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Interviewee: Bob Prentice

Interview Date: 28 August 2019

Interviewer: Jamie Cho, Nikki Shaill


Q: This is an oral history interview with Bobby Prentice on Wednesday 28 August 2019. Also present are Nikki Shaill from Thames Festival Trust and Jamie Cho. The interview is taking place at Tower Pier. Can we start by asking you, Bobby, to state your full name?

A: It’s Robert Anthony Prentice.


Q: What is your date of birth?

A: I’m not telling you that.

A1: [Laughs].

A: 20 March 1953.


Q: Where were you born?

A: Whitechapel.


Q: What are your parents’ names?

A: My mother’s name was Eileen and my father’s name is Robert. My father’s still alive.


Q: What do your parents do for a living?

A: My father has always been a waterman lighterman. My mother had different jobs; she was a seamstress, you know sewing. And she was also a salmon cutter, cutting side salmon yeah?


Q: What was your hobby as a kid?

A: I rowed. I--, I went to school in Stepney and I took up rowing on the river at Poplar and Blackwall as a coxon at quite a young age. And that’s really been my sport for years.


Q: What made you step into the waterman and lighterman industry?

A: I think basically because it’s been in my--, it was in my family, my grandfather, my great grandfather was all lighterman. Of course my father and as I was getting ready to leave school, and spending so much time on the river. All my leisure time was spent rowing and coxing on the river, down at the Isle of Dogs. And I think it just--, that was it, I’d--, I’d set my mind and that’s what I wanted to do.


Q: How old were you when you first started in the industry?

A: Sixteen.


Q: What did you do to enter the industry and finally become a lighterman?

A: My father--, in those days I was apprenticed at Watermen’s Hall. My father was my Master, so he actually apprenticed me. We had to do--, in those days you could be apprentice for five, six or seven years and I chose to be apprentice for five years. So I spent the first two years learning the trade and I spent most of that time in the West India dock. The company I worked for, learning to load barges and deliver barges and tow barges round the dock. Then we were examined for a two-year license, which is basically the first step. And at that stage then I was allowed to go out and tow behind bigger tugs on the river. And learn a lot more about the river and its ways and its tides and tide sets and so on. And then, after three years, examined for the Freedom and that’s when I become a full lighterman and waterman.


Q: Can you explain a little more about working as a lighterman, what it’s like at your time.

A: Erm, one word really. Great [laughing].

A1: [Laughs].

A: A lot of fun. Lot of--, we--, we’re very lucky. I think the company I work for was all different commodities. So it wasn’t--, you didn’t just deal--, like for example there was some companies, a company called Cory’s that they did coal and rubbish, rough goods. The company I worked for was a general cargo, so we loaded and delivered anything, from bulk cargoes, to case work, to brandy to--, literally anything. Cars, that was the interesting part about it. Yeah. A lot of timber, we carried a lot of timber. Thousands of tons of grain and wheat.


Q: Do you know how your experience differed from your father’s and grandfather’s generation? From what you’ve heard from their experiences.

A: Yeah, I think--, I think, certainly going back to my grandfather’s days and my father’s early days. The companies that were on the river then, erm, didn’t have the tug power which was in my time and certainly today. So a lot of the cargo was actually rowed. And even in my father’s time--, he’s just over ninety now, but he did a lot of rowing of barges. And the barges was a lot smaller, they were sort of 50 ton. But they would row ‘em up on the tide and--, from London to Putney, that sort of area, they were doing a tide. Because as time went on tugs became, erm, much more on the river. So I was--, I was a lot more fortunate than them, I didn’t have to row barges. I did as an apprentice, to learn--, to learn how to do it. But then most of our work we, you know, we had tugs to tow the craft about.


Q: So you enjoy using the tug more than the barges?

A: I did personally because I went into tug cruising, I finished as--, when I packed up like when I was a tug captain, down at Gravesend, yeah? So did enjoy that, that type of work. As I say it was different every day and that was what was important about it. It wasn’t the same thing, it wasn’t like, I suppose, working in a warehouse where I had to do the same thing every day. This was different every day.


Q: How different was it every day?

A: Well you would go to different parts of the river, you know, we would work--, I’ve been very fortunate in my time, to work the river from the Medway, erm, up the Thames as far as Abingdon. So it’s--, it’s a change, and also the River Lee and all the docks. At that time, erm, London dock, had just closed, just more or less as I started work. But you still had West India Docks, the Royal Group of Docks and, of course, Tilbury Docks. And all the many wharfs and warehouses up and down the river, and indeed up all the creeks.


Q: Can you share one of the most memorable experiences of being a lighterman?

