Some weeks ago, I told the story of Aberdeen Wharf and the close ties between this small corner of Limehouse and Scotland. Eric Pemberton who regularly provides the site with interesting ephemera has provided some information on Dundee Wharf which gives us more information about these long forgotten ties.
Dundee Wharf is a now a striking residential development with a prominent position on the River Thames. The modern buildings was built-in 1997 but occupy land that has had a variety of uses for centuries. Before it became Dundee Wharf in 1901, it was a shipyard known as Limekiln Dockyard.
Dundee Wharf is on the embankment known as the Dunbars. The Dundee, Aberdeen, Caledonia and Dunbar Wharves were once owned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company.
The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company first began its passenger service between Dundee and London in 1826 and were one of the first to introduce paddle steamers on the route in 1835, the ships were considered the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the East coast route.
Gradually the era of paddle steamers gave way to screw steamers and the company began to expand their fleet with cabin ships which had berths for 65 first class and 60 second class passengers as well as 75 deck passengers. Business was so successful, the company opened its own terminal at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse in 1901. Although as the following newspaper report from 1906 points out, business at the wharf was good but health and safety was a bit of an issue.
An astounding discovery was made on the steamer Perth when she arrived at Dundee from London. A dock labourer named Stewart, was found to have been buried in the hold of the vessel among the cargo. He had been imprisoned for sixty hours, and during that time had neither food nor water nor light. Stewart was engaged in loading the steamer at Limehouse Wharf, when he was buried among the cargo, which consisted mainly of jute, and was taken to Dundee, which, owing to fog, was not reached until sixty hours later, or double the normal time. As the vessel was being unloaded at Dundee the men heard a cry from below: ‘That’s right mates, heave away,’ and soon afterwards Stewart was found half-doubled up among the bales. He was in a very exhausted condition.
During the war years of 1914 – 1918, many of the company’s ships were requisitioned and in 1918 the company found itself with no vessels to maintain its sailings. Eventually they were able to find ships and returned to the Dundee to London sailings and expanded with routes to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp and Barcelona .
Limekiln Dock and surrounding warehouses,(Large warehouses on Dundee Wharf in the middle) 1928.
The interwar years were relatively profitable for coastal line ship companies who carried passengers and various cargoes. Some of the products bought down from Scotland included jute products, popular magazines from D.C. Thomson, jams made by Keillers, printed stationary and postcards produced by Valentines .
Dundee Perth and London Shipping Company Ship 1933
The outbreak of Second World War saw vessels requisitioned once again and more seriously, Dundee Wharf was badly damaged in a bomb attack during September 1940 and was out of action for a considerable time.
The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.
After the war, the ships resumed the passenger service to London but were facing increasing competition from both road and rail services. In 1946, the company introduction of the three general purpose vessels “Angusburn”, “Angusbrae” and “Angusmuir”, which travelled around the world with various cargoes and became familiar sights in many ports in different parts of the world.
The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.
In 1954, the company acquired a minority interest in a small London-based firm, Lockett Wilson Ltd who used Dundee Wharf to run sailings to Paris. The coastal trade became increasingly difficult to operate profitably during the 1950’s and 1960’s which led to ending of the liner service between Dundee and London which the company had been run since its formation in 1826. The last “London boat” made her final sailing in 1961 and eventually Dundee Wharf was sold in October 1969.
Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for bringing another piece of Docklands history to light, it is remarkable to consider that the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company were bringing passengers and cargoes from Scotland to this small part of Limehouse for over 100 years.
Tony recalls the time when barges became a regular sight going up and down the Thames with waste for Mucking Marshes which was a major landfill site servicing London, it was one of the largest landfills in Western Europe and had been filled for decades with waste.
Tony found working on the river was hard work but not without its lighter moments especially if the police were involved. However, Tony was not laughing too much when he was making his way under London Bridge, the taking down of old London Bridge and the building of a new London Bridge in the 1960s and 1970s caused a certain amount of disruption on the river and caused particular problems to the tugs with heavy barges.
Recruit, Touchstone, Swiftstone, were tugs that I worked on during the 60-70s, then I was bosun at Feathers Rubbish Wharf in Wandsworth for 6 yrs loading rubbish, sheeting up and moving 200 – tonne barges at high water that were then towed down the Thames to Mucking for discharging on the marshes. The marshes were owned by a firm called Surridge, who I was told purchased the Mucking marshes in Victorian times for £25 an acre then allowed London’s rubbish to be dumped there at a cost of course. I believe they also had barges that transported rubbish to the Medway as well as bringing bricks back from the brick works in the Medway to London.
