PortCities London

Thames Watermen

Plying their river trade

Thames taxi service

Until the mid 18th century, London Bridge was the only crossing place and road transport was slow and difficult. Thames watermen provided a taxi service for people travelling along the river, or crossing to the other bank to visit theatres and other entertainments.

Using the tide to their advantage, watermen could make very fast passages by river. Other watermen rowed the private barges owned by the nobility, rich citizens and city livery companies, as well as the ceremonial royal barges. These elaborately decorated vessels became an important part of river pageantry for centuries.

A fully licensed trade

In the 16th century, Acts of Parliament regulated the watermen and wherrymen working on the tidal Thames between Gravesend and Windsor. By Pepys’s time there were 10,000 licensed watermen on the Thames.

Particular landing places on the river were designated as plying places for the watermen to pick up and put down passengers. These were next to stairs down to the river and often near bridges and inns. By the 18th century there were more than 100 such plying places in London where watermen could carry on their trade. Watermen’s stairs can still be seen along the river.

A Thames waterman’s licence badge.
View full size imageA Thames waterman’s licence badge. © NMM

By the early 19th century, free watermen were being issued with official numbered licence badges that they had to wear on their coat sleeves. These allowed passengers to identify properly trained professionals before risking a journey. Watermen who used bad language or overcharged could be fined.

Seven-year apprenticeship

Apprentice watermen signed indentures binding them to a master for seven years. Among other commitments it stipulates that:

"He shall not haunt Taverns or Play Houses, not absent himself from his Master’s Service Day or Night, unlawfully, but in all things as a faithful Apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said Master".

In return the master shall "teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and instructed, finding unto the said Apprentice Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging, and all other Necessaries according to the Custom of the City of London."

Wherries and skiffs

Thames wherries, Richmond, by E W Cooke.
View full size imageThames wherries, Richmond, by E W Cooke. © NMM
The watermen’s traditional open boats were known as wherries and had been used on the Thames since the 16th century or earlier. They were beamy clinker-built boats, often double-ended, painted green or red and with seating for passengers.

Wherries had pointed bows so that they could get close in to shore and let their passengers off without them getting their feet wet. Covers could be raised to protect the passengers from rain and sun. The Watermen’s Company tried to standardize these boats and ensure they were sound. 

Model of a Thames wherry.
View full size imageModel of a Thames wherry. © NMM

The waterman’s skiff was a later development of the wherry. It was a smaller craft with a transom or flat stern.

By 1860 there were almost no wherries left on the Thames, but skiffs had become increasingly popular for pleasure boating on the upper reaches of the river. A modern replica of a waterman’s wherry was designed and built to traditional lines in 1981 by Mark Edwards of Richmond. Called Rose in June, she is still raced on the Thames.

Inevitably, the watermen’s traditional rowing boats were eventually replaced by motor boats. This was because:

  • they were faster
  • they could carry more passengers
  • they were not dependent on the tides.

A modern role

Today’s modern Thames passenger boats are now part of the London tourist industry. They are still licensed by the Watermen’s Company and watermen also work on the Thames piers.

Queen Victoria’s Coronation
View full size imageQueen Victoria’s Coronation. © NMM
Royal Watermen are selected from the freemen of the Company and still accompany the Queen on ceremonial occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament and royal river journeys. Their distinctive red watermen’s uniforms have a silver-gilt breastplate (plastron) decorated with the Royal Arms and insignia.

In 2002, a new royal shallop Jubilant, was built to an 18th century royal barge design to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. This elegant 13-metre (45 feet) rowing craft has since been used by Royal Watermen and others to recreate historic Thames ceremonial events.

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