Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Book Review: Men of the Tideway by Dick Fagan & Eric Burgess
As well as a place for rowing and sailing, for the Thames Clippers to zoom between Putney and Woolwich, it has been a water supply, sewage system and of course major trade-way. Indeed one of the attractions in the foundation of Londinium by the Romans was as a port on the Thames.
For two thousand years the watermen played their trade upon its muddy waters until the London Docks became the greatest in the world. But those days have long gone and the culture of the lightermen is fading.
So we must value all the more records such as this one. Dick Fagan, one of the authors of Men of the Tideway, was freeman of the river for over 40 years, and this book tells of his memories and stories of the river and its working men.
It is full of wonderful detail and realities, of hard tasks and cold nights, with a skill-set and camaraderie all its own. It captures what it must have been like to take a lighter up river in the dark under the power of oars alone, dodging the many bridges, feeling the current and the wind.
It's a rich tapestry of characters, villains and heroes, dockers and customs men, tug skippers and new recruits, barges and wharfs, thieves and policemen, cargoes and ghosts.
A great read, full of life, even if the world it describes is now fading. But the Thames remains a working river and even up by Putney there are tugs and lighters, still, to this day.
There's another legacy: the annual Doggett's Coat and Badge rowing race. Dating back to 1715, next year will be its 300th anniversary.
One for the diary.