One day, all of a sudden, a number of police cars with bells clanging (this shows my age!!) came flying up the wharf and there were police everywhere. It turned out that a prisoner had escaped from Wandsworth prison in the back of a rubbish lorry. The lorry had already tipped its 6 tonne load into the pits. They stopped the crane grabbing anymore rubbish out of the pit and then a mini–bus arrived full of more police and cadets who proceeded with rakes to get in the pit and sift through and turn over the smelly rubbish. The lorry had been to Roehampton Limb Centre first and loaded unwanted old false limbs before its last pickup at the prison, every time they came across an arm or leg they thought they had found the prisoner. We stood there laughing, even more so when we found out that the prisoner had jumped out of the lorry as it came into the wharf picked up an old mac, stole a dustman’s bike and ridden off into the sunset so to speak.
I was holiday relief on many of Cory’s Tugs, the Regard which was the jetty tug at the Albert Dock towing loaded coal barges across the river to the barge roads on the south side. Now and again we would tow a barge loaded with ripe bananas from the ship in the Victoria dock. If some of the banana’s were ripe when unloading they were no good for market so around 20 to 30 tonnes were dumped in our barge and towed to land-fill at Mucking with our other rubbish craft. Not liking waste, we often used to all take a stalk of bananas home.
One day on the way home in my little 1935 Austin Seven Ruby saloon, our skipper Tom was in the back with 3-4 stalks of bananas sitting beside him. We were pulled over by a policeman in Shooters Hill Rd (in those days policemen could safely step in the road put one hand up to stop you). Tom, the skipper had just lit up his stinking pipe so when I wound my window down and the copper popped his head in to ask where we had been, all he got was a great cloud of Toms smoke wafting in his face. He quickly spluttered “ OK on your way “. When we looked round at Tom in the back he was sitting there with a big smile and his Trilby hat perched on a stalk of bananas, technically we were in fact stealing even though they were being dumped.
In the 1970s, the old London Bridge was being dismantled and the contractors sheet piled caissons around the old arch abutments which narrowed the gap that we had to tow through, making it much smaller coming down on the spring ebb tide. With six 200 ton barges behind us, it was very challenging, we would put lighterman and spare breast ropes out on the barges as we approached the bridge .
As you came through the arch, the water would drop like a step and spit you out like a cork out of a bottle. Once committed there was no turning back, no brakes !!! Breast ropes would snap and for a few seconds you had no control and all you could do is hang on, miss the Belfast and shape up for Tower Bridge. Once you got through, everyone would breathe a sigh of relief, you would get your hands back on the tug and carry on down river. We all generally agreed that going through London Bridge was more than enough excitement for one day.
The competition to find this year’s Canary Wharf Sports Personality of the Year is over, 16-year old Tin Tin Ho’s table tennis achievements helped her to achieve the top award.
Tin Tin was crowned Canary Wharf Sports Personality of the Year at a ceremony at Canary Wharf’s East Wintergarden , amid considerable competition from a wide range of nominees. Three local sporting groups were also recognised for their 2015 achievements. These were; cheerleading team Ascension Eagles Serenity, Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club and the Bangladesh Football Association.
Tin Tin Ho,
At the 2015 Table Tennis National Championships, Tin Tin won three gold medals in the Under 21 singles, Women’s Doubles, Mixed Doubles, and won a silver medal in the Women’s Singles, narrowly missing out on the ‘grand slam’.
Tin Tin kept a 100% record in the team event at the European Youth Championships in Bratislava; ranked in the last 32 (Singles) and last 16 (Girls Doubles) at the French Youth Open. She won the Junior and Senior Middlesex Team gold at the County Premier, won gold at the ESTTA London East, Tin Tin (Singles) and in February at the Czech Youth Open, she won silver (Girls Doubles).
This is the fifteenth annual Canary Wharf Sports Personality of the Year Awards which encourage sporting excellence and participation in this area of London. The event was attended by over 300 local sports people and administrators as well as a range of local dignitaries, including Tower Hamlets Deputy Speaker of the Council Rajib Ahmed and ex-England cricketer and winner of Strictly Come Dancing, Mark Ramprakash.
