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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 – Part Two


In the first part of Tony Down’s memories, he told us about his first experiences of working on the river. In this second part, Tony is taken on as an apprentice and meets the redoubtable Dorothy Woodward Fisher. An accident at Greenland dock, leaves him battered and bruised , however learning to swim and an unusual breakfast prove more of a problem for the young man.

One day, Dicky Knight skipper of the Hawkstone asked me if I would like to be his apprentice this was an offer of a lifetime for me, in those days it was normally a father and son situation. Dick had 2 young daughters which is why I think he gave me a chance of being his apprentice. He asked my mum and dad if it would be ok and they were as thrilled as me at this opportunity. This is where it all started. on the 13th day of November 1956 aged 17.

At Waterman’s Hall, I was proudly apprenticed to Richard Ivor Knight. for 5 years.  In those days your master would  try to get you a job at one of the many lighterage firms on the Thames , in fact according to the indentures he would have to make sure you behaved, you did not to frequent taverns nor playhouses nor commit fornication or contract to matrimony within the said term without said licence of his master who was to feed, clothe , find lodgings and generally look after you.


It was much better as an apprentice to work for as many firms as possible during your apprenticeship to get as much experience of work and cargoes. Dick managed to get me an interview with a Lighterage firm called Woodward-Fisher whose head office was at Belmont Hill, Lewisham. The Woodward Fisher firm carried lots of different cargoes including timber, paper and molasses, they also had a fleet of small seeking dock tugs in most of the docks on the Thames and their own barge yard at Limehouse.


Dorothy Woodward – Fisher

In January 1957, I put on my best suit and tucker, I must confess I was nervous, it seemed a very big house. Dick was with me and this really helped until I knocked on the big office door and a very loud deep voice said “ COME IN BOY “ I opened the door and there behind a big desk was a very smart lady with a monocle in a mans suit and bow tie sitting in front of me asking me all sorts of questions which to this day I can’t remember one. In the end Mrs Fisher smiled and welcomed me to Woodward Fisher and told me I had got the job, she told me to be at the Surrey Docks station gate at 7am sharp Monday and report to Mr Walter Boon who was Fisher’s foreman in the Surrey Docks.


Apprentice’s Diary

My first few weeks was running bills of laden from Mr Boon’s small office next to the Surrey Canal entrance to customs offices at various places round the dock .The Surrey Docks had many docks including Greenland, Albion, Russia, Lavender, South dock etc with custom offices in most of them. I would have to get clearance so our loaded barges could undock and be towed to their destinations up and down the river.

After a couple of weeks I joined the little tug IKANGOIT with skipper Mr Alf Baines as boy on the boat we would tow empty craft from the lock to ships all over the Surrey dock for loading mainly with timber, sometimes we would tow loaded craft up the Surrey canal to Doultons timber wharf and empty craft back.


IKANGOIT from painting by Trevor Wayman

I had a slight accident while on IKANGOIT in February 1957, we were ordered for 7am to pick a barge up from Greenland dock. The lighterman and myself were waiting for the skipper to arrive but at 7-30 he still wasn’t there, the lighterman was getting a bit impatient being held up ( you had to be at the ship to load on time with your barge) he started to let our mooring ropes go. I told him to leave our aft rope on as the engine always went ahead when we first started.

Alf eventually arrived ( what we didn’t know was that his father had just died which was why he was late ). To start the engine we would both get down in the small engine room, Alf was not a small man he would turn the flywheel to top dead centre mark ,I would tickle up the injectors with a screw driver give it a blast of air and a big bang, lots of smoke high revs and away it would go, when he looked out of the small porthole we were careering across the dock, the lighterman had let the aft rope go!! I ran out into the cockpit grabbed hold of the big gear lever to try and get it in reverse when we hit the dock wall. I woke up in hospital with a bloody nose, bit bruised and stitches in my head but alive. Later when I went back to work, Mr Boon looked at me and told me to go home and have a couple of days off.


Fred Smith, skipper of IKANOPIT (C) John Smith

I did lots of jobs at Fishers, I was boy on IKANOPIT for a while with skipper Mr Fred Smith, then on my own pulling a loaded timber barge up the Surrey Canal to Peckham timber wharf and delivering it. This involved unsheeting every morning then the dockers would start unloading by hand walking over long planks with timber on their shoulders and stacking it on the wharf then sheet up at night when the dockers had finished for the day. I was bosun at Doultons wharf for a while unsheeting and moving craft around for unloading and when empty towing back to the dock.


During this time, I was with other apprentices attending Lighterage School twice a week in Old Street under teacher Mr Ted Hunt. For the first time in my life I did really well and passed the exams with flying colours, except the swimming. When we were all standing round the swimming pool fully clothed, the instructor shouted “right all in”, the whole class jumped into the water, “Get in boy he shouted at me” , I told him I can’t swim sir, he shouted “don’t worry about that lad I have a record, no boys have left here not being able to swim.” Needless to say, I broke his record !!!!


Fortunately it didn’t go against me when I went before the Masters at Waterman’s Hall for my 2 year licence. On a couple of occasions I was sent to Fishers barge yard in Limehouse to drive a barge (rowing a barge in the tideway) with Mr Harry Rose on the ebb tide down to our barge roads at Greenwich. Another job involved going with a Freeman to Mark Browns Wharf, that just on the upper side of Tower Bridge to load from a Russian ship. The cargo was Bent-wood Standard Lamps & Chairs!! I thought it was a bit of joke at first but it was genuine. Less of a joke was when I was sent to Regents Dock to load drums of carbide ,one of them came out of the strops and fell in the water between the ship and the barge. I suddenly realized everyone seemed to have disappeared after someone suggested that if the drum was holed it could explode !!!! . Fortunately it didn’t and the PLA sent a diver down to retrieve it.

While this was going on, I went into one of the many cafes round the dock, there wasn’t any single tables in these places just a long table down the middle of the room with benches either side, you just looked for a space to sit with all the dockers. As usual the room was full of fag smoke and chatter about what horse was going to win that day. I ordered my breakfast which was brought to me by a large buxom Italian lady who put it in front of me and then to the cheers and ribald comments from the dockers grabbed hold of my head and thrust it in her ample cleavage, it left me gasping for breath and very embarrassed but gave all the dockers a good laugh. Apparently, she did this to all young apprentices, I almost needed counselling after this and feared large buxom ladies for a long time.