Heraldry – the Watermen’s Company

Heraldry – the Watermen’s Company

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LC coat of arms

Jenni’s colleague, Diane Eccles, has highlighted this tiny gem of a coat of arms – tucked away in one of the City’s delightful alleyways, St Mary at the Hill, and displayed on the front of the only original Georgian Livery Hall in the City.

In 1585 Queen Elizabeth granted arms, crest and heraldic supporters to the Watermen’s Company. The coat of arms depicts two dolphins as the heraldic supporters, flanking a skiff floating on the water and the tools of the trade, crossed oars and two cushions for the comfort of customers. Then in 1700, another group of river workers, the lightermen, joined with the Company. It became the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, a title it still holds.

But what of the history of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen? There has always been a need to convey passengers and carry goods across or up and down the Thames. Up until the mid-eighteenth century London had only one bridge and the roads of medieval London were in a poor state generally. There was always a danger of being attacked and robbed sometimes not only of goods and possessions but also of life itself.

The court and the nobles often built their palaces and houses besides the Thames, there were residences at Hampton Court, Westminster, Lambeth, The Savoy, The Tower of London and Greenwich; so water borne transport was always of great importance and considered safe and reliable forms of travel. The nobility, the Church and most of the London Guilds all had their official barges, manned in colourful regalia by Thames watermen. For the ordinary people there were two or four oared skiffs, and for goods there would be heavier craft powered both by oars and by sail.

It was not unusual to see watermen in their skiffs at the numerous appointed stairs or public landing places waiting for passengers to take across the river, or sailors and merchants  back aboard their vessels which were moored off stream.

The watermen appear to have had a close association with London’s theatres The Globe and The Swan were sited close to the riverbanks and the audiences had to rely on the Thames watermen to row them across the river to see the latest plays and comedies. Legend has it that Thomas Doggett, an Irish comedian, was standing by a set of stairs one night after a play, waiting for a waterman to row him back across the river to his lodgings. Being a foul night and the tide being very strong he could not find a freeman to take him, but one young waterman at last agreed to row him. As a result we have the oldest traditional event which takes place on the Thames every July. The Doggett Coat and Badge race.

This and other traditions appear in Jenni and Diane’s  Quartet of Walks about the City’s Livery Companies.

The next scheduled walk is “Celebrating the Livery Companies”, which will take place on Thursday 18th and Sunday 21st July.  This walk explores their many traditions and ceremonies which are still performed today – visit the Guildhall Yard on Wednesday 17th July to see the Cart-Marking Ceremony and then come on our walk to hear about many other ancient traditions.

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