Monday, 19 September 2011

Joseph Powell 1786 - 1857 : Thames Waterman

Anybody who knows me well, knows that I am an avid admirer of Charles Dickens and his literary works. In 1998 the ABC aired the serial adaptation of 'Our Mutual Friend'. Being a fan of the actor Steven Mackintosh it was added incentive to tune in!
It was not for another 4 years that I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a waterman on the Thames. In that very moment, my favourite Charles Dickens book was thrust into sharper focus and exuberant reality. My very own my family history could tell the tale of the 'Great Stink' of London, the daily menace of gridlocked water traffic and demanding customers, and London's dead found in the River.

My 4 x great-grandfather Joseph Powell was baptised at St Paul's Church in Hammersmith in 1786, son of Bartholomew Powell. When he was 15, in 1802, Joseph was apprenticed to Nicholas Taylor. Joseph was bound to him for a full seven years until he qualified as a Waterman of the Thames in 1809.

Men like Joseph Powell were especially skilled as rowers and as navigators and as tidesmen. So skilled was this job that the Company of Watermen Guild was set up in 1555 and later in 1700, the Thames Lightermen amalgamated with the Watermen (The difference between the Thames Watermen and the Thames Lightermen was that the Watermen carried passengers and the Lightermen carried goods). Once Joseph had completed his apprenticeship and could work alone fully qualified, he had to apply to obtain a license from the Port of London Authority who issued him with a numbered badge which, by law, was sewn onto his coat sleeve. He would have then purchased or hired for himself a Wherry or Skiff to carry his passengers and he was responsible for keeping his boat in sound working order at all times.
Strict rules were in place by the Watermen’s Guild which ordered that Watermen not consume any alcohol whilst ‘on the job’ but despite this, they still had a reputation for being extremely obnoxious, uncouth, abusive and foul-mouthed. Come on! I think they had to be given the circumstances, don’t you? You have to remember that in the early centuries there was no sewerage systems in place and all raw effluent of the London populus went straight into the Thames so the Watermen were - pardon the pun - 'in the thick of it' all day every day!
Add to that the fact that the Thames was extremely busy all the time, filled with navy and merchant ships, cargo ships, ferries, Lighter barges, as well as their fellow Watermen. It would have been utter stinking chaos! Other foul conditions were things like floods, mud, slime, sludge, stench, rats, other people’s diseases and infections, even dead bodies were sometimes found. That’s not to mention the weather conditions!

By the 1760s there were well over a thousand ‘Hackney hell-carts’ as the Watermen had dubbed them, and it was causing considerable congestion. London streets couldn’t cope with the demand, and the increasing bottle-neck and deaths through accidents meant something had to give. London needed bridges to ease traffic flow and enforce safety for its people. You could imagine the outcry from the Watermen.
Until 1750 there was only one bridge in London and even that had caused upset when it was put in place hundreds of years before there was any talk of subsequent bridges being built in London. When Westminster Bridge was built in 1750 the Watermen strongly opposed and lobbied their case in Parliament but over time, they were defeated. The Watermen’s further appeals made even less impact as the years went on, causing only temporary delays but in the end they just could not prevent the building of bridges. The Watermen were losing the fight for their livelihood as the demand for road traffic ease grew ever stronger.

My 4 x great-grandfather Joseph Powell endured, through the extremes of weather, inestimable stink and traffic congestion. His daily route took him from Fulham, where he lived on the High Street with his wife and family, to his final destination at Hungerford Stairs  (yet another connection with Charles Dickens!).
According to the 1819 Post Office Directory his stops would have been:
The Globe Wharf
Hungerford Stairs

The 1826 Pigots Directory water conveyance listing from FULHAM:

King's Arms, Rose and Crown, Queenhithe, Waterman's Arms & Globe Wharf, Hungerford

A few good reasons to stop for alcoholic refreshments in amongst that list, wouldn't you say?!
I may be ridiculed for having a rather nostalgic, or even romantic, viewpoint of my ancestor Joseph Powell, but I would dearly love to have known him. He could well have been quite a feisty character like Gaffer Hexam, or calculating and cunning like Rogue Riderhood. He would have to have been a good mix of both to abide the stink of the Thames!

Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam in 'Our Mutual Friend'

For further reading on the life of a Thames Waterman you may like to search out Robert Cottrell and Christopher O'Riordan's meticulous works, and you may also like to read the great novels of Charles Dickens and Clare Clark for further inspiration! x


  1. These are the great stories from our family trees, aren't they - not the great and the good, but the everyday people who lived and made everyday life work. (Can't believe I wasn't following you before now! - @bigrainyday)

  2. Thank you for your very kind comment. I agree, it's the everyday people that make the most colourful and intriguing stories!

  3. Very interesting post - and nicely illustrated. I love Charles Dickens too - and really thrilling to have his wonderful descriptions of the life & characters your ancestor would have known!

    Your blog looks great - I'll be viewing more from now on!

    Ros (Tracing UK Ancestors

  4. Thank you Ros, I really appreciate your comments and thank you for the interest!

  5. That's really interesting . I never knew much about a Waterman before.

  6. Nice blog, very insightful :)
    Link to an article, 'may' interest you, about Dickens.

  7. Additional link, may be useful, all about Charles Dickens.

  8. A fascinating story. And it has reminded me that I should write a blog post about my visit to the London Canal Museum!

  9. So interesting about the watermen. I just discovered I had several watermen ancestors, mostly from the early to late 1700s. I am watching Our Mutual Friend right now!

    1. Thanks Maureen, I have to say I am immensely proud of having watermen ancestors. I must watch Our Mutual Friend again, it's been awhile. :-)