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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Old Barge House Alley

Dick Payne was 27 years old, married with two young sons. He had moved to London from his village in Hertfordshire in March 1665 with the intention of making his fortune there. He had set up home in rented accommodation close to Barge House Stairs, which was approximately where Old Barge House Alley is today. The stairs led down to the Royal barge house, which was overseen by the Royal Barge Master, who maintained and prepared the barges for every state occasion.

Payne had spent what little savings he had on a small boat called a wherry or a skiff, with the sole intention of using it as his new business, in ferrying paying customers back and forth across the river.

A good friend of Payne, who had lived in his village, had reliably informed him that travelling even a short distance through the streets of London during this time could be a formidable task. There were no streets or roads as we know them today, most were just dirt tracks, full of pot holes, and great cart track ridges, that were formed during the rainy weather, and hardened in the winter to form even more hazardous tracks that often brought what little traffic there was to a complete standstill.

To add to the general mayhem, farmers would also drive their herds of cattle to market through the narrow streets, and were a constant obstacle to carriages and pedestrians alike, making accidents a frequent occurrence. Not even the Royal Coaches could escape the confines and disruptions of the city streets. The River Thames offered the only, clean and uncluttered alternative. You could hire a boat and oarsman, just like you would hire a taxi today, and travel in relative comfort, at reasonable cost, and arrive at your destination a lot quicker than you would overland, through the miserable and filthy streets.

One thing that Payne’s friend had neglected to tell him, was that the River Thames was absolutely teaming with watermen plying their trade, as well as various other craft of all types, sometimes making the river almost as crowded, dangerous, and difficult to navigate at the London streets. Payne was nevertheless determined to make his living on the river, and went to such extremes (in those days) as displaying an advertising hoarding outside his house, complete with destinations and prices. He also painted his skiff bright red, with a colour resembling gold around the top edge, with the idea of making it look as much as possible like King Charles II Royal Barge, which he had studied meticulously from the window of his house.

Whether it was the distinctive paintwork, his reasonable prices, his affable manner, or maybe an amalgamation of all three, but Payne’s efforts started to pay off, and before he knew it, he was earning a fairly comfortable living, and had built up a considerable list of regular customers, one of whom was the diarist Samuel Pepys, whom Payne would pick up every morning from his home in Woolwich and take him to his place of work at the Admiralty in London, and sometimes back home again later.

Payne had been relatively healthy all his life, so the stories he was starting to hear about the Black Death, didn’t particularly worry him too much. Living by the water’s edge and being surrounded by water all day would surely protect him he told himself. When his youngest son suddenly fell ill and large black lumps started to appear on his little body, he knew in his heart that it was undeniably the Black Death. A neighbour had told him some weeks earlier that it was cats and dogs that were spreading the disease, and the only way to combat it, was for everyone to get rid of their pets. Payne immediately got rid of his pet cat, as did many other people throughout London. It was estimated that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were destroyed that year, which of course did nothing to halt the ever-growing menace of the plague. It was found out much later that the plague was caused through a certain type of flea, which was carried by rats, meaning that without the cats and dogs, that were the rats natural enemies, the plague spread even faster than it would have.

Getting rid of his cat did nothing to help of course; his poor son, along with so many others, was getting worse every day, and the population were becoming frantic with worry. When it became known that anyone in a house had become a victim of the plague the house was sealed, a red cross painted on the door, and no one in the house was allowