Lighter Times on the Thames

When we first came down to Greenwich, the river was crammed with strings of lighters waiting to be employed carrying cargoes off merchant ships lying midstream.

A visit to the National Maritime Museum will show you how it was – or even better go to the Museum of Docklands sited in a great warehouse by the dockside of West India Docks.

My first introduction to lightermen was in Coronation Year when, with the boldness of youth, we approached this extraordinary character who repaired iron lighters just alongside Cannon Street Railway Bridge.  The Regent Street Poly had an art school on the top floors utilising the conventional pitched roofs as a light source.  That is where we gathered on sunny days watching the rebirth of the West End.  The large illuminated rosettes were coming down awaiting disposal.  We were desperately looking for a summer party venue and there it was before our very eyes, just where we held our sketch club.  “I say chaps, how about using the rosettes as decorations within this vast, empty lighter”.  Arrangements were made for a small fee for the overnight hire – our lighterman couldn’t have been more helpful saying that he would fix the floor (deck), put in some ladders and a temporary canvas roof!  But, he said, you must have a safety boat.  Easy, we said, and borrowed a skiff from the Putney sports pavilion.  The rosettes were acquired also and loaded onto the caretaker’s wheeled cart which we pushed down Regent Street, across Trafalgar Square and along Fleet Street and on to the empty bomb site adjacent to the watermen’s steps.

All set up for the party which aroused the interest of the River Police who promised to keep an eye on us, much to the relief of all.  Well it was quite an evening, especially when the tide went out and left us jiving on the tilt.  Once we had cleared up in the morning, we had to row the safety boat upstream to Putney and return the hand cart to the Poly bearing an empty pin of beer.

Lighters were also built and repaired on the Greenwich waterfront at Woods Wharf.  The other local lightermen were the famous Piper family – traces of their barge yard are still in evidence.  If I remember, the whole family were involved, and another party to savour was the installation of Peter as Master of The Worshipful Company of Watermen & Lightermen at Waterman’s Hall close to the old Billingsgate Fish Market.  Both Wood Wharf and Pipers were a hub of activity.

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A stroll down the Thames Path past Ballast Quay will take you to the last remaining working repair yard left on this side of the river.  Take note of the two floating docks and maritime artefacts on either side of the corrugated iron fences.  Not far along the pathway a new facility has been built by Victoria Deep Water Wharf awaiting the removal day!  Take a peek through the extensive site boundary of the building site, and you could have seen the ruins of a Flemish Water Mill!

As I write on this wonderful Saturday evening, party boats come and go – even a jazz band under the tan sails of a wonderful Thames Sailing Barge.  In contrast, the smoothest dining experience on board the Silver Sturgeon adds sophistication as she slips past in time to a saxophone strain sidling across the tideway.

How things change!

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On Sunday evenings in August there is a beautiful river trip that leaves Greenwich pier at 7.00pm  (returning at 9.00pm) This is a wonderful way of seeing London at dusk. For us oldies the cost is only a fiver!

About RiverWatch returns

Peter Kent shares his Thames riverside studio viewpoint

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