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

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

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Young Tony on the Billdora in the Royal Docks

In the last part of Tony Down’s memories of working on the River Thames, Tony recalls in the 1970s that the closing of the docks led a scarcity of jobs on the river. With most of the lighterage firms closing down, the prospects were looking bleak. With a young family and a mortgage, Tony made the hard decision to take voluntary redundancy and look for work on shore. Tony makes a successful new career in property and estate agency but the lure of the river leads to a few trips around Britain on a number of vessels.

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Touchstone

During 1970s, a vacancy for a mates job came up, I applied and started on Touchstone as mate so I had come full circle from greaser boy to mate on the same tugs that I had been involved with for years, Swiftstone, Recruit, ending up on the Lingo now called Merit. Eventually, I made the hardest decision of my life in 1978 and took voluntary redundancy of £999 for 22yrs service on Old Father Thames.

There was never a day that I didn’t want to go to work in all that time but work on the river was getting scarce firms were closing down. I had a young family and a mortgage, so had to think about the future for all of us, working ashore for me was never the same, in fact I hated it.

I put some of my redundancy money in with my wife’s brother and we bought a grotty little mid terrace house in Plumstead for £1,500. We then renovated it and sold it £3,500. This was in 1980, the same house in Plumstead in 2014 was sold for £325,000.

Dealing with Bank Managers, Estate Agents, Solicitors, Planners and Councils was completely different from working with a crew of mates where we all look out for one another. I stayed in property and estate agency and helped my wife restore old furniture around our village in Suffolk.

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Waverley

I sailed round Britain in 1988 in a 40ft yacht that I fitted out over 2 yrs and I used to sail from Suffolk up to London every couple of years, Although on my last trip, I went from Ipswich to Tower Pier on the ”Waverley” the last paddle steamer, boring my friends who came with me with the history of my Thames. On my trips, the riverfront seemed to change so quickly, they call it progress, but I do wonder! Or is it my age?

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Dreamcatcher

I now potter around in my N/B Dreamcatcher on the canals of England I’ve been down the Kennet & Avon to Bristol, Wales, The Thames, the Potteries and the Grand Union. In the last couple of years, I have made nostalgic trips up the River Lea until the nostalgia ran out when I got to Enfield.

I returned to Limehouse Basin, then Regents Canal, Camden Lock, Paddington Basin, Slough Bulls Bridge, Grand Union, Northampton Arm, River Nene and my mooring at the bottom of my daughters garden in Benwick, Cambs in the middle levels. I had five weeks away going through 267 locks at 4mph. The trip helped me to slow life down nicely and working the locks keeps you pretty fit as well !

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Swiftstone

One of the highlights of the trip was when I went aboard my old tug Swiftstone moored on Trinity Wharf at the entrance of Bow Creek. Swiftstone is now a historic little ship owned by the Swiftstone Trust. The Swiftstone Trust is looking after her now she is 63yrs old, one of the few historic tugs left to remember our times of old on the Thames. It would have been nice, if Cory had kept one of their steam tugs as well as they were lovely vessels to work on, although the guys and girls that look after Swiftstone are doing a great job keeping her running.

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A number of the old tugs are still going strong, Recruit is still working on the Thames she is also 63yrs old and still looking good in her new livery, Touchstone is in the Medway and privately owned, looking very smart last time I saw her in Ipswich. Relay has sadly been scrapped and Merit, I believe is up for sale. The Woodwood – Fishers tug, Billdora is still afloat at Eel Pie Island.

Many thanks to Tony for his memories and the photographs which are an important record of when the Thames was a working river with thousands of people working up and down the river.  When the docks closed in the 1960s and 1970s it not only put those people out of work but was the end of a way of life that had carried on for centuries. Working on the river was generally hard work and frequently dangerous with a number of workers injured or losing their lives, however many workers loved working on the river and like Tony, they look back on their working life on the river with some pride and nostalgia.

 


3 Comments

  1. Kirsty Smalley (Tony's Granddaughter) says:

    Fantastic to read your life working on the Thames Grandad, a very proud granddaughter 🙂
    I look forward to meeting up with you on the canals for more enormous pub puddings that we struggled to force down 😉
    Many more memories on the river to make xxxx

  2. Cliff Jeavons says:

    I also started my time afloat on the Swiftstone as greaser boy with Harry Langridge as engineer & Vic Craddock as skipper, later as a Freeman was allocated to Cory Tank as a lighterman and enjoyed working there again. I also worked Wm Cory Rough Goods as boy mate on the Corlea, hand behind the Relentless and various steam tugs. Quay lighterage with H R Mitchell, E & D, Clarkes of Erith and mate with Erith Towing Co. Left the NDLB and stated with Shell -Mex & BP on there oilers. Never were there two day the same and working on the Thames was the best years of my life. Always regardless of weather winter or summer it was a treat to be a River Thames Waterman & Lighterman.

    • Hi Cliff,

      Thanks for the comment, Tony’s memories gave me a lot of insight about working on river. It seemed if you took to that kind of life, you loved it.
      Thanks for the information, there are a lot of people who look back at those days with a lot of pride and fondness.

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