A: That’s a difficult one because there--, there is so many of them. Erm, experiences. I never used to like going up the River Lea because it seemed to me that every time I went up the River Lea it rained. And I’ll always remember that. But there was--, one of the experiences I did have was, we were picking up craft at Belvedere which is opposite Fords. And these were loaded sugar craft. And we used to take them up to Hammersmith, just the lower side of Hammersmith Bridge, a wharf called Manbre Garton and it was bulk sugar. And we were picking up the craft and it was early, very early on the young flat tide and, believe it or not, it was one of Silvertown’s services, Tate and Lyle’s, the used to have their own ships. And it had delivered sugar at Silvertown and it was coming down river empty. And it lost its steering and it wasn’t in ballast at the time so its propeller was half out the water and it hit another ship on a jetty at Sammy Williams, and that was an experience. It really was; to see two ships go up in the air and then stick together, yeah. There’s lots more but I can’t think of them all at the moment.


Q: As an insider in the field can you explain a little bit more about what led to the decline of Lighterage?

A: I think people, erm, people have got their own opinions of it, my personal opinion is that, erm, a lot of the cargo went containerised. And I can understand that because where--, a lot of our cargo would be double-handed. So it would come out of a ship, if it was like what we call case work, erm, it would come out of a ship, go into a barge, then that barge would go to a wharf. It would then be unloaded, and then, it would then go onto a lorry and go somewhere else. So containerisation was a big move forward and I can understand that. But a lot of the decline was--, was, without a doubt, due to the value of the land that the wharfs were built on. And indeed the docks, but also the enclosed docks, as I’ve said earlier, the West India Docks which was the first dock built really. And, erm, the Royal Group of Docks, which was really big area. But there was still--, the ships were getting bigger, but the docks weren’t getting any bigger. So, you know, the bigger ships couldn’t get up as far as the West India Docks. And they couldn’t certainly go into the docks. So that was, to my view, part of the decline as well. And shipping companies, if they can go to the estuary, well they’re going to save days in going upriver. And it was a bit of everything, but that’s my view of the decline.


Q: Were you in the London dock strike in 1972?

A: Was I in the London dock strike in 1972? Was that the eight week one?

Q: I guess so [laughs].

A: Yeah, yeah. Because you weren’t here then, was you?

Q: [Laughing}.

A: No, I was--, I was involved in a couple of long strikes. Yeah, I--, I didn’t want to be on strike but yeah--, some, as I say, it’s personal opinion, some of the strikes really, really had a meaning and some didn’t. Some didn’t.


Q: Can you remember the vibe or the atmosphere in those strikes you were in?

A: Yeah, I can.

Q: Can you--,

A: [Laughing].


Q: Can you tell us more about them?

A: Well you can’t swear on this but, you know, there was a lot of ill-feeling. There was a lot of men that didn’t want to be on strike and there was a lot that did. And there was meetings held regular. I know--, I do recall a lot of it where they would--, where the meetings were at different docks. And some docks were more militant than others, so, but we did go back to work.


Q: What did you do when your company closed down for the Lighterage company?

A: Yeah, the company I worked for, erm, went, erm, cease trading in ’82. We--, it was just--, it was basically the year that the Thames barrier was opened, because we did quite a lot work--, the Thames barrier took ten years to build, from start to finish and we did quite a lot of work on it. So I remember it quite well that we packed up--, ceased trading in ’82, I went--, we got sent into Tilbury Docks as--, we become dockers. And I--, and that’s--, I think that’s why I have quite a respect for dockers, because we didn’t have a clue. We were lightermen and they showed us how to do it. But I had two years in there. I didn’t like it but I had two years in there. And then I got picked up for Cory Lighterage, they needed lightermen. And I was fortunate, you’re on the list and when your turn come up you went back to a lighterage company. So I got sent to Cory Lighterage and I did two years there. And they’re still operating today, but with a lot less men. And then there was a decline there after two years. I got sent back in the dock. So I went back in Tilbury Dock, erm, this time I went to the central department, what they call the central department in the dock. The first time, the first two years, I was at West African Terminals. Erm, unloading coffee and logs coming from Africa. Anyway so I spent a bit of time at the central in Tilbury Docks. And then I decided to--, it really wasn’t for me and I wanted to get out and there was a severance deal going. It was part of the National Dock Labour Board. So I could claim severance and I got some money and I come out and I messed about for six months; when I say messed about, I did anything. And after that, in ’86, we started this company. We started Crown River Cruises. So, yeah.


Q: What was the experience of being a docker?

A: It was an experience [laughing].

Q: [Laughing].

A: I worked with some very nice people. But it was an experience; it was totally different to what I’d done.

Q: How?

A: Well, again, you know, look going on a ship, on a Nigerian national ship and it’d come in in the morning and you was on the afternoon shift. So by the time you got there it was all opened up, five holds was opened up. And every hole was top to the bottom of bags of coffee. So I knew I was going to be on there for ten days. And part of the work was quite hard. But I was a lot younger then so it didn’t matter. I certainly lifted a lot of bags of coffee.


