Regulation of the watermen

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The Company of Watermen, which was always on a different footing from the other City Companies, being more particularly under the immediate jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor, was first officially constituted by a statute of the 2 and 3 Philip and Mary.

This statute ordained that eight overseers were to be chosen from among the watermen, to keep order among the rest; and among the many regulations, was one determining that a wherry should not be less than twelve feet and a half long and four feet and a half broad in the midship, and sufficient to carry two people on one side right.

The Court of Aldermen was to assess the fares, and a waterman who demanded more was liable to suffer a year's imprisonment and forty shillings fine. Of these eight overseers, three were to be chosen by the lighter men.

The court of assistants was to be composed of not less than forty or more than sixty watermen and nine lighter men. The overseers were to appoint forty watermen to ply and work on Sundays, between Vauxhall and Limehouse, at seventeen stairs as should be judged most convenient.

All barges and wherries were to be numbered and a table of fares given to each Waterman. The legal fares varied according to distance, and above and below bridge: the usual fare being sixpence for a pair of oars and three pence for sculls; but to Lambeth and Vauxhall it was one shilling, and to Chelsea, Battersea or Wandsworth, one shilling and sixpence.

The fares for longer distances, of course, were higher; to Windsor or Staines, fourteen or twelve shillings; to Weybridge and Chertsey, ten shillings; and so on in proportion to the distance.

An Act was passed in the second year of George II., 1729, for the better ordering and government of the waterman. Before this, in 1701, a very salutary order had been made, with regard to the language of the watermen, directing that they were to abstain from bad language and obnoxious behaviour.

If convicted, they were to be fined. For all this, the watermen had a language of their own, and being quick-witted and ready tongued, they would invariably come off best in a wordy encounter.

To get some idea of the busy scene presented by the Thames in those bygone days, there were 5962 wherries registered and numbered, and above 1000 more unregistered, in addition to 1730 barges.

Taylor, the water poet, tells us that in his time the number of watermen and those that lived or were maintained by them, and by the only labour of the oar and the scull, between Windsor and Gravesend, could not be less than forty thousand. This was in the reign of Elizabeth. In Anne's reign, Strype said that their number was about the same, so this represented a very considerable industry.

When Blackfriars Bridge was built, the Watermen's Company accepted the sum of £13,650 as compensation for the loss of the Sunday ferry. Their old Hall before the Fire was at Cold Harbour, and faced the river; the present one is in Lower Thames Street.

In Maitland's London, 1756, Watermen's Hall is still described as being in Dowgate Ward and at the bottom of Cold Harbour Lane, facing the river. The Thames steamboats, however, gave the deathblow to the Thames watermen.

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