Winners on the evening were:
Sports Personality of the Year: Tin Tin Ho, Table Tennis
Junior Team of the Year: Ascension Eagles Serenity
Ascension Eagles Serenity is AEC’s special needs team consisting of six young people with a range of disabilities who train together once a week. In July 2015 the team members competed in a National Cheerleading Championship event, excelling beyond all expectations to come away National Champions.
Senior Team of the Year: Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club
The winners are all members of the Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club Masters rowing squad. The team competed at the World Masters Championships held in Belgium where between them and their partners they won a total of three gold medals.
Group Achievement Award: Bangladesh Football Association
Bangladesh Football Association (BFA) delivers 11 different sports projects and engages over 3,000 people, bringing social and community benefits. As well as sports projects, the group also delivered an FA Level 1 and FA Referee coaching course to train the next generation of coaches and referees for the game. It has given many local young people the opportunity to move into paid employment.
Congratulations to all the prize winners and all that took part in the competition.
Billdora- Apprentice Tony Down and skipper Con Andrews (C)Tony Down
In part three of his memories of working on the Thames, Tony is still an apprentice finding work in the Royal Docks where he helps to rescue a lighterman from the water. This incident was a reminder that working on the river and docks had its own particular dangers, but nothing could prepare Tony for the tragic news that the Hawkstone had sunk and his master and the crew were missing.
In September 1957, I was sent to Royal docks as boy on Billdora with skipper Mr Connie Andrews. This was a very busy time in the Royals and the Albert Dock basin which were always full of craft first thing in the mornings after they were locked in the night before, we had to go in there and sort out the craft we wanted to tow to the various ships in the docks.
Royal Victoria Dock 1950s
One cold and frosty morning because the tug was so small and low, we had a job to see the names of the barges. We were in the middle of all the craft when we heard a shout and there was a lighterman half in the water holding on to his forward rope after slipping over the side and he was glad to see us because nobody else could see him dangling there between all the other barges. We got him aboard, took him ashore to the PLA office because they had a fire in there and he was very cold and wet (in those days you were supposed to go to hospital to be pumped out if you fell in but I don’t know if he went) .
Sometimes we would tow 16 to 18 empty craft to ships in every corner of the docks. I worked there until I was laid off in December 1957. Through lack of work for freeman, apprentices were laid off until things picked up, we could not sign on the lighterage pool or the dole, so during these periods I would ring round other firms to seek work, if I had no joy I would go away on Dick’s tug, the Hawkstone for a 24hr shift to learn my work.
I phoned Dick on the 24th Feb 1958 and asked him if I could join the tug next day, however I blew in!! a term used when you get up late and missed the tug. At 6am when I got there she had gone, as I was already in Erith, I went into the local ‘Cosmo’ Cafe and heard that a Waterman firm called Plume and McKee were looking for a boy to crew one of their small motor-boats they used for mooring ships on buoys and wharfs in the area.
I met the two gentlemen, Mr Wally Plume and Mr Ernie McKee in The Cross Keys Pub who told me to come back the next day for an interview. Next day I went for the interview and got the job and went back to the ‘Cosmo’ Cafe for a cuppa. However when I walked in I saw the Hawkstone crew who should have relieved Dicks crew that morning all looking very glum and upset. I asked them what was up ! they then said that Hawkstone had sunk and the crew were missing. I blindly rushed round to Cory Tank offices to enquire what had happened but was politely and firmly told to go away as all the families were arriving to be informed of the sad news. The days that followed for me were a bit of a blur, yes I had got a job, but very sadly had lost my master and I should have been there!! it was a hard time and I had a strange feeling of guilt for a long time afterwards.
I started work for Plume & McKee Waterman mooring up ships on buoys, piloting up Dartford creek, Fords Jetty and Ballast Wharf, running crews ashore off ships on the buoys in the evenings this was called attendance, then taking them back at the end of the evening sometimes drunk or very merry.
I had to get the officer of the watch on a Russian ship to sign to confirm I had picked them all up and got them safely back on board. While I was waiting he insisted I had a little drink this consisted of a rather large tumbler of vodka which took my breath away, I couldn’t speak, he then insisted I had another and down it in one go. I didn’t drink a lot in those days and if I did it certainly wasn’t vodka, well it’s a good job this was my last attendance that night because I didn’t wake up till next morning still on the ship. Mr Plume, my guvnor fortunately thought it was very funny, but my head didn’t !
