Waterborne Cabbies

In the 16th Century the Company of Watermen were the equivalent to today’s cabbies. Created by an Act of Parliament in 1556 and given a grant of a Royal Patient in 1585, their trade like ours today was carefully licensed. They would ply for hire from designated locations along the Thames, with the cry of “Oars! Oars!” which later was forbidden as the cry could be confused by tourists with “Whores! Whores!”

[W]hen the watermen were not transporting people they would turn their hand to salvage and found a brisk trade in finding bodies, either suicides or those who’d accidentally drowned or been murdered. By a curious quirk of history, the origins of which are now lost, bodies were almost always landed on the south side of the river because the authorities would pay a shilling for a body landed in Southwark but only sixpence for one landed on the north bank. Clearly waterborne cabbies were not averse to “going south of the river” in those days.

A nice little earner would be from the City to as far up river as Hampton Court, and by 1700 over 10,000 watermen plied for hire.

The trade was not without its dangers; if you wanted to travel downstream below London Bridge you risked life and limb. A major feature of London Bridge was the effect it had on the Thames. The location of the bridge’s 19 timber pier supports (called starlings) was determined by riverbed conditions and this meant that they were varied in spacing across the river. Consequently, the arch spans varied in size too and boats navigating the arches encountered different currents and river conditions at each one. Some were more dangerous than others. Over the years, boatmen christened the arches with various names, such as Gut, Lock and Long Entry.

Navigating through these arches in a boat could be very dangerous because the closeness and number of starlings backed up the river water, creating rapids. In some places the drop in water height from one side of the bridge to the other was more than the height of a man. Many people lost their lives “shooting” the bridge and “Drowned at the bridge” became a common entry in the registers at nearby graveyards.

Most Londoners took Cardinal Wolsey example. On his frequent visits to Greenwich to see Henry VIII, he would have his barge stopped above the bridge and get out and travel to Billingsgate by mule, where he would rejoin his barge, providing it had successfully negotiated the rapids.

The illustration is a detail from an artistic reconstruction of Old London Bridge based on an engraving from approximately 1600 by John Norden available from Old London Reconstructed. As you can see the bridge was entirely built up; there were houses, businesses, even a chapel, perched on the bridge clear across the Thames. Additional information from Engineering Timelines and Scribalterror.Blogs.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th June 2009

6 thoughts on “Waterborne Cabbies”

  1. Do you remember a line in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (I think that’s where it was). ‘I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat last week …..’
    In 2008 my husband received a PhD for his dissertation on ‘Watermen and Lightermen of the Upper Tidal Thames’ .


    1. It certainly was in Shakespeare in Love, it’s my favourite film. The scene starts with:
      Will: follow that boat!
      Boatman: Right you are, guv’nor!… I know your face. Are you an actor?

      Congratulations to your husband with his choice of dissertation, what an interesting historical subject.


  2. By coincidence I was looking at the early years of the Hackney carriage trade. A petition against the hackney coachman from the watermen in 1634 ended with them asking for a monopoly on carrying people between Gravesend and Windsor to prevent the youth of both sexes being “transformed into priests, monks, friars and nuns.”!


  3. Different Watermen. Rather confusingly, the men who looked after the horses on the cab and coach stands, whilst the driver was in the pub, were also called watermen. They were actually badged and licensed seven years before the drivers. From about 1853 they were pseudo-CO’s and could, and often did, report drivers to the police.


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