The anonymous lighterman

If your ancestors grew up in London, the chances are that one of them may have worked on the river Thames.  Up until the 20th-century it was the hub of London commerce, providing its main thoroughfare.  Two jobs that remained the same for many centuries are that of the lighterman and the waterman.  Essentially the lighterman was responsible for offloading cargo from ships and transferring it to a neighbouring dock. In contrast, the waterman had the job of conveying passengers across the river. In 1700 they jointly formed the Company of Watermen and Lightermen by an Act of Parliament.

Originally each barge (called a ‘lighter’) was punted by one lighterman with an apprentice boy to help, enabling the ‘lightening’ of the cargo from the ship.  Laden lighters were worked by at least two men; they had no engine or sail and relied on the tide, being steered by a long oar. It was common, therefore, for lighters to be moored in the middle of the river, waiting the turn of the tide.

The life of a lighterman was recorded by Mayhew in his book London Labour and the London Poor

“there were about 1,225 lighterman on the river, driving at least 1,100 lighters, and four or five hundred bargemen, driving around 200 barges (not including coal barges which were owned by the coal-merchants who had wharves).” Ref. Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, Wordsworth Editions Ltd

By the 19th-century, the introduction of steam power enabled the lighters to be towed in multiples.  But the tradition of one lighter to each lighter persisted. So, for example a crew would consist of a skipper for the tug, an engineer keeping the engine turning and a lighterman for each lighter.

The lighterman was a highly respected profession and involved a seven-year apprenticeship.  During the first two years of his apprenticeship he was ‘bound’ as an unlicensed apprentice.  After this, he undertook an examination at Waterman’s Hall.  They had to show an ability to ‘move safely and quickly along the narrow gun’les of the Thames barges, how to row craft up and down the various reaches, how to cope with wind and tide, the geography of London Port, its docks and locks, its bridges and wharves, its traffic and its temperament. And a thousand and one things beside…”  At the end of the seven-year apprenticeship, the lighterman presented themselves again at Waterman’s Hall and became a ‘Freeman of the River Thames.

Benjamin Jewson was our Great Great uncle, who was ‘bound’ as a lighterman apprentice on 14 Jun 1864 at Waterman’s Hall.  His father Benjamin Robey Jewson (our Great Great Grandfather) was his Master, being responsible for his apprenticeship training. Seven years later the son presented himself again (11 July 1871) at Waterman’s Hall to become an ‘unbound’ Freeman.

We catch up with his son nearly twenty years’ later in a letter he wrote to the editor of the London Daily News in November 1889:-

Sir, – Never in my 25 years’ experience as a lighterman have I read an article illustrating our life better than your “on-board a barge,” in yesterday’s edition. It is splendid and quite true, with the exception of two mistakes. Firstly – Instead of two shillings a day travelling expenses, and one shilling for scullers, it should be two shillings a week and one shilling a week. Secondly – All the cabins are not so bad as those described. The following firms have really good cabins in most of the craft, [viz.:- Lucy & Sons, et cetera], although there is room for improvement, especially in the iron barge, which should be lined. Trusting you will publish this for truth’s sake. – I remain, yours respectfully,


Benjamin Jewson, Lighterman, 62 Drummond Rd, Bermondsey, S.E.

The article to which he refers appeared in the previous edition of the paper on 9 November 1889 and was entitled ‘On board a barge’ (by an anonymous writer who called himself an ‘amateur lighterman’).  What prompted my great-great-uncle Benjamin to put pen to paper so promptly? On first reading, his letter to the editor seems pedantic or even peevish picking up on the two mistakes regarding the scullers pay rate. But not being inclined to express emotions, Benjamin chose instead to write about facts. But what he really wanted to convey was his deep-felt joy that an important paper had chosen to write in detail about the plight of the lighterman, his ecstasies, his fears and his forebodings as the 19th-century reached its end.

The romantic view of the lighterman
(Courtesy of thameslightermen.org.uk/)

The article ‘On board barge’ begins almost poetically, describing a picturesque Thames setting that provides a romantic backdrop to the timeless activities of the lighterman.

My mates are old hands, stalwart, sinewy, muscular looking fellows, hard as hob nails, and well inured to conditions of life which would kill nine out of ten of us in a 12 month. But they seem tonight to be full of a sense of the dangers and hardships of their calling and appear to  consider it a little annoying that on the only night on which they have a chance of letting the public know something of the circumstances of their lives everything seems to be conspiring to make a paddle down on the tide a mere pleasure trip. There is only the gentlest of breezes, the moon is pouring down a flame of silvery light into the hazy atmosphere through which the river goes gleaming and flashing as peacefully as on a Midsummer noon. The grimy craft on its surface in their uncouth outlines and black masses, and trails of lamplight quivering down on the rolling waters, would make every one of them, a subject for a poet or a painter, and the prosaic ugly warehouses and factories, wharves and docks that lined the river banks are but soft ethereal looking masses of luminous grey graduating downwards into the densest, deepest black, and upwards into pearly light, touched here and there by the glinting moonbeams, the flashing of gas lamps, and the shining lustre of electric arc lights. To the unaccustomed eye it is fairyland, the great unwieldy barge is a gondola, and the two picturesque fellows wielding those ponderous oars are gondoliers. I only want the tinkling of guitars and I might imagine myself some Venetian Doge, gliding gently down the shining highway to visit my ladylove at one of those gorgeous palaces yonder, looming out through the mist and the moonbeams.

