Sunday, 27 June 2010

River Legends

Two members of the Cossey Family : lightermen on The Thames by George Owen Cossey who died this year.

On the hottest day of an English summer (so not that hot then) what better than to wrestle with a 20 ft oar or ‘sweep’ and help power a very heavy steel barge seven miles up the River Thames.  The tide is with you but it’s still a Herculean task over a couple of hours.

Racing barges today.  Two men run up a small ramp and take less than a dozen strokes before handing over to the other pair. The fifth man steers with a sweep.

Yesterday’s Annual Barge Driving race from  Greenwich to The Palace of Westminster that I watched from The Port of London Authority’s beautiful launch ‘The Royal Nore’, celebrates the strength and adroit handling of all kinds of river craft for which The Company of Watermen and Lightermen are famous. Well, in my opinion not famous enough.    

The Race starts at Greenwich Naval Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren completed in 1712.

 One of the 'diamond geezers' at the prize-giving.  The Freemen and Apprentices of the Company of Watermen & Lightermen are a tough breed.

A few years ago I worked for Alan Lee Williams who had completed his seven year apprenticeship as a waterman and lighterman before becoming a Member of Parliament and going on to other great things. The watermen are concerned with passenger transport and the lightermen with the carriage of goods but whichever way you work the river, it seems to get into the bloodstream. There are several redoubtable London families who have been involved with The Thames over generations.

Alan L W couldn’t get it out of his blood either and would annually renew his towing licence. I jumped at the opportunity to accompany him and asked naively ‘So what will be towing?’ The answer came ‘Well, rubbish of course.’  Oh well, I thought, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it and that means me.  Apparently there’s very little waterborne trade left these days.

The stuff Londoners would rather not think about in yellow containers

The next bolter was that I had to get up at 4am to drive down to Gravesend and catch the tide on the Cory tug ‘Retainer’. I wouldn’t get up at such a daft hour for anything else; and this, it emerged, was to be my finest hour.

You can call me Tugboat Rosie now.  I took the helm as a string of several barges slewed round a river bend behind me and then I was jumping between them like a gazelle. Actually I lie about that bit.  I was shaking with horizontal vertigo as I gingerly unclipped the bindings on one container and took slow motion steps along the concrete gunnels. I felt sick as the skipper brilliantly judged the fast ebbing tide in the process of berthing alongside the depot at Mucking Flats. What seemed like two minutes later, an evil expanse of mud appeared which always gives me the most ghastly feeling of claustrophobia.

Lucky  bargee.  Feeling proprietorial about the rubbish in my lifejacket with Alan looking on.  If I told you I have this picture in a silver frame...

You see, I am not talking about my heroics (I had all the bravado of a whelk) but those of the lightermen who do this work in all weathers and in in the dark. On an icy morning, the ropes have to be bashed into life with a length of two-by-four. I watched in awe as the men deftly juggled their juggernaut barges into changing formations. And I appreciated their rough charm and patience towards the honorary apprentice. (Little did they know I already had a degree in lower-deck language.)  And what was great was our fat boys’ breakfast and a rest on the bunk waiting for the tide. There are bursts of activity and then everyone can settle down to do the crossword. We disembarked at 9 pm – a pretty long day. Meanwhile London was completely unaware that all its landfill was being quietly and efficiently disposed of. (Don’t ask me about the recycling implications, this was about ten years ago..)

 Reunited yesterday with Jack Faram MBE, my fellow crew member on that voyage.  A former much respected trade unionist, he spends much of his retirement taking the disabled and disadvantaged on narrowboat excursions on the River Lea. He also works with Alan Lee Williams on Transport on Water, an organisation which aims to reinvigorate the river's working culture.  

Many thanks to The Company of Watermen & Lightermen, The Port of London Authority and Transport on Water for fabulous hospitality in The Royal Nore yesterday.

 Top two images from the Barge Driving Race Official Programme; Greenwich Naval Hospital courtesy Wikipedia


  1. Rosie, it is all so perfect. firstly I love the way you've laid it all out lookswise- the sizes of the images (Greenwich Naval esp) and the images are grand. the first I especially like-it looks almost as if the 2 are cut outs in that amazing scenic- An artist's eye for certain. The tale is exciting-I would think nothing less than that dashing photo in silver would be the thing. I bet every man on that crew was a little in love and a lot in awe of the lady. It looks as if you've come a long way baby' and I love it especially that rope of pearls. xoxo, Gaye

  2. Words fail me (for once). I absolutely adore the surprise of this post, and every word in it.

  3. Oh Gaye, you are so kind. I am sure it hasn't escaped anyone that a bit more barge jumping would have kept me fitter and trimmer. And, oh god, it's the big pearls again. They'll surely break and bounce all over the floor any time soon.

  4. Dilettante: that I can spring a surprise, that's a massive compliment thank you.

  5. Not so kind- Rose-as on point. the pearls, I would sleep in. and ditto for me on the battle of the barge. g

  6. Wonderful! I have the same pearls and love them!

    One of the gals who was at Atlantic College when I was there was the first woman on the RNLI crew on the Thames. We were in London for a meeting and got to see her at her station. Lots of fun!

  7. Meg, you lucky thing going to Atlantic College. I knew you were a 'decent chap' as my father would say. He had four daughters and I was the last. My childhood treat was to be taken down the engine room of the steam-driven Gosport ferry of which he was a director. Marvellous that one of the A C girls distinguished herself with the RNLI on the Thames.

  8. Dear Tugboat, yellow is a good background for mermaids. As to the pearls, why aren't you wearing matching earrings when you go to work?

  9. Oh those fat cheap pearls. They're in every picture of me, embarrassingly. As to my diamond stud earrings.. diamonds should never be worn before 6 pm so I'm not doing very well. And then I go and criticise tennis players for wearing jewellery. But dontcha just hate that? You can call me Dear Tugboat anytime by the way.

  10. I think tiaras look particularly fetching on the men at Wimbledon. But seriously though, what was all that nonsense from Murray about whether he might or might not bow before the Queen. As it turned out he did so thrice, albeit incorrectly. It wouldn't even enter my head not to do so, although I must confess that when I attended a Knight of the Thistle Installation Service at St Giles's, I was so overcome with fear that my eyes were transfixed on the royal personage. And hers on me, with obvious displeasure. I was only in my early teens, so my lapse of manners could perhaps be forgiven.

  11. Columnist - Murray's a prat, isn't he. I liked your story but can't imagine the Queen looking on you with displeasure. She is very stern at times but when she does smile, there's nothing more glorious. I love her!!

  12. You're obviously having a great time in both photos. I've been thrilled on the few occasions I got to be on a working ship. Especially heading out the waterways to the sea or returning to the prospect of a couple of drinks.
    The last time I was on a deep-sea fishing cruise, one of the crewmen lamented that the captain wouldn't let them drink on the boat. I guess that rule is applied more commonly now. Pity.

  13. I always entertained the impractical dream of my husband on his retirement and I having a small working coaster taking something like aggregate or cauliflowers around the British coast. Smoking my pipe, quaffing rum, snoozing it off in the dog watch. A daft idea but lovely.


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