Q: What has being a lighterman and later docker, meant to you?

A: What’s it meant to me? I’m--, I’m not sorry that I had the experience of docking because, as I say, I--, I met and worked with a lot of nice people. But it would never be the same as lightering for me. You know, that was sort of taken away and it’s like your legs being cut off.


Q: The following session will be more closely related to the understanding of working in the Barking area. Had you always been working by Barking Creek and River Roding?

A: I’ve been fortunate to work up Barking Creek quite a lot, certainly in the early years because I was--, at that time I was mate of a tug that was based at Fords. We used to do all Ford’s work; we used to load a hell of a lot of barges at Fords for many years. But that tug, tide time each day, would take mainly log barges up to--, they would come up from Tilbury, lay at Ford’s Juncts, which was a mooring for barges. And also Barking Creeks buoy, there’s a buoy outside the Creek and the bigger tugs would put them on there. And then we would take the log barges up to Barking Creek every day; every tide time, and bring the empty ones out. And also different timber barges, because there was a number of timber wharfs up there. Just inside the Creek there’s, erm, the wharf, on the right which was called Sherry’s Wharf. And that was, erm, a timber wharf and then further up we would go to another wharf called Birch Wharf which was logs. Further up the Creek through Barking Road Bridge, was another wharf called, erm, Kings Bridge, and we would take log barges there. And then we also would go as far up as Town Quay, there’s a big square at Town Quay, though it’s altered now because there’s a lock, you know, and anyway, we would go to the side of where the lock is, go up to Town Quay, shoot the small barges through there and from then on up to, as you say, the Roding, up to the railway, Barking railway. We used to go up to a wharf called Thames Ply. But we used to have hitches and take the, erm, the barges up on the flat tide, you couldn’t--, it was too shallow water for tugs to go up. And that’s how--, and there was another wharf up there, I think there was--, Cape Asbestos Wharf. And another company, Union Lighterage, used to take asbestos to there, yeah. It was quite a well-known place but there was a number of other wharves. There was an oil wharf up the--, near Town Quay, just called Abtrough Wharf. And Everard Lighterage used to take barges there. And many years before that there was, which I said earlier, there was a spirit wharf called Cleveland, and Cooks Lighterage that was operating in those days, used to take petrol, the spirit barges, yeah. That’s long gone, but Sherry’s Wharf now, we actually still go there. We have a small rubbish barge which we collect our rubbish from the pleasure boats and also other--, from the piers and other places and we dispose of that at McGrath Brothers, which is Sherry’s Wharf. So we still go up Barking Creek.


Q: Can you remember any of the smells that were related to the area you worked at?

A: Well yeah, certainly up and down--, up and down the river, you would get, if you like to call it the River Smell, and the reason being was because you get the high and the low water. So as the water comes down you get all the green moss, yeah? And so that would give off a smell and in the summer, the sun in the summer period, goes on it then that would go [laughs], like concrete and dry hard and--, but there was always a river smell to it. And of course then the tide would come in again and cover it again. So that smell would go away. But up--, up Barking itself, I mean there was always, to me it was always a smell of timber. Because there was so many timber wharves up there. And ship’s--, small coasters, used to go onto Sherry’s Wharf and small coasters also used to go onto one of the bigger wharves up there, was Pin and Wheelers and that still operates today. Craft still go in there.


Q: Other than the timber smell, do you remember any other smell?

A: Well all up and down--, all up and down the river, and as I said earlier in the creeks, you had different commodities went to different wharves and you had--, you had like bulk sugar, erm, not at Barking, but at Bow Creek. You had a place called Fowler’s Wharf, and that you delivered bulk sugar there, there was always a smell of sugar, syrup. Erm, in the Silvertown area, molasses, it was just--, whatever commodity it smelt. Grain terminal at Tilbury that had its own sort of smell with the grain and all the pigeons eating it [laughs].


Q: Did it smell different in different season?

A: Yeah, yeah it smelt more prominent in the summer with the heat on it. But the river does.


Q: How about in Spain?

A: In Spain?

Q: Spain?

Q1: Spring.

A: Oh spring, I beg your pardon, in spring. Yeah it’s starting to come on more stronger because the winter--, you’re coming out the winter and you’re coming in--, as you say spring and then into the summer. So it gets more prominent to the summer. And then I find it falls off in the winter because the cold.


Q: Can you illustrate the change of landscape around Barking throughout the years?

