The Thames Watermen

in the

Century of Revolution

Christopher O'Riordan

© Christopher O'Riordan 1992, 2000, 2008







The Life of the River Boats and Barges Stairs and Plying Places London Bridge Conditions of Working Fares Numbers and Social Topography Impressment Conflicts With Other Workers Social Position and Structure The Royal Watermen


Masters and Apprentices Servants; the Question of Journeymen Government and Regulation (legislation; rulers and governing) The Halls Finances; Poor Relief The Ruling Group


Grievances, and Ideas for Reform The Revolt of 1621-23 The Revolt of 1631-32



The Outbreak of the English Revolution 1640-42 The Revolution in the Company 1641-42 (revolution at the grassroots, 1641; the overthrow of oligarchy in 1642; the aftermath) Watermen in the Armed Forces (the militia; naval service; the attempt to impress the watermen into land service, 1643)


The Street or Ticket Porters The Tacklehouse Porters The Billingsgate Porters The Carmen or Carters


Political Counter-Revolution, 1647-48 The Watermen Under the Commonwealth, 1649-58 (the state's watermen; royalist conspirators?) The Watermen at the End of the English Revolution, 1659-60



The Restoration of the Royal Watermen, 1660 Democracy on the Downslide The Partial Restoration of Democracy, 1692 The Act of Parliament of 1700


Watermen and Lightermen, 1660-74 The Act of Parliament of 1700

EPILOGUE    (1700 - 1827)


Appendix 1:  year-by-year lists of rulers, 1621 - 1664

Appendix 2:  time chart of rulers' appointments, 1623 - 1664

Appendix 3:  biographical data on some rulers and other watermen


This book is a study of the Thames watermen, the passenger carriers of London's river, during an era of upheaval and historical transformation. The watermen were as much a part of this process as society at large.

     The watermen were constituted a Company a gild-type organization by an Act of Parliament of 1555. They became increasingly discontented with the ruling elite of their Company, and this discontent culminated in two great revolts in the earlier seventeenth century and finally a revolution in 1641-42.

     The watermen's revolution was the most spectacularly successful example of the gild democracy movement which broke out during the English Revolution the Civil War and Commonwealth period of the 1640s and 50s. The democracy which the watermen achieved was a durable one, surviving, with vicissitudes, until 1827. The porters and carters of London, other workers whose living depended on Thames-born trade, also made significant gains during the Revolution, and they too are dealt with in this book.

     The book's title derives from Christopher Hill's The Century of Revolution,[1] referring to the seventeenth century. The period of study, however, is extended back to the foundation of the Watermen's Company in 1555. An epilogue takes the story up to 1827.

The watermen's revolution parallelled eruptions of workers' democracy in later national revolutions. The first years of the French Revolution (prior to the abolition of gilds) saw a flourishing of self-organized journeymen's associations and democratized gilds. The silk weavers of Lyon, for example, democratized their gild in a pattern closely similar to that of the Thames watermen.[2] These events found their counterpart in the outbreak of industrial democracy and workers' councils in Russia in 1917-18, Spain 1936-37 and Iran 1979-80.[3]

Henry Humpherus's History (see Abbreviations below) is the standard history of the watermen. However, for various reasons, it scarcely provides an account of internal Company politics before the English Revolution, and the documentary evidence it gives on the revolution in the Company is partial, fragmented and distorted, resulting in a completely false impression of events. (See the Bibliography for details.)

     During the course of my research I chanced upon a piece of information showing the location of Waterman's hall before the Great Fire of London.[4] Humpherus assumed (on scanty evidence) that it was at Coldharbour Mansion (where it was in fact rebuilt after the Fire). Subsequent study confirmed, however, that the hall was at the Three Cranes Wharf in the century before the Fire.[5] Because of the long-standing misapprehension about the hall, I have given a detailed account of the first hall (in Chapter 2, section 'The Halls').

