The First Waterman's Hall

(Adapted from The Thames Watermen, Chapter 2, section 'The Halls')

Humpherus, the historian of the Waterman's Company, believed that the first hall was Coldharbour Mansion, a fine building on the London riverfront just upstream of London Bridge.[1] He based his belief on an engraving by the nineteenth-century artist George Shepherd entitled 'Waterman's Hall, Cold Harbour ... As it Appeared Anno 1650 - 1780',[2] which was allegedly derived from a seventeenth-century original by Wenceslaus Hollar. The purported original cannot now be traced.[3] Hollar's 'Long View of London' of 1647 merely refers to the building as 'Cole Harbour'. An inspection of the 'Long View' shows that Coldharbour was the finest house on the London riverfront (a considerably larger building than, for example, the hall of the Fishmongers' Company, one of the leading gilds) and Humpherus' belief that it was the hall must have included a deal of wishful thinking. It is just possible however that the watermen did obtain an interest in the mansion, as we shall see below. And, after the Great Fire, the second hall was built on the site of Coldharbour.

     The first hall was in fact a little way upstream, at the Three Cranes Wharf. The wharf, named for its sets of hoisting gear at the water's edge (originally three), was directly south of Guildhall and was the starting-point for Mayoral water processions. The hall was leased from the Merchant Taylors' Company. It was located at the south-east 'angle' (corner) of Broad Lane, and fronted on the wharf.

     The hall was the seat of Company government, but it would have been too small to accommodate the assembled body of the watermen. They thus met in some open place such as St. George's Fields in Southwark.[4]

     The watermen first obtained the lease in about 1565, when it appears that they already had property, e.g. a storehouse, in the locality. Thereafter the lease was renewed at 21-year intervals. The payments required by the Merchant Taylors were a fixed sum of 66 for each lease, plus an annual rent of 8. In 1629 the lease was taken for a 31-year period by Robert Dimbleton, a leading member of the Tallow Chandlers' Company,[5] but the premises continued to be the watermen's hall.[6] Possibly the Company had fallen into such poverty by this time that it could not afford the 21-year lease required by the Merchant Taylors, and had done a deal with Dimbleton to sub-let the tenement from him on a shorter lease. It is recorded that the watermen renewed their lease in 1646 or 1647, and that afterwards the Company ran into financial difficulties and the lease was mortgaged. However they must have made a recovery, for by 1652 Dimbleton had assigned them his lease from the Merchant Taylors. The following year the watermen surrendered this lease and took out a new one, for 61 years.[7]

     In 1666 the hall was destroyed in the Great Fire. Charles II, who was directing operations against the Fire, was said to have been inspired to new efforts when (standing on the roof of the Three Cranes Tavern) he saw the hall on fire. After this catastrophic fire, which destroyed so much of London, a new hall was built on the site of Coldharbour Mansion.

     But, for some time before this, the Company appears to have discontinued the use of the old building as the hall. After acquiring the new lease in 1653 they began to assign it to the woodmonger William Fellowes. This continued into the 1670s. Fellowes was a member of a property-holding 'consortium' at the Three Cranes (a Richard Hackett was also involved).[8] Now, the names of Fellowes and Hackett appear as inhabitants or property holders in Coldharbour.[9] It seems possible, then, that the watermen had made an 'exchange deal' in which they obtained an interest in Coldharbour, preceding the erection of the second hall on the site. Anticipating the watermen's political story, we may even speculate that this occurred as early as 1641, when the revolutionaries may have set up a rival administrative centre to the official one at the Three Cranes. Was this the origin of the hall at Coldharbour?

© C. O'Riordan 1992, 2001


1. Henry Humpherus, The History of the Origin and Progress of the Waterman's Company ..., I, p.254. Back

2. Clearly, the latter date is a mistake, as the building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It has been blanked out on many copies of Shepherd's picture. Cf, e.g., British Museum, Dept. of Prints and Drawings, views no. 6 (no. 293) and views no. 37 (no. 130).

Back to text

3. No such work is listed in the standard catalogues of Hollar's works:- Franz Sprinzels, Hollars Handzeichnungen [Hollar's Drawings] (Vienna, 1938) and Richard Pennington, [*Hollar's etchings] (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Back to text

4. Cf. Historical Manuscripts Commission, Ninth Report, part 2, p.61b. Back

5. Dimbleton was a warden of the company in 1637-38. Guildhall Library, MS 6513/1, Tallow Chandlers' court book, p.135. Back

6. E.g. it is referred to as such in the surveys of 1637 and 1638. Public Record Office, SP 16/359, fo.109a; T C Dale, Inhabitants of London in 1638 (Society of Genealogists, 1931), p.135. Back

7. Guildhall Library, muniments room, microfilm 325, Merchant Taylors' court minutes, I, pp.172-3; microfilm 326, court minutes, III, fos.131b, 132, 182; microfilm 327, court minutes, V, pp.282, 300; microfilm 311, ancient manuscript books, part 2, XIV, 'abstracts of leases 1550 - 1660', p.122; see also microfilm 298, accounts, V [*etc]

Back to text

8. Philip E. Jones, ed., The Fire Court ... (2 vols., 1966-70), I, pp. 231-3. Back

9. Guildhall Library, MS 823/1, Allhallows-the-less churchwardens' accounts 1630-51. Back