I did all sorts of jobs involved in waterman’s work making fenders for the boats, splicing ropes, running Pilots from Fords and other wharfs back to Erith so they could get a train back to Gravesend for another job. On one occasion I was sitting astride a mooring buoy fixing another shackle to the ring when one of the crew on the ship tightened the mooring wire and then let it go again giving me a dunking in the process, needless to say, I had a few choice words for him.
In November 1958, I was due to go to Waterman’s Hall to apply for my 2 year Licence, at Waterman’s Hall you go before the court and the members which in those days consisted of owners of lighterage and waterman firms questioning you about all the firms you had being working for over the first 2 yrs of my apprenticeship. I was standing with my back to a roaring fire and getting very hot under the collar while they all questioned me about the firms and the type of work that I had done during my 2 years . Thankfully they stopped, looked at the Master, all nodded in agreement and granted me my licence. They knew that I had sadly lost my master so the court allowed his wife Mrs Jean Knight to continue with the remainder of my time unexpired on the condition of the indentures. I was very proud and relieved to pass not only for myself but for Mrs Knight who had bravely agreed to do this only months after losing her husband. Three years later I got my freedom, a Fully licensed Lighterman Waterman and Freeman of the River Thames, something that makes me very proud even to this present day.
Ten years ago, a 18ft northern bottlenose whale swam up the River Thames. The event caused a media frenzy and such was the interest, thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to watch rescuers trying in vain to save the mammal.
Earlier this week, I was sent a book called Newham Dockland which features a series of vintage photographs mainly about the Royal Docks and Silvertown. One of the photographs at the end of the book features hundreds of people surrounding a dead whale at Woolwich. Curious to find out more, I started to look at some old newspaper reports which clearly indicated that the 1899 whale also created a lot of interest but its treatment was vastly different from the 2006 mammal.
Another picture of the whale from Greenwich Heritage Centre
The first report from the London Post gives a few of the facts, especially how much it was worth.
A Whale In the Thames.
A bottle-nosed whale, forty feet long, weighing eight tons, and valued at £100, was stranded at 12:20 o’clock yesterday afternoon off the Cannon Cartridge buildings, Woolwich Arsenal. It came up the river with the tide, and when it found itself stranded on the reed bed “blew” furiously. In struggling to escape the whale Injured itself on the stones, colouring the river with its blood. About 2 o’clock the crew of the steam tug Empress fastened a rope to it, dragged it off the beach, and took it in tow, with the intention of consulting with the Thames Conservancy as to what was to be done with the monster. —London Post.
A second report indicated the whale was 66ft and after a ‘exciting chase’ met its gruesome fate to the enjoyment of the crowd.
A whale in the Thames! He measures 66 ft. long and is of the bottle-nosed variety. After an exciting chase extending over four hours, the monster was hemmed in by two tugs, and driven on to a bank near Woolwich Arsenal. Here he spouted in great style, to the instruction and entertainment of the crowd, and after his death the fishermen set to work on him with knives and cut off steaks for home consumption. There is still plenty of him left for the excursionists who go down to gaze on his magnificent proportions.
The Essex Field Club was a natural history group that provided reports on plants and animals, they provided a more scientific but no less gruesome account.
STRANDING OF A COMMON RORQUAL WHALE IN THE THAMES AT NORTH WOOLWICH, ESSEX.
ABOUT nine o’clock on the morning of Monday, the 27th November last (1899), a great Whale appeared in the Thames in the stretch of the river called Galleons Reach, which runs from the Albert Docks to Barking Creek. Several tugs went out to capture the animal. It is stated by the reporters that for four hours the tugs chased the visitor from Trip Cock Point to Silvertown Petroleum Works, and “the whale responded by whisking her tail vigorously and drenching the hunters with dirty Thames water.” At last it was run ashore near the ferry opposite the Pavilion Hotel, North Woolwich, and there done to death, but not without a tremendous struggle.
One newspaper stated that the whale “gave a magnificent spouting exhibition just before the end. Onlookers estimated the spout of water at 40 or 50 feet high” The whale was a female, measuring 66 feet 7 inches long, with a girth of 33 feet, and was estimated to weigh about 30 tons. On the Wednesday, the mammal, which had been rapidly decomposing, burst, and disclosed two calves. Some men slit the body open and delivered the young ones, one living about 20 minutes and the other only a very short time. During the night one was stolen, but one remained on exhibition with its mother. It measured 17ft with a girth of 7 feet.
