An Oral History of London's Boatyards
Working River is a 2017 heritage project to document the living history of the boatyards on the tidal Thames, from the Thames Barrier up to Teddington Lock.
London’s boat and shipyards have a long and significant history on the banks of the Thames. From the Royal Dockyard of Deptford, and the iron shipbuilding yards on Poplar and Blackwall, to the yards building barges and tugs in Isleworth and Brentford, and the wooden pleasure boatyards in Richmond and Twickenham. As a protected industry, the Thames boatyards played a significant role in World War II, repairing boats which had been damaged in combat, but also in ‘Operation Dynamo’, rescuing soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. While the boatyards were a key industry at the turn of the 20th Century, by the 1960s many boatyards were closed with the decline of the London Docks and the diminishing role of the lighterage industries supplying London’s power stations, and carrying goods up to docks at Brentford. The 1960s and 70s also brought innovations in plastic boats, effecting the traditions of wooden boatbuilding on the Upper Thames. From the 1990s, boatyards were also heavily impacted by the increase in land values along the riverfront, and with development of the waterside into residential housing.
Today, the boatyards that remain continue to battle development and often struggle to find skilled men to work in boatbuilding and repair. However, many boatyards are also thriving businesses, working all year-round with the increased popularity of houseboat communities on the Thames, the rising demand for passenger boats and freight on the river. Many of these boatyards have been passed down as family businesses, with many of the same families running businesses on the Thames for generations. However, with changes to the apprenticeship structure and new civil engineering project on the Thames, new skilled men and women are coming into the industry.
In partnership with the Museum of London and with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project has recorded the memories of the boatbuilders of the Thames. We've interviewed twenty nine men and women aged 18 to eight seven years old. The project has been made possible with the help of twenty five volunteers, who have been involved in oral history interviewing and research. As part of the project we’ve produced an oral history documentary film, No Cash, No Splash: An Oral History of Boatyards on the Tidal Thames, made by arts and education charity Digital:Works. There is also a collection of contemporary photography commissioned from Hydar Dewachi, who made portraits of the men and women working in this industry as well as responding to the working environment of these boatyards.
The full oral history interviews as well as photographs will be made available on this website soon. A book for the project is also in production, and will be available from local studies archives and libraries for reference.