Over the holidays, I met up with an old mate to see the rugby at Twickenham. Afterwards we walked down to Richmond to enjoy a couple of pints of Youngs Special in the White Cross on the riverfront.
It's a part of London that these days oozes affluence from every pore, so it's hard to imagine that a century ago the little streets leading down to the river were a working community - and home to a very peculiar and distinct breed of artisans. It's where my mums' family lived for many years, in White Cross Yard with a boathouse on the river front, and before that in Water Lane - where another Youngs pub still stands - the Waterman's Arms.
The family were Thames Watermen in Richmond going back to at least the 1750's for certain - and very possibly beyond that. It's easy to establish this continuity from the records of apprentices and licensed Watermen still held by the Company of Watermen. Amongst the few family heirlooms I have inherited are three generations of apprentice's papers - eldest sons indentured to their fathers.
Even in my grandfather's time, this apprenticeship lasted for seven years, during which the waterman would learn boatmanship and the complex geography and shifting currents of the river. In the upper reaches of the river the role of Watermen who conveyed people, and Lightermen who carried freight were combined - although down river in the docks the two trades were usually distinct.
By my grandfathers' time suburban omnibuses and railways had started to signal the death of the river as a commercial highway. The family concentrated on the pleasure-boat business and had a small boatyard with boats for hire. The business did not survive the depression and so in the 1930's my grandfather gave up the yard and put his skills to work as a river policeman and moved to the docklands.
Thus ended an incredibly stable way of life: Whilst other strands of my family led a precarious existence ducking and diving over the generations in various trades and moving around to scrape a living, the watermen part stayed put in the same couple of streets for the best part of two hundred years - and in the case of my grandfather married a girl from the next street.
Relatively prosperous, fiercely proud of their status these Thames Watermen were notorious for their stroppiness and uppityness. Henry Mayhew records in his study of London's labouring classes:
'The character of the Thames Waterman... was what might be expected from slightly informed, or uninformed and not unprosperous men. They are hospitable and hearty to another ... civil if such fares are civil to them; but often saucy, abusive and even sarcastic'.
Then as now, there was nothing the do-gooding middle class feared more that workers with a few bob who wouldn't be patronised or take too much crap.