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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Great article Tim
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.
A most interesting article – well worth reading!
Thank you for this great post, I’m enjoying learning about this culture of *watermen. I found my forefather David Misplee (1684 – 1716) doing what they do – which sparked my interest. Love your work!