A: Yeah, Barking--, well the wharf that I said we used to go up to, erm, Thames Ply, which is right by the railway, that was all veneers, they made veneers. That’s now a block of flats, erm, and you--, when I come by on the train as I did this morning, you still see the sheet piling where we moored the barges alongside. But, yeah, I think--, and I think Barking will change--, Barking Creek will continue to change and there’ll be more properties built. I believe there’s a new one being built by the bridge, yeah? I’ve seen that on the roadside. The last time I went that far up the creek I was a bit--, I’d been warned, but I was a bit shocked. I towed a barge from Thames Ditton up to near Barking lock, but there was--, there’s now a weir there and the lady from the council came out with a laptop and opened the gates for us. Well I just [laughing], I was amazed, so--, and that was the last time I--, that was the last barge I towed up there and that was some years ago now. So the creek had changed itself. But McGrath’s is a big--, a big wharf, I don’t know what the plans are for others. But I’m sure that there will be more building in that area, I’m sure there will. The ships--, when the ships used to come out, they used to basically go in, head in, and when they used to leave empty, they used to come off the wharf. And on the upper side of the creek is all marshland, so they would put the head of the ship on the ground and turn it round--, the waterman’s boat would push the other end. And that’s true, that’s how we used to turn them in the creek and come out.


Q: How do you feel about such a change?

A: It’s history isn’t it? Things have to change, some things change--, change for the good, erm, lots of things change for the good. Some of the changes, you know, I--, I don’t agree with, but I think--, I think sadly with the lighterage, I have to admit that it was going to go the way it’s gone. After hundreds of years. But then other industries have had the same, they’ve had to bear the same.


Q: Is there anything else you want to add to the interview?

A: I don’t think so, unless you’ve got any other questions, no I don’t think so.


Q1: This is Nikki Shaill and is it alright if I ask some extra questions?

A: Yeah.


Q1: Have you got time:

A: Er, I have, yeah, yeah.


Q1: So it’s really interesting to hear you talk about the smell of the timber. We’ve interviewed some women who work with the timber and they were actually taking off like the bark and they were talking a lot about that. Smells, the evocative smell of it, so it’s nice to hear about you experiencing it, before it got delivered to them. What kind of timber was it, do you know what kind?

A: We did--, we did, erm, quite--, up Barking itself we did mainly logs but we also did some cut and packed timber, you know, that had already been machined, and that--, that actually went to, what we call Sherry’s. Which is now McGrath’s. But we did mainly--, mainly logs at three different wharves up there. And you would get exactly what the ladies are saying, that bark would be coming away. I mean they were big--, big serious logs, erm, and where they’d loaded, erm, and I’ve actually witnessed some of this. In West Africa, they would lay in the water before they’d be loaded you see, so they’d be floated to a berth, then they’d be loaded into the ship. So they was sodden with water when they were loaded, and you’d get some beautiful coloured lizards on them as well. Sadly they never lived, beautiful greens and that. But the bark, some of the bark would be coming off in great big bits. So you would get that smell of old mildew, do you know? And then, yeah we did have another experience with a lot, at Birch Wharf. Where the dockers was lifting it out and it slipped out the slings and it started floating up the creek and we had to pull that back and then they get the wires back round it and lifted it out. So that it got even wetter but, yeah, they was always wet. I don’t think I’ve witnessed any--, any dry logs. And I’ve actually worked down ship’s holds, lifting logs out from Africa. And, yeah, when I first when down the hold, there was nets either side. And I used to think why’re those nets there, but it didn’t take me long to realise. Because as you start lifting logs out the others all move, so the nets are there for safety, yeah, to hang on to. Yeah.


Q1: How many of you would be working together at times, when you were going to Barking, when you’re saying you’re like unloading. How many people did you work with?

A: We--, I was mate of the tug, so then if you had six barges and then there would be a lighterman for each barge. So that when you went to whatever wharf, as I say you’d be shooting--, what we call shooting the barges off of the wharf as they went up. So the lighterman would go with them to moor them up at the wharf. And then you--, they would hand over to what we call a bosun. So there would be a bosun which was a man that was permanently at the wharf, and he would work with the staff there and the dockers would unload them. And then when they was empty our job would be going to tow them all out the creek again.


Q1: And was there a sense of camaraderie? Was there a good sense of team?

A: Oh yeah, oh yeah, it was--, the camaraderie was every day, it was, yeah.


Q1: Are you still friends with people you worked with, do you still keep in touch with them?

A: I do with--, well my brother works here and we worked together. Most of the lads that work in--, in Crown River Cruises, are what we call pleasure boat hands. Some of them have done a little bit of--, of lightering, for different companies. But most of it has been in pleasure boats because that was how the trend had changed. Erm, more people came into the passenger side, er, the waterage side of it. But yeah, I still--, as I said earlier, my father is over ninety now and he’s got a friend who they worked together, they were what we called bosuns, at Fords Jetty. He’s ninety-three. So they, you know, they spent a lot of time together and they phone one another about three times a week. He--, Terry, my dad’s friend, lives down at Newhaven now, yeah. So there are still quite a few still alive. And we’ve got a very good friend, whose grandson does quite a lot of work here. His grandson is Ben Wilson, but Frank Wilson he’s ninety-eight now. And he was a bridge pilot, he used to take the colliers from the lower port, up to Fulham, the loaded ones. And then bring the empty ones down, all through the bridges, yeah. And he’s a lovely man, ninety-eight, yeah.


