Newly Admitted Watermen: Able to Commit Fornication or Contract Matrimony

Hanging in Waterman’s Hall, a painting of Thomas Mann, ‘The Honest Waterman’ (1747-1822). Mann does not seem too happy – even though he is free of the restrictions traditionally placed upon those apprenticed to work the Thames.
Hanging in Waterman’s Hall, a painting of Thomas Mann, ‘The Honest Waterman’ (1747-1822). Mann does not seem too happy – even though he is free of the restrictions traditionally placed upon those apprenticed to work the Thames.

29 August 2016

Tim Koch reports from Waterman’s Hall:

In July, I was invited to witness the freeing of nine men from Servitude and to see one benefiting from Patrimony. While this sounds like a dramatic scene from a novel by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, it was, in fact, a ‘Court of Admission’, a delightful ceremony at Waterman’s Hall in London where new members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames are admitted into the ancient trade guild. As regular HTBS readers will know, the regulation of those carrying goods and people on London’s river has been going on for more than 500 years. From earliest times, Londoners had always had a need for men to carry them and their goods both across and along the Thames. ‘Across’ as for many years there was only one bridge to get from bank to bank and ‘along’ as what roads that did exist were slow, uncomfortable and dangerous – but a skilled oarsman in a suitable craft on a good tide could transport people and heavy loads in speed, comfort and relative security. Watermen were crucial to keeping London working and this was a situation that many unfairly exploited, leading to some of the earliest examples of ‘state intervention’. In 1514, Henry VIII regulated the fares that they charged and a further Act of 1555 led to the foundation of the Company of Watermen, made up of those who had served a long apprenticeship under an experienced and respectable Master, the only people allowed to work the Thames. The Lightermen (those who carry goods and cargo as opposed to passengers) joined the Company in 1700.

The exterior of Waterman’s Hall, St Mary-at-Hill, London EC3.
The exterior of Waterman’s Hall, St Mary-at-Hill, London EC3.

Waterman’s hall dates from 1780. Originally a ‘small but beautiful’ building in the Georgian style, comprising a Court Room, Parlour and offices, in 1983 it was extended to adapt to modern requirements and included a more substantial dining and meeting facility, the Freemen’s Room. Tours can be made and the Hall is available for hire and for dining.

Some exterior details of the Hall:

The Company’s Coat of Arms and Old Father Thames.
The Company’s Coat of Arms and Old Father Thames.
A flexible aquatic creature.
A flexible aquatic creature.
Embellishments to the front door.
Embellishments to the front door.

In modern times there are four ways to become a member of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen: to own a commercial craft registered with the Port of London; to have a connection with the Thames or the Company; to have a father who was a member of the Company when you were born (Patrimony); or to be a ‘Journeyman Freeman of the Company’. Historically, the only way to become a ‘Journeyman Freeman’ was to serve the traditional five-year apprenticeship. However, following a 2007 European Union directive, the ‘Boatmasters’ Licence’ came into existence, and this can also be obtained by doing a two-year course run by the Marine and Coastguard Agency. The Watermen’s Company holds that this generic course for ‘trainees’ does not teach local knowledge of the tidal Thames that ‘apprentices’ learn under their system.

The entrance to Waterman’s Hall displaying decorated backboards from Thames Skiffs
The entrance to Waterman’s Hall displaying decorated backboards from Thames Skiffs

At the Court of Admission held on 11 July, I was the guest of HTBS contributor, Daniel Walker, the one man out of the ten who was to be admitted under ‘Patrimony’. His grandfather, FE Walker was a Journeyman Freeman (qualified to work the river) who gained his ‘freedom’ in 1910. Daniel’s father, FJR Walker, was a ‘Craft Owning Freeman’ (not apprentice served but the owner of commercial craft registered with the Port of London) who became a member of the Company in 1941. More of the Walkers later.

A view of the ground floor from the staircase of Waterman’s Hall. The entrance passage is to the left, the ‘Parlour’ (meeting room) is to the right.
A view of the ground floor from the staircase of Waterman’s Hall. The entrance passage is to the left, the ‘Parlour’ (meeting room) is to the right.
Some treasures on display in the Parlour.
Some treasures on display in the Parlour.

Apart from Daniel, the others due to be admitted had, as potential Journeymen Freemen beginning their period of ‘servitude’, attended a ‘Court of Binding’ some years previously. The Watermen’s website explains:

It is simply a ceremony at which the apprentices or trainees enter into a commitment with the Company to serve an agreed period of time as an apprentice or as a trainee. For an apprentice, it is likely to be 5 years and the Master or mentor will join in by committing themselves to help and assist the apprentice. For a trainee, the period will be at least 2 years. It is a lovely ceremony to which parents and friends are invited to come and support the apprentices and trainees.

When finished their training, they attend a ‘Court of Admission’:

Admission is another ceremony when an apprentice or trainee who, having completed their period of binding, and having received their Tier 1, Level 2 Boatmaster’s Licence with at least two specialist endorsements and having been examined by the Company for their local knowledge, are admitted to the Freedom of the Company. In addition, they are able to receive their Watermen’s and/or Lightermen’s Certificates. Again parents and friends are invited to come and support the apprentices and trainees.

In the Court Room, Daniel Walker takes the oath at the Court of Admission in front of the Master (obscured), his Wardens and the other officers.
In the Court Room, Daniel Walker takes the oath at the Court of Admission in front of the Master (obscured), his Wardens and the other officers.

