Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 12 - Father Thames

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River Thames - Steamers above and below bridge - Margate, Ramsgate, Ipswich, and Continental steamers - Tug-boats - A great highway - Call-boys - Let-down funnels - Surrey Side Pier - Gravesend and Rosherville - Uniforms - Steering - Decadence of steamer traffic.

THE Thames was truly a highway in the 1850s. There were no underground railways along its banks, no motor-buses, no motor-cars. The only method of travelling east and west by road was, for the vast majority, the horse buses already described. Father Thames offered an alternative, however, and it was freely taken advantage of. His stream was alive with steamboats. Incessantly churned up by paddle-wheels as it was, the river could have given the "vexed Bermoothes" points in a contest of restlessness. A look over the western parapet of London Bridge at any hour of the day revealed at least eight or ten steamers in the offing: morning and evening as City people were reaching or leaving their work the number would be increased to twenty or more.
    The accompanying picture from the Illustrated London News gives a not inapt, if somewhat accentuated, idea of this crowded traffic, although the artist cannot justly be congratulated on a too careful delineation of the boats. I never saw a passenger steamer with a parti-coloured funnel like the one in the centre, although that style was quite common with tugs, neither do I remember any vessels with such rudimentary bulwarks. But the impression that Father Thames looked lively in the 1850s is quite accurately conveyed. How disastrous collisions were avoided day after day may well be marvelled at; but the steamers were very handy and the skippers expert. Over London Bridge [-108-] we see the steamboats' great and only rival, the omnibus, cruising along with driver, conductor and knife-board all complete against the sky-line.
    In my numerous voyagings I used to get as far forward in the bows as possible; many a time did I act as figurehead to a penny steamer.
    There were three lines of above-bridge and two of below-bridge boats, passengers between the two sections having often to change at Old Swan Pier. This drawback continued for many years, until one Company absorbed all the lines, inaugurated a through service - and thereafter rarely, if ever, earned a dividend!
    The Old Swan landing-stage then extended well on the way to where the Cannon Street railway bridge now crosses; but in the 1850s the steamers trading specially to Gravesend and beyond had a pier of their own-known as the Steam Packet Wharf-immediately east of the bridge.
    The above-bridge boats - all the Thames passenger vessels were of the paddle-wheel type - belonged respectively to the Citizen Steamboat Company, the Iron Boat Company and the Westminster Steamboat Company. The Citizens were the most numerous. They were built of iron, had flush decks with below-deck cabins fore-and-aft; were painted black; carried black funnels with one red band and an open-work bell-mouthed top. The paddle-boxes bore the City arms with a large capital letter in the centre, from which the boats were known as Citizen A, Citizen B, etc., up to, I think, Citizen N.
The Iron Boats were of similar size and construction and got up with all-black funnels and open-work bell-mouth tops. They had "Iron Boat Company" painted on the paddle-boxes outside, and inside the name of one of the City Companies to do duty as a cognomen. So we had a p.s. Haberdasher; p.s. Spectacle-maker; p.s. Fishmonger, etc., which sounded funny but served.
    The Westminster Company owned only some six or eight boats, which made non-stop runs between Old Swan Pier and an exclusive landing-stage that then existed at the southern end of Westminster Bridge on part of the site of [-109-] the new County Hall. The Company's business was chiefly to afford City men a prompt means of getting to and from Waterloo Station, their route anticipating in that respect the present City and Waterloo Tube; and immense crowds availed themselves of the facility. Morning and evening the boats were crowded and never deserted at any hour, not even on Sunday. These steamers were a trifle larger than the Citizens, but very similar. Their oriflamme was a black funnel with one white band, and their bell-mouthed tops were likewise of open work. They were all named after flowers: London Pride, Lotus, Azalea, Camellia, Sunflower, Dahlia, etc., the name being painted on the paddle-box.
