Mother Thames O.B.E – The Story of Dorothea Woodward

Dollys final words in the film “Mother Thames” below speak volumes for her love for the river, a wise woman.

“Perhaps i haven’t given my husband enough credit, he had such faith in me. Today perhaps i haven’t got the courage, youth,strength and power to fight the defeat of my wonderful River Thames….because it is being beaten up at the moment. The present is very very depressing BUT…..I believe in an apple tree, and apples will grow again someday….they may not be as juicy and ripe…but they will grow again. This river will never die and that is my opinion”

ANOTHER GREAT CLIP of Dolly and William can be seen here (14minutes in)

The Woodward Fishers (Dorothea and her husband William and family) had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs for many years, however Dorothea ran the business from Lewisham.     Dolly and William formed the company after the war, buying the first barge for 20 pounds and earning five pounds per day hiring it , by 1973 the company had over 100 barges and 9 tugs.



She also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club, an East End club of which her husband was a member.
She is inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.
Mrs  Fisher is a regular churchgoer, every Sunday, with her dog, attending a chapel within the Tower of London. She has a ferocious sense of humour.

following interview was for the Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1973.

A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”
“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”
Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorothea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorothea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.
“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”
(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)
For 55 years. Mrs  Fisher with, until ten years ago, her husband Billy  ran a lighterage business on the Thames. When the port of London was in its heyday as the largest and busiest in the world, she had upwards of 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs as well.
She and her husband started their business 55 years ago. with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds .
“The river then was wonderful. You’d see a powerful tug turning six well-laden barges. That was something to look at. We took loaded barges from Tilbury all the way to Reading. . .
“You’d see sailing barges, working, tacking backwards and forwards in the sea reaches, using the wind and the tides. Now the only sailing barge you ever see is a pleasure craft, weighed down with American tourists, taking a quick look at Greenwich and the Tower of London. Why don’t they take them down, right down. I’d like to know, and show them the real Thames, at Tilbury”
Sadly, though, she has watched – and struggled against – the great river’s decline to a point where pleasure boats make up most of its nautical traffic, and where, of more than 70 lighterage companies, only a handful remain.

Resplendent in her usual man-styled suit (today, it’s pinstripe), bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and elegant, high-heeled crocodile shoes, smoking the inevitable cigarette and swigging back a large brandy, Mrs. Fisher is truly an indomitable figure.
Her husband (“He was the practical one, I had the business brain”) was a lighterman from the East End of London.

Yet now, with barges more heavily laden, all the lighterman has to do is make fast a tow-rope. The tug to which his barge is attached does the rest.
Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”
Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”
Characteristically, Mrs Fisher blames herself for the decline of her business. “I feel like a failure. We’ve always been a relatively small firm. Maybe I didn’t mix enough. Maybe I could have done better if I’d gone out into the City and drunk more beer with certain people.”
She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.

Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday in 1973 (and by now long a widow), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She should have done so four years previously, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart. She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much money these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which included three wharves on the Thames.
Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.  It breaks my heart to see the river now”

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owns a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her own house, which incorporates her office, is a mammoth Victorian mansion, south of the river and completely hemmed in by dreary housing developments. It is topped by a king-size radio mast and populated by a random assortment of animals and friends.      The house was sold in 1975 to Janet Street Porter for £25,000



Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s