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Manuscript Source Material

Most of the records of the Company of Watermen were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Only three items survived: a book of apprentice bindings for 1656 - 65, a book containing orders of the Privy Council (marked 'No. 3'), and a book containing the bye-laws and orders of 1626 and 1663 (marked 'No. 10') (Humpherus, I, p.299). The bye-laws of 1663 can be found in Privy Council Register PC 2/56, fos.154b-160b (at the PRO). The Company's records from 1688 are at the Guildhall Library Muniments Room. The most important manuscript source material for the history of the Company in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the repertories (order books) and papers of the Court of Aldermen of the City of London. These are in the Corporation of London Records Office. The repertories (which do not seem to have been available to Humpherus) provide a great deal of information for the history of the Company from its inception in 1555, including almost all the names of the rulers. The papers only survive from the later seventeenth century.

     The Admiralty muster of 2 February 1628/9 is in the PRO State Papers collection, SP 16/135, piece 4. There is a transcript on this website. The muster is entitled 'A Muster taken in the second daie of February 1628[-9] of all the Watermen belonging to the Port of London & the liberties thereof ...'. In fact it covers the whole area of jurisdiction of the Company, from Windsor to Gravesend. The purpose of the muster was to provide a register for impressment. It was part of a national assessment undertaken at this time (summarized in SP 16/155, no. 31, fo.82 seq.). (See Kenneth R Andrews, Ships, Money and Politics: Seafaring and Naval Enterprise in the Reign of Charles I [Cambridge University Press, 1991], appendix *, p.*.) The muster appears at first sight to be a full census of the watermen. It includes those who were not, or not normally, liable for impressment: the rulers, royal watermen etc, and (of course) the apprentices, who were always the first choice for impressment. Thus the Admiralty could ensure that no-one was escaping the net. However, it records a surprisingly high proportion of men in the range of 20-29 years, and of householders in the higher age ranges (100 per cent over the age of 45) (Boulton, p.157), which leaves one wondering if in fact some older and poorer watermen were excluded (ibid, pp.159-60).

     The muster gives a total of 2,453 watermen for the towns and stairs from Windsor through Gravesend (fo.46b). There are deficiencies in individual figures. For example, the watermen of Pepper Alley, Southwark (58 in number) are double-counted (fos.14a-15a, 42a-43a). On the other hand the King's private stairs at Whitehall, with its complement of royal watermen, is not included. The total of watermen given in the general survey is slightly lower, 2,426 (SP 16/155, fo.85a). Whether this is a more accurate figure is a matter for conjecture.


     The petitions of the rulers and generality in the Lords MSS are an important source for our knowledge of the revolution of 1641-42. Abridged versions appear in the HMC calendars of the Lords MSS, but in these the reporting of the upheaval has been curiously suppressed. The relevant documents are as follows:-

10 March 1640/1:-
The generality of watermen to the Lords
(see HMC, Fourth Report, p.56)
(there was an annex to this which apparently is the one now attached to the petition of the eight rulers of 3 May 1641 [listed below])

3 May 1641:-
Henry Russell, one of the rulers, with the rest of (the rulers), to the Lord High Admiral
(see HMC, Fourth Report, p.61b)

3 May 1641:-
The eight rulers to the Lords. Annexed: statement of grievances of the generality
(see HMC, Fourth Report, pp.61b-62a)

The eight rulers (undated; marked 'found in 1642')
(see HMC, Fifth Report, p.63b)


Printed Source Material - John Taylor

The works of John Taylor the Water Poet contribute a great deal to our picture of everyday life in the seventeenth century, and to that of the watermen in particular. His publications also provide the only printed source material on internal Company politics and conflict. Taylor, of course, was a leading member of the Company and in 1642 its clerk (presumably then of long standing). His writings on the watermen are frequently propaganda on their behalf or, where they concern internal disputes, on behalf of the status quo or the ruling elite.

     Lists of Taylor's publications are to be found in Hazlett, Hindley and the Dictionary of National Biography. [And also now see Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578-1653 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994), pp.197 seq.] Taylor himself published a collected edition of his works, entitled All the Workes of Iohn Taylor the Water Poet, being Sixty-three in Number, in 1630. The Spencer Society republished this in 18*, and subsequently brought out their Works of John Taylor ... not included in the Folio edition of 1630 (5 vols, 1870-78).

