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Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often supplies interesting pieces of ephemera which provides the basis for some research and an article. Last week Eric sent some photographs that was a reminder of an unusual occupation on the river which allowed people on board ships to send and receive mail.
In the 19th century, postmen did not just deliver the mail on land. One of the most unusual jobs in London was the post of River Postman which covered the stretch of the River Thames from London Bridge to Limehouse reach. The post of River Postman was established in 1800 and included a special scarlet uniform which allowed the postman to be noticed on the busy river. Accidents were not unknown and at least two postman died in the early years of the 19th century.
A newspaper report of 1912 gives some details about Frederic Winder who was one of the early River postmen.
Postman to Crimean Transports carried Mails across the Frozen Thames.
The funeral took place at Lewisham Cemetery recently of Mr. Frederic William Winder, who has terminated a remarkable career, at the age of 95 years. He was an old Thames postman, and he handled the Crimean mails. In the terrible winter of 1855 which stands out as one of the most awful memories of the Crimean campaign, he carried the bags of letters over the Thames ice to the troopship lying opposite the old Deptford Victualling Yard.
‘It was in 1840 — the year the penny post came in — that I first became a Thames postman. My predecessor was on the river for 42 years. ‘For about 30 years I used to deliver the letters to the ships lying between Limehouse and East Greenwich. They were all, timber-built ships in those days, and it was a wonderful sight to see them all on the water. I have counted as many as 300 ‘sail of ships’ between Deptford Creek and Deadman’s Dock. When the Crimean War was on the Thames used to look like a forest with all the transport vessels and their big masts. So hard was the winter of 1855 that I was often able to do away with my river boat and walk across the ice to the transports, carrying the letters and mail bags.’
It was quite common for the job of River Postman to be handed down from father to son, Eric’s photographs show two generations of the Evans family who were the best known postmen on the river, the postman in the boater is George Henry Evans taken around 1910, many of the other photo’s feature his son Herbert Lionel Evans.
A newspaper report of 1924 discusses some of the problems of delivering to Limehouse and gives some details of River Postman, Mr H L Evans.
Little comedies and adventures in the life of a postman as described in “The Post Annual,’ which is produced by the Union of Post Office Workers.
” It tells of some queer places of delivery-ranging from a letter box under the doorstep of a house to vessels lying in mid Thames, to which the river postman row every morning,” say the London Daily Chronicle.”
“There is one house in Chinatown,” says the writer, “the front of which opens on to the backyard of another house in front of it, it is necessary to go through two of the rooms to get access. Another curiosity of this character which, is found in Chinatown is provided by two small cottages, absolutely hidden. The only way to get access is through a passage which runs a double fronted house standing in front of them. There are many letter boxes in strange places in London, “One occasionally can notice them tucked away in the corner of a window instead of being in the door. One, at least, is to be found under the doorstep of a house-not the place where a new postman would be likely to look.
The river postman is Mr. H. L. Evans, who, in the Alice Maud, rows out to vessels in mid-river every morning to deliver letters. His delivery extends from London Bridge to Duke Shore, Limehouse. He takes in the space of river between the Customs House and London Bridge, and then proceeds down stream, crossing and recrossing the river as he comes upon the vessels for which he has correspondence.
It is a picturesque occupation, and looks attractive, during the Summer weather. Heavy rains, fogs and frosts, however, play a big part in the river postman’s life. He cannot shelter himself from the rain as can his shoregoing colleagues; fog means groping about the river, sometimes only to discover that a wrong direction been taken, when the wrong shore is encountered, and with the necessity for avoiding tugs which may bear down out of the darkness at any moment.
Mr Evans is a licensed waterman. The duty as, from soon after its institution, always been performed by members of his family, and he represents the fifth generation to take it up.
Remarkably, there is a short Pathe film of 1933 which shows Mr Evans delivering to various ships and houseboats. Herbert Lionel Evans carried on in the position of River Postman until 1952 when the post was discontinued due to increased traffic in the Thames.
Although the job was mainly done by men, during the First World War, Doris Beaumont was a river post girl on the Thames. She delivered letters to the houseboats along a seven mile stretch of river at Staines.
By 1919 it was said that she had rowed 2,500 miles. She became a bit of celebrity gaining publicity from around the world. She was recently honoured in a series of special edition Royal Mail stamps.
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.
