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Thames Tales

Swiftstone is all about the heritage of the Thames as a working river - much of that heritage is held in the memories of the men who spent their working lives in the many different trades which were essential when the river flourished and trade with the world came through London via the docks and wharves rather than the roads and airports.

Capturing those memories for present and future generations is one of our most important tasks and this is where you will be able to share them. We start this unique section of our site with the first installment of Ron Drake's story... we are hugely indebited to Ron (now living in Australia) for putting his memories down in writing for us - and we hope that it will inspire others with Tames Tales to do like wise. Please contact Lorna if you have memories of the Thames, we'd love to hear them

Thanks again Ron.

"On the water"

My first introduction to the river was at the age of 12 years when my father Ernie Drake who was Boatswain for Mercantile Lighterage at Fords Motor works jetty at Dagenham took me to work with him on Saturday mornings I wasn't allowed to touch anything but used to sit on the barges when he towed them ashore to the jetty and my own personal job was to lay the gratings in the hold.
When I was about 14 during the school holidays I used to leave home at 5 AM with a packet of sandwiches and a tin of condensed milk and get the bus from Plaistow to the Blackwall tunnel and then the bus to Charlton and walk about a mile down to Cory's yard where I would join the Mercantile steam tug which I think was called the "Lion". The condensed milk was for the Mate to use in the tug tea as there was no long lasting milk in those days.
These days on the tug were a wonderful adventure and I used to stay aboard for all of the 16 hour shift and return home at about Midnight. The "Lion" was a very old tug and had a chain with a ring at the rear of the wheel box for the skipper to ring down instructions to the engine room.

"On the water" was the phrase used by my mother to describe my fathers job I never realised that he was actually called a Lighterman and when I was asked by the careers teacher at Plaistow Grammar School what I wanted to do when I left school I just said I wanted to work "On The water", needless to say he hadn't the faintest idea what I was talking about and when I described the job to him he was horrified and immediately called my parents to try and dissuade me from entering my chosen career, they failed of course , much to my Dad's amusement and so when I reached my 16th birthday Dad and I arrived at Waterman's hall for the bindings and I was apprenticed to my father and given my Indentures .

The Indentures were impressive documents written on parchment and signed by all of the master lightermen who were sitting on the day and instructed me not to gamble, play dice, fornicate or drink. We immediately departed for the nearest pub where the freemen relaxed on a rare day off and the new apprentices were plied with shandies and crisps, a sign of things to come.

My first job was as office boy in the West India dock office, I had to deliver by bicycle the bills of laden and the delivery notes and various other documents to the shipping offices and wharves throughout the docks and also to all the wharves from the Isle of Dogs to Limehouse to Regents Canal Dock, Wapping, London Dock, right up to Irongate wharf at Tower Bridge, in the afternoons I would be sent to assist the lightermen in the dock at various ships and wharves and slowly learnt the trade. It was 1953 and the river and docks were packed with shipping , tugs, and barges and it was a very exciting time for a young apprentice. After 6 months in this job I was sent to the Royal Docks and then to Tilbury all the while learning the trade and meeting my Dad's contemporaries.

Whenever you were with a new Freeman he would always say "whose boy are you then" because it was mostly a father and son trade although there were exceptions and freemen did apprentice boys who were not related. Apprentices were required to attend Lighterage school for I day a week at Bromley Technical College where we were instructed by Ted Hunt a Freeman, we were also given swimming lessons and it was surprising the number who could not swim. At the end of the course we sat an exam and I am proud to say that I scored the highest mark ever scored at the school .I scored 99 points out of 100 and the question that I failed on was "what is meant by winding a barge" .35 years later when I was in my own Pub, The Candlelight Inn, In Somerset a customer came in one evening and knowing that I was an ex Lighterman said that he had seen an interesting programme on the TV about the Thames and that he had taped it for me .The programme was Ted Hunt rowing a barge down river and swinging it into the wind and mooring at Butlers wharf and his last words were "and that is known as winding a barge", I got my answer and I've still got the tape.

For coming top at Lighterage school I was given 10.00 by Mr. Hull the director of Mercantile Lighterage and presented with Gaselees River Thames Wharf Directory, this book listed every wharf on the Thames with it's address and depth of water etc. and I still have it ,it must be almost a historic document now with the demise of all the wharves.

After the first year of the apprenticeship you at last became useful to the company because in the first year you had to be supervised all the time but in the second year you were allowed to be in charge of barges and to deliver cargo to ships but not in the tideway, this meant that you had to accept responsibility for you're own job and do the job of a proper Lighterman albeit on a limited scale, this made the job even more interesting as you towed you're own craft to the ship and saw the job through from start to finish.

After the barge was towed to the ship all maneuvering was done by hand and if you had a barge with a substantial cargo this entailed a lot of physical effort. The only time you were allowed in the tideway was as a boy on the Tug or with a Freeman to learn to Drive ( row) a barge, this was of course a dying art as only very few companies still transported cargo by this means but it had to be learnt as it was part of the test for getting your 2 years licence.

Although Mercantile did not have Tug boys I had the priviledge of being Tug boy on the "Mercedes" when she was all decked out for the return of the Queen on the Royal Yacht "Britannia" in 1963 and we moored just below tower bridge with all the firms customers being wined and dined on board. Although I was apprenticed to my father, I , like most apprentices did not work very often with my "master" but all the Freemen that you did work with imparted their knowledge to you and answered any queries and of course Dad was there when I got home in the evening and kept a close eye on me through the grapevine. It was a thoroughly enjoyable first 2 years of my apprenticeship but a big and worrying obstacle was approaching it was the examination for the 2 years licence. All the apprentices viewed this with trepidation and the thought of not passing would have been too much for the apprentice and his master to bear.

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