The animal was announced in the papers as a “Bottle-nosed Whale” but this was clearly an error, and in a letter Mr. R. Lydekker, F.R.S., has kindly given us the correct name of the species. Mr. Lydekker writes, “I myself went down to look at the whale, As most of our readers know, this spout of “water” is in reality a column of air from the lungs highly charged with vapour and possibly carrying up with it some of the water surrounding the “blow-hole” of the whale should it spout from below the surface.
In other posts on the subject, I have mentioned previous whale visits to London that often ended up with people attacking the ‘monster’ and killing it. Thankfully, we now know much more about these remarkable creatures and treat them with the respect they deserve.
Many thanks to Tony Down for sending the book.
In the first part of Tony Down’s memories, he told us about his first experiences of working on the river. In this second part, Tony is taken on as an apprentice and meets the redoubtable Dorothy Woodward Fisher. An accident at Greenland dock, leaves him battered and bruised , however learning to swim and an unusual breakfast prove more of a problem for the young man.
One day, Dicky Knight skipper of the Hawkstone asked me if I would like to be his apprentice this was an offer of a lifetime for me, in those days it was normally a father and son situation. Dick had 2 young daughters which is why I think he gave me a chance of being his apprentice. He asked my mum and dad if it would be ok and they were as thrilled as me at this opportunity. This is where it all started. on the 13th day of November 1956 aged 17.
At Waterman’s Hall, I was proudly apprenticed to Richard Ivor Knight. for 5 years. In those days your master would try to get you a job at one of the many lighterage firms on the Thames , in fact according to the indentures he would have to make sure you behaved, you did not to frequent taverns nor playhouses nor commit fornication or contract to matrimony within the said term without said licence of his master who was to feed, clothe , find lodgings and generally look after you.
It was much better as an apprentice to work for as many firms as possible during your apprenticeship to get as much experience of work and cargoes. Dick managed to get me an interview with a Lighterage firm called Woodward-Fisher whose head office was at Belmont Hill, Lewisham. The Woodward Fisher firm carried lots of different cargoes including timber, paper and molasses, they also had a fleet of small seeking dock tugs in most of the docks on the Thames and their own barge yard at Limehouse.
Dorothy Woodward – Fisher
In January 1957, I put on my best suit and tucker, I must confess I was nervous, it seemed a very big house. Dick was with me and this really helped until I knocked on the big office door and a very loud deep voice said “ COME IN BOY “ I opened the door and there behind a big desk was a very smart lady with a monocle in a mans suit and bow tie sitting in front of me asking me all sorts of questions which to this day I can’t remember one. In the end Mrs Fisher smiled and welcomed me to Woodward Fisher and told me I had got the job, she told me to be at the Surrey Docks station gate at 7am sharp Monday and report to Mr Walter Boon who was Fisher’s foreman in the Surrey Docks.
My first few weeks was running bills of laden from Mr Boon’s small office next to the Surrey Canal entrance to customs offices at various places round the dock .The Surrey Docks had many docks including Greenland, Albion, Russia, Lavender, South dock etc with custom offices in most of them. I would have to get clearance so our loaded barges could undock and be towed to their destinations up and down the river.
After a couple of weeks I joined the little tug IKANGOIT with skipper Mr Alf Baines as boy on the boat we would tow empty craft from the lock to ships all over the Surrey dock for loading mainly with timber, sometimes we would tow loaded craft up the Surrey canal to Doultons timber wharf and empty craft back.
IKANGOIT from painting by Trevor Wayman
I had a slight accident while on IKANGOIT in February 1957, we were ordered for 7am to pick a barge up from Greenland dock. The lighterman and myself were waiting for the skipper to arrive but at 7-30 he still wasn’t there, the lighterman was getting a bit impatient being held up ( you had to be at the ship to load on time with your barge) he started to let our mooring ropes go. I told him to leave our aft rope on as the engine always went ahead when we first started.
