Meet Eric Carpenter: 1

Waterman and Lighterman of the River Thames

Working for fifty years on and around the Thames, Eric Carpenter has a map of the river, its tributaries and canals indelibly etched into his brain. I’m lucky to meet him in St. Katharine Docks a couple of weeks before *lockdown* as not only has he told me something of his life on, and love for, the river Thames, he has kindly helped me with my recent articles on the 1907 book The Thames from Chelsea to the Nore.

He has a jumper with a distinctive badge: the coat of arms of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen and explains, “Only Freemen of the Company are allowed to wear their badge, so I had to prove that I was a Freeman before being allowed to buy it.”

Eric’s Port of London Authority Apprentice’s Licence © Eric Carpenter

Eric went through a rigorous seven-year period of training on the Thames to become a Freeman of the Company. He was apprenticed at Waterman’s Hall in August, 1958. He was just fifteen years old. His father, William Carpenter, an experienced Waterman and Lighterman was his “Master” and as such it was his responsibility to help his son find employment and to make sure that he learnt his trade. Eric’s first job was on the tug SIR JOHN, owned by Humphrey and Grey Lighterage Co. He worked under Captain Jess Handley. “I started my career as ‘the boy of the boat’ or the dogsbody. My duties were keeping the cabins clean, washing up after other members of the crew, polishing the brass lamps and helping the mate on deck.”

The SIR JOHN was based at Battlebridge Roads, roughly where H.M.S. BELFAST is now moored, and among the myriad sounds and smells, Eric can particularly remember “the strong smell of smoked bacon coming from the Danish ships in the Upper Pool.”

Tug SIR JOHN. Photo from Thames Tugs by RC

There were so many new experiences and so much that he had to learn that it’s impossible to do justice to them here. However, Eric tells me two things that illustrate the practical experience and depth of knowledge of the Thames required to gain his licence. Firstly, part of his “time at H & G was spent in the Rope store”, an area at Hay’s wharf where ropes were cut at various lengths for use on the craft. Apprentices were taught how to splice ropes, some nine inches in circumference, also, to splice wire hawsers which were a bit more tricky!”

Secondly, he tells me about ‘driving’ or rowing a boat under oars – adding that another name for an oar is a ‘sweep’. “It was not obligatory for an apprentice to undertake a ‘drive’ but it was looked upon favourably by the examining court at the time of your two year licence appearance.” It was also a good way to learn to understand the river and its characteristics.

“Undertaking a ‘drive’ taught you so much regarding tide sets, where the tide ran fastest, where the ‘slack’ tide was, and how to take account of the wind factor.” This was important because “the wind would have a greater affect on an empty barge than a loaded one. Also, it taught you how to look ahead to plan where to position the barge. Rowing a barge or being in control of a vessel is like a game of chess, you have to plan ahead to position the vessel before you actually get to any situation, whether it’s passing through a bridge or rounding head onto the tide.”

‘Calling a drive’ means talking through the complexities and details of a particular drive to the examining committee, a bit like ‘The Knowledge’, the rigorous exam taken by London black cab taxi drivers. “It was handy to have several drives under your belt.”

In 1959 on the advice of his father, he moved to work for General Lighterage as they took all kinds of cargo the length and breadth of the river Thames and its tributaries. He gives an idea of the enormous variety and scope of their work: “We took grain and general cargo to Dartford Creek; timber, and would you believe it barges full of asbestos, to Barking Creek; copper bars for onward travel to Brimsdown rolling mills; bags of coffee to be taken up to Ware in Hertfordshire; zinc to the Hackney Lesney factory, makers of Matchbox toys; plywood; timber and coal all to Bow Creek adjoining the river Lea.” Some of the cargo passed through Thames lock to access the Grand Union Canal, including “bags of beans for the Heinz factory at Uxbridge, and I remember barges with slabs of marble being pulled up the canal by tractors”. He adds, “With regard to the river Lea, at 6 a.m. from Monday to Saturday at Bromley locks you would have five or six dock tugs towing four to six barges each, setting off for various wharves along the river.” Dock tugs were small tugs that could work within the docks or along the canals. Tugs often have quite punchy names. He remembered: Express, Energetic, Jamar, Valcary and Ensign.

