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

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

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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

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.

hawkstone

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.

DSCN2623

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.


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