Home » Human Life » Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down – Part Two

Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down – Part Two

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Apprentice’s Diary

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 !!!!

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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.

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