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


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.


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.


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.

Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down


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.