Old Ford Locks, river Lea, 1971, sourced by Alan Russell @soxgnasher

“After two years afloat I went back to Waterman’s Hall to be questioned on my knowledge of the river, in order to gain my two years’ licence”. He was faced with questions by the Court, a wall of examiners sitting round a horseshoe table. A daunting experience but he passed. This meant that he was licenced to “have and take sole charge of any Boat, Barge, or any other vessel, used in conveying Persons or Passengers, Goods, Wares or Merchandise on all parts of the River Thames, between the landward limit of the Port of London and Lower Hope Point, near Gravesend…” However, he still would be under the control of his Master at all times, who would judge in every case whether he was competent to take on a particular task. And there was a warning that the licence would be “liable to be revoked, suspended or cancelled at any time for misconduct or incompetency”. Happily this was not a problem for Eric and at the end of his apprenticeship five years later he had to appear before the Court once more with evidence of his experience afloat and to answer questions on navigation. After passing this final test, he became a Freeman of The Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

Eric’s Licences © Eric Carpenter

He remembers “feeling like Superman after gaining his licence. “You could now take barges anywhere, tow to Brentford, undock out of Limehouse cut…” and he recalls, aged eighteen, “towing up to Nine Elms cold store in the middle of the night, with a barge full of cartons of butter, climbing over the locked-up wharf gates, walking over Vauxhall Bridge to Victoria to catch the night bus home. He adds that he liked his work. “I really enjoyed being out on the barges, there was more freedom in the open air.”

Eric’s career continued in much this way for his company, which had since become the Thames and General lighterage Co., until 1971, when with the advent of containerisation and changes in transportation and working practices, he transferred to Tilbury Dock where he worked for twelve years supervising the loading of the company’s barges. Work was tough and he has a wealth of stories to tell. On one occasion, “In 1975 Thames and General won a contract to transport refuse from London Wharves to a landfill site up Holehaven Creek, near Canvey island, Essex. I can remember waiting at Egypt bay on the Kent side of the river for the tide to rise on a pitch black winter’s night, and wallowing across the river, the tugs decks under water, the six barges bouncing up and down and having to watch out for inbound ships.”

Things can get rough out on the river © Eric Carpenter

Eric’s final job was with Cory Waste Management now Cory Riverside Energy, whose tugs with their barges of bright yellow containers you will probably have seen if you have ever been on a Thameside walk in central London, and you can follow his story on this site in Part 2, The Cory Years... from May 31st.

From Gravesend to the Nore

The final stage of our journey downriver with artist T.R. Way

This first picture on our continuing journey downstream is of Gravesend seen from Rosherville Pier. Thames Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter, who has kindly been sharing his extensive knowledge of the river as we travel along Thames Past, explains that this is a view towards the Royal Terrace Pier, though this is not shown in the image. He adds: “Terrace Pier is the heart of riverside Gravesend, it serves as the hub for ships’ Pilots, Watermen and tug crews.”
It is now also the headquarters of the Port of London Authority’s Pilotage Service. A passage on their website explains what they do: “Fourteen specialist River Pilots work in the stretch of the Thames between Gravesend and London Bridge. Four of these are Bridge Pilots working upstream from London Bridge to Putney Bridge, where expertise on the shallower water and low air draughts is vital, particularly for awkward one-off project type cargoes.”

From Rosherville Gardens

Rosherville Gardens was a very popular pleasure garden in Victorian times. In her book The Place to Spend a Happy Day: A history of Rosherville Gardens, Lynda Smith describes the many boats crowded with day-trippers from London landing at the nearby Rosherville Pier. From there they could walk to enjoy a whole host of attractions including a maze, an archery ground and a bear pit set in lovely gardens. Later, restaurants, theatres and an open air stage were added together with a whole variety of popular entertainment such as “fireworks, tightrope walkers, balloon ascents and a gypsy fortuneteller.” It was sailing from there on September 3, 1878 that passenger steamer SS Princess Alice, was involved in a fatal collision with the collier Bywell Castle, in one of the worst British inland waterway accidents ever recorded, with the loss of 640 lives, 240 of them children. From then on, marked by the tragedy, and a public drawn to the new fashion for train trips to seaside resorts, the central London attractions of Hyde Park, and the new museums in Kensington, the gardens fell slowly into decline. In 1899 T.R. Way, heard that Rosherville Gardens were to be sold, and having seen a poster advertising a fête in this once famous setting, he was curious to see them. He boarded The Mermaid at Charing Cross Pier with his family and writes “that it was this trip which at last determined me to go on with a scheme which some years before had been started when making a series of Thames lithographs.” And so began his work with W.G Bell for their book The Thames from Chelsea to the Nore published in 1907.