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.
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?
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 !
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.
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.
After the nautical excitement of last week, it is now the time for murder on the Isle of Dogs. Fortunately it is a fictional crime and a book written by well-known American crime writer Deborah Crombie.
Regular readers will know I am always on the look out for books that feature the Isle of Dogs and Kissed a Sad Goodbye features many of the Island landmarks. The book was written in the late 1990’s and captures the considerable changes taking place on the Island at that time.
The story begins with George Brent, an Islander walking his dog near to Asda when he finds a young woman’s body in the tall grass of Mudchute Park, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Detectives from Scotland Yard are assigned to the case and quickly begin to realise that this will not be a straightforward case.
A number of characters appear on the police’s radar, a mysterious busker who plays in Island Gardens and the Greenwich foot tunnel, the victim’s well to do fiancé; her sister’s ex-husband and her father.
What is intriguing about the book is that the author uses the history and character of the Docklands and the Isle of Dogs to provide an atmospheric background to the story. She cleverly intersperses the modern aspects of the story with historical accounts of the evacuation of local children during the bombings of WWII.
Another interesting part of the book is how the author has used the research of people like local historian Eve Hostettler to provide small quotes at the start of some of the chapters. The author’s extensive research gives the book a great deal of credibility and manages to tap into the Islands unique history.
Deborah Crombie was born in Dallas and bought up in Texas, She then worked in advertising and newspapers. A visit to England led to a life-long passion for Britain, and she later moved to the UK with her first husband living in Edinburgh and Chester. She returning to the US and wrote her first Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid/Sergeant Gemma James novel, A Share in Death in 1993. Her subsequent novels have been published with success all over the world.
It is quite surprising how many American crime writers write about London and especially about East London, but this is one that focuses almost entirely on the Isle of Dogs which is more unusual. If you come across a copy it is well worth a read and shows that in many ways the Island certainly has a global appeal.
Last year when the Olympics were taking place, West India Dock was crowded with Super Yachts. The arrival of the Big Eagle in West India Dock attempts to bring a bit of that glamour back to West India Dock.
Big Eagle was a regular visitor to the Cannes Film Festival and hosted a number of Festival parties. However recently she was sold and now is used as personal yacht for her new owner.
Although built-in 1980 , she had a major refit in 2004 , there is luxury accommodation for up to 12 guests and has a crew of 10.
She has a Length of 172′ (52.43m), Beam: 26′ (7.8m) and Cruising Speed of 12 knots.
Also in West India Dock is around 15 Barges, part of a rally organised by the DBA (the Barge Association )
Many are Dutch barges which are already popular in the UK as houseboats or venues, Millwall Dock has a number of Barges resident and near the Museum of Docklands there is the Leven restaurant.
There is a wide assortment of barges which a few times a year come together for rallies both in the UK and on the continent.
Finally to close our nautical post, I just happened to be walking near the Blue Bridge when the Cruise Ship Berlin was passing the O2 on its way to Tower Bridge.
An Aerial view of the Docks 1934
Some weeks ago I posted an article about the Bombsight project which tried to chart where many of the Bombs fell in World War Two.
The Britain from Above project is yet another incredible website that is making available thousands of aerial photographs taken above Britain between 1919 and 1953.
Not only do you get access to the photos on the website, you can play an active part identifying many of the locations.
To give you a taste of what is available here are some of the latest photos of the Isle of Dogs in 1934.
Millwall Dock 1934
South Dock 1934
Cubitt Town 1934
Millwall Dock – Flour Mill 1934
Millwall Dock from South 1934
To go to the Britain from Above Website press here
Looking out to the O2
Although the HMS Lancaster arrived late yesterday, there was a considerable amount of interest today as the ship allowed visitors on board as part of their open day.
It was expected the Queen would visit on Tuesday, however due to her illness this is very unlikely to happen.
Walking around the ship gives some insight into some of the work the ship undertakes especially it’s anti narcotics and anti piracy work. The number of small arms on board gives indication of the small fast craft that are often used by pirates and drug smugglers.
An interesting connection with the Isle of Dogs was that it was built in Glasgow by Yarrows who had their shipbuilding origins on the Isle of Dogs.
Arms on Deck
On the Bridge
View from the Bridge
Arms on Decks
Crest on Launchers
Soldiers on board
Time for tea
Helicopter on board
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