The dangers of the modern river; the Thames in 1833

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One of the most interesting and sometimes unexpected pleasures of reading the daily ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts is the information they reveal about the nineteenth-century city and its people. Many of the stories detail the petty squabbles of everyday life, or the man tragedies of death, illness and poverty; and of course criminality, greed, deceit and casual violence often feature. But we also learn about the way in which the metropolis operated; how people got about, where they worked, which areas were poor and which were wealthy.

One of the pleasures of modern London (in the summer months at least) is the river boat service on the Thames operated by TFL. For many people this forms part of their daily commute, either up towards Greenwich and beyond to the barrier, or west towards Putney and Wandsworth. In the warmer months it becomes a tourist bus during the day and a commuting vehicle in the mornings and evenings.

In my opinion the river is the best way to see the capital and understand why the Romans chose to build a city here in the first place.

The importance of the river and the need to cross it is clear from the development of London’s bridges and the huge variety of boats, barges, ships and ferries that plied their trade on the Thames in the 1800s. However, as we have seen in more recent times with the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989 and back to 1855 with the Princess Alice, the Thames can be a dangerous place.

The police office that dealt with disputes, thefts and incidents on the river was Thames and there had been a police presence here since 1798 when it was created by Patrick Colquhoun, a champion of professional policing. In March 1833 the master of a Gravesend steamer, the Pearl, was brought before the magistrate at Thames accused, in effect, of dangerous driving.

Mr Youwin was summoned to the court by Robert marshall, an ‘old and infirm Trinity waterman’. The Thames watermen had been  licensed to ferry passenger on the river since the early 1500s but the tradition went back hundreds of years before that. Marshall told the court that he had been attempting to cross the Thames from Elephant Stairs at Rotherhithe when his little boat got in to trouble.

He saw the Pearl coming towards him and took evasive action. He ‘went clear of her stern…when another waterman fouled him [i.e collided with him] and pushed him out of the tier of boats’. He explained that the ‘steamer could have stopped, but she continued her pace, and cut his boat in two before he could get out of the way. Her speed was about five miles an hour’.

A fellow waterman on the scene told the justice that he had heard Marshall call out and agreed that the steamer could have avoided the boat if it had wanted to.

In defence the skipper of the Pearl, Youwin, stated that the ‘old man, who was too infirm to manage the boat, had run foul of the steamer due to his own negligence’. He said he could, and would provide witnesses to prove this. But that this point the magistrate, Captain Richbell, intervened and attempted to mediate.

He said that it was clear that Marshall was elderly and perhaps unfit to continue as a waterman but he felt he was owed some compensation for the loss of his boat (and his livelihood), this would, he taught, ‘prevent litigation’. Captain Youwin willingly agreed.

Finally the magistrate made a closing statement about the excessive speed of steamers, saying that while he did not wish to immune the reputation of Captain Youwin, something needed to change because the river had become very dangerous.

‘The watermen were greatly injured by the steam-vessels, for females and timid persons were afraid to venture in their wherries; the Thames-Police galleys were often damaged, and the nuisance would not be stopped until the conductor of some steamer was transported for manslaughter’.

This sounds to me very like the clash of an old way of life with the demands of the new, modern, one; a clash that was about to become much more common as London developed and grew in the Victorian age.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 11, 1833]

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