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.