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Uniforms of the Port of London

London was the world's largest port, the centre of global finance and the heart of the vast British Empire. As a result, its streets were always teeming with merchants, dockers, porters, sailors, watermen, pilots and a hundred other occupations. The gallery below looks at some of the uniforms that these people would have worn.

Trinity House full dress coat, 1866 pattern.

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Trinity House full dress coat, 1866 pattern.
For hundreds of years the Corporation of Trinity House has provided aids to help sailors navigate. These have ranged from storm-lashed lighthouses to lightvessels and buoys in the English Channel. Trinity House has also served as a deep sea pilotage authority and a charitable organisation for the safety, welfare and training of mariners. The members of Trinity House were known as Brethren. They had to wear a distinctive uniform while on duty at the Corporation's headquarters at Trinity Square, near the Tower of London.

Thames waterman's uniform, 1920.

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Thames waterman's uniform, 1920.
Watermen rowed passengers up and down the Thames. They were the equivalent of water taxis. An important social event for watermen was the Doggett Coat and Badge Race, the oldest annual sporting event in Britain, and begun in 1715 to commemorate the first anniversary of the accession of George I to the throne. It was organised by Thomas Doggett, an actor and comedian. The race starts at London Bridge and finishes in Chelsea, and is still held to this day. The winner has the honour of wearing the scarlet coat, breeches and silver arm badge that are based on the original costume of an 18th-century waterman.
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Uniform of East India Company lieutenant, c. 1830.

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Uniform of East India Company lieutenant, c. 1830.
Officers of East India Company ships - which were known as East Indiamen - were well-respected professionals. The ships they sailed brought tea, silks and spices back to London from India and the Far East. The ships were well-armed, both to protect themselves from high-seas piracy, and to be able to resist attacks from other European vessels. The Company allowed the officers on board a part of the cargo space for their own personal use, and many were thus able to retire very wealthy men.

Royal Marines officer's coatee, c. 1830.

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Royal Marines officer's coatee, c. 1830.
Besides having a role as shipboard soldiers, marines in the 18th and 19th centuries were also used as a police force on British warships. They were called out to quell disturbances. They also guarded prisoners on the ship and helped man the guns. Between 1805 and 1869, Woolwich was the seat of a division of the Royal Marines. A barracks and a hospital were both built in the town. The three other divisions were at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.
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Greenwich Hospital uniform, 1860 pattern.

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Greenwich Hospital uniform, 1860 pattern.
The Royal Hospital for Seamen was founded by William III and Mary II in 1694 for the relief of disabled and destitute sailors. Without other means of support, such men were often reduced to begging in order to survive. Pensioners were admitted from 1705 and originally wore a uniform of dark grey with a blue lining and brass buttons. The colour of the uniform was then changed to brown and then finally blue. Throughout the 18th century, the Hospital met an acute need, reaching its highest level of care during the Napoleonic Wars. By 1814, the original provision for 100 pensioners had grown to 2710.

Royal Hospital School uniform, 1901 pattern.

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Royal Hospital School uniform, 1901 pattern.
The Royal Hospital School at Greenwich was Britain's largest school of navigation and seamanship. From 1821 to 1933 it occupied the Queen's House and the other buildings that are now the National Maritime Museum. Boys were accepted into the school on the understanding that they would then join the Royal or Merchant Navy. They entered between the ages of five and twelve. On arrival they were given a medical check and assigned a number, a group (named after a famous admiral) and a nautical uniform such as the example shown here.
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Glossary
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Find out more
StoriesTrinity House
Showing the way
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GalleriesMasters, Deputy Masters and Elder Brethren of Trinity House
Several of the men who served the Corporation of Trinity House
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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