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Mother Thames O.B.E – The Story of Dorothea Woodward – Fisher

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Queen Victoria visits the SS Great Britain in Blackwall 1845

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

SS ‘Great Britain’ at Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall by Richard Barnett Spencer
National Maritime Museum – Date painted: mid-19th C

Some weeks ago, I told the story of the SS Great Eastern that was built and launched on the Isle of Dogs. It was argued that the stress and strain of that launch led to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s early death.

However several years earlier in 1845 , Brunel had an altogether more pleasant experience when his then new ship  SS Great Britain was sailed to Blackwall to enable Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to come aboard and inspect the ship. The following entertaining report by the Illustrated London News records in detail the Queen’s reaction to the ship, it appears she was frequently “astonished” by the size of the ship, and gratefully accepted a gift of a golden propeller.

THE QUEEN’S VISIT TO THE “GREAT BRITAIN” STEAMER.
(From the Illustrated London News)

On Tuesday afternoon her Majesty and Prince Albert paid their intended visit to this extraordinary vessel. The day was remarkably fine, and many thousands of persons assembled, both at Greenwich and Blackwall, to await the arrival of the Royal party.

A Board of Admiralty, consisting of Lord Haddington and Capt. Gordon, had previously arrived at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, to receive her Majesty, and accompany her on board the Dwarf.
The Greenwich Pensioners were drawn out in array and loudly cheered her Majesty as she embarked. Carpets were laid down the whole length of the distance from where her Majesty alighted to the water’s edge.
Her Majesty arrived at Greenwich at about twenty minutes past three o’clock, and immediately proceeded on board the Dwarf.
The Lord Mayor, attended by the usual civic functionaries, left London-bridge in the City State barge, a few minutes after one o’clock, and’ was towed to Greenwich by the” Watermen’s steamer No. 10, to attend upon her Majesty, in his official capacity as Conservator of the Thames. Upon her Majesty’s embarkation, the Lord Mayor, in the state barge, still in tow of the steamer, preceded the royal yacht to Blackwall.

Several of the river steamers, completely crowded with spectators, accompanied the yacht on her passage to the Great Britain, and the river in the neighbourhood of Blackwall was teeming with small boats filled with people. Two or three of the vessels of the Royal Thames Yacht Club were present, among which were the Mystery, Lord Seaham, and the Dolphin, Mr Perkins, which latter vessel manned her yards as soon as the yacht hove in sight. A platform was fixed alongside , the Great Britain, on which the accommodation-stairs, to enable her Majesty to get on board, were rigged. Both the platform and Stairs were covered with carpets. The height of the platform was so arranged that it should , be equal with the deck of the Dwarf, so that her Majesty should have no difficulty in getting on board, but be enabled at once to step  from the steamer on to the platform.

 As the Royal yacht neared the Great Britain, she slacked her speed, and proceeded slowly round her from the starboard quarter and under her bows to her port beam, by which means her Majesty was afforded a excellent opportunity  of viewing the exterior-of the vessel , upon the Queen’s ‘arriving on board the Great Britain, her commander, Lieutenant Hosken, R.N. was presented to her Majesty by Lord Hawarden, and that officer conducted the Royal party through the vessel.’

Her Majesty appeared quite amazed at the enormous length of the ship, which, is one-third longer than any line-of-battle ship in the service, being 322 feet in length, while the Queen, which her Majesty visited when at Spithead, is not above 210. In order to obtain a full fore and aft view of the length of the ship, her Majesty and Prince Albert, accompanied by Captain Hosken, went right aft and stood by the wheel, and then proceeded forward to the bows, viewing the vessel from the raised forecastle.

Her Majesty frequently expressed her astonishment at the extraordinary length of the ship. The singular appearance of the six masts, so out of the ordinary mode in which ships are rigged, also attracted her Majesty’s attention, and formed a subject of comment. From the forecastle the Royal party descended into the forward saloon and state rooms, which, having inspected, her Majesty returned on deck.
A model of the midship part of the ship, and a working model of the engines, with the screw, were then shown to her Majesty, and Mr Brunel explained its mode of working and the manner in which the screw propelled the vessel, und how they were enabled to back astern. After having inspected this model, her Majesty and Prince Albert went down into the engine-room, to view the engines. These were shown to her Majesty by Mr Guppy, the constructor both of the vessel and the engines. Her Majesty expressed her admiration of their workmanship, and inquired their power, and was informed that they were of 1000 horse-power. The immense chain which turns the screw shaft seemed particularly to engage her Majesty’s attention, which was described to her to revolve at the rate of twenty five miles per hour. After leaving the engine-room her Majesty next inspected the after promenade saloon and stateroom, and expressed her astonishment at the size of the dining-room. At the extremity of this apartment there were three models of different screws, one with six blades, similar to the screw with which the Great Britain is now fitted ; another with four blades, which is to be used as a reserved screw for the ship, and a third model, with only three blades.