Q1: As a child what memories do you have of your dad? Were you always aware of what he did as a job?

A: Yeah, I think--, I think--, well I did because he used to take me sometimes. Especially school holidays and I spent time there and meet some--, well meet many of the lightermen. Many of which I did end up working with. But what I did recall you never knew when he would start or finish because it wasn’t a nine ‘til five job. You know, you want to work and you didn’t know what time you were going to finish. It’s the way it was. Sometimes you’d be finished--, you could be finished in the afternoon. Sometimes you could be finished 10 o’clock at night, or early hours of the morning. And then we had the fog in those days, we’d have--, well we still get fog today but it was a bit worse in those days. And you could be out all night fog-bound, so yeah. They could be old.


Q1: So when the fog’s here you be out all night wouldn’t you? You’d literally be on [both talking at once].

A: You couldn’t say--, yeah, yeah. I can remember one night coming up, erm, as a lighterman, erm, behind the--, what we call the towing hand, on the tug of hurricane. And we were following a ship up and we were in the Rainham area which is quite noted for bad fog, and we started to put the staff away because we were going up--, we had one barge up to Folly House so we was only hour-and-a-half away. And the skip was leaning out the window, he said I wouldn’t put that away yet, because another crew come on at 6 o’clock next morning. He said I wouldn’t put that away yet, and he said have a look, and we--, I seen the lights of the ship disappear and sure enough the fog was rolling down and we spent all night at Rainham.


Q1: I’m going to ask a weird question now. Did the fog have a smell?

A: [Laughing]. No, I can’t say it had a smell. I can’t say it had a smell but it was--, it can be very disorientating. Yeah, you think you’re one side of the river and you’re not, you’re on the bloody other, oh I shouldn’t say that should I? [Laughing].

Q1: Oh it’s fine [laughing].

A: You’ll cut that out won’t you? Well you say it and then it’ll be we both said it.


Q1: [Laughing]. Were there times--, were you ever scared--, do you feel very comfortable and at home on the river, or were there times when you felt quite scared, did it ever feel quite dangerous?

A: I’ve--, once I can recall bringing empty craft, only a couple of empty barges, from Belvedere across to Fords. Erm, my father was on the craft and I was driving the tug and I thought it was clear to go across and I literally then see this ship. Dark, I mean it wasn’t a massive ship, but probably 10,000 ton. And it came out of the--, it just came out of the fog and I see the black hole and I thought, blimey that was close. That was a bit close, you know. But it’s got--, things like that have got a hell of a lot safer, hell of a lot safer. I mean radar is much better today then what it was then, even though the ship was coming up on radar, we didn’t have radar, so we didn’t know the ship was in the area. But nowadays we can talk to the, erm, London BTS, it’s a local river--, river broadcast. He would tell us what’s coming up. So we would be aware, where in those days you wasn’t aware so much. You knew of tide time, you knew what the tide was doing so you would expect certain things about--, but that was one, yeah. And another time, talking of Barking Creek, we left Ford’s to go up to Barking Creek and it was--, it was quite thick fog, but all the way round Barking, from Dagenham to Barking, to the entrance to the creek, it’s shaped like that. And you’ve got jetties all the way up really, you know, and I thought, well if we can stay seeing those jetties, that’s a chance and then we’ll get to the entrance to the creek. And we won’t miss the tide, which is what we tried to do. But when we got along what we call Barking Conversion, we actually realised that we was the opposite side of the river, across--, so we’d crossed the river, yeah. Tried to be clever.


Q1: What’s your first memory of going round the Barking area, round Barking Creek, what year would it have been, can you remember?

A: Er, you’re going to catch me on that aren’t you? Erm, it would have been very nearly sixty years ago, very nearly, I was a young lad, erm, dad took me to work. And the company he was working for then was WJ Cook, and they used to tow, erm, spirit barges from, erm, Purfleet--, I suppose they went from Thames Avon, but mainly Purfleet I think. And they would go into Barking Creek, and I was a little boy, sitting in the wheel box, erm, the tug was the Blizzard, long gone, long gone, cut up. And the tug captain was a man called George King, he was a really nice man that I ended up working with. And that was the first time I went in Barking Creek and I’ve been in there many, many times since. And outside the creek you had, erm, which I’m sure you’ve looked into this, and know this, you had all what they call, the Northern Outfall which was where you might call them Bovril boats, we called them Marmalade boats, Bovril boats. And they would load there and then you had the Southern Outfall, which was opposite Ford’s at Belvedere. So you’d have the ships--, they was all named after areas. I remember one the Bexley, the Hounslow, and they would load at these two places and then they would go out to sea, to the estuary, the borough--, what we call the borough deeps, and then they would--, they would dump and then they would come back empty. But what I will say about those ships, and I’ve been on board them, they were spotless. They were honestly spotless. For what they were carrying you wouldn’t have known that that’s what they were carrying. The plants would smell, you know, round the shore at Barking, erm, still smells round there today. But the ships their self were absolutely spotless, and there was an occasion where one coming up, I can’t remember what one it was, erm, but it--, when they chuck round at the Southern Outfall, they’re close to Fords. And our moorings at Fords, below the jetty, it’s a big jetty at Fords, below there, where you might have twelve barges moored there. And they hit the barges and knocked them all adrift and my father and his friend, Terry Bowden, they spent most of the night picking them up; they was all over the place. But that was a Bovril boat that did that. The name of it I don’t know, and I don’t suppose he’ll remember that. But that’s true, true story, yeah. When that would have been, oh [signs], I would think that would have been late ‘60s, in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, definitely, yeah, yeah.


