Vic Keegan’s Lost London 45: the Thames watermen’s seat of power

by Victor Keegan

This tiny bit of masonry on the wall of the Real Greek restaurant on Bankside near the Globe Theatre is all that remains to remind us of what was once London’s biggest workforce and one of the most successful trade unions ever seen on the planet. All that is left is part of one of the seats where the watermen used to rest in Shakespeare’s time – though it would have been nearer the river then.

The watermen earned their bread by ferrying people across the Thames in their wherries – small, passenger boats – to visit the theatres or engage in some nefarious pursuit. It was the only way of crossing the river apart from the narrow, congested and expensive London Bridge or the ferry at Lambeth, which was for horses.

There are reckoned to have been about 2,500 ferrymen operating along the Thames for hundreds of years. Their longevity was helped by the City of London, which had a monopoly on the revenues from London Bridge and was therefore happy with the status quo. This combined with the consequent massive industrial power of the waterman to prevent the construction of any new bridge across the Thames until 1750, when Westminster Bridge was built. 

Watermen were tough, rough-hewn men, often veterans of overseas campaigns, who could be press-ganged into the navy at any moment and vied with each other when jostling for business at the foot of one of the numerous landing points on the river.

The most celebrated of watermen was the people’s poet John Taylor, who fought for the democratisation of the watermen’s guild and is one of the first people to have written of Shakespeare’s death, in a 1620 called The Praise of Hemp-seed where he noted: “Spenser, and Shakespeare did in art excel”. 

Among Taylor’s other achievements was travelling in a paper boat from Central London to Queenborough in the Thames estuary and penning one of the earliest palindromes: “Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel”. 

In another book, Taylor backed the watermen’s disputes with the theatre companies when from 1612 they moved their premises from the south bank to the north, thereby depriving the ferries of traffic. He harangued the coachmen who were taking business from the wherries too.

The prevention of bridge building on the Thames was undoubtedly a restraint of trade, which ought to have been removed. It stands as a unique example of capital – the City of London – joining forces with labour – the wherrymen – to preserve a lucrative monopoly.

Read previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London here.

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