Unlike today’s cabbies the London watermen were not adverse to going ’South of The River’.
In fact many were residents of the South Bank or Wapping.
In their open black boats exposed to the elements, working on the turbulent river
they were a hardy breed who ferried
people across the Thames in all weathers.
[A]s with Licensed London cabbies today they were regulated and required to wear a badge to denote their qualifications. Restricted in number and proud of their ancestry they formed a guild near Garlickhythe.
Working upstream of London Bridge it was a decent option for someone with little capital who had substantial physical strength. The rapids between the starlings of London Bridge were a particular hazard; one waterman freezing to death in 1771 after his boat became caught in ice forming under the bridge.
The papers reported:
A waterman . . . had his boat jammed in between the ice and could not get on shore, and no waterman dare venture to his assistance. He was almost speechless last night and it is thought he cannot survive long.
A week later, the papers reported:
The Body of Jacob Urwin the Waterman who was unfortunately drowned last week at London Bridge was drive up with the Tide on a shoal of Ice, and brought ashore at Monsoon Dock.
Much like today watermen would queue – or rank in today’s parlance – at various river stairs, often fighting with unlicensed boatmen, and like today questioning the safety of the interlopers.
Known for being rowdy and hurling abuse at passing craft they had curious culinary taste of ’broil’d red herring’ and ’bread and cheese and onions’. Presumably their customers would spend as little time in their company.
This manner of travel, particularly in summer, was the least worst alternative. Portuguese merchant Don Manuel Gonzales was quoted:
The pleasantest way of moving from one end of the town to the other in summer time, is by water, in that spacious gentle stream, the Thames, in which you travel two miles for six-pence, if you have two watermen, and for three-pence if you have but one: and to any village up or down the river, you go with company for a trifle.
After a 7 year apprenticeship the waterman obtained their ’freedom’ allowing him to work for his own account. But apart from the River’s hazards, a further peril awaited them.
In 1716 the world’s earliest surviving competitive race was started which had the added bonus of immunity from the press gang for the winner.
Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Every year the new journeymen would race the Doggetts Coat & Badge from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, it was to be the beginning of rowing races on the Thames.
A pub on the South Bank at Blackfriars Bridge – Doggetts – commemorates the race and the watermen.
Picture: When ferrying passengers across the river became obsolete as more bridges spanned the Thames Georgian watermen became lighterman, above is one taken in the 1950. Picture by Organized Rage.