PortCities London

Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980


Free water clause

London lighterman, circa 1910.
View full size imageLondon lighterman, c. 1910. © NMM

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 lighter loaded with packing cases.
View full size imageA lighter loaded with packing cases. © NMM
They were thus able to enter the docks and receive or deliver goods directly to or from vessels. This damaged the profitability of the docks and ensured that the volume of traffic handled by lightermen grew steadily throughout the 19th century.


High status

Lighter entering the Surrey Canal Lock from the Greenland Dock.
View full size imageLighter entering the Surrey Canal Lock from the Greenland Dock. © NMM
Although Lightermen worked long hours, they enjoyed high status and considerable independence. The lightermen had an important voice in the running of the Port of London right up until the final closure of the docks in the 1980s. Entry to the trade was tightly controlled and each man had to serve an apprenticeship of between two and seven years.

A family affair

Discharging paper from Canada into a lighter in the Royal Docks.
View full size imageDischarging paper from Canada into a lighter in the Royal Docks. © NMM

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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