09 November 1889 – London Daily News – London, London, England

The anonymous writer goes on to highlight the perils of the job – that not every night is a moonlit panoramic and with the job comes great responsibility.

“Aye, aye. But for every still, mild, moonlight night in November, December, January, February, and March, how many do we get bringing with them some combination of pitchy darkness, fierce, biting winds, blinding storms of rain and hail and sleet and snow? And see that empty lighter., I am told that if it is worth a penny it is worth £500. What a responsibility it is for a couple of rough working men to bring that craft alone – say from Nine Elms to the Victoria Docks – even on such a night as this. Empty as it is, it seems to want Herculean strength, a thorough knowledge not only of the craft itself, but of the Riverway and currents and eddies, the run of the tide and the effect of all sorts of winds upon that huge, unwieldy body.”

09 November 1889 – London Daily News – London, London, England

The writer then describes the ever present risk of death that the lighterman has learned to live with.

“You’re coming down, say from Hammersmith to Limehouse with a heavy load. You can’t see half the length of your barge, the tides running out swift beneath you, and you’ve got almost a gale o’ wind blowing hard in your stern. You shoot through them bridges like a bullet out of a gun. Give just one pull too much, and “– What happens? Your main idea is probably that the barge will be upset, and the property flung into the river. Nothing of the kind with the lighterman , however. “One pull too much and its death to you,” says the man, with a gloomy stare down into the black waters that are lapping and sucking and gurgling about the vessel we are gliding by. If you are not to come into collision or get run down you have sometimes to dash along that narrow footway at the side of the barge like a cat. You may be blinded with wind and rain or sleet and snow and the planks may be like glass. “One slip or one full step and you are lost” says the lighterman. They none of them seem to think much of their chances of saving their lives if once they slip overboard by night. There is something rather awful in the blackness and unfathomable mystery of the vast rolling flood, and many of the men seem to live under the spell of it. As you glide along through the murky night they will tell you of deep holes and dark corners far down beneath the treacherous surface, into which the swirl of the tide sucks the bodies of its victims, and, used as they are to it, many of the men seem to be profoundly impressed with the weird loneliness of the river by night.

09 November 1889 – London Daily News – London, London, England

The ‘fiery eyes’ of homecoming steamers also presented a new menace for people working on the Thames as the burgeoning leisure industry took hold in the 19th century.

“I have often come down with a barge by myself at one or 2 o’clock in the morning, and 4 miles I haven’t seen her soul underway”, said one man. “Get a bit of a foul with anything and it’s all up with you.” A man might almost as well-be on a wreck in the middle of the Atlantic as on a sinking barge in some of the lonely breaches of the Thames in the still hours of darkness. And now come looming through the twilight the black holes and fiery eyes of homecoming steamers, and you hear of desperate struggles and hair breadth escapes from being run down. Above Charlton the barges are not required to carry lights and the state of the atmosphere often renders it difficult for pilots on board big ships to see the low-lying black masses of the lighters. Lower down, where the steamers come up at greater speed, lights are required to be carried; but one of my mates tells me that some time ago he insisted upon having a light before he ventured out upon the river down below Charlton, and he was set aside, lost his turn and three or four days employment for his contumacy. One cannot in a short column or so tell half the dangers to which this lightering through the winter nights exposes the men when struggling with heavily laden boats in the full force of tides and winds. Men are continually meeting with accidents or plumping down into the slimy riverbed never to rise again, but the world knows nothing about it.”

09 November 1889 – London Daily News – London, London, England

My great-great-uncle Benjamin would have been pleased to read the expressive narrative of the anonymous writer – to feel that the general public could at least come closer to understanding both the ecstasy and ever present menace of working on the river. In the next article we discover how poignant this article was to Benjamin Jewson (father and son), lightermen whose entire family had been caught up in a tragedy on the river. It was a tragedy that nobody spoke of. It was a tragedy that presaged the largest British inland waterway shipping accident. And it was an accident that involved the very same steamer on which between 600 and 700 people died only a few years later.

Benjamin Jewson (b.1851) – author of the letter, and his father Benjamin ‘Robey’ Jewson (b.1827).

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4 thoughts on “The anonymous lighterman

  1. I am interested in a copy of your story of the Lightermen of which would be similar to The Waterman I think.
    Thankyou in anticipation of my request
    I have included my email

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  2. My 2nd GG was a ‘Waterman Lighterman’. Arthur Edwin FRICKER (1836-1876) is shown as a ‘waterman’ on his marriage certificate of 1857. The 1871 census recorded him as being a ‘Waterman Lighterman’. He died 1876: ‘found in the River Thames. No marks of violence. No proof how he came to his death. Submerged some days’.

    On 3rd September 1878, Arthur FRICKER’s daughter-in-law and one of her children, were 2 of 650 poor souls who sadly drowned as a consequence of the Princess Alice pleasure steamer sinking in the River Thames.

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  3. Apologies! Re: Arthur Edwin FRICKER. It seems that it was his sister-in-law, Sarah, that drowned as a result of the sinking of the Princess Alice!

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