Alf eventually arrived ( what we didn’t know was that his father had just died which was why he was late ). To start the engine we would both get down in the small engine room, Alf was not a small man he would turn the flywheel to top dead centre mark ,I would tickle up the injectors with a screw driver give it a blast of air and a big bang, lots of smoke high revs and away it would go, when he looked out of the small porthole we were careering across the dock, the lighterman had let the aft rope go!! I ran out into the cockpit grabbed hold of the big gear lever to try and get it in reverse when we hit the dock wall. I woke up in hospital with a bloody nose, bit bruised and stitches in my head but alive. Later when I went back to work, Mr Boon looked at me and told me to go home and have a couple of days off.
Fred Smith, skipper of IKANOPIT (C) John Smith
I did lots of jobs at Fishers, I was boy on IKANOPIT for a while with skipper Mr Fred Smith, then on my own pulling a loaded timber barge up the Surrey Canal to Peckham timber wharf and delivering it. This involved unsheeting every morning then the dockers would start unloading by hand walking over long planks with timber on their shoulders and stacking it on the wharf then sheet up at night when the dockers had finished for the day. I was bosun at Doultons wharf for a while unsheeting and moving craft around for unloading and when empty towing back to the dock.
During this time, I was with other apprentices attending Lighterage School twice a week in Old Street under teacher Mr Ted Hunt. For the first time in my life I did really well and passed the exams with flying colours, except the swimming. When we were all standing round the swimming pool fully clothed, the instructor shouted “right all in”, the whole class jumped into the water, “Get in boy he shouted at me” , I told him I can’t swim sir, he shouted “don’t worry about that lad I have a record, no boys have left here not being able to swim.” Needless to say, I broke his record !!!!
Fortunately it didn’t go against me when I went before the Masters at Waterman’s Hall for my 2 year licence. On a couple of occasions I was sent to Fishers barge yard in Limehouse to drive a barge (rowing a barge in the tideway) with Mr Harry Rose on the ebb tide down to our barge roads at Greenwich. Another job involved going with a Freeman to Mark Browns Wharf, that just on the upper side of Tower Bridge to load from a Russian ship. The cargo was Bent-wood Standard Lamps & Chairs!! I thought it was a bit of joke at first but it was genuine. Less of a joke was when I was sent to Regents Dock to load drums of carbide ,one of them came out of the strops and fell in the water between the ship and the barge. I suddenly realized everyone seemed to have disappeared after someone suggested that if the drum was holed it could explode !!!! . Fortunately it didn’t and the PLA sent a diver down to retrieve it.
While this was going on, I went into one of the many cafes round the dock, there wasn’t any single tables in these places just a long table down the middle of the room with benches either side, you just looked for a space to sit with all the dockers. As usual the room was full of fag smoke and chatter about what horse was going to win that day. I ordered my breakfast which was brought to me by a large buxom Italian lady who put it in front of me and then to the cheers and ribald comments from the dockers grabbed hold of my head and thrust it in her ample cleavage, it left me gasping for breath and very embarrassed but gave all the dockers a good laugh. Apparently, she did this to all young apprentices, I almost needed counselling after this and feared large buxom ladies for a long time.
Apprentice Lighterman, Poplar by Sandra Flett, Date : 1950-1959 (Museum of London)
The Thames is the source of endless fascination, especially watching the different ships and boats winding their way around the Isle of Dogs. Most of the vessels are leisure craft but there are the occasional tug pulling barges up and down the river. My mind often wanders and I try to picture the scene 50 or 60 years ago when the Thames was full of working vessels plying their trade. One man who worked on the river in those times was Tony Down who kindly sent some of his memories. I will be publishing these memories in a series of articles over the next few weeks, to start off, we meet Tony who is still a schoolboy but with dreams of going to sea. A chance meeting introduces him to the pleasures of working on the river.
My mum worked at the War Memorial hospital at Shooters Hill and before I went to school I used to have to take her to work on the bus then come back for school, then after school I would go back to the hospital and bring her home At this time I was 14 years of age and one day whilst waiting for her to finish work, a smart chap called Jack Hardy-Pearman pulled up in a lovely black MG sports car, he was picking up his girlfriend who worked in the same department as mum. We got chatting about life as you do when he asked me what I wanted to do when I left school, I told him I had wanted to go in the Merchant Navy like my dad, however dad wouldn’t let me (although he had been round the world working for The Union Castle Line) Jack then said I work as a mate on a tug would you like to come for a trip one day…what could I say.. yes please!! I was told to pack a bag to last 24 hrs with grub and be ready at 5-30am. He picked me up and we drove down to Cory Tank Lighterage Jetty in Erith boarded the roadman’s boat and rowed out to the tug Hawkstone on her moorings (the smell of the muddy foreshore has never left me) on board was the skipper Mr Richard Knight, the mate my new friend Jack Pearman, the engineer and greaser boy Ginger Watson. I went down the aft cabin and the engineer opened up various valves before we proceeded to start the main engine and we were ready to get under way we had to tow 6 barges down to Canvey island oil terminal in Sea Reach this we did, then towed 6 loaded barges on the flood tide up to Hammersmith, light tug back to Erith and more craft up Barking Creek.