    All these vessels had engines with oscillating cylinders, by Penn of Greenwich, a form of machine originated by Murdoch, the inventor of gas lighting and one of James Watt's assistants, in 1785, but which had been of small practical account until perfected by Penn. Its valves were worked from eccentrics on the paddle-shaft. These queer revolving discs puzzled me much as a little boy and I sometimes distressed my aunts (alas, in vain!) by insistently demanding to have them and their functions particularly explained.
    Some of the very early Thames steamers had Newcomen so-called atmospheric engines with the separate condenser introduced by James Watt (as had also two or three of the first Channel Island boats plying from Southampton), and, what is more, did well, holding their own in speed with some of the best of those using steam on both sides of the piston. But I think they had all disappeared or been re-engined by the 1850s.
    The fare by all these above-bridge lines was one penny between London Bridge and Lambeth or Vauxhall, from which fact they were familiarly known as "penny steamers." The traffic by them was tremendous. There were two boats of specially light draught employed for service to Hampton Court, one of which, I think, was privately owned.
    The last paddle-wheel steamer to work on the Thames [-110-] above bridge was a successor of one of these, the Queen Elizabeth, which was condemned in 1916 or thereabouts.
    Before my time, in the 1840s, there had been a fourth Company which charged only a halfpenny between London Bridge and most of the other piers, but the boiler of one of their vessels, called the Cricket, if I recollect aright, exploded at Hungerford, with consequent loss of life, and as people fought shy of the ha'penny boats afterwards the concern had to go into liquidation. This was very hard, as their ships were as good as any of the others, the tragedy having occurred through the extraordinary foolishness of an engineer who screwed down the safety-valve because he thought the engines were somewhat sluggish, and afterwards went off duty without warning his relief. I heard my father speak of this calamity more than once.
    Below bridge, the chief line was the Diamond Funnel Company. It consisted of some twenty steamers of different sizes, the largest class, such as Sea Swallow, Gannet, Petrel, Oread, plying to Rosherville, Gravesend, Southend, Margate, etc., an intermediate size like Elfin and Metis to Roshervile and Gravesend only. The smallest class, which, however, was considerably larger than any above-bridge boat, comprised Nymph, Fairy, Sylph, Sybil, and half a dozen others. They gave a frequent service to Greenwich, Blackwall and Woolwich, stopping at Cherry Gardens and other way-side piers. Blackwall was an important call for steamers in those days as the railway from Fenchurch Street terminated at the quay-side and issued through-tickets for the steamers. It delivered crowds on down-river ports intent.
    The larger Diamond Funnel Steamers carried a fore-mast which, like the chimney, could be let down when negotiating London Bridge or when facing a foul wind, and a canvas awning over the poop deck-first-class only-abaft the paddles. Their funnels, which had mostly straight tops, were painted black for a foot or so down, and then in four lines of diamonds to the base, white diamonds sideways, and black diamonds foreward and aft. The ships of this line were further distinguished by a white streak along the [-111-] port-holes before and abaft the paddle-boxes. In the old picture of the river which the Illustrated London News employed as a title-page heading for very many years a diamond-funnel steamer can be discerned, but its resemblance to the original was not great. For instance, the real vessels did not indulge in bow-sprits.
    This company owned an old-fashioned steamer which disappeared towards the end of the 1850s, called Father Thames, which was larger than any of the others and of different type, especially in being built of wood. She used to sail from London Bridge, East Pier, or Steam Packet Wharf, every morning about 11 o'clock, for some down- river destination and was always crowded. She had a tall funnel - and consequently a big stack of diamonds - and was my special favourite. This East Pier was so close to the bridge that when one of the largest steamers lay alongside its stern would project under the arch.
    The last line to be mentioned, the Waterman's Company, consisted of some ten steamers named after birds, Penguin, Falcon, ,Swift, Teal, Widgeon, ,Stork, Osprey, etc. These were about the same size as the Diamond Funnel Woolwich boats and rarely sailed beyond that port although, in the mid-1850s, they were sometimes to be seen above bridge. They were painted green, with all-black funnels. The vessels of both these last-named companies had oscillating engines, except the Elfin which was equipped with a side-lever machine.
