Updated: Mar 14
A number of years ago I started researching the Thames Watermen. I was curious to discover practical aspects of their job – how these early ‘taxi-drivers’ actually operated on the river. I knew some of the stairs they worked from and I love travelling on the river.
My explorations had started at the Guildhall Library. In their manuscript collection I found references to ‘the plying places’, where the rowers touted for trade and landed customers. In particular, officers (called beadles) were appointed to regularly mark these places ‘in the usual and accustomed manner’. And there were rules about ‘only plying within the marks’, and details of long, short and distance marks.
For a long time I could find no indication as to what these marks were, or what ‘the usual and accustomed manner’ might be. Nor did anyone seem to know. Watermen's Hall barely knew of them, the family history experts – Cottrell and Legon – made no mention, the Thames Discovery archaeologists, and even the Museum of Docklands, were likewise in the dark.
The Guildhall archive’s Registers of Plying Places cover all the stairs and causeways, and are wonderful scribbled-over documents, amended year by year as buildings or ownership of houses change. The entries locating the marks at Rotherhithe’s Church Stairs in 1778 are typical:
1. On right hand near the stair head.
2. On the ‘Spread Eagle’
3. Opposite Smith’s shop - west
4. On Grice’s Warehouse - south
5. On … do … - east
The west, south and east marks defined a perimeter, restricting the watermen: ‘Plying beyond the mark’ was an offence, aimed at stopping potential customers being harangued over a wider area than necessary. Rowlandson's view of Wapping Old Stairs suggests how bad this might have got.
Trying to work out what the marks were, I took details from the Registers and walked round various stairs, finding vague, almost lost, traces of markings consistent with these details. In each case there was a painted upwards arrow with a splodge of thick paint underneath it.
Much later, this identification was confirmed by the finding of one reference in a book about Thomas Doggett, an actor who founded the race for watermen which bears his name:
In olden days they [the Watermen’s Company] issued lists of public plying places for watermen which later they marked with a broad arrow and date
If further confirmation was needed, in the accounts submitted by the officers of their expenses on the marking journeys you find these entries:
£2/2/- marking the short plying places
£-/18/- Oil paints and beadles for short places
Marking the long plying places £6/1/-
4 men and boat paint oil for long marking £3/2/6
Following this I was able to locate a dozen or so remaining marks, on both sides of the river.
Two survive in Rotherhithe – those listed as east and south ‘on Grice’s Warehouse’, now the Picture Library:
There are others in Limehouse and Deptford, one as far up as Chiswick, and three sites along Wapping High Street – at New Crane, King Henry, and Rowlandson’s Wapping Old Stairs. Sadly, at the latter, careless renovation has effectively destroyed one of the more important marks, replacing it with a crude facsimile.
© Robin Imray, 2022