I spent a lot of my time with Ginger cleaning all the brass and copper until it was gleaming in-between watching the engineer operating the big 6 cylinder British Polar engine, in those days the tugs were not wheelhouse controlled it was all done by telegraph from wheelhouse to engine room. I was also allowed to steer the tug under the watchful eye of the skipper, what a wonderful 24 hrs ! at the end of which Jack Pearman asked if I enjoyed it and if I would like to work on the river, my nod and smile gave him the answer, he told me to ring Cory-Tank office when I left school to see if there were any jobs going.
After finishing school, I got in touch with the Cory-Tank office and went for an interview with Cory Tank chief engineer Mr Scudder who promptly showed me a slide rule that I had never seen before and asked me if I could use it, I said no. Three weeks later, Cory Tank rang and I was told to pack a bag for 24hrs and start work on the Hawkstone’s sister tug Swiftstone as greaser boy on Monday morning 6am sharp. In those days the shifts were 24hrs long, 6am—6am next morning, 3 days one week and 2 days the following week. Mr Jack Allen was the skipper, Mr Reg Chiesman the engineer who I had to report to, when I arrived I noticed once again, the smell of the mud and in my great excitement, we were rowed off to the tug in the roadman’s boat. We towed craft with oil, petrol, diesel and aircraft fuel most of the time from Canvey island and Thames Haven to London and occasionally craft round into the River Medway. Reg the engineer was a very good and helpful teacher, I was taught to drive the engine, write-up the log every hour taking oil pressures, water temp, pump up fuel into the header tank, grease the stern gland, make sure the air start tanks were full as well as cleaning all the brass and copper, making tea and feeding myself. Whilst preparing my gourmet dinner one day on the two burner paraffin stove (we had all the best kitchen equipment in those days) the oven consisted of a 12” x 12” square box with a door that you put on one of the burners! I put my tin of steak and kidney pudding in the oven and went back into the engine room with Reg, a little while later there was an almighty bang we ran into the cabin to see the square oven was now not square and not on the stove, steak and kidney pudding was now going hard all over the cabin and deckhead – I spent hours scraping pud off the lockers and the deckhead – all because I forgot to poke two holes in the pud tin. The oven although straightened out was never the same, another lesson learned and no dinner !
There is something about being responsible at a very young age and being in control down in the engine room driving a big Crossley engine that was very exciting, in those days it was stopped and started with orders from the wheelhouse on the telegraph for ahead or astern slow, half, or full. There were two controls, a large wheel and a small one ( the throttle), when you had to go from ahead to astern you would reduce engine speed with the small wheel turn the big wheel to stop at about 12 o’clock, the engine would stop then wind it slowly anti clockwise where it would with a blast of air, start the engine and go astern. You had to rely on the skipper and he on you when he rings down on the telegraph that you do the right thing, it’s was big responsibility because men’s lives are at risk.
I did quite a few holiday reliefs on the Hawkstone and it was while doing this time that I started to get very interested in the deck work up top, steering the tug, throwing out the ropes etc, watching the movement of the barges and tide sets through the bridges of London shooting craft off and picking craft up and the manoeuvres involved after I had cleaned all the brass and copper in the engine room of course. The engine in the Hawkstone was a British Polar, the same air start principal but slightly different controls. One day we were towing four barges up river in Lower Hope when the table in our aft cabin started to jump up and down, I ran into the engine room and slowed the engine until the table stopped moving about , the problem was one of the propeller blades had broken off hence it jumping up and down like an irate donkey!!! We were able very slowly to moor on a buoy that had Cory’s rubbish barges waiting to enter Mucking Creek and then another tug came out and towed us and our barges up to Erith for repairs.