Watermen of The River Thames

The Robinson and Phelps families of the Putney and Fulham districts of London were all Watermen or Lightermen by trade handed down from father to son from as far back as 1700’s.

One of the Phelps family,  “Honest” John Phelps was my 3rd great grand uncle who was also a Waterman and made his name during the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in 1877.

Watermen and Lightermen were an essential part of early London, Lightermen transferred goods between ships and quays, aboard flat-bottomed barges called lighters and Watermen would ferry passengers along and across the river due to bad rural roads and narrow, congested city streets, making the Thames the most convenient highway in the city of London.


Apart from the obvious occupational risks of the trade, death by drowning, watermen were particularly susceptible to Bronchial Diseases caught from working and living close to waters of the Thames. In the 1840s the river Thames became the main sewer causing Typhoid and Cholera  due to the invention of flush toilets.

Watermen’s Hall


The Company of Watermen and Lightermen was founded in 1555 and was mainly a working guild, providing services to its Freemen, including an apprenticeship scheme.  No one could work on the river without being licensed, and to get a license you had to become an apprentice and serve under a master. 

The apprentice had to be between the ages of 14 and 20, and a recognized affidavit or birth proof had to be produced. He was bound to a recognized master who was responsible for housing, clothing, feeding and training the boy. Piloting a boat on the Thames was (and is) a skilled occupation, requiring an intimate knowledge of the river’s currents and tides. It also demanded a lot of muscle power, as the lighters were unpowered and they relied on the current for moving force and on long oars. After 2 years training, the boy and master had to satisfy the Company of the boy’s competence, before a provisional license was issued. After a further 5 years, the boy was examined by the Company again, and if successful, gained his ‘freedom’ i.e a full license to work on the river as a Waterman.

Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the prize and name for the oldest rowing race in the world. Up to six apprentice watermen of the River Thames in England compete for this prestigious honour, which has been held every year since 1715. The 4 mile race is held on the Thames between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier, Chelsea, passing under a total of eleven bridges.

The winner’s prize is a traditional watermen’s red coat with a silver badge for their lapel given to them in a ceremony at Watermen’s Hall.  Silver was awarded to the winner and bronze awarded to the others. Monetary prizes are also made by the Fishmongers’ Company to the rowing clubs of those taking part, with £250 to the winner’s club, £150 for second, £100 for third and £50 for fourth.

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