Meet Chris Livett one of our Board Members & Seventh Generation Waterman
"Often the river is seen as a boundary between north and south or communities across London. I see it not as a boundary but as an artery that runs through the city."
Queen's Barge Master, Managing Director of Livett's Group and full-time river ambassador, Chris Livett comes from a long line of barge and tug captains, and joined Thames Festival Trust's board as a trustee 3 years ago. We caught up with him to find out about an average day working on the Thames and why he thinks we need to shout about the cultural value of our river.
Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. So your family have been operating on the river for 6 generations?
Yes – and I’m the 7th, my son is the 8th – and Phoebe, my baby granddaughter is the 9th, she’s still yet to be apprenticed!
How does that family history feed into the whole organisation?
Traditionally, we had been tug captains in the past, so I’m the first generation to run a serious business on the river, but our history feeds into Livett's in terms of our love for the river, our love for its heritage; our connections. It is not just a job but a way of life.
Did you always want to follow your family’s path on the river?
I suppose it was always thought that I would go onto the river, and I accepted that, but knowing what I know now perhaps I may have gone in a different direction. I love my life on the river, but being 7th generation people just expected it to happen. The river was always going to be part of my life.
Tell us about a normal day at Livett’s
No two days are the same because we’re so diverse, we cover so many aspects of the river, from passenger boats to tugs and barges, piers, moorings, filming, civil engineering, consultancy, bar mitzvahs, weddings – you name it we do it. The types of vessels we’ve got, the geographical locations within which we operate: the whole of the River Thames, the River Medway and the River Swale. It’s very very diverse. The people that work for us – they always have to look at the programmes and routines and look at what’s been scheduled to understand where they are, what they want to be doing and how. It’s always changing!
How do you come up with the names of your boats?
It’s a collective decision normally. For example we just bought a new pontoon called Sydney L – named after the dog, who’s around here somewhere… there he is. We just named 8 new barges, 4 of which were named via a twitter poll, we had 2,500 votes in total. Number 1 was Churchill, the others Pegasus, Valiant and Hercules. The last one was named after my granddaughter, Phoebe. So it’s always a bit varied, we tend not to stick to one theme: look at the Dixie Queen, Edwardian to Tidy Thames. Like my day, it’s a whole variety.
Tell us about some exciting moments on the river you’ve witnessed?
Over recent years there have been several, the Olympic year in 2012 was a big one on the Thames, certainly the biggest that the river had seen in quite some time. We were involved in the opening ceremony, the David Beckham boat going through Tower Bridge was us, and I was aboard the boat, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant was another big day. I was part of the organising committee with Adrian (Thames Festival Trust Director), and I was very fortunate to be invited by her Majesty aboard the barge on the day. I’ve never seen so many boats at one time in one location, nor have I seen so many people stretched along the banks of the river.
There are lots of other smaller moments too. On a personal note if you get up at 4am on a June morning and come out down the Thames when no one is there, and the sun is about to rise in the east that’s great. That can be anywhere on the river, you can get a sense of the tides and the wind if there is any and the light, and it’s a peaceful urban space that is quite unique.
Tell us about your new role as the Queen’s Barge Master, what does it involve?
It’s a privilege and an honour for me to be appointed, and I started the role in January this year. I have been a Queen’s Waterman for twelve years. Their principle role was to protect the crown, so when the monarchy had their palaces at Hampton Court, Whitehall, Greenwich and so forth, the crown would have been rowed up and down the river in their royal barges by their royal watermen – so it’s a throwback from that really. We had duties to perform, accompany on state visits, and whenever a monarch or her majesty needed to go out on the river, we escort her.
You have been a board member for Thames Festival Trust now for 3 years, what does your role involve?
As a trustee, you are there to support, there to question, there to ensure that things are being done properly, to mitigate and identify risk, and to try and find solutions to those risks. You are there to assist with any fundraising, to keep the activity of the trust in a good healthy economic state, and you are there to promote the event, as a wise head really. And to contribute to being a trustee you can’t just sit on your hands, you’ve got to try and drive the thing forwards.
Do you have a favourite Totally Thames event?
Every event I’ve been to which have been numerous over the 3 years I’ve been a trustee and before that, have always been something special. I think the diversity of the audience, calibre of the performances, the messages that are going across are so important, and I love to engage with everyone that goes along, I love seeing the faces coming off the river thinking ‘wow I didn’t know you could do this’.
Why do you think river culture and creativity is important?
For me I think the river is part of your spirit, water is part of the spirit. Often the river is seen as a boundary between north and south or communities across London. I see it not as a boundary but as an artery that runs through the city. It can promote culture, open people’s minds, and this culture can get people to understand what the river is doing there, it can really feed into the creative juices of people and get them to think outside the box. It’s a great educator. It can show how important the Thames is to London, show what a marvellous open space it is. All of that is about human beings and relationships and communication - and it’s a great platform to use to get those things right.
How would you describe the River Thames?
Wow, how long have you got? For me it’s my life, for London it’s a life blood, without it London wouldn’t be London. For Londoners it’s a very, very precious asset that we should all relish, support and enjoy. It is London’s biggest open space, it is London’s colour, it is London’s vibrancy. It means so much to people who have worked on it, who have lived on it, who still live on it, who have sailed from it, sail into it, left England, come back from other parts of the world. It’s so dynamic, so versatile, ever changing – it’s raw Mother Nature.