At Eel Pie Island
Even though Twickenham is a suburb of London these days, it still retains the quality of a small riverside town. The kind of place where a crowd forms to watch a crow eating a bag of crisps – as I observed in the High St, before I crossed the bowed footbridge over to Eel Pie Island.
This tiny haven in the Thames proposes a further remove from the metropolis, a leafy dominion of artists’ cabins, rustic bungalows and old boatyards where, at the overgrown end of the only path, I came upon the entrance to Eel Pie Island Slipway. Here, where there are no roads, and enfolded on three sides by trees and tumbledown shacks, a hundred-year-old boatshed over-arches a hidden slipway attended by a crowded workshop filled with an accretion of old tools and maritime paraphernalia.
For the past twenty years, this magnificent old yard has been run by Ken Dwan, where twelve men work – shipwrights, platers, welders, marine engineers and marine electricians – on the slipway and in the workshop. “We have all the skills here, “ Ken informed me, “and the older ones are passing it onto the younger ones. Everybody learns on the job.” One of just four yards left on the Thames, Ken has his order book full for the next year, busy converting barges into houseboats, and maintaining and repairing those already in existence which, by law, have to be surveyed every five years.
Like his brother John Dwan – the Lighterman I spent a day with in September – Ken has worked on the river his whole life, earning a living and becoming deeply engaged with the culture of the Thames. Ken makes no apology to describe himself as a riverman and, as I discovered, the currents of this great watercourse have taken him in some unexpected directions.
“I started as an apprentice Waterman & Lighterman at fifteen. When the Devlin Report came out in 1967, all Lightermen had to be fully employed by lighterage companies, and I joined F.T.Everard & Sons. You got your orders over the phone the night before, and they sent you to collect and deliver from any of the docks between Hammersmith and Gravesend. We used to drive and row barges of every conceivable cargo – lamp black, palm oil, molasses, wool, petrol, sugar – I even moved a church once!
The work moved East as the docks quietened down and companies closed. Because of the Devlin Report, we had a domino effect whereby, when one company shut, everybody would join the next but there wasn’t enough work and so they shut too. But, as freemen of the Thames, we Lightermen were able to work in civil engineering. I worked on the building of the Thames Flood Barrier, and a lot went into the construction of Canary Wharf and the redevelopment of the Pool of London.
After that, I worked on the passenger boats, and I decided to buy one with a partner and we formed Thames Cruises – doing trips from Westminster to Gravesend. We started by buying other people’s cast-offs and we needed to repair them, so then we bought this place and I came up here while my partner ran the passenger boats. They still run from Lambeth. I found that if you have the facility, a lot of people want repairs and now most of our work is for other people. We also do a small amount of boat building and we provide a service of scattering of ashes on the river for the Asian community.
I did a lot of rowing years ago, I went to two Olympics as a single sculler, in 1968 and 1972. I won my Doggett’s Coat & Barge and was made a Queen’s Waterman, becoming the Queen’s Bargemaster for three years. My job was to move the crown in the State Coach from Buckingham Palace to Westminster for the Opening of Parliament. It dates back to the time when the safest way to travel was by water. They do suggest that the London streets are safer now than years ago, but you may wish to question that. I was Master of the Watermen’s Company from 2007/8, and now both my sons have got their Doggett’s Coat & badge and work on the river too.
I loved working around the Pool of London years ago, and, sometimes after work, I used to walk through Billingsgate Market late at night. There’d be be fish and ice everywhere, the atmosphere in that place was incredible. When we were out of work, we could get a tanner there for pushing the barrows of fish up the hill. My favourite place in London then was Tower Hill in the early morning, the escapologist on the corner trying to get out of the bag, and the old coffee shops where you could get steak and kidney pudding. When the big old tomato boats moored on the West side of London Bridge, the bridge would be full of people watching what was being moved around – it didn’t matter what time of year, people lined the bridge because there was always something different being unloaded. All the cranes were still working then and the place was hive of industry. It was a privilege to be part of it. For a fifteen year old, the London Docks was an adventure playground.
It’s never been hard getting out of bed and going to work. I still love going on the river seven days a week. It was never a job. It was an absolute pleasure. It was a life.”
When Ken visited Eel Pie Island as a fifteen year old apprentice Lighterman, he did not know that one day he would come back as master of the boatyard here. Yet today, as custodian of the slipway, he is aware of the presence of his former self – indicating to me the hull of a lighter that he worked on when it carried cargo which now he is converting to a houseboat. His sequestered boatyard is one of the few unchanged places of industry on the Thames, where the business of repairing old vessels that no other boatyard will touch is pursued conscientiously, using the old trades – where all the knowledge, skills and expertise that Ken Dwan once learnt in the London Docks is kept alive.
Ken Dwan, Waterman & Lighterman
A nineteenth century Dutch barge and Thames lighter of a hundred years ago.
“This barge, I worked on it when it moved cargo and now we are converting it into a palace!”
Ken Dwan – the Queen’s Bargemaster – stands at the centre, surrounded by fellow Watermen.
Looking across to the mainland and Twickenham church.
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