And so to literary technicalities. In quotations, spelling and punctuation have been modernized,[6] but not capitalization. My own capitalization is somewhat fastidious. When referring to that in the Watermen's Company, 'revolution' is spelled with a small 'r', whereas the English Revolution is always capitalized. The 'C' is capital in the (Watermen's) Company, to distinguish it from the other companies of London.

     As for dates. Before 1752 the new year was not designated to begin until 25 March. In the main text, I have given dates according to the modern year, e.g. 3 March 1642 (3 March 1641 old-style). In the notes and Bibliography I render the dualism explicitly, e.g. 3 March 1641/2.

     Company rulers were selected early in March each year. If I say, for example, that a ruler served in 1642, I mean this as a convenient shorthand for a period stretching from March 1641/2 to March 1642/3.

     Finally, a note on money. The traditional system of coinage (before 1971) consisted of pounds (), shillings (s.) and old pence (d.). There were 20 shillings in a pound, and 12 pence in a shilling (or 240 in a pound).


1. Nelson 1961; second edition 1980, reissued by Routledge 1991. Back to text

2. W H Sewell, Work and Revolution in France (Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp.94-100; David Longfellow, 'Silk Weavers and the Social Struggle in Lyon During the French Revolution', French Historical Studies, XII, no. 1, spring 1981, pp.1-40, especially pp.12-18, 39.

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3. For Iran, see Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers' Control (Zed Books, 1987).

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4. Public Record Office, SP 16/359 (survey of divided houses in London, Westminster and Southwark, 1637), fo.109a. Under St. Martin's parish, Vintry ward, I came across the statement that 'The watermen have let part of their Hall, which they hold of the Merchant Taylors, to one Fra. Keeling'.

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5. Examination of the Merchant Taylors' records (microfilm of which is held at the Guildhall Library, London) revealed a large amount of data on the first Waterman's hall. See Chapter 2, section 'The Halls' and the references given there for an indication of the material.

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6. Except for proper names, when they are consistently spelt. For example, King's bargemaster Warner always spelt his Christian name Nowell, not Noel.

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BL : British Library

Boulton : Jeremy Boulton, Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Broodbank : Joseph G Broodbank, The History of the Port of London (2 vols, 1921)

CLRO : Corporation of London Records Office

CSPD : Calendar of State Papers Domestic

Dale : T C Dale, Inhabitants of London in 1638 (Society of Genealogists, 1931)

GL : Guildhall Library

GLRO : Greater London Record Office

HMC : Historical Manuscripts Commission

Humpherus : Henry Humpherus, The History of the Origin and Progress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, 1515 - 1859 (3 vols, 1874 - 86)

journal : CLRO, journal of the London Common Council

Lords MSS : Lords R O, Main Papers series

Lords R O : House of Lords Record Office

Manning : Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Penguin edition, 1978)

Meekings: C A F Meekings, Surrey Hearth Tax 1664, Surrey Record Society, vol. 17 (1940)

mf : microfilm

MS : manuscript

Parkes : Joan Parkes, Travel in England in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1925)

PC 2 : PRO, Privy Council Registers

PRO : Public Record Office

rep. : CLRO, repertory (order book) of the London Court of Aldermen

SP : PRO, State Papers

SP 16/135(4) : Admiralty muster of the Thames watermen, 2 Feb. 1628/9

Stern, Porters : Walter Stern, The Porters of London (Longman, 1960)

Taylor, Commons Petition : John Taylor, To The Right Honorable Assembly ... of the Honorable House of Commons ... The Humble Petition of the Ancient Overseers, Rulers and Assistants of the Company of Watermen (1642)

Taylor, Manifestation : Iohn Taylors Manifestation and Ivst Vindication Against Iosva Chvrch His Exclamation (1642)

Taylor, The True Cause : John Taylor, The True Cause of the Watermen's Suite Concerning Players (no date, c. 1614)

Unwin : George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (*, 1908)