Whilst the Royal party were inspecting these models, Mr T. P. Smith, the inventor and patentee of the screw-propeller, was presented by Lord Hawarden to her Majesty and Prince Albert as the inventor. Mr Smith presented a very appropriate model in gold, in an appropriate case, of the propeller that he has recently applied to her Majesty’s new tender yacht Fairy, which  recently obtained such a rapid speed as to surpass all other steamers on the river. Her Majesty was graciously pleased to accept the model, which was handed over to Lord Hawarden.

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SS Great Britain in Blackwall

Captain Claxton presented her Majesty with two copies of the description of the Great Britain, which her Majesty was also graciously pleased to accept. Her Majesty while in the dining-room sat down on one of the chairs, which was placed in such a position that enabled her to see the effect of the mirrors, which made this extensive apartment appear almost boundless.
Her Majesty, just previous to her departure, addressed Capt Hosken, and said, ” I am very much gratified with the sight of your magnificent ship, and I wish you every possible success on your voyages across the Atlantic.”
Prince Albert asked when it was intended to start on the voyage, and upon Captain Hosken informing his Royal Highness that it would be either the latter end of July, or the beginning of August, the Prince remarked, he supposed that Capt. Hosken wished to save the equinox. Captain Hosken replied that that was not so much the object as to make one or two voyages as speedily as possible, in order that the public may be perfectly convinced of the safety of the ship.

After remaining on board about three quarters of an hour, the Royal party returned to the Dwarf.
Previous to the departure of the Dwarf, his Royal Highness called Captain Hosken to him, and requested him to convey to Mr Smith her Majesty’s thanks for the model of his screw.
No extra ornamental work had been done to the ship on the occasion of her Majesty’s visit, but it was shown to her in its ordinary state, with the exception that the decks had been cleaned and holystoned, and the carpets were laid down in the saloons and on the staircases leading to them and to the engine-room.
The band of the first Life Guards was on board, and played some of the national airs during her Majesty’s stay.
The Dwarf, upon leaving the Great Britain, returned to Greenwich,.
Her Majesty disembarked at Greenwich, and immediately left for Buckingham Palace, escorted by the detachment of Dragoons which had accompanied her down.

The Great Britain was dressed out in colours, as also every vessel in the vicinity of Greenwich and Blackwall.
Immediately after her Majesty’s departure the ship was thrown open again to the inspection of the public, and in a short time was completely thronged.
Her Majesty has expressed her great satisfaction at her visit.

The ship was built at  Bristol, when  she was launched in 1843 she was twice the tonnage of any previous ship.Unlike the Great Eastern which was broken up, The Great Britain was restored and is now on show in a dry dock in Bristol.

We might smile at the formal nature of the visit but was clearly a important event for many locals who flocked to see the ship and the Queen.

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Chinese Junk – Keying

Three years later , the Queen and Prince Albert visited another ship in Blackwall, but this could not be more different from the Great Britain. They came to visit the Keying a large Chinese Junk that had been sailed from China against the express wishes of the Emperor himself.

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Museum of London

Sailed first to America , the ship reached Blackwall in 1848 and became a major attraction, as well as the royal couple , the Duke of Wellington, Charles Dickens and many thousands of people came to view the novelty of a large Chinese ship.

However by 1853, the novelty had worn off and the junk was towed to Liverpool where she was broken up.

Walking on Water Exhibition at Excel – 3rd to 11th May 2014

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Regular readers will know that I have followed with interest the work of Frank Creber and the Water City Project.

Frank has recently worked on the SS Robin project and had a recent exhibition at the Lloyd’s Register, however the  WOW: Walking On Water: East London’s Legacy – the Big Picture  exhibition at Excel  in partnership with Grand Design exhibition takes the project to a different level.

At the heart of the exhibition is a 200-piece display of artwork by  Frank who has created  a visual chronicle made over 10 years  of the communities, developments and places coming to life in East London.

