Home » River Life » The Woodward – Fishers of Limehouse

The Woodward – Fishers of Limehouse

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Some months ago, I wrote a post about Dorothea Woodward- Fisher who featured in a 1972 BBC documentary called Mother Thames OBE. The post was based on a magazine article about the show because any chance of finding a copy of the documentary seemed unlikely.
However through the persistence of Trevor Wayman who lived near the Woodward – Fisher yard in the 1960s, a copy of the programme has been obtained.

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The theme of the documentary was the decline of the docks and river traffic in the 1970s and how this had affected the business of the redoubtable Dorothea Woodward- Fisher.

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The Woodward Fishers had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher and her husband Billy  ran a lighterage business on the Thames and in their heyday  had around 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs.

When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher took over the business as well as undertaking her considerable charity work and raised much of the money to build clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club.
In the programme she recalls that although she went to Cheltenham Ladies College, she was a bit of a rebel in her youth and the decision to marry a lighterman did not go down very well with her family. However with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds, she and her husband started their business which carried on until 1973.

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The Woodward Fisher company closed on her 79th birthday, when Mrs Woodward- Fisher took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. In the documentary the lines of barges are a sad reminder of the decline of river traffic and idle cranes along the river and docks add to the desolate scene.

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Mrs Woodward- Fisher was an amazing personality, dressed in pinstripe suit, bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and high-heeled crocodile shoes, she is often shown smoking her cigarette and swigging back a occasional large brandy.

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in Lewisham was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar.

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Towards the end of the programme, she asks the question do we want a working river or a river flanked by apartments with just leisure boats going up and down ?

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Over 40 years after the programme, the answer seems be the second option. The 1970s were the end of an era and the end of river trade that went back hundreds of years. When the programme ends with rows of barges sitting idle in the river and Mrs Woodward Fisher lamenting on the state of shipping in London, it is not difficult to understand that this demise was not just the loss of jobs but for many people the loss of a way of life.

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As well  as being an extremely talented painter, Trevor Wayman is an exceptional model maker and often builds small sets on a particular theme. Above is his Limehouse 1965 which celebrates the Woodward- Fisher yard and the boats berthed in front.

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13 Comments

  1. Micky Lemons says:

    More usually known as Dolly Fisher, Dan Farson (broadcaster, owner of the Waterman’s Arms) rented a small flat above her yard in Narrow St. It was there that Dan discovered his small flat used to be a beerhouse, named the Waterman’s Arms. That’s why he renamed the Newcastle Arms to Waterman’s Arms when he took over the Island pub.

    In his book, Limehouse Days, Farson describes her as…

    “cultivating a startling resemblence to George Arliss by wearing well-tailored suits, a stock, and sometimes a monocle. Everybody obeyed her, including her husband William, a born riverman. ……. I never lost my fear of her.”

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks for this. Can you put the video online somewhere?

  3. yuval says:

    how can i view this documentary about Dorothea Woodward- Fisher?
    thanks.

    • Hi Yuval,

      I don’t it is generally available, and unfortunately it is not possible to put online due to copyright issues.

      • yuval says:

        can we buy a copy? or maybe ask to view it in the museum? I think the family would like to see it.
        my wife used to go with her dad to visit Dorothea .
        thanks

  4. tony down says:

    Lovely lady frightened the life out of me as a new apprentice at 17yrs when i went for my interview for a job at Fishers, however boy on ikaopit billdora with Con Andrews skipper in the Royals, happy times…tony down.

  5. Paul Hicks says:

    What an amazing reminder of the days on the River Thames. My family were Thames Lightermen with over four hundred and fifty years service to the river and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. My grandfather Chris Hicks was the Labourmaster for the Union Lighterage. Marvellous days and times. Thank you.

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