Q1: So I’ve heard the name, yeah the Bovril boats, But I’ve never heard them say “marmalade boats”?

A: Yeah, Marmalade boats, yeah.


Q1: That’s a new one, a new bit of information, that’s great. Do you know why Marmalade?

A: No, well why Bovril? [Laughing].

Q1: [Laughing].

A: [Laughing]. Why Bovril?

Voice off audio in background (Bob’s colleague Ted): Because we all had sticky fingers.

A: Yeah [laughing], not on them we didn’t. But there--, I mean and I’ve tried to get--, I’ve tried to get in touch with him. There was a man, a lovely man, Brian Finn I think his name was. He’s still alive and he worked on the Bovril boats and he was--, he finished his working life as pier man at Westminster. And he was knowledgeable on them and he lives down the coast now and I’ve tried to get his phone number and I just can’t get hold of him, no. But yeah.

Q1: That’s interesting. Yeah for us to know though that we might imagine that, yeah, working on those vessels would be, yeah, very stinky jobs, but actually.

A: No, no, no it wasn’t, no. Not at all, they was spotless, yeah. In my time [laughing].

Q1: [Laughing]. Yeah maybe not when we look back.

A: Not when you look back to the older ones, they maybe--, I mean the ones that I remember were relatively new ships, you know, but, erm, what the fleet of ships were before that, they may have been a bit more--, well I’m sure they would have been.


Q1: And you mentioned the smell of the sewage which is something that, yeah, we’ve definitely been looking at, the Barking Stink project. A lot looking at the--, that’s a prominent smell, yeah you were aware of the smell of sewage, would you smell it yourself on the river?

A: Oh yeah, oh yeah, yeah. And, of course, outside Barking Creek, on the upper side,you’ve got--, because you’ve got the flood barrier built there now. But I mean going back, when I’m talking about, there was no flood barrier then. And the entrance to the creek is like that as such because here, on the upper side, is all mud. So it’s very shallow water and then as you come to the end of that you’ve got the jetty, which was the outfall and that’s where the Marmalade boats used to--, used to load there. Because--, so a lot of the tide time that mud is on show. So that smells itself anyway, you know.


Q1: And I’m going to ask you further--, I know it’s trick to describe smells, but can you describe at all, in sort of thinking about anything that that smell of the mud reminds you of, or what sort of people today might be able to relate to those smells?

A: I think one of the [sighs], one of the many times when--, when I’ve been out sculling and rowing down at Poplar and Blackwall, and actually swimming in there. My mother would have gone mad. But when you’re rowing you’re more or less sitting on the water and when you, in those times, when you had heavy rains and the sewers would overflow, or they went into the river. Now you’re getting the picture now aren’t you? You’re really on it [laughing]. And, yeah, it would smell then, yeah it would smell. And you’d be rowing and we didn’t think anything of it, we’d be rowing through it, yeah.

Q1: So an unpleasant smell?

A: Oh definitely, definitely.


Q1: Anything you can compare it to?

A: Poop [laughing], is that fair? [Laughing], yeah.

Q1: Not something you’d want to smell?

A: No, no, no.


Q1: And were you aware of, yeah, so around those times you’d have been working, so ‘60s? Around the ‘60s?

A: I started--, I started work in ’69, erm, and I’d been involved at Poplar, at the rowing club, from early ‘60s. So, yeah, I--, we didn’t think nothing of it, used to play in the mud. We used to play in the mud outside the rowing club. Great fun.


Q1: And go swimming? You swum in the Thames a lot?

A: Yeah, we did, yeah. We honestly did, and next to the rowing club would--, there was a small--, it’s like a dry dock actually. And they used to cut up old barges there. So--, and there’s an art in cutting barges up. And there’s this man, old George, I think it was George, he used to cut--, I think that was his name. He used to do it all on his own. This crane, this crane was from the ark, but he would cut a section of the barge off and it would take, you know, quite a--, probably a couple of weeks to cut one up. So then the barge would fill up with water on the flood tide and it would slowly drain out as the tide--, the tide goes out for seven hours. So we’d swim in the barge, safer than swimming in the river. If you’re going to go swimming in the river do it on the high water, that’s the safest time.