    In addition to all these, the General Steam Navigation Company ran a fast steamer to Margate and Ramsgate called Eagle, and there were two - Queen of the Thames and Queen of the Orwell, plying to Ipswich, which I fancy belonged to the same proprietors. The Saturday afternoon steamer to the two Thanet ports was known for many years as the Husbands' boat, as it used to be loaded with Benedicts travelling to join their families for the week-end.
    An old-fashioned steamer, Rainbow, also owned by the G.S.N. Co., which sailed from a berth just east of London Bridge to Antwerp and Ostend, was also a very familiar friend. She lasted many years. In June, 1865, Queen of [-112-] the Thames ran down the ferry steamer to North Greenwich off Greenwich Pier. She sank in two minutes, but a brig, anchored close at hand, saved the passengers.
    A privately-owned paddle-steamer, always kept nicely painted, called Venus, could be hired for excursions up or down the river, but never ran in the regular services; another named Jupiter, with very large paddle-wheels and a very thin funnel, towed strings of barges - rather an undignified occupation, that, for Father Zeus. This boat had a high-pressure engine and puffed like a locomotive; a surprising phenomenon to us boys, as she was the only Thames steamer that did so. Jupiter must have been one of the pioneers of barge tugs. The first screw-boat of the kind appeared about 1859. No name showing on her hull, we christened her Lamb because she had a white funnel and, compared with Jupiter, towed her barges about so very quietly.
    Tug-boats of a larger order were very numerous and universally of the paddle-wheel type. Many were quite powerful, with two funnels placed side by side. They differed from the passenger craft in almost always being fitted with side-lever engines and in having the paddle- shaft in two sections that could be worked together or separately, so that while one engine went ahead the other could be put astern. This gave great power of manoeuvring and enabled a boat to turn as on a pivot in her own length. In 1861 Wonder, one of the smaller class of tugs, which I knew very well, struck a piece of timber which had become fixed in the bed of the river, and sank opposite Greenwich Pier, where, at low water, I saw the top of her funnel. Snagging must have been an almost unique occurrence on the Thames. She was raised by being slung between empty lighters.
    With all this it may be imagined, and with truth, that the Thames was a great highway, giving occupation to thousands of men-counting in the repairers, painters, etc.-and causing annually the turning over of mountains of money. And withal let it not be forgotten that the river was, at the time, little better than an open sewer, although [-113-] it never stank as the Clyde was wont to do between Broomielaw and Bowling before the Glasgow outfall sewers were made.
    A feature of the Thames steamers of those days was the call-boy. There was no bell or telegraph from the captain to the engineer; instead, a lad of thirteen or fourteen stood at the engine-room hatch with his eyes fixed on the skipper on the bridge or paddle-box, who, by motions with his hand, signalled what he wanted done. The boy then called down the hatch, "Stop her!" "Easy!" "Half-a-turn-astern!" "Full speed ahead!" or whatever it might be, and the engineer worked his levers accordingly. This primitive arrangement persisted for many years, arguing, one would think, a plentiful lack of invention in those concerned.
    Another common attribute was the let-down funnel. At high water the chimney erect could not pass many of the bridges, so by means of a hinge and weighted levers it was made to assume a temporarily recumbent position. It was the call-boy's province to attend to this. Valentine Vox in Cockton' s famous novel makes a Thames skipper and his call-boy the victims of one of his ventriloquial essays, and Albert Smith, in Christopher Tadpole, also holds forth about the steamers.
    The Citizen Company owned a pier - known as the Surrey Side - under the southernmost arch of London Bridge, approached by the western flight of stone steps. At low water the boats could moor with funnels upright, but as high tide came on these had to be kept lowered all the time spent at the pier. And the smoke and blacks blew about with disagreeable consequences to collars and cuffs. The company had several steamers especially designed for this landing-stage, where there was no room to turn. They were double-ended with rudders at both extremities. After mooring, the steersman locked the rudder he had brought his boat in with and walked to the bow, which, by putting the rudder there in gear, he converted into the stern. She could then steam straight out on the return journey. This contrivance would have been a convenience at any terminal pier and why it was not universally adopted I do not know.
