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