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Harry Harris, Lighterman

October 1, 2011
by the gentle author

Workers on the Silent Highway

Inspired by my day among the lightermen this week, I sought out these excerpts from the account by Harry Harris entitled Under Oars, Reminiscences of a Thames Lighterman 1894-1909, written in a ledger which was passed on to his son Bob Harris and published by Stepney Books in 1978.

“At the age of thirteen, I was asked, ‘What do you want to be?’ The answer was obvious. Aunt Louie wondered whether Harry boy would like to become a missionary? I said, ‘A lighterman or perhaps go to sea?’ I was then warned of the dangers of these two jobs. The true story was related about a ship-wrecked crew eating the boy. Rather cheekily, she was reminded that missionaries had met the same fate.

Father was then a foreman for W. Pells & Son and had an opportunity of having me with him to get some experience, or perhaps a warning, before the actual apprenticeship. In June, 1894, I saw the opening of Tower Bridge by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who was aboard the leading vessel. A large number of guests were invited to view the scene from one of Pells’ barges moored below London Bridge, and refreshments were provided. I was the boat boy and busy with the passengers to and fro. Pocket money was scarce in those days for me, but I was not allowed to accept any money or tips. I can still feel the itch in my hand to pick up sixpences and coppers.

On the 14th August, 1894, I was apprenticed to my father. A brother foreman wanted a handy boy, so arrangements were made for me to commence at twelve shillings a week, but after two weeks work – the governor having seen me  – he decided that my size of boy was only worth ten shillings. My father was indignant, so he took me into his firm at twelve shillings a week.

The following Winter was the coldest for years, the river becoming unnavigable owing to the ice. Heavy snow having fallen in the London district, the City Council dumped the snow into the river. Every bridge and embankment saw this dumping going on day after day, it quickly froze together forming ice floes. The ice adhered to barges, and many broke adrift and were to be seen floating up or down river. But looking back on that time, the remaining impression is they were light-hearted days. We found fun all the time, hours were long, work was strenuous, yet I cannot remember any dissatisfaction with my sphere in life. Summertime always compensated for Winter.

I must wander from this journey to mention the fog. The river then becomes a black area, if one was suddenly caught. One would never start in a dense fog but, if caught in one, might carry on and be lucky to finish the job. The ears became eyes, and all senses alert to get a bearing, yelling out to anchored craft, ‘Where are you?’ Fog is the worst enemy of river work. Signs of fog can be observed but indications of its clearing other than a breeze are very few.

We young lightermen were rather clannish and somewhat despised the ‘landsman.‘ Our chief topic of conversation was the river or life on the river. This had a language of its own, so I presume that our shore friends were often fed up by attempting to listen to an account of an incident in the day’s work given in the vernacular. You either ‘fetched’ or ‘went by,’ ‘saved tide’ or ‘lost tide.’ Arches were called ‘bridge holes.’ Flood tide work was ‘bound up along,’ ebb the reverse. The point was the ‘pint.’ The Quay man would be bound to ‘K dock,’ or ‘the German,’ or ‘the Batty,’ ‘down the Vic and dock her’ or perhaps ‘Jack’s Hole.’ The creek was always ‘crick.’ Back-slang was often used, cabin becoming ‘nibac’ and so on.

A large number of lightermen went by nicknames, all very apt, either featuring physical or psychological defects or assets, such as Tubby, Podge, Narrow, Rasher, Dabtoe, Winkle-eye, Hoppy, Humpy and Wiggy. Little Biggie was a tiny man of that name. Man Green was the smallest ever. Titty Mummy was about six foot two and big in proportion. Happy Wright, Bosco Dean, Whisper Rivers, Moaner, Doctor Brooks, Mad Brady, Bonsor Corps, Knocker, Knacker, Knicker, Sancho, Pongo, Walloper, Curly, Gingers, Coppers and Snowies. Robinsons were Cockies, Blythes were Nellies, Hopkins and Perkins, Pollys. Mashers, Starchers, Stiffies and Rum and Rags. Fireworks, Redhot, Burn’em, Never Sweat, Dozey, Slowman, Squibs, Gentle Annie, Soft Roe, and Pretty.

‘A full roadun’ was a week’s work including Sunday and nights. A ‘thgin’ (tidgeon) was an easy night. Tarpaulins were ‘cloths,’ extra rope a ‘warp,’ oars ‘paddles’ and a pump was the ‘organ.‘ Tugs were ‘toshers,’ the space aft of the cabin bench was ‘Yarmouth Roads.‘ Anchor the ‘killick.’ If a lighterman had a ‘waxer’ (cheap drink) for a friend, he would be told that ‘there was one behind the pump.’ The dock official whose duties were to enforce charges on craft when incurred was and still is the ‘Bogie Man.’ The ‘ditch’ is the river, ‘fell in the ditch’ is falling overboard. ‘Gutsers,’ ‘sidewinders,’ ‘chimers,’ ‘stern butt’ (always a more vulgar word is used) and ‘glancing blow’ were terms describing blows to craft by collision with other craft.

When reporting damage, a man would often say ‘ just a glancing blow,’ especially if he was responsible. These were viewed suspiciously by the foreman. I worked under a foreman to whom this term was a ‘red rag.’ Lightermen were ever optimistic!”

Harry Harris, Lighterman, photographed in 1947.

Photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read

Among the Lightermen

Bobby Prentice, Waterman & Lighterman

Swan Upping on the Thames

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Gary permalink
    October 1, 2011

    The river still looked exactly like these photo’s when I was a boy in the 30’s.
    You knew if it was foggy before you got out of bed because of all the fog horns and hooters sounding from the ships on the river

  2. Geoff Embleton permalink
    June 20, 2015

    Searching for any people that may know of my ancestors in the Embleton family who were lightermen and watermen from the 1860s to 1900.

  3. Heather Fenton permalink
    July 13, 2016

    Looking at these because by ancestors were lightermen around the mid 19th century. Their surname was Fenton and I think there were a number of families with this surname.

  4. William Harris permalink
    April 9, 2020

    Thank you for posting this. Harry Harris was my great grandad. I’m currently trying to find a way of getting the book reprinted.

  5. Diane Embleton permalink
    February 26, 2024

    Message for Geoff Embleton. My husband’s family may have been watermen.
    Would you like to get in touch.

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