Q1: And just thinking about sort of again, around Barking Town Quay, along Barking Creek, can you sort of remember like was there lots of pollution in the air? Could you breathe easily? Can you remember anything about seeing chimney smoke?

A: There was--, there was chimney smoke, I remember one of the wharves up there had a--, had a steam crane. That must be in a museum now, it must be in a museum. But, yeah, I can remember because most of the wharves were on what we called the lower side of the creek as you went in. It was basically marshland on the upper side, until you got towards Town Quay and now--, then there was Abtroft Wharf on the left and a couple of other wharves along there that for the life of me I can’t remember the name. But Abtroft was still working in my time, yeah.


Q1: And so as well as the different timber and different things you were carrying, would you smell anything in the air do you think?

A: I was a young man then, you know, you don’t really notice it, I’d probably notice it a lot more today. There must have been pollution because of, you know, there was timbers and factories all round that area and everything was working. All the way down the river, I mean I mentioned Fords, but Sammy Williams, they’re all, erm, and then below there at Rainham, you had other wharves and there was--, there must have been pollution. You just didn’t notice it as a young person.


Q1: What would you wear when you were working?

A: What would I wear?


Q1: Was it dirty work, was it quite clean, would you need to wear things that would sort of protect you in any way?

A: Er, we used to like wearing mohair suits, erm, lightermen were smart, erm, no we didn’t really--, the only time that you would have protection would be like overalls and that was if you were working in bulk, with bulk sugar and that because that’s--, we used to load that at Sammy Williams and then come over in the grab and just drop it, you know. And that was, yeah, that used to go about a bit, and if you can imagine, sugar, especially summertime with the bees and wasps and so on [shudders] [laughs]. But we, you know, as towing the barges about, no we didn’t have--, we might wear gloves, I mean, I know loading in rough goods and rubbish when I worked at Cory’s, I always wore overalls and gloves, you know, because it’s natural. But on Mercantiles tugs, no we were pretty clean.


Q1: So mohair suits?

A: Oh, well yeah, you know, you did--, yeah, yeah. It’s actually true, it’s actually true, people did wear the jackets and that, yeah.


Q1: Just a few more questions if that’s all right, drawing to the end. Just wanted to ask a little bit more about, you mentioned about the smell of when the river goes down and there’s the green, was it algae that’s on the sides, is that right?

A: Yeah.


Q1: How would you describe that smell at all for someone who hasn’t smelled it?

A: How can I describe--, it’s like you know when you go--, when you go to the seaside and the tide’s out and you’ll see the seaweed and then you’ll get that--, you’ll get that smell, yeah? On the river it’s just more prominent. It’s more prominent. Because I suppose you haven’t got the salt and the seawater to clean.


Q1: The smell of the algae and the plant life?

A: Yeah.

Q1: The green--, interesting.

A: Yeah.

Q1: And I just wanted to ask a little bit. We talked a bit about--, quite a lot about your father and obviously what he did, but you mentioned your mum was a salmon-cutter, and we’ve been looking at the kind of history of the fisheries.

A: Oh right.

Q1: And people who work with fish a lot, at the beginning of our Barking Stink story, do you remember your mum sort of smelling of salmon or fish when she came home?

A: [Laughing].

Q1: Or did she bring home nice fish--, did she bring home nice fish for you to eat?

A: She used to bring home nice smoked salmon, yeah. And we had, erm, my aunt worked there as well. And it was, if I remember rightly, it was called Barnetts and it was in Frying Pan Alley, now look that up, it’s south of Aldgate, yeah. And we had an old--, we had an old mongrel dog when we lived in Wapping. And this dog knew the difference between Canadian and Scottish salmon.

Q1: [Laughing].

A: She certainly ate a lot of my Scottish, yeah, yeah. That’s true.


Q1: Was that her job?

A: She--, the last job my mother had was the best one she’d ever had. And she worked in, erm, Midland, it was Midland I think when she started in HSBC. And she used to put the towels in, erm, she worked at Cougars Row and she worked at the bank in Poultry, and she used to put the towels and toilet rolls in the toilets. And I promise you it’s the best job my mother’s ever had; best paying, the one that looked after her. We used to say to her, so you’re a toilet--, “I do not clean the toilets, I put the toilet rolls in”, yeah, that was the last job she had, yeah.


Q1: And did she ever come on the river with you?

