Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
Free water clause
The Lightermen conveyed goods between the ships and the quayside. They took their name from this process of ‘lightening’ the ship.
Lightermen had worked from the wharves for centuries, but secured the ‘free water clause’ exempting them from charges in the enclosed docks that were built during the 19th century.
A family affair
Jobs as lightermen or watermen were often passed down the generations. Mr Tonks, a Greenleigh lighterman during the 1950s, explained why his 13-year-old son would follow in his footsteps:
‘I’m going to try and make my son a waterman – it’s a skilled trade. I’ve applied to the union branch and with any luck he’ll be taken on as an apprentice when he’s 15 and by the time he’s 20 he’ll have a good trade in his hands. He’ll even have to get a certificate for swimming. The wages of watermen and lightermen aren’t much better than dockers, but they’re more regular. It’s a more secure job’.
M Young and P. Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London, (Penguin, London, 1957).
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