For as long as London has had a river, Watermen have been paid to row people across. In the days before the Thames had bridges across it, travel by boat was the only option. As bridges were built so the trade for Watermen declined.
Gradually, as the trade in goods delivered by ships increased, so to did the need for people to unload ships that were unable to unload in the crowded docks.
By the 19th Century, most Watermen had become Lightermen-people who ‘lightened’the ships.
The activities of Watermen were first subject to regulation in 1193, when the Corporation of London was tasked with licensing boats on the river.
Acts of Parliament were passed in 1514 and 1555 regulating charges and bringing in measures to make the passenger safer. The Company of Watermen was brought into being in 1566 by Act of Parliament to further regulate the activities of Watermen. It’s first coat of arms was granted by Elizabeth I in 1585.
In 1696 the system of plying for trade at a designated place and the numbering of boats and operators was introduced. Tables of fares were an annual publication by the beginning of the 18th century. 1700 saw the amalgamation of the Lightermen into the Company, who previously were members of the Woodmongers’ Company.
The usual age for an apprentice to start his indenture was fourteen, for a period of seven years. In most cases the apprentice was bound to his father. If the father died during the apprenticeship period it was not unusual for the mother to be named in his place.
The apprentice was not formally allowed to marry before completing his apprenticeship.
The masters’ responsibility was both to teach the skills necessary for a life on the river and to provide board and lodging to his apprentice.
At the end of the apprenticeship period, master and apprentice presented themselves to the Company at Waterman’s Hall at St Mary-At-Hill for examination, before gaining the Freedom of the Company.