A look back to early 20th-century images of theThames in the company of W. L. and Mrs Wyllie through their book London to the Nore, published in 1905. William Wyllie was a well-known and distinguished marine artist who lived from 1851 to 1931. Born in Camden, London, son of artist William Morrison Wyllie, his talent was recognised when young, winning the Turner Gold Medal when he was only eighteen. In 1889 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. An enthusiastic sailing fan from his early youth, he was drawn to maritime subjects, painting and etching all kinds of boats from large naval vessels to fishing and sailing boats, which he was said to have executed in accurate detail. However, The Royal Naval Museum notes that: “It was his etchings and watercolours showing working life on the Thames and the Medway that brought him widespread popularity.” And reading this beautifully illustrated book you can see why.
The text written by Mrs. Marion Wyllie, describes sailing and being towed up the river to their starting point at Westminster for the journey back downstream to the Nore. Marion Wyllie’s engaging style with its blend of history, knowledge of the river and boats, and details of family life aboard bring readers close to their experience.
An example of this might have some resonance today… One evening, after an outing ashore where she came across a thieves’ lodging house, which was still occupying her thoughts, she “became aware of a slight sound on the other side of our hull.” Her husband was asleep, and her sons busy talking had evidently heard nothing, she writes, “So I get up without noise and cross the deck, kneeling by the bulwarks and peeping over. The water is in deep shadow under our side, and at first I can see nothing; then I am sure I hear a whisper, and see something dark that I make out to be a boat close to our lee-board.” She wakes her husband who calls out “Hullo! What are you doing there? A very respectful voice answers ‘We are the water-police, sir, on the lookout for some men who have been stealing coal from this tier. I hope you don’t mind us holding on, as this bit of shadow is an advantage to us. Some of us will be here all night: so you will be all right.’ She adds that “with a great sense of security” everyone returned to their cabins.
For around twenty years from the early 1870s, Wyllie was a regular contributor to the weekly illustrated magazine The Graphic, for which he drew black and white illustrations of all things maritime. He spent time at sea working for the White Star shipping line and served with the Royal Navy during the First World war spending a month on H.M.S. Revenge at the time of the Armistice in 1919.
But it was, as mentioned above, his series of etchings of the Port of London, its commercial and industrial life and the movements and variety of shipping, that really brought him to the attention of a wider and appreciative public.
Wyllie moved to Portsmouth in 1906 and became closely involved with the restoration of H.M.S. VICTORY, organising campaigns to raise the funds to move her into dry dock and overseeing the work on her preservation. He died in 1931 and was laid to rest with full naval honours at Portchester Castle.
William Wyllie had lived life to the full. In the foreword to W. L. Wyllie: marine artist: 1851-1931, published in 1981, Sir Hugh Casson wrote of Wyllie’s love of boats. “He designed them, cared for them sailed them and above all he never ceased to draw and paint them in every size and shape and in all weathers.” He adds that Wyllie drew them “accurately, affectionately and above all with deep practical understanding.”
In articles that follow their journey from Tower Bridge, I will post further images and occasional anecdotes from Marion Wyllie’s account of their journey from Westminster to the Nore.
Walking by the Thames between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier on the morning of Friday June 25th, you might have noticed a little more activity than usual on the river. What you would have seen were the four competitors rowing single sculls in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager, an annual contest that has been in continuous existence on this stretch of the river since 1715. And preceding, or following them were support boats, press boats, and party boats of invited family, friends and colleagues. The race was originally run between two Thames-side pubs: from the Old Swan Tavern at London Bridge to the Swan Inn at Chelsea. The route is now four miles seven furlongs long, from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier. The record for the fastest time to complete the course, 23 minutes and 22 seconds, chalked up in 1973, is still held by Bobby Prentice, Bargemaster to the Fishmongers’ Company, and now race umpire. And it is the Fishmongers’ Company, who fulfilled a promise to Thomas Doggett to make sure that the race took place every year after his death. However, since 2019 the Company of Watermen and Lightermen have taken over the management of the race and are now in partnership with the Fishmongers’ Company.
First raced in 1715, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager came into being as a result of Irish actor Thomas Doggett’s gratitude to the Thames Watermen of the day. And legend suggests that it was for one of two reasons. According to the ‘History of the Wager’ on the site of the Company of Watermen & Lightermen, the first was that “while returning home from the theatre one night he fell into the river and was rescued by a waterman.” The second was that conditions on the Thames were so bad that among the watermen only “one young, newly appointed waterman agreed to row him across the Thames, and did so safely.” Neither of these versions can be verified but what is documented is “that he organised the race himself until his death in 1721”, and from then on it took place every year according to instructions he left in his will. Six races were postponed from 1915 – 1919 during the First World War but rescheduled over two days in 1920. Races were held up again during the Second World War but those missed took place over two days in 1947, so that there is an unbroken list of yearly winners since the creation of the competition. It was then the covid pandemic that caused a third postponement, so the race this June, was in fact the one due in 2020. The 2021 race will take place on September 8th.