The new members of the Company enter the Court Room one at a time to take their oath. When they have all done this, they enter the room together for a charming end to the formal proceedings, the drinking of beer from the communal ‘Batchelor’s Bowl’ (actually a large silver cup). It may still technically be the case but, certainly when Daniel’s grandfather became an apprentice in 1905, he signed Indentures saying, amongst other things, he agreed that, during his five year apprenticeship:

..…the said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve……, his Secrets keep, his lawful Commandments every where gladly do; He shall do no damage to his said master nor see it done by others……. He shall not waste the goods of his Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any; He shall not commit Fornication nor contract Matrimony within the said Term; He shall not play at Cards, Dice, Tables, nor any unlawful games….. He shall not haunt Taverns nor Play-Houses, nor absent himself from his Master’s Service Day nor Night….. 

Thus, the drinking of beer from the Batchelor’s Bowl was the first alcohol that the new made Waterman should have drunk (presumably, they made their own arrangements for matrimony and fornication).

The Master shows the new Watermen how to drink beer.
The Master shows the new Watermen how to drink beer.
Some get the taste quickly…..
Some get the taste quickly…..
….. others are not too sure.
….. others are not too sure.
The formal part of the day over, new member of the Company, George McCarthy (centre), poses with cousin Harry (left) and uncle Simon (right). George competed in his first Doggett’s a week later, Harry won the Coat and Badge in 2014, Simon (here in the robes of Junior Warden) in 1984 and his brother, Jeremy, in 1992.
The formal part of the day over, new member of the Company, George McCarthy (centre), poses with cousin Harry (left) and uncle Simon (right). George competed in his first Doggett’s a week later, Harry won the Coat and Badge in 2014, Simon (here in the robes of Junior Warden) in 1984 and his brother, Jeremy, in 1992.
Alfie Anderson with his certificate. He came second in the Doggett’s a week later.
Alfie Anderson with his certificate. He came second in the Doggett’s a week later.
Myself with Daniel and his partner, Kate, a former Captain of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club. Daniel is holding his Waterman’s Certificate.
Myself with Daniel and his partner, Kate, a former Captain of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club. Daniel is holding his Waterman’s Certificate.

As already stated, Daniel is the third generation of his family to have a connection to the Thames and to be a Waterman. He started rowing at school in Norfolk and continued while at the University of London where he won the Thames Cup at Henley in 1989. He is now a British Rowing umpire. He and his brother Richard have some nice mementoes relating to both their grandfather’s and father’s careers on the river.

1955. Top: Daniel’s father, Frederick John Ridley Walker, a ‘Craft Owning Freeman’ (not apprentice served but the owner of commercial craft registered with the Port of London). He became a member of the Company in 1941. Below: Daniel’s grandfather, Frederick Ernest Walker, a Journeyman Freeman (qualified to work the river). Bound: 1905. Master: Frederick William Burwood, West Ham. Freedom: 1910.
1955. Top: Daniel’s father, Frederick John Ridley Walker, a ‘Craft Owning Freeman’ (not apprentice served but the owner of commercial craft registered with the Port of London). He became a member of the Company in 1941. Below: Daniel’s grandfather, Frederick Ernest Walker, a Journeyman Freeman (qualified to work the river). Bound: 1905. Master: Frederick William Burwood, West Ham. Freedom: 1910.
FE Walker’s certificate of indenture to FW Burwood, dated 1905.
FE Walker’s certificate of indenture to FW Burwood, dated 1905.
FE Walker’s ‘Apprentice’s License’, dated 1907. This seems to allow him to work without supervision at the discretion of his Master.
FE Walker’s ‘Apprentice’s License’, dated 1907. This seems to allow him to work without supervision at the discretion of his Master.
FE Walker’s Waterman’s Certificate, dated 1910.
FE Walker’s Waterman’s Certificate, dated 1910.
FE Walker’s business card from the company that he formed in 1920.
FE Walker’s business card from the company that he formed in 1920.

Daniel gives a brief history of the company founded by his grandfather:

The company was formed in 1920, originally called Wilders & Walker, renamed FE Walker Ltd in 1924 when Wilders resigned. Its business was mainly lighterage – transporting materials like soap, sugar, tallow, oil and so on. I have a letter from my father dated 1940 offering his services to the Water Transport Section of the Royal Engineers, then being formed, which describes their activities. It also seemed to be involved in a passenger service to/from Westminster Pier and Greenwich in partnership with a firm called RG Odell Ltd.

Daniel’s brother, Richard, adds:

Granddad once told me that at one period the company’s main business was removing what he called ‘condemned fish’ from old Billingsgate Market for processing into I’m not sure what. 

In support of this, Richard has found a 1924 record of Wilders & Walker being warned by the Medical Officer of Health for the Port of London for leaving ‘an offensive cargo, to wit, fish refuse’, within the Port Sanitary Authority for longer than 48 hours, in the lighter ‘Thanet’!

FE Walker owned a series of tugs named ‘Dart’ starting with the 1870 built Dart I in 1920. This was scrapped in 1926 but Dart II was launched in 1927 and was featured in The Motor Boat magazine.

Dart II in 1927.
Dart II in 1927.

The docks thrived up until the 1950s, despite suffering extremely severe bomb damage during the Second World War. There is a record of Walker’s flourishing in 1958 when they had 31 barges and needed to hire 15 more. In the preceding three years, two more ‘Darts’ had been built, ‘III’ in 1955 and ‘IV’ in 1957.

Dart III, 1955.
Dart IV, 1957.
A Walker barge, place and date unknown.
A Walker barge, place and date unknown.

FE Walker Ltd went into liquidation in 1971, the firm’s demise mirroring the decline of the London Docks. As I said in my piece on the end of the Port of London, ‘a 300-year-old way of life ended in less than a generation’.

2 comments

  1. Fascinating, I could read articles like this all day long ,especially when a few b&w photo’s are thrown in for good measure. Thank you, Tim.

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