Watermen & Lightermen
Before bridges could get people from one side of the Thames to the other, watermen and lightermen were essential to London’s river transport and industry. The city’s roads were congested so the river was a vital thoroughfare, full of boats of all sizes.
Watermen traditionally provided the vital service of transporting people to destinations up and down the Thames. Their small boats, called wherries, allowed them to row their passengers and navigate the busy traffic on the river. Lightermen were the workers who transferred goods between ships and quays, aboard flat-bottomed barges called lighters. If watermen were the river’s taxi drivers, then lightermen drove the lorries.
As London’s bridges were built and large containers were introduced for transporting cargo, the demand for watermen and lightermen declined, but they continue to serve important roles today. Many work in the pleasure boat industry, or operate passenger services such as MBNA Thames Clippers.
Apprenticeships are still completed for those wanting to work on the river, offered through the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Apprentices train for five years, working commercially on the River Thames. They start by working afloat for an employer, and then attend formal training, learning the more technical aspects of river life, including the rules of safe navigation and the rhythm of the tides. Once their training and exams are completed, the apprentice becomes a Freeman of the Company.