     In The True Cause of the Watermen's Suit Concerning Players (written in 1613 or 1614) and his tracts An Errant Thief (1622) and The World runnes on Wheeles (1623) Taylor advertises the watermen's disputes with the theatre companies and the coachmen. His pamphlets Iohn Taylors Manifestation ... and To the Right Honorable Assembly ... (Commons Petition), both of 1642, are essential for our understanding of the revolution of 1641-42. (There is also a brief incidental reference to the revolutionaries in John Taylors Last Voyage and Adventure of 1641.)


Secondary Works

Humpherus remains the standard work for the history of the watermen from 1515 to 1859. Humpherus, the clerk of the Watermen's and Lightermen's Company, first brought out the full three-volume version of his book between 1874 and 1886 (a fragment, covering the history of the Company up to 1666, had been published in 1869). The book went through several reprints, and in 1981 a second edition was produced. This was another reprint, but contained a new introduction by John Constant, a past master of the Company.

     Humpherus's work is very large: it extends to 1340 pages (plus 201 pages of indexes!). It is of the first importance for anyone studying the history of the watermen, and pulls together materials from a wide variety of sources. Nevertheless it suffers from some shortcomings. Firstly there is the fact that it is more an assemblage of materials arranged in chronological order than a well-digested overall account. Also, Humpherus was unlucky in that his book came out just a few years before a number of calendars of important manuscript collections were published (e.g. CSPD; HMC calendar of the House of Lords MSS). These would have been useful in producing a fuller and more balanced picture. Humpherus also does not seem to have had access to the repertories of the London Court of Aldermen. The earliest listing of rulers in the Aldermanic records known to him was for 1659 (I, p.277). The repertories provide the names from the inception of the Company in 1555.

     Another error, more significant from the point of view of the present work, was Humpherus's failure consistently to translate dates from the old (Julian) calendar to the modern (Gregorian) one. While he (usually) modernized dates for Parliamentary documentation, he did not do so for materials derived from other sources. Thus, if the dating of such materials fell between 1 January and 24 March of any one year (previous to 1752) they were attributed to the previous year. (See Preface for an explanation of the calendars.)


     The above deficiencies are of particular consequence for Humpherus's account of the upheaval of 1641-42. They combine to result in a partial and highly distorted impression of these events (pp.233-8). Due to the dating errors, material was placed in the wrong order. Humpherus attributed the watermen's petition of February 1641/2 to 1641 and accordingly placed it under the section for that year (pp.233-5). He inserted the rulers' petition to the House of Commons under 1642 (pp.239-42), evidently going by its date of printing, although as we have seen the subject evidently relates to summer 1641 (see Chapter 4). This misordering leads to the impression that the generality obtained a limited concession on elections in 1641 (Humpherus does not reveal the democratic nature of the settlement here, but later [cf. pp.236 and 372-3]), but that they remained unsatisfied and later disrupted the government of the Company, to no avail it would appear here.

     Finally, it may be noted that Humpherus contains no real account of internal Company politics before the English Revolution. A more systematic account begins only after the Restoration, when he draws on the first surviving Aldermanic papers.

     Parkes, chapter 4, section 'River Travel', pp.96-110, provides a good background to the working life and conditions of the watermen.

     Broodbank's History of the Port of London, besides providing a general history of the Port, includes special chapters on the watermen and lightermen, the wharfingers, and Trinity House. 'The Watermen and Lightermen' (II, chapter 22, pp.372-98) covers the watermen before the nineteenth century, and draws strongly on Humpherus. Elsewhere, the book continues the watermen's story up to 1908-20, when the day-to-day duties of the Company were taken over by the Port of London authority.

     Finally may be mentioned two more recent articles, Walter M Stern, 'The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the City of London: The Earliest London Transport Executive', Guildhall Studies in London History, V, no. 1, Oct. 1981, pp. 36-41, which gives a brief history of the Company, and my own 'The Democratic Revolution in the Company of Thames Watermen, 1641-2', East London Record, no. 6, 1983, pp.17-27.

... Since the latter article was published, the watermen's revolution has been covered by three publications, each of which refers to it and also draws on source material:-

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