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Thames Watermen

Thames Watermen
History of London Watermen
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History of London Watermen

Need for regulation

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By Elizabethan times Thames watermen had become some of the most important tradesmen in London. But work on the river could be dangerous for poorly qualified men in unsuitable boats. Accidents were frequent, and passengers were often overcharged.

Porcelain figure of a Thames waterman.
View full size imagePorcelain figure of a Thames waterman. © NMM

In 1514, in Henry VIII’s reign, Parliament found it necessary to introduce an Act to regulate watermen’s fares. A further Act of 1555 led to the foundation of the Company of Watermen and the introduction of apprenticeships on the river. The original one-year waterman’s apprenticeship became seven years in 1603.




The Company of Watermen and Lightermen

Coat of Arms of the Watermen’s Company.
View full size imageCoat of Arms of the Watermen’s Company. © NMM
In 1585 Elizabeth I granted the Company its own coat of arms showing the tools of the watermen’s trade, and soon afterwards their first Hall was built. Then in 1700, another group of river workers, the lightermen, who carried goods rather than passengers, joined with the Company. It became the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, a title it still holds. The Company moved to its present Hall in 1780.

Watermen flourished in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and many popular prints and ceramic figures illustrate their activities. Some of these caricatures make fun of the watermen’s rivalry when touting for passengers and the reputation of the less scrupulous for overcharging.

The miseries of London ... being assailed by a group of watermen.
View full size imageThe miseries of London ... being assailed by a group of watermen. © NMM

However, competition from new bridges, improved road and rail transport and Thames steamers with their heavy wash, eventually led to a decline in the number of watermen.

The lightermen, however, benefited at first from the increase in the shipping trade of the Port of London. But they were severely affected by new cargo-handling methods introduced into the docks in the second half of the 20th century.


Changes to the Company's role

The rival watermen (caricature).
View full size imageThe rival watermen (caricature). © NMM
The Company was responsible throughout the 19th century for regulating watermen and lightermen and their fees, and for registering their boats. Later, the Thames Conservancy and the Port of London Authority took over most of these duties. However, the Company continued to be responsible for apprenticeships and the granting of Freedoms.

Today, the principal activities of the Company are the training of apprentices and the charitable support of watermen and their families. The Watermen’s Company also continues to encourage an interest in rowing and the use of the Thames, as well as traditional City of London ceremonial river events.

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Port of London Authority (PLA)

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StoriesMany hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
Find out what it was like to work in the Port of London
StoriesBridging the Thames
The fascinating stories behind London Bridge and Tower Bridge
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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