    I am able to reproduce a picture from the Illustrated [-114-] London News of 1855 showing this under-bridge pier being used on a special occasion-the departure of the Labour Corps for the Crimea to work in the trenches before Sebastopol - by the Waterman Company's steamer Teal. The hull forward of the paddles should have been shown about one-fourth longer, and the port-holes lighting the cabin considerably larger; otherwise, the sketch is not widely inaccurate. Teal is heading up the river which, as she is bound for the transport Hansa moored off Greenhithe, at first sight suggests that the top-hatted skipper has got woefully wrong in his course, but owing to the close proximity of a wharf on the eastern side of the bridge to which steamers trading to Dunkirk were always moored, the only practicable access to the pier was from the west - so Teal had no doubt backed in and was now heading up-stream with the intention of turning and bearing away through one of the middle arches to make her easting.
steamer.gif (275584 bytes)    None of the boats had saloons on deck-that came years later, but all had an after-cabin for first- and a fore-cabin for second-class, so refuge was provided from wet weather. There was usually a refreshment bar, and steamers plying to Gravesend and beyond served luncheons, dinners, and teas. Rosherville, in the terms of its old advertisement, was the "Place to spend a Happy Day," but the cockney and his lass found pleasant moments in travelling to and from it as well. On the Gravesend boats, too, there was always music, and, coming up the river in the evening, dancing to boot.
    Gold-braided garments and caps of Royal Navy cut were not affected by the officers of these river boats. The captains sometimes wore top-hats (occasionally deck hands did likewise) and were generally suggestive rather of undertakers than admirals. I think the gold braid and navy blue came in with the saloon steamers, one of the earliest of which was the unfortunate Princess Alice.
The old boats were steered by hand from a wheel at the stern, the necessary directions being given by motions of the captain's arms and hands. Much depended on their proper interpretation, and a notice, "Do not speak to the man at the wheel," was always prominently posted. The [-115-] Princess A lice collision and the loss of seven hundred lives might not have occurred had the sacredness of this rule been better respected. With their engine-room telegraphs and steering from the bridge, present-day skippers have a far easier job than had their predecessors of sixty years ago.
    Later in the sixties and seventies when the South-Eastern and Metropolitan District Railways had tapped the London Bridge, Charing Cross, and Westminster traffic, tramways been opened to Deptford and Greenwich, and the railways to Woolwich, Erith, Tilbury, and Gravesend much improved, the great steamer business fell off. The first shock came with the S.E.R. extension from London Bridge to Charing Cross in 1864, which reduced the importance of Surrey Side Pier; and when Cannon Street Station was opened in 1866 and a frequent and rapid service of trains provided to Charing Cross, calling at Blackfriars (afterwards changed to Waterloo), the effect became marked, for the City and Charing Cross traffic was the beet the steamers had. In 1870 the Metropolitan District Railway invaded the other most lucrative sections. Efforts were long made to counteract these adverse influences by concentrating all the boats under one management and running through services from Chelsea to Woolwich, but not with any great success. One phase of the endeavour was curious, and to our war- opened eyes, pretty ridiculous. In the 1 880s a German manager was appointed who set about attracting traffic by renaming the steamers, Kaiser, Bismarck, Deutschland, and other euphonies from the Vaterland. The sheep - like cockney meekly acquiesced - not a voice was raised against the impudent innovation.
    The last scene of all came when the London County Council placed their ill-omened steamboats on the river. The Company competed under every disadvantage, as the Council had got possession of all the piers, and after a few months were run off the course. The County Council, having achieved this notable victory, soon afterwards withdrew their own service, and the Thames thereupon ceased to be a passenger highway except for a few launches which ply in the summer months to Richmond and Hampton Court.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924