The Wager is open to watermen and lightermen in the first year of what is known as their ‘freedom’, after completing their apprenticeship, and they must be aged between 21 and 27. They are allowed up to four tries for the prize, which is a traditional waterman’s coat “crimson red with a silver arm badge depicting Liberty, the horse of the House of Hanover” in honour of the accession of George I to the throne in 1714. It’s a striking combination, and Doggett’s winners are proud to own and wear it.
The four competitors on this occasion were: James Berry, captain with Thames Clippers, dressed in white; Max Carter-Miller, of Thames Marine Services, in black; Coran Cherry of Thames Clippers in pale blue; and George Gilbert, of Capital Pleasure Boats, in red.
The photographs of the contestants below were taken from vantage points on Lambeth Bridge so as to capture their approach from Westminster Bridge. I have grouped pictures of their supporting boats with them, though some went on through to Cadogan Pier ahead of the race. The photographs at the end of the piece were kindly lent by the Port of London Authority and Ben of Liquid Highway.
The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager often created a great deal of public interest in London and was regularly reported in some detail in the press. An account in The Times on August 2nd, 1864 described the scene: “…thousands of spectators, afloat and ashore, the banks, bridges, and craft in the whole of the long course between London-bridge and Chelsea being densely crowded with persons anxious to view a part of the race.” There was a great number of tugs, and the river literally swarmed with boats of every size, including steamers and barges. Reports also carried details of the races themselves with navigational difficulties, tactics, and changes in the fortunes of the contestants, particularly dealing with the currents around the bridges, swifter and more complex since the construction of the central London embankments between 1864 and 1874. There is a good report on this year’s race with photos by Tim Koch on Hear The Boat Sing.
In 1938, there were only two competitors in the race and The Times report that year mentions how completing the course could once take nearly an hour and a half but that things had speeded up “now the race is rowed on the flood, instead of against the ebb, and in outriggers instead of old heavy wherries – the working boats in which the competitors plied for hire.” With the race only rowed on the flood tide, the times became much quicker. James Berry won this race in a swift 25 minutes 31 seconds but Bobby Prentice’s record still holds good.
Last year the race was won by Patrick Keech, from Hextable, near Dartford, after a close ‘fight to the finish’ with this year’s winner, James Berry. And among previous winners are Sean Collins, chief executive and co-founder of Thames Clippers, who won in 1990, and Michael Russell of the Port of London Authority, who won in 1997.
The race was umpired by Bobby Prentice, whose boat SARAHANNE remained close to the contestants. It was followed by Thames Limo’s BOURNE carrying representatives of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen; WINDRUSH 46, carrying several press photographers; Port Health Authority vessel LONDINIUM III; and the Port of London Authority vessel BARNES.
Having finished the tough course, the contestants celebrate together.
The race is a real test of determination and strength and the rowers need to have a good knowledge of the currents and flow associated with every twist and turn of the river and each particular bridge. When the race first began, there was just one, London Bridge, now there are eleven. Earlier races could take place against against the tide but with the embankment of the central London Thames and the consequent increase of tidal flows, they have have been rowed with the tide since 1873.
Notes *The race on June 25th was the race postponed from 2020 and the 2021 race will take place on September 8th. See the countdown here: The Doggett’s Race *For those unfamiliar with these terms: Lightermen carry cargo from larger moored ships to docks, and Watermen carry passengers in a variety of boats.
With trips abroad severely discouraged, bureaucratically cumbersome and expensive, why not come to London to explore our capital city from the Thames, from its banks, bridges and boats. And if you live in the area, it’s even easier to come to the river. Below you’ll see photographs of people doing just that since the third stage of lockdown easing on May 17th. And despite the delay in the final lifting of restrictions, life on the river will continue building up as it has been doing for the last month or so, and there is already more choice and much to see and do. Thames Clippers and sightseeing tours such as City Cruises and the Circular Cruise have been doing well. And bookings for boats hosting private events have been on the increase. Visit London’s official guide gives links to some of the top river cruises from sightseeing, restaurant and pleasure boats to smart launches and kayaks. By clicking here on Covid you can see their latest information and you can research individual boat companies to see what measures they have in place to ensure passenger safety.
However, we haven’t yet reached the end of Covid restrictions. Party boats, though now allowed out, have to stick to strict social distancing rules, and passengers have to wear masks inside. When you decide on a sightseeing trip, though you can just turn up at the last minute for some, it would be a good idea to check on a company’s particular rules, as they do vary. And it’s best to carry a mask anyway as they’re required on London transport and in taxis.