Tilbury Fort

Tilbury evoked many memories for Eric Carpenter when I showed him the picture of Tilbury Fort, albeit more than half a century later. In 1971 he was transferred from his work in London to Tilbury Docks, where his “main function was the overseeing of cargo discharging from various ships into the barges of the Thames & General Literage Co. The cargo would range from copper bars, sacks of coffee, logs, timber and chests of tea to name but a few…” This was a time before containerisation, when men generally worked closely with identifiable cargoes…

In the Estuary, near Leigh

W.G. Bell, author of the text of The Thames from Chelsea to the Nore, has a particular feeling for the spirit of Thames Estuary and its sheer sense of space in contrast to the river’s managed confinement inland, which I’ve heard echoed in other works on the subject. He writes: “The ships passing out to sea or coming up against the tide no longer cluster together but seem to shun each other. They keep a distance apart….The vessel upon which one is travelling becomes a little self-centred world of its own, a point of outlook into the larger universe around.” And observing the mercantile fleets of England he remarks that the open seas “have no such sight as this…The big ocean liner is here a living thing, imposing, magnificent…”, moving with speed but in “the narrower waters upstream it will slow down, become subdued, lose its freedom in the press of shipping through which it must thread a way.” He describes the many hurrying steamers, at variance with “sailing-ships seemingly immovable, contented to pass the day so far as the tide and lightest of breezes will take them.”

The Nore Light

Bell ends his description of shipping in the Estuary by writing of the Nore Lightship which marked the treacherous Nore sandbank, the limit of his journey along the Thames with Way: “Least of all in appearance”, compared to all the shipping in the Estuary “but first in importance, for its masthead beacon lights the way for every vessel that sails in and out of the Thames”.

These days the complex navigational safety in operation along the river is managed by the Port of London Authority, here outlined as a basis for yachting or leisure traffic in an interesting short film: Safely navigating in the lower tidal Thames. And in the difficult days of Covid-19 and the lockdown, the Port of London is there for London and the South East, remaining operational, “with over 1,300 commercial shipping movements, keeping essential supplies on the move.” Thank you to them and to all those performing vital services along the river…

From Limehouse Reach to Woolwich

Continuing our 1907 journey downstream with T. R. Way

With no end in sight to the tragedy of the Covid-19 virus and its terrible toll, it has been a pleasurable distraction to continue our journey towards the sea in the slipstream of artist T. R. Way and in the company of Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter.

After studying the sketch above, Eric believes the view to be from “Pageant Stairs”, Rotherhithe, “stairs that Watermen would use to ply their trade”. With his long time familiarity with the Thames and his deep-rooted knowledge of its powers and peculiarities, he can tell that here “the tide is ebbing as the vessels are making their way downstream and the boatmen are approaching the barges head upon tide”.

East and West India Docks: Sailing Ships

Sailing ships traditionally present in the Port of London were gradually overtaken by steamships as vessels of choice and, according to a History of the Port of London pre 1908, by 1875 “steam represented 5.1 million tons and sail only 3.6 million tons.”

Greenwich Hospital

Eric suggests that the artist was “positioned in the Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, Millwall.” He notices that “the vessels are proceeding downstream so that one can assume that the tide is ebbing.” Then he adds a detail that only a Waterman with intricate knowledge of the river can know: “The artist is once again applying his artistic licence: he has drawn the barges too close to the north shore.” He explains: “The tide sets at Greenwich towards the bend of the river on the south shore, so the tide, wanting to go in a straight line, strikes the outer curve. The barges would therefore be midstream to use the flowing tide more.”

Eric has lived and experienced this, and says that “with regard to a ‘drive’, a journey under oars, the object is to get from A to B with minimal effort.” This is quite unlike the strains of rowing a barge in a race. “The aim here (as in the picture) would be to use the tidal flow to the maximum advantage, positioning the barge as much as possible in the fastest flow so making the trip manageable using only one oar.”

Royal Albert Dock

You’ll notice that some of the ships in the Royal Albert Dock seem to be a form of hybrid vessel and at the time that T.R. Way and W.G. Bell collaborated on their book, the docks along the river were used by all kinds of shipping. Bell describes a typical scene:
“In the breadth of the river, and above all in its moving shipping, lies the secret beauty of the mercantile Thames. Ships are here in endless variety, never still, forming one picture after another as they pass in mid-stream. Behind the steamships which come and go, are the barges floating by with big brown sails spread to the wind, and lighters which heave and toss in the wash…”
Some of the steamships of the time also relied on sails as a backup. Gregory Atkinson writes in Cogent Engineering (Vol 5, 2018) that “Most early steamships had masts and sails in case of engine failure, or to use them as a source of propulsion when the wind conditions were favourable.”


