Progress über alles?

The ‘Golden Age of Radio’ lasted from the 1920s until the 1950s, when television took over as the main form of home entertainment (despite the claim that the pictures were better on the radio).

7 December 2017

Tim Koch tunes in his wireless into the BBC Home Service.

BBC Radio 4 (once called ‘The Home Service’) is one of Britain’s so-called ‘National Treasures’. The station says of itself:

The remit of Radio 4 is to be a mixed speech service, offering in-depth news and current affairs and a wide range of other speech output including drama, readings, comedy, factual and magazine programmes. The service should appeal to listeners seeking intelligent programmes in many genres which inform, educate and entertain.

Further, like the whole of the BBC output, it is bound by impartiality:

We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.

This does not stop the station’s critics saying that it has a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ bias, and the more unreconstructed of the naysayers used to suggest that the initialism ‘BBC’ actually stood for ‘Buggers Broadcasting Communism’.

John Snagge pictured in 1944. He was not only ‘The Voice of the Boat Race’ between 1931 and 1980, he also had a 38-year career as a BBC newsreader and commentator.

Clearly, Radio 4’s mission to produce intelligent and impartial programmes puts it out of step with modern broadcasting and it has been criticised for the apparent sin of being ‘too middle class’ (in fact, the station makes great efforts to appeal to its non-stereotypical audience).

A good example of a Radio 4 programme that ‘informs, educates and entertains’ is “The Long View”, a series in which episodes from history are compared with current events in an attempt to see what can be learned from the past. Examples of previous programmes range from the serious to the quirky. The former include comparisons of the weakened premierships of Theresa May now and of Lord Rosebery in 1894; Trump’s border wall and the Great Hedge of India of the 1840s; and online privacy and the interception of mail in the 17th century. Less seriously, there have been programmes on modern online dating and a social network of 1898; the boom in coffee shops today and in the 18th century; and the current popularity of electronic cigarettes and the use of snuff in the 1600s. Best of all for HTBS Types, a recent programme looked at the arrival of Uber, the ‘global transportation technology company’, and the desperate situation of London’s 18th-century watermen.

In this painting of c.1785, the waterman in his coat and badge seems to be trying to get the ladies to cross the river in the traditional manner in his boat, and not use the newly built bridge in the background. The bridge may have levied a toll on all who used it, so the waterman could only match or undercut this price.

The programme, “The rise of Uber and the plight of London’s watermen”, compares the situation of the drivers of the Capital’s famous black cabs today with the fate of London’s watermen in the 1700s. For hundreds of years, watermen had a monopoly on carrying people along and across the Thames until advances in technology brought competition from coaches, then bridges, and then steam boats. In those days, watermen lost their jobs and livelihood, and today technology threatens those who work in the traditional taxi business. Further, ‘Uber drivers’ will, in turn, soon have to face the rise of the driverless car. As technologies advance, the programme explored what history can tell us about how today’s workers might fare in the near future. It can be listened to for an indefinite period on the BBC’s ‘on demand’ service, iPlayer. Unlike the UK only television version, iPlayer radio can be accessed all over the world. Click here to enjoy a programme that really does ‘educate, inform and entertain’.

As these two prints seem to show, in the 17th century, watermen had abundant trade.

Whatever the fate of taxi drivers in the future, they are unlikely to suffer as much as did the watermen in the past. In 1851, Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor. In the section on the Thames watermen, he wrote:

The character of the Thames watermen in the last century was what might have been expected from slightly-informed, or uninformed, and not unprosperous men. They were hospitable and hearty one to another, and to their neighbours on shore; civil to such fares as were civil to them, especially if they hoped for an extra sixpence; but often saucy, abusive, and even sarcastic….

A ‘saucy’ waterman ogling a lady passenger (1790).
‘Saucy’ watermen assailing potential fares (1812).

The present race of watermen have, I am assured, lost the sauciness…. that distinguished their predecessors. They are mostly patient, plodding men, enduring poverty heroically, and shrinking far more than many other classes from any application for parish relief… They used to drink quantities of beer, but now, from the stress of altered circumstances, they are generally temperate men… 

A ‘patient and plodding’ waterman, respectfully soliciting for fares in 1807.
Still ‘patient and plodding’ in 1825.
The same in 1855.

From one of the watermen, plying near the Tower, I had the following statement:

‘In my father’s time… a waterman’s was a jolly life. He earned 15 shillings (75 pence) to 18 shillings (90 pence) a-day, and spent it accordingly. When I first started for myself, twenty-eight years ago, I made 12 shillings (60 pence) to 14 shillings (70 pence) a-day, more than I make in a week now, but that was before steamers. Many of us watermen saved money then, but now we’re starving’. 

In the days when, if you did not work, you did not eat, alternative sources of income were needed when times were bad. Watermen had a few options to make money in different ways.

In the early days of fire insurance in the 17th century, the insurers realised that, in order to minimise their payouts and encourage new subscribers, it was in their interest to organise and maintain some sort of fire brigade – though only to extinguish fires in properties that they insured. These buildings were distinguished with a ‘fire mark’, a company plaque with a policy number underneath.

The fire mark of the Sun Fire Office, established in 1710.

For some reason, in London, these early firefighters were largely recruited from the ranks of watermen.

‘Waterman’ from “Costumes of the Lower Orders of the Metropolis” by T. L. Busby (1820). His coat and badge belongs to the Sun Fire Office.
Badge worn on the coat of watermen working for the Union Fire Insurance Company.

If the painting below is any guide, to become one of the personal watermen of an aristocrat was a job to be envied.

This “Portrait of a waterman in the service of the Earl of Altamont” by George Morland (1763 – 1804) shows a well-fed man enjoying beer, tobacco and bread. Sadly for the subject of the picture, as road transport improved, the practice of the wealthy retaining personal watermen was soon to end.

With all their aquatic skills, watermen were always in demand by the Royal Navy. As I have recently pointed out, most seamen were volunteers, and watermen were usually exempt from the ‘Press Gang’ and forced service at sea.

In “The Waterman”, an opera of 1794, a waterman returns home after spending years at sea, only to find that, in his absence, his wife (‘Pretty Poll of Putney’) had been ‘looked after’ by another of his trade, Joe, a little too well. Picture: National Library of Scotland.

Of course, there was always gambling as a way to make money, particularly when the bet was on ‘a sure thing’ – such as boxer and former waterman, Jack Broughton.

The pugilist, Jack Broughton, in 1767. He had won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1730.

Boxing Monthly has written of Broughton: 

An impressive physical specimen of around 14 stone, Broughton’s past endeavours on the River Thames accounted for his imposing build and wide, well-developed shoulder muscles. As well as being the fiercest and most successful pugilistic competitor of his day, Broughton was also a sporting innovator – his rules for prize-fighting, published in 1743 and widely adopted thereafter – would form the regulatory basis for the sport until the development of London Prize Ring Rules almost 100 years later.

Broughton had been English boxing champion for eighteen years when he was unexpectedly and suddenly beaten by Slack, a butcher. Picture: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

In the above print of 1750, “The Butchers Triumph, or the Waterman in the Dumps”, the butchers on the left wave bones and cleavers in celebration, all ready to collect their winnings, having bet on their man, Slack. On the right, the watermen have to deal with the fact that the money that they put on Broughton has been lost: ‘The Water-Rats now look all pale and dull, One’s forced to sell his boat, one pawn his Scull….. Now mourns the Coat and Badge and now the Cap, By laying Odds all lost in one curst slap’.

The Waterman, it seems, could never win.

A more thorough account of the Watermen’s plight is in Chris Dodd’s Unto the Tideway Born: 500 Years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen.

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