A: She did, yeah she did. She came--, she came, erm, when we started she came out and used to clean--, she was a great--, she loved cleaning my mother. And she cleaned, erm, hoovered the boats and cleaned, and she did the bar sometimes for us, you know. But I remember her being seasick off a--, Blackfriars, my mother was seasick, yeah. I said, what’s the matter mum? [Laughing]. She worked also--, she worked--, my father worked for a company, in pleasure boats, called Catamaran Cruises. And my mother used to go and do the bar sometimes on his boat, yeah. So she did, yeah, she did come out on the river.


Q1: And do you think your parents were pleased that you sort of followed in the family tradition and went into that job?

A: No, not at all. No, no my father didn’t want me to come. No, my father, at the time I, er, I could of left school at fifteen and I wanted to come afloat and he said, no, no, stay another year. He said, take some exams, which was me taking exams. And he said, and if you still want to come afloat then I’ll apprentice you. But I was sculling at Putney at the time and I did a bit of sculling out of Barclays Bank, and my dad got to know one of the presidents of the rowing club quite well. And the next thing I had a job at Barclays Bank as a messenger. And that caused a terrible family row because I said I’m not--, no, no, I’m not, no, no I’m not doing it, I’m not going. I should have really because I’d have probably been Bob Diamond now and worth a fortune.

Q1: [Laughing].

A: But I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it, and I moved out. I went and lived with my grandfather, I said I’m not having that. My grandfather was funny, in the end my grandad said to my father, he said, well if you don’t apprentice him, I will. So I never went to Barclays. Never got any money [laughs]. Yeah, that’s true, yeah, yeah.

Q1: So I was going to say, what would you have done, but you can imagine--, yeah [both talking at once].

A: Oh no, I would have--, no, no, I would have been--, I don’t regret any of it to be honest with you. I don’t regret it, no. I did in the, erm, in the very slack period, erm, I--, my children--, I’ve got two children and we had a mortgage and my wife couldn’t work because, erm, looking after the children and I did the knowledge. So for a short period, when I didn’t have work, I drove a black cab, yeah. And, that was another, you know, another experience. Working with the public, yeah.


Q1: So can you imagine--, do you think you’ll always want to stay close to the river now?

A: Erm, it’s changed a hell of a lot even in my time now. And I--, I have to say I don’t enjoy it like I did. No, I don’t enjoy it like I did. But you create this--, this business. I mean my partner’s at Putney, erm, Chas Newings and he has a business at Putney and you create this and then it controls you. So I am having more time off now, Ted keeps moaning about it but I--, but then I still go out in the boats, I keep my licenses up. And I have to have my medicals now, so when we’re short-handed I still go out and drive boats, but, yes, everything changes, everything changes. There is more--, more legislation, more, erm, with authorities, you know, and not--, thing is when you’re dealing with authorities, and we’ve been in business since ’86, with great respect, you’re dealing with someone today, in a few years’ time they’re gone and you’re still dealing with someone else in the same authority. And you think well I’ve been all through this and you’re starting again, you know. Them things frustrate me, so--, I suppose I’ve been lucky, I’ve been lucky to have spent my working life here, out here. And I’m--, anywhere else I’d probably be retired.


Q1: And one last question we’ve tried to ask everyone …

A: You keep saying that.


Q1: I know, this is my final one. What’s your favourite smell? Do you have a favourite, or smell that you really like?

A: Hmm. Guinness. [Laughing]. I love Guinness. But when the breweries--, for example Mortlake, and I rowed a lot in there--, that--, as well as worked up there at times. But the smell from the brewery is like nothing else and as a kid I remember the Anchor Brewery which was carriages right by Tower Bridge, and the smell was always there, so, yeah, yeah. The smell of a brewery I think, yeah. And you’ve still got, today, you’ve got Fullers Brewery, up at Chiswick, it’s--, yeah. I mean I still work up there, I don’t scull up there now but I--, I still go out sculling when I can. But I drive a launch in the boat race and I spend a week with Oxford and then I [sniffs], oh yeah it’s all come back to me [laughing].

Q1: I’m going to ask another question.

A: Oh yeah, see, now I knew that wasn’t the last question.


Q1: [Laughing]. It’s because of what you just said. So if I--, if we were to blindfold you and send you on a boat along the river, do you think you’d be able to tell where you were?

A: I--, I’d certainly be able to tell where the brewery was, yeah.

Q1: [Laughing].

A: There’s not the smells that there were.

Q1: It’s when he walks out the room the smell [laughing from A].

A: [Laughing]. I told you I need my time off. Erm, yeah, no there’s not the commodities now. But at one time you probably could--, yeah you probably could. If you blindfolded me at Hammersmith I’d tell you where Mortlake is, yeah.

Q1: So if there was a really bad fog …

A: [Laughing].

Q1: You couldn’t see, just follow your nose.

A: Yeah, follow your nose, yeah, you’ll end up in the brewery, yeah.

Q1: That is my last question. Thank you so much for your time.

A: That’s all right.

Q1: Thank you very much.