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Records of the Company
of Watermen and Lightermen

at the Institute of Historical Research - University of London.

saved from http://www.history.ac.uk/gh/water.htm

©2006 University of London

Until the mid eighteenth century London Bridge or boat were the only means by which to cross the Thames. Because of the potential difficulties this posed the Corporation of London was appointed Conservator of the Thames in 1193, its duties including the licensing of boat operators on the river. There is evidence to suggest that the Corporation passed regulations in 1370 governing watermen, ie those who carried people by boat across the river. Acts to regulate charges were also passed by Parliament in 1514 and 1555 to make the passenger safe, both in the durability of the boat and in the reliability of its owner.

The Company of Watermen was formed in order to put an end to what a 1566 Act of Parliament calls divers and many misfortunes and mischances, caused by evil and ignorant persons who robbed and spoiled of their [passengers'] goods, and also drowned them. Its original function thus differs from the City livery companies in that it existed not only to protect the economic interests of its members but also to bring them and their activities under control. Elizabeth I granted the company its arms in 1585, while the ordinances performed the function of a charter. This was eventually granted in 1827.

The structure of the company was that of a fellowship. Officers empowered to license operators were not elected by members but appointed by the Lord Mayor. In 1641, following a twenty year campaign, the wishes of ordinary members were taken into account; licensed watermen elected 55 assistants who nominated twenty candidates for office. Out of these twenty the Lord Mayor appointed four to join the previous year's four who continued in office. Measures to promote safety and efficency soon appeared; a system of 1696, for instance, meant that boats and their owners had to bear a number and operate from an approved plying place. Printed tables of fares became an annual publication by the early eighteenth century.

In 1700 the lightermen, i.e. those who unloaded cargo from ships and carried it into port by lighter, joined the watermen, having formerly been members of the Woodmongers' Company. In the long run this greatly benefited the company, if not the watermen themselves, since the bridge building programme of the late eighteenth century and the introduction of steamships in the early nineteenth meant a decline in demand for the waterman's skills. With the expansion of the Port of London, on the other hand, the lightermen flourished.

The company differs from the City livery companies in several ways. Its influence on the Thames stretched from Gravesend to Windsor, so that, unlike most of the City livery companies, its members were often drawn from areas some considerable distance from the City of London. Since the Thames Conservancy Act of 1857 the western limit of jurisdiction has been Teddington Lock. Also, the company has no livery. One reason for this might be that the freedom of the City that the liveried would enjoy would exempt them from impressment into the Navy -a fate inflicted upon many members of the company from the fourteenth century. Guildhall Library Ms 10799 contains correspondence with the Admiralty relating to impressment and the compilation of a list of those members eligible for service in 1855, while Ms 6386 records the names of 105 company members killed or invalided in action in the early nineteenth century.

Although this tradition is no longer practised, others flourish. The will of Thomas Doggett (a Drury Lane comedian), dated September 1721, provided for a scarlet coat and a silver badge with a representation of Liberty on it to be awarded annually by the Fishmongers' Company; these were then to be rowed for by six watermen within a year of completing their apprenticeships. The race, from The Swan, London Bridge, to The Swan, Chelsea, has taken place annually ever since, save the war years. Guildhall Library Ms 7269 (Fishmongers' Company: papers relating to the Doggett prize, 1721-1832) includes some lists of competitors and winners, 1815-32. A complete list of winners, 1780-1880, is available in the Autumn 1991 issue of Cockney Ancestor and an incomplete list, 1902-1963, in Guildhall Library Pam 11200 ( Fishmongers' Company: programme for Livery Receptions, 1964), both available in the Printed Books Section of the Library. A list of winners 1780-2003 may be found in the Manuscripts Section's leaflet Thomas Doggett's Coat and Badge Race. Further information about the race can be found at www.portcities.org.uk, www.ParishRegister.com and on the Company's own website.

It is less well-known that there was a Watermen’s School in Putney, founded in 1684 by Thomas Martyn after he had been rescued from the river. 20 sons of local Putney watermen were admitted when the school opened in June 1718. The school was situated in Southfield House at the junction of Oxford Road and Putney Bridge Road. This building was demolished in 1887 to make way for the extension of the District Line. The school moved to new premises, but closed in 1911. The Thomas Foundation still exists and today provides grants for the sons and daughters of watermen. The surviving documents of Thomas Martyn’s Charity School 1716-1977 are held by Wandsworth Museum, The Courthouse, 11 Garratt Lane, London SW18 4AG. Please note that the permission of the Foundation is required for access to the archives. Details are available from Wandsworth Museum.

The company's archives

The records of the Watermen and Lightermen's Company held by the Manuscripts Section of Guildhall Library reflect its rich and diverse history. As well as court and committee minutes, financial records and letter books, there are records of the company's estates and charities, in particular its almhouses at Ditchling, Sussex and its former almshouses at Penge, Kent.

There is also much of interest for the family historian. The trades of waterman and lighterman frequently continued through several generations of a family and so records can often be traced through a long span of years. Those admitted to the freedom of the company did so, until the late nineteenth century, exclusively through apprenticeship, and so it is usually best to begin a search for a freeman in the apprenticeship records. Useful records for family historians include the following:

Many of the company's records are available for consultation on a self-service basis, in the form of microfilm, from which printouts may be made (by personal callers only). A handlist of the records is available to readers in the reading room. Any enquiries concerning records not held by the Library should be addressed to The Clerk, Watermen's Hall, 16 St Mary at Hill, London EC2R 8EE.

Name indexes of apprentice bindings, 1692-1949, apprentices affidavits, 1759-1949, and contract licences, 1865-1926 have been compiled by R.J. Cottrell of 19 Bellevue Road, Bexleyheath, Kent DA6 8ND (e-mail: RJCindex@aol.com). He charges £5.00 to search under one surname in the bindings' index, and £1.00 to search for an individual name in the affidavits' index (please make cheques payable to Trueflare Ltd and enclose a large SAE with your request). Microfiche copies of the indexes are available in the Manuscripts and Printed Books Sections of the Library.

The Library holds a number of published works on the company, which can be consulted in the Printed Books Section of Guildhall Library. Also of interest is Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which includes 19th century interviews with watermen and lightermen.

The Corporation of Trinity House also licensed watermen. These men were ex-mariners and therefore became watermen in their 30's, 40's, 50's or 60's rather than at 21. They were also much fewer in number than the Company's watermen. The only surviving register of Trinity House watermen covers 1829-64 (Ms 30335).

The Manuscripts Section of the Library also holds the records of over 75 City livery companies which may be consulted by members of the public without prior formality. A handlist of livery company holdings is on sale in the Library Bookshop.

Last updated January 2006

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Text by Alf Allen 1999. Edited and spell-checked by Mike Allen 2003.
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