Watching the Thames from the riverside in Victoria Tower Gardens on my daily allowed *lockdown* walk, the contrast with the busy, industrious river depicted by Way and Bell couldn’t be greater. The tides still ebb and flow but in silence now, an infinite variety of mesmerising patterns ruffling the surface. Occasionally, the passing of one of the river sentinels: a Police launch, Fireboat, Port of London vessel, or RNLI launch, will coincide with my visit. And if the tides are right, I’ll see one of the Cory tugs performing the vital task of London’s waste removal from one of their depots further upstream. Then perhaps a few splashes of wash and back to calm. Back to hearing the distant sounds of a train from the tracks behind buildings over to the east; geese honking overhead; ducks squabbling on the foreshore; wind rustling the unfurling plane tree leaves above; children shouting with delight, running freely on the grass; and the heart tugging song of a blackbird.
Let’s hope that life will return to normal soon, and that all those whose lives are intimately bound up with the river will be able to return and to continue the successful renaissance of the Thames as both a commercial highway and a resource of leisure and spiritual renewal.

Grateful thanks to Eric Carpenter for sharing his knowledge and experience of the River Thames.

Continuing our journey along the Thames from Chelsea to the Nore …

…with artist T R Way in 1907.

From Somerset House to London Docks

Just before the Covid-19 virus became a real concern to the wider public, I had the chance to meet Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter in St. Katharine Docks. His knowledge and understanding of the river and its tributaries after fifty years is phenomenal and I will eventually publish an account of our meeting when this crisis is over. However, having mentioned his visits to the Upper Pool, I asked him about the second picture in this series.

London Bridge and a distant view of Southwark Cathedral
The Upper Pool drawn from London Bridge

Eric Carpenter explains that T R Way “has drawn the scene from the south side of London Bridge, looking downstream” towards Tower Bridge, and you can see theTower of London on the left, impressive as ever, with warehouses beyond. He can tell from the position of the barges and rowing boats being “tailed up” that the tide is coming in and “that it’s approximately two hours before high water.” He adds ” The wharf in the foreground is Fenning’s wharf, then St. Olaf’s, followed by Chambers wharf.” Further down you can see the Battlebridge roads buoy, where the first boat he worked on, the tug SIR JOHN used to moor. It was good to discover that despite two World Wars and all the destruction along that part of the Thames, some of the features of the riverside are still recognisable today.

The view from Cherry Gardens Pier
Barge builders and the Entrance to London Docks

Eric was interested to see this image, suggesting that it was a view, perhaps with a little artistic licence, from Wapping looking downstream towards Limehouse, adding that “the church tower in the distance looks similar to St. Anne’s church Limehouse.” As T R Way might possibly have sketched this from a nearby pub, the important subject of riverside pubs took over our conversation and we agreed that when the crisis has abated, The Prospect of Whitby, which is from where Way might have sketched, would be “well worth a visit, as would a number of other riverside pubs too.” I’ll drink to that… Until then, keep well everyone and stay safe.

The Thames from Chelsea to the Nore

Images by Thomas R Way

We are living through a time of anxiety and trouble the like of which our country hasn’t seen since the Second World War. And as has happened to many of you, my plans have been disrupted and proposed interviews shelved so I would like to take you back to 1907 when artist Thomas R Way produced a beautiful book on the Thames in collaboration with Walter Bell, who wrote the accompanying text. Both loved the river and knew it well, and though the century since the publication of their book The Thames: From Chelsea to the Nore has seen spectacular changes in architecture, industry and employment along the river there is much that is still recognisable today.

In his preface, Thomas Way describes noticing a poster on a steamboat pier in the summer of 1900 “announcing a fête at Rosherville Gardens”, Gravesend, once famous but somewhat neglected as an attraction since the Great Exhibition in South Kensington in 1851, and due to be sold as land for building. Happy to take a last chance to visit the gardens, which he regretted not having visited in the past, he decided “to make a day of it and to start with the MERMAID from Charing Cross pier”. It was this trip that inspired him “to go on with a scheme started some years before when making a series of Thames lithographs in connection with the artist C E Holloway,” who had died in 1897.

Known for his previous work on historic buildings, his approach here was to “deal with the modern aspect of the Thames, which is picturesque enough to be quite interesting without any antiquarian flavour.” So he reflected life as he saw it.

Looking upstream from Battersea Bridge
The Palace of Westminster and the old Lambeth Bridge
Waterloo Bridge and the shot towers seen from Buckingham Street
The Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Waterloo Bridge

I hope that you will all stay well and enjoy a time-travel voyage of discovery in the coming weeks to escape in this and my future excerpts from The Thames: From Chelsea to the Nore.