, to the shores,
Of Battersea or Fulham ?
And if you vish a pair of oars,
An’t I the boy to pull ‘em ?

Vith these new bridges and vith steam,
Folks kick up such a fuss,
There’s scarce a WHERRY in the stream,
‘Tis WERRY hard on us.

No vonder that our cares we drown,
Of heavy in a cup ;
For first these steamers run us down,
And then they pulls us up.

Our gains will scarce support a draught
Of liquor down our throat ;
And neither we, nor yet our craft,
Can keep ourselves afloat.

Some say, we are a worthless set,
As obstinate as dull,
Because, as how, we cannot get
A living by our SCULL.

Improvement’s march is sure and slow,
And never can be stopping ;
But that there tunnel was no go,
Bored by Brunel at Wapping. [1]

Confusion and bad luck, I say,
To all these precious schemers—
May every bridge be swept away,
And Satan seize the steamers !

A plague on all reforming chaps—
I vishes they were dead ;
And then a vaterman, perhaps,
Might arn a bit of bread.


[1] In 1825, Engineer Mark Brunel began digging a tunnel between the neighborhoods of Rotherhithe and Wapping under the busy harbor of London. The tunnel flooded in 1827 and again the following year, killing six workers. Financial problems followed, and the project was abandoned in August of 1828. That was the situation when this poem was written. Boring later resumed in 1836, and despite fires and floods, the tunnel was completed in 1841. It is still in use today.

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