Woodward Fisher on the right (Limehouse) photo Trevor Wayman Colln
The decline of the docks in the 1970s had a knock on effect on the river trade with many lighterage firms going out of business.
In 1972 , the BBC made a documentary about the death of river trade featuring the redoubtable Dorothea Woodward- Fisher.
The Woodward Fishers had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs for many years, however Dorothea ran the business from Lewisham.
Dorothea with Friend
The 1972 BBC programme made Dorothea into a bit of a celebrity and she was often in demand for interviews, the following interview was for the Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1973.
A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”
“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”
Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorothea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorothea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.
“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”
(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)
For 55 years. Mrs Fisher with, until ten years ago, her husband Billy ran a lighterage business on the Thames. When the port of London was in its heyday as the largest and busiest in the world, she had upwards of 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs as well.
She and her husband started their business 55 years ago. with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds .
“The river then was wonderful. You’d see a powerful tug turning six well-laden barges. That was something to look at. We took loaded barges from Tilbury all the way to Reading. . .
“You’d see sailing barges, working, tacking backwards and forwards in the sea reaches, using the wind and the tides. Now the only sailing barge you ever see is a pleasure craft, weighed down with American tourists, taking a quick look at Greenwich and the Tower of London. Why don’t they take them down, right down. I’d like to know, and show them the real Thames, at Tilbury”
Sadly, though, she has watched – and struggled against – the great river’s decline to a point where pleasure boats make up most of its nautical traffic, and where, of more than 70 lighterage companies, only a handful remain.
Dorothea with gift from BBC
The Woodward Fisher company is no longer amongst them. Recently on her 79th birthday. Mrs Fisher reluctantly closed her lighterage business.
She should have done so four years ago, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart.
She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much monev these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she has surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which include three wharves on the Thames
Mrs Fisher’s could easily be just another “tings ain’t what they used to be” sob-story
But it is lifted out of the ordinary by the amazing personality of the woman at its heart and by the accelerating decline of the Thames as an artery of commerce, which is a tragedy for London and Londoners.
Resplendent in her usual man-styled suit (today, it’s pinstripe), bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and elegant, high-heeled crocodile shoes, smoking the inevitable cigarette and swigging back a large brandy, Mrs. Fisher is truly an indomitable figure.
Her husband (“He was the practical one, I had the business brain”) was a lighterman from the East End of London.
The term lighterman came into use in the days of sailing ships, when vessels would reach the mouth of the Thames too heavily loaded to proceed upriver tc London city. So river men in wherries would be sent out to lighten the ships’ loads Eventually sailing barge were used in this way both at the mouth of the Thames and in the Pool of London transporting goods from ship to wharf.
Lightermen are member of the ancient Watermen’ Company which dates back to the year 1400. In a river where the tide can be ebbing on one bank and flowing on another, they had to be able to handle fully-laden barges using only a sail and a pair of oars. They had to and still do serve a seven-year apprenticeship, passing stiff examinations about tides, winds, signals, general navigation.
Yet now, with barges more heavily laden, all the lighterman has to do is make fast a tow-rope. The tug to which his barge is attached does the rest.
Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”
Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”
Characteristically, Mrs Fisher blames herself for the decline of her business. “I feel like a failure. We’ve always been a relatively small firm. Maybe I didn’t mix enough. Maybe I could have done better if I’d gone out into the City and drunk more beer with certain people.”
She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.
Dorothea and son Ken
As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owns a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her own house, which incorporates her office, is a mammoth Victorian mansion, south of the river and completely hemmed in by dreary housing developments. It is topped by a king-size radio mast and populated by a random assortment of animals and friends.
At the time of my visit the animal count was five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar. I entered to the frenzied barking of a large weimaraner and a wriggly Dalmatian pup, the latter the gift of the BBC television team who earlier this year, made a TV special about Mrs Fisher.
Assorted cats milled round, waiting for their dinner. The parrot perched on Mrs Fisher’s shoulder, his favourite spot.
Outside, the drive was lined with old mirrors, bits of furniture, and general jumble. It is pretty well permanently this way and from it, Mrs Fisher raises about one thousand pounds a year for the local hospital.
She’s a founder member of the Darby and Joan club, for elderly people. She has the O.B.E., awarded for work she did for New Zealand soldiers – “my Kiwis,” she calls them – during World War II.
She has also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club, an East End club of which her husband was a member.
She is inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.
Mrs Fisher is a regular churchgoer, every Sunday, with her dog, attending a chapel within the Tower of London. She has a ferocious sense of humour.
“Did you hear the one about the bishop and the lady learner driver who arrived simultaneously at the Pearly Gates?” she asks. “St. Peter came out and invited the lady driver in, in front of the bishop. ‘Oh no,’ said the bishop, you can’t let her in before me.’ ‘My good man.’ St. Peter replied, ‘she’s put the fear of God into many more people than you ever did’.”
Mrs Fisher is a gem of a woman, a no-nonsense, no-frills-and-fuss type. “I know shipping is a depressed industry,” she says. “I suppose I have to move out. But God. I’m sad about that river. I loved it, and now it’s being ruined.”
Present plans, according to her son, a partner in the business, are to look into converting the Fisher barges to pleasure craft for long trips up and down the Thames.
If this ever happens, no doubt Mrs Fisher will conduct the tours. And it is certain she would make the trip into the best and most interesting tourist attraction in London.
Dorothea was definitely an East End character with her own inimitable style, it seems to be that in the 70s she did retain some property in Limehouse but did sell one of her houses to Janet Street Porter.
But the tone of the interview was that it was the end of an era, and that proved to be the case, after the 70s, limited amount of cargo was transported on the river and it was to be leisure craft and River cruises that become the main users.