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


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.


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


Tony recalls the time when barges became a regular sight going up and down the Thames with waste for Mucking Marshes which was a major landfill site servicing London, it was one of the largest landfills in Western Europe and had been filled for decades with waste.

Tony found working on the river was hard work but not without its lighter moments especially if the police were involved. However, Tony was not laughing too much when he was making his way under London Bridge, the taking down of old London Bridge and the building of a new London Bridge in the 1960s and 1970s caused a certain amount of disruption on the river and caused particular problems to the tugs with heavy barges.


Recruit, Touchstone, Swiftstone, were tugs that I worked on during the 60-70s, then I was bosun at Feathers Rubbish Wharf in Wandsworth for 6 yrs loading rubbish, sheeting up and moving 200 – tonne barges at high water that were then towed down the Thames to Mucking for discharging on the marshes. The marshes were owned by a firm called Surridge, who I was told purchased the Mucking marshes in Victorian times for £25 an acre then allowed London’s rubbish to be dumped there at a cost of course. I believe they also had barges that transported rubbish to the Medway as well as bringing bricks back from the brick works in the Medway to London.

One day, all of a sudden, a number of  police cars with bells clanging (this shows my age!!) came flying up the wharf and there were police everywhere. It turned out that a  prisoner had escaped from Wandsworth prison in the back of a rubbish lorry. The lorry had already tipped its 6 tonne load into the pits. They stopped the crane grabbing anymore rubbish out of the pit and  then a mini–bus arrived full of more police and cadets who proceeded with rakes to get in the pit and sift through and turn over the smelly rubbish. The lorry had been to Roehampton Limb Centre first and loaded unwanted old false limbs before its last pickup at the prison, every time they came across an arm or leg they thought they had found the prisoner. We stood there laughing, even more so when we found out that the prisoner had jumped out of the lorry as it came into the wharf picked up an old mac, stole a dustman’s bike and ridden off into the sunset so to speak.


I was holiday relief on many of Cory’s Tugs, the Regard which was the jetty tug at the Albert Dock towing loaded coal barges across the river to the barge roads on the south side. Now and again we would tow a barge loaded with ripe bananas from the ship in the Victoria dock. If some of the banana’s were ripe when unloading they were no good for market so around 20 to 30 tonnes were dumped in our barge and towed to land-fill at Mucking with our other rubbish craft. Not liking waste, we often used to all take a stalk of bananas home.

One day on the way home in my little 1935 Austin Seven Ruby saloon, our skipper Tom was in the back with 3-4 stalks of bananas sitting beside him. We were pulled over by a policeman in Shooters Hill Rd (in those days policemen could safely step in the road put one hand up to stop you). Tom, the skipper had just lit up his stinking pipe so when I wound my window down and the copper popped his head in to ask where we had been, all he got was a great cloud of Toms smoke wafting in his face. He quickly spluttered “ OK on your way “. When we looked round at Tom in the back he was sitting there with a big smile and his Trilby hat perched on a stalk of bananas, technically we were in fact stealing even though they were being dumped.

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In the 1970s, the old London Bridge was being dismantled and the contractors sheet piled caissons around the old arch abutments which narrowed the gap that we had to tow through, making it much smaller coming down on the spring ebb tide. With six 200 ton barges behind us, it was very challenging, we would put lighterman and spare breast ropes out on the barges as we approached the bridge .

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As you came through the arch, the water would drop like a step and spit you out like a cork out of a bottle. Once committed there was no turning back, no brakes !!! Breast ropes would snap and for a few seconds you had no control and all you could do is hang on, miss the Belfast and shape up for Tower Bridge. Once you got through, everyone would breathe a sigh of relief, you would get your hands back on the tug and carry on down river. We  all generally agreed that going through London Bridge was more than enough excitement for one 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.