Slowly but surely, as covid restrictions have eased, the London Thames sightseeing and party boats have returned to the river on organised tours or private hire. And I’ve been able to photograph a number of them when their trips have coincided with my daily walks in Victoria Tower Gardens, close to the Houses of Parliament.
The RIVER PRINCESS in the photo above, and the THAMES PRINCESS below, are two of Thames Cruises’ fleet of five whose home is at Lambeth Pier, by the bridge. It was good, as it was with all the boats in this article, to see them out and about with passengers. They had remained, tied to their moorings, for so long.
One of the Thames Luxury Charters’ distinctive fleet, the EDWARDIAN, has made several trips passing under Westminster Bridge for various parties and press events, and the other day I managed to catch a glimpse of one their other boats, the ELIZABETHAN, with a relaxed looking party on board.
There are four Golden party boats and they’ve been active recently too. Three of them: GOLDEN FLAME; GOLDEN JUBILEE; and GOLDEN SUNRISE have passed close to Victoria Tower Gardens during the past month.
There are some gaps here due to timing and my being stationed in Victoria Tower Gardens. I was unable to catch the lovely Bateaux London dining cruises and as yet, I’ve been unable to photograph the party boats at night, though that’s a pleasure to look forward to in the autumn as the evenings draw in.
Part One of my article on W.L.Wyllie’s paintings from the book London to the Nore, 1905, covered the stretch of the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge. The paintings posted here follow the river from Tower Bridge to Belvedere. Along this stretch, as throughout the book, Wyllie’s pictures are accompanied by his wife Marion’s descriptions of their journey. Her writing draws the reader in, and I have chosen a few pieces for this next section to give you a feeling of the river as she saw things: its beauties, its less attractive though always interesting aspects, and how busy it was.
“Irongate Wharf […} is between Tower Bridge and the gates to Saint Katherine’s Dock [sic], which is surrounded by tall warehouses, so that only the masts of the ships can be seen from the river. These docks have the trade in wine and brandy, tobacco and rice, and for years were the rivals to the East and West India Docks.” Unlike today, when most goods arrive anonymously in containers, Marion notices a whole variety of merchandise waiting for distribution, “the quays piled with great new wine-barrels, currants, slates, corks and Spanish onions.” And a nice detail: “In one corner stands the Queen’s pipe, where all the contraband tobacco seized is burnt.”
As they sail past Limehouse, a favourite spot of Whistler’s, Marion remarks that “for a short part of its frontage, it has the quaintest group of houses to be found up or down the river. […] They are small, very narrow, and squeezed tight against one another, each painted in a bright contrasting colour; they have little balconies full of flowers, old world bow-windows, and odd storage places below. From the top of more than one flies the family washing.”
Turning again to the river she sees “more and more craft come crowding up [with the tide] pushing their way among the drifting dumb barges.” Among them: a Swedish ship carrying timber; a red and black fruit steamer; tugs with long winding tows of coal lighters; sailing barges; steamers from the General Steam and Netherlands Companies “some with big rope fenders artfully slung across their stems close to the water, so that they can push their way through the drifting dumb craft when there is no lane of open water to steer for; and on the Rotherhithe bank, Guernsey schooners shooting broken granite into dumb barges.” She describes watermen and bargees at work, their rowing skills and their repartee “at this they beat cabmen hollow”, and brings the varied sounds of intense river activity to life: myriad calls; rattles; anchor chains crashing as they’re let go; clanking of windlasses; the clang of shipwrights’ and engineers’ hammers, groans and creaking, the plash of oars, and a whole symphony of sound echoing across the water. And beyond, on Plumstead Marshes, heavy guns booming on the practice range. It is easy to imagine her sitting on deck writing descriptions in real time.
There were quieter moments too. Marion describes an afternoon moored off Greenwich where her husband is working and the family are spread about “sitting comfortably on deck, each one at his own or her own pursuit.” She conjures up the scene so well. There “are Corbett’s sheds, with boats of all kinds on hire, from which a waterman has pushed off with a baby girl dressed in pink flannelette gravely sitting in the stern hugging a doll.” Turning, she sees “a grubby-looking old man with an ancient boat with a great part of her bulwarks torn away, and he has to put a list on her to keep the wounded side out of the water. […] Three or four small boys rush down to the shed to meet him; they jump on board with a fine model yacht, which, when put in the water, sails off a a great rate.”
Just as Wyllie was interested in recording the industrial stretches of the Thames, his wife took the trouble to explain some of the structures. Atlas No 3 in the painting above was a floating pontoon with ten or twelve cranes on board whose hydraulic arms dropped ‘giant claws’ into the holds of the colliers, grabbing the coal and swinging it round to let it fall into the barges on the other side. Tugs would then tow them on to their destinations, providing fuel for London’s industries and homes.
The busy scene of Castle’s ship-breaking wharf not only caught Wyllie’s attention but his wife’s as well. She was particularly struck by the breaking up of The Duke of Wellington, Admiral Sir Charles Napier’s famous flagship. She writes: “She is here – a mere husk of a ship. The graceful sheer of her line of ports has drooped away; and her bow, from which the figure-head has been cut, grins noseless like a skull. All round the poop her ribs stand naked to the sky…”
Marion also records the variety of smells on this stretch of the river including: the pungent odour of the chemical works “catching you in the throat”; Peruvian guano; Dundee marmalade; and “the great gasworks on Lea Ness pouring out a savour all of its own”. As they anchor on ‘Bugsby’s Reach’ among a large group of coal barges from where Wyllie can draw a view that has caught his attention, the air is thick with coal dust. But Marion doesn’t mind: “It will wash off”. However she is less enamoured of the stink emanating from a number of industries “that make dreadful smells” particularly of “some tall chimney-shafts. Even at three miles away the sickening reek makes you feel bad.” And then there were regular releases of noxious untreated sewage into the river. On the night of September 3rd, 1878 this pollution added a tragic dimension to the collision between pleasure boat SS Princess Alice and collier Bywell Castle in Gallions Reach, for not only were some of the 640 victims drowned at the time, many died later from infections picked up from the contamination of the water.
Marion was a keen observer of all aspects of life along the Thames. She records much of its history, its architecture, and details of surrounding towns and villages. Yet, even if most of it has been swallowed up or smoothed down by time, there is still enough in her observations to strike a chord with those who know the river well.
Further Information White Dog Gallery where you can discover some of Wyllie’s work for sale. W.L. and Mrs Wyllie: London to the Nore
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.