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Watermen and Lightermen Records (Occupations)

Nature of Source

Records of apprenticeship and employment of watermen and lightermen. Watermen were licensed to navigate vessels and carry passengers in vessels called wherries whilst lightermen unloaded cargo from ships into smaller barges and then into the quayside for unloading. As the docks developed allowing ships to unload directly at the dockside, the lightermen were used to transport goods from dock to dock. The watermen were always in demand as a form of taxi as there were so few bridges crossing the Thames.

At the time of the incorporation of the lightermen into the Company of Watermen in 1700, the lightermen were very much the junior partner. However with the rapid rise of commercial activity in the Pool of London, the lightermen gained in numbers and influence. The watermen on the other hand saw demand for their passenger services decline with new bridges built across the Thames, the advent of steam boats and the arrival of the railways. They adapted to the new circumstances by offering their services to the newly emerging leisure uses on the Thames. The introduction of huge container ship in the 20th century saw trade decline in Pool of London and a subsequent rapid decline for the services of the lightermen. By the mid-1970s the profession had all but disappeared.

The Company of Watermen was established by an Act of 1555 to control and regulate what had been an unruly profession. Although the watermen wore distinctive uniforms the company was not a livery company.

The most important records are the Apprentice Bindings Books, 1688-1908. Those that worked on the river had to undergo an apprenticeship before applying for a licence. Many did not gain their freedom from the apprenticeship and therefore did not join the Society. This could have been for a variety of reasons such as an untimely death on the river, joining the Royal or Navy voluntarily or press ganged or deciding to break the apprenticeship. Other records include the Apprenticeship Affidavits, from 1759 to 1897 with a gap between 1787 to 1792, which are filed by date of binding and record the date and place of the apprentice's baptism. The Quarterage Files, 1764-1917 will note the quarterly payments of membership fees and licence payments and where the member worked. Other lesser sources include the Contracts Files, 1865-1917 which record those too old to serve an apprenticeship but gained a licence by being contracted or articled to the Company for two years. The Court of Complaint books record complaints to the Company about watermen and lightermen and any action taken. It was possible for an ex-mariner to pursue a career as a waterman on the Thames with a licence issued by the Corporation of Trinity House. As ex-mariners these men were older and fewer in number. The only surviving Register of Licences covers the years from 1829 to 1864 and is available at the Guildhall Library or to purchase from or The waterman’s licence will show the name and address of the waterman, the date of issue and where the waterman is permitted to operate.

Most extant records of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen date from around 1700 when the lightermen amalgamated with the watermen. The men were committed to serve in the navy when required. Also look for pension records and for those in receipt of payments from the poor relief fund and for those that infringed the rules.

Also see
Apprenticeship Agreements, Trade
Apprenticeship Indentures, Parish
Business & Company Records
Directories, Trade, Professional, Telephone & Street
Friendly & Fraternal Society Records
Guilds, Freedoms & Freemen's or Burgess Rolls
Occupational and Labour Records (Includes links and guidance on calculating historical wage rates and the cost of living)
Trade Union Records

Where Found

Guildhall Library (Records previously held by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen covering 1514-1908, including indexes compiled by R J Cottrell)
Company of Watermen and Lightermen (More recent Register of Apprentices including Register of Bindings from 1898 to the present time and the Register of Freedoms from 1891 to the present)

Period Covered

1300 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Apprentice Bindings Books
Name of the apprentice and occupation, the date of binding, the master's name and mooring, and the date of freedom if applicable.
Apprenticeship Affidavits
Dates of birth/baptism and parish born in.

Further References

Burgess, Eric. Men of the Tideway: Hale, 1966


Colquhoun, Patrick. Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames: containing an historical view of the trade of the port of London: London, 1800 (Available to read online or download from the Internet Archive)


Cottrell, Robert J. Various Titles and Compiled Indexes


Harris, Harry. Under Oars: Reminiscences of a Thames Lighterman, 1894-1909: Centreprise, 1978


Humpherus, Henry. History of the Origin and Progress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames with Numerous Historical Notes: S. Prentice, 1887


Legon, James. My Ancestors Were Thames Watermen: A Guide to Tracing your Thames Watermen and Lightermen Ancestors: Society of Genealogists, 2014


Murray, Ernest G. Tales of a Thames Lighterman: Quotes, 1992


Websites (Company of Watermen and Lightermen: Tracing your Ancestors) (Thames watermen and lightermen, by Rob Cottrell)
London Metropolitan Archives Information leaflet 18 (Records of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen) (Guides to Records held at the Guildhall Library) (Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section: Livery Company Membership Guide) (History of Watermen & Lightermen including guide to researching the records) (Licensed River Thames Watermen & Lightermen, by Robert John Cottrell) (Regulation of the watermen) (Doggett's coat and badge race) (Ancestry Message Boards: Occupations)

Online Databases (London, List of Free Watermen, 1827. List of 5,400 members of the Worshipful Company of Waterman and Lighterman who had completed their apprenticeship. Each record includes the Freeman's name, birth year, age, the year they were added to the list and any additional notes) (London, Watermen, birth register of contracted men, 1865-1921. The register lists over 1,400 apprentices of the Worshipful Company of Waterman and Lighterman) (London, Watermen In Royal Navy, 1803-1809. This collection holds lists of employees of The Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen who were impressed into the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars) (London, Watermen, Admiralty Muster Of The Port Of London, 1628. Register of employees of the Watermen Company who were considered for impressment into the Royal Navy. The register recorded the individual's name, age, number of naval voyages completed up to that time, residence and in some cases additional notes) (London, Watermen's Petition For The King Charles I, 1648. List of 2,000 Watermen who signed the petition to King Charles I during the Second English Civil War in the hope of encouraging a speedy end to the hostilities and the return of the king) (Occupational records of Thames watermen and lightermen, licensed from local specialist Rob Cottrell including licences granted by the Corporation of Trinity House to ex-mariners to work as watermen on the River Thames)
(Trade Union Membership Registers. Digitised images of original records books from 9 different trade unions from the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. Search for an individual in the records including admission books, annual reports and membership lists and include details about individual members such as payments made, benefits received and the names of spouses. The unions include the Watermen & Lightermen, 1916)

Searches of indexes compiled and held by R J Cottrell covering records held by the Guildhall Library & the Company of Watermen and Lightermen can be undertaken by applying to R J Cottrell. For more details see here.

CD Roms

ParishRegister (Waterman and Lighterman products and publications including the Company of Watermen Compilation CD 1)
Trueflare (Publisher specialising in River Thames watermen and lightermen)