The time to watch reflections, misshapen by passing boats, or the surge of a flood tide ruffling the surface of the river, has been balm to the soul and a welcome escape during the lockdowns and uncertainties of Covid. Occasional tweets of water pictures and some kind remarks have prompted me to search through my archives to compile the small gallery below, which I hope you will glide through and enjoy. There are those who, through their work on the river, understand its moods, complexities and dangers. I simply watch from the safety of its banks, struck by the beauty and infinite variety of patterns, shapes and colours in constant evolution, etched by winds and coloured by skies.
PATTERNS AND TEXTURES
NOTE It was Tristan Gooley in his book How to Read Water, who directed my attention to clues and patterns to be seen ‘from puddles to the sea’. I can’t pretend to come anywhere near to interpreting the finer details of his observations but he has taught me to look, and for that I am grateful.
…with photographs by Twitter photographer friends.
Once again, I’ve called upon a few Twitter friends to join in a virtual trip along the tidal Thames, this time with their views of the river in springtime.
Artist Ruth Wadey not only recognises the possibilities for a good photograph, often capturing fleeting moments on the river and the skies above, she also has perfect views along the Thames at Twickenham. She is a BBC Weather Watcher known as #ruthiebabes and if you look out for her images, you will notice that apart from her riverscapes, she has a real affinity with clouds. You can visit her online gallery to see a full range of her work, including her paintings, and follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery
Astrid Tontson has kindly lent me two of her photographs for this springtime look at the tidal Thames. However she is best known for her breath-taking images and short videos of dawn scenes in Bushy and Richmond Parks. You can follow her on Twitter @Astrid_Tontson, where you will find links to her Instagram images and Youtube films. Watch them on full screen with the sound on and you will, for a moment, forget about the world outside. ‘Photographer shares stunning photos of Royal Parks’: A lovely interview with Astrid Tontson by Orlando Jenkinson of the Richmond & Twickenham Times, May 19, 2020.
The Bulls Head is a lovely Grade II listed riverside inn, licensed since 1772, once used by riverboat and barge captains to organise the hiring of crews along with the distribution and delivery of cargoes. Standing next to Kew Rail Bridge with its distinctive lattice work, The Bulls Head has lovely views over the river. You can follow the Landlady’s personal tweets @TheBullsHeadW4
Liz Anderson is an accredited “Thames Mudlark, writer, blogger and photographer, passionate about London’s history.” You can discover what mudlarking involves and read her engaging and thoughtful articles here: A Mudlark’s Diary. You can also find her on Twitter: @liz_lizanderson and Instagram: lizanderson2.
Kristi Tange, a keen photographer often walks by the river, recording scenes and nature in the Hammersmith and Barnes areas. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange
Publisher and photographer Andrew Wilson lives in Putney. His beautiful nature photographs brighten up my Twitter timeline and he has written about, and photographed, many Thames-side areas for his delightful series of books on Wild London. You can follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics and you can discover more about him in this Time and Leisure article and on his website here.
Wal Daly-Smith, Director and Founder of Thames Ranger Marine Services, was the first of my interviewees on this site, not only helping me at the beginning but being there from then on to answer a whole variety of questions. Photography, most particularly of the Thames, has been an important theme running through his life. See his ‘Views from the River’. See some of his Thames pictures here.
Anne Johnson is longtime friend and occasional visitor to London. Her picture is from April 2018.
Jon Carruthers’ striking images always stand out in my Twitter timeline. He has photographed most of the tidal Thames from Teddington to the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. Sensitive to the ever-changing nature of the river, he captures boat traffic, and records London’s riverside architecture in a whole colour chart of light. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon
Emily Lovell is a freelance photographer living on the Greenwich Peninsula. She enjoys taking pictures of London life and has a special interest in Japan and Japanese culture. You can visit her website to see her gallery here. and you can follow her on Twitter @emilyjanelovell
Ian Tokelove “enjoys exploring the UK’s wild spaces, rivers & seas, especially in & around London”, sharing his experiences through writing and photography. You can follow him on Twitter @iantokelove You can also follow explore his site Canoe London for information on canoeing, kayaking and stand up paddleboarding across our city. His companion website Remote London, will complete the picture, taking readers to places on the river and around London that many would otherwise never know. His article “Fulham to Westminster, – kayaking London with the Thames tides” takes you through a stretch of the river, familiar to many from the river banks, and gives it a new perspective.
Many thanks to all who have joined in this springtime hommage to the river that we all share.
The tidal Thames: an ever-ebbing or flooding and fast-flowing ‘liquid highway’ threading a path through our history and the dance of the seasons…