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The Walking on Water is an interactive exhibition in The Boulevard at ExCeL London offering visitors a walking tour through East London, from Trinity Buoy Wharf to the Royal Docks, to Three Mills, Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley. there is an integrated display of art, photography and exhibition stands featuring many of the  regeneration initiatives.

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The Artistic quarter of  Trinity Buoy Wharf  illustrates how an old industrial  area can be transformed into an area where  creative industries  can thrive.

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The  Exhibition also profiles the work of Eastside Community Heritage  through their displays of black and white photographs which tells this story of local peoples’ lives and how many relied on employment in the many industries  around the historic waterways.

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Another aspect of the exhibition is  the often untold stories of how local people themselves transform their environments  with collective action, this is illustrated by the  extraordinary 10-year story of Cody Dock and how a group of local residents took over what many thought of as a rubbish dump, and ended up delivering community ownership of a prime piece of river-facing real estate. .

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The exhibition also looks at the ways that  a number of diverse organisations such as Poplar HARCA, Catlin Group, University of East London,  UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), East London Business Alliance (ELBA) as well as Communities groups can contribute to regeneration.

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The Walking on Water exhibition in partnership with the Grand Design exhibition raises some interesting questions, for example we will spend a lot of time, energy and money on our immediate environment such as our homes, but  often consider we have little power in changing the wider environment.

This is what the Walking on Water Exhibition is keen to challenge by showing how partnerships can forged to build sustainable communities  in East London.

The Exhibition is Free and is in the Boulevard which runs down the centre of Excel, Frank Creber’s artwork is always interesting and the photographs are fascinating.

If you are going to the Grand Design Exhibition, why not take a little time to look at the Walking on Water exhibition or take a trip to Excel to view the Walking on Water exhibition alone there is certainly enough there to make the trip worthwhile.

The Exhibition runs from  3 – 11 May 2014

10am – 6pm daily (to 5pm final day)

For more information on the exhibition, visit the website here

More Glen Terrace and the Canal Dockyard

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Glen Terrace on the left, Canal Dockyard to right with section of wall cut out (1918)

My post last week about Glen Terrace resulted in a number of people getting in touch to give me  further information about the area.

David Carpenter who wrote the book Dockland Apprentice about his time working in the Graving Dock just off Preston Road  was very familiar with the area in the 1950s and 1960s and would often go into Katies Café which was at the end of  Glen Terrace. David shares some of his memories:

 Regarding your recent piece on Glen Terrace, During the 1950’s the property next to what is now Ladbrokes and adjacent to the lock was the eating house known as Kate’s. Kate was known as Aunty Kate by the apprentices of the nearby London Graving Dock as she always made sure they had a good dinner at a special price. Half way along the Terrace was a stall that took absolutely filthy boiler suits for cleaning at a laundry somewhere or other. When you handed over your boiler suit, you were given a raffle ticket. The following week you handed in your ticket and were given back a spotless boiler suit. How they kept a record of everyone’s boiler suit has always remained a mystery to me! The cost was 1/-  (5p).

Another  mystery  connected with the well known picture above was solved  by local writer Alfred Gardner  who explained that the ship above was not near the dock entrance which was further along the road, but was in dry dock in the old Canal Dockyard opposite Glen Terrace .

The original docks were excavated by Thomas Pitcher and William Wallis in 1806, they were both about 230ft in length,with wooden sides and floors and wooden gates.

In 1895 the lower dock had again been extended, to 295ft which bought the dock  very close to the boundary wall, so much so that a stretch of the wall was lowered to allow the dock to take large ships with high bows like the one in the photograph which was taken in around 1918,  The two docks were filled in  1927–8 and the land used for houses . These houses were still visible in the following photograph from the 1980s before the site was redeveloped.

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Although the docks were filled in,  there are still traces near the river where the dock entrances were, and even though a large development was built here, they are still visible.

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This is the left section

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The middle section

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The middle and right section.

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The Canal Dockyard  is now underneath the Pierhead Development.

So typically in the Docklands , the past has not quite disappeared if you know where to look, many thanks to Alfred Gardner and David Carpenter for their contributions.

If you are interested in David Carpenter’s book Dockland Apprentice you can find more details here

And Alfred Gardner’s book about the 50s and 60s Dockland area An East End Story is available here.

If you want to find out more about the area and the Blue Bridge, read the interesting article on the Isle of Dogs Past Life, Past lives, blog here

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