Here is my list of 10 things that I personally feel make the River Thames so unique and are instantly recognisable:
1. It’s full of rich history
2. The Dock System / Dockers
Although sadly most of the dock system has since closed commercially , some still remain in use such as Tilbury , West India Dock , KGV and St Katherines. South Dock/Greenland and Gallions are now mainly used for houseboats. It is important to preserve these remaining docks and see them used more often and not to be developed on or filled in. The dock worker or docker played a key role in unloading and discharging ships cargo.
3. Wharves & Warehouses
Although quite a few of these characteristic old warehouses and wharves have been demolished over the years, many are now preserved and listed , some are kept original complete with cranes and some have been converted to luxury apartments
4. Shipbuilding & Drydocking Industry
A huge number of ships, barges, tugs, passenger boats and just about anything else were built on the Thames , sadly all of these great ship and barge builders have long since gone like so much else on the river. A few drydocks and slipways remain today which carry out yearly painting and repairs to vessels. A fine number of passenger boats have been built on the Thames, most recogniseable and famous are the tunnel boats built by Salters at Oxford and many of which still operate today well over 100 years old!
5. The Thames Lighter
The traditional Thames lighter was the lifeline for cargo on the river , built in the thousands , some even built and shipped abroad because they were so well designed , only a handful now remain in regular use. The lighter was originally driven under oars by a lighterman, but in later years were towed behind a tug. There were so many of these lighters that in some stretches of river, you could almost walk from one side of the river to the other on the barge roads. The PLA (among others) still use a number of lighters for marine services such as driftwood collection and mooring barges. A number of Thames lighters can also be found converted into houseboats.
The tradional Thames Barge Driving Trust race smaller lighters each years at the annual Thames Barge Driving Races – http://www.thamesbargedriving.co.uk/index.html
6. The Thames Lighterage & Dock tug (tosher)
The Thames tug has evolved over the years, from side wheel wheel paddlers , to coal and oil fired steam tugs to the more modern diesel engine. The ‘traditonal’ Thames tug has always kept its sleek lines as the above photos show , many of these were built on the locally by such names as Pollock & Sons at Faversham. Although not all the Thames tugs were newly built on the Thames or locally, some were built in holland and elsewhere, some even second hand and refitted for use on the Thames. Perhaps one of my personal favourite styles of Thames tug is the smaller ‘dock’ or ‘tosher’ tug. These tugs were mainly built and used for the dock system and creeks but also saw service on the river too, and although many have sadly been lost, some fine examples still survive today , these include Charlight (working) , Varlet (preserved) , Express (working) , Olympian (working) , Vassal (preserved) and Haulier (working).
Sadly the tradional Thames single screw lighterage tug seems to be slowly replaced by more modern ‘out of the box no character’ dutch built tugs, most likely because they still provide the power needed to tow craft but are more economical, easier to work ,twin screw and no doubt meet modern (and sometimes considered over the top) health and safety rules and regulations. However said , it is VERY important to preserve the few great examples of Thames tug that we have left today , and perhaps one of the best examples of of a company using these vessels on a daily basis for lighterage work are GPS Marine who have a fleet which include GPS Cervia (ex Recruit) , GPS Anglia (ex Friston Down) and GPS Vincia (ex Mersina) , all of which are kept to a very high standard and well looked after.
7. The Thames Sailing Barge
The Thames sailing barge was commonly used in the 19th century and was ideal for the River Thames because of its flat bottom and could carry a wide range of cargos including bricks, hay, rubbish, sand, coal and many more. Many Thames sailing barges were wooden built, however a smaller number were later built from steel. They were usually spritsail rigged on two masts. Most had a topsail above the huge mainsail and a large foresail. A barge with no topsail- or top mast sailing stumpy-rigged – enabled the barge to pass under London’s bridges.
A number of Thames Sailing barges took part in saving troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. A large number of Thames Sailing barges still remain today and have been preserved to a stunning standard and are often used for private charters and sailing trips. There are also a number of yearly barge matches where sailing barges take part in a race against each other in a show of skill.
The Thames has a wide range of bridges that cross the river , all of which are of a different design and unique , but none more so and none more famous than the iconic Tower Bridge
9. Watermen & Lightermen
Prior to the introduction of the boatmasters licence you had to be a waterman and lighterman to work afloat on the River Thames (unless in another role of course) and this involved becoming apprenticed by a family member (many people came from large river families and everybody knew each other or a member of that family) or somebody who was already a waterman or lighterman, you would be ‘bound(apprenticed)’ at Watermens Hall. The apprenticeship ranges between 7 and 5 years and at the end of your apprenticeship you again return to watermens hall to be examined on your local river knowledge by a panal of freeman and if you pass your exam , you would become a Freeman of the River Thames and in turn essentially become a captain , the minimum age being 21.
The Act of 1514 passed by Parliament regulated the fares charged on the Thames. However the Watermen who carried passengers continued to act independently and an Act of 1555 appointed Rulers of all Watermen and Wherrymen working between Gravesend and Windsor, thus the Company was born. The Act of 1555 also introduced apprenticeships for a term of one year for all boys wishing to learn the watermen’s trade and this was extended to seven years by a further Act in 1603. The Lightermen joined the Company in 1700.
Watermen and Lightermen – Watermen carry passengers whilst Lightermen carry goods and cargo.
10. The Doggetts Coat & Badge Race
Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the prize and name for the oldest rowing race in the world. Up to six apprentice watermen of the River Thames in England compete for this prestigious honour, which has been held every year since 1715. The 4 miles 5 furlongs (7,400 m) race is held on the Thames between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier, Chelsea, passing under a total of eleven bridges en route. Originally, it was raced every 1 August against the outgoing (falling or ebb) tide, in the boats used by watermen to ferry passengers across the Thames. Today it is raced at a date and time in late July that coincides with the incoming (rising or flood) tide, in contemporary single sculling boats.
The winner’s prize is a traditional watermen’s red coat with a silver badge added, displaying the horse of the House of Hanover and the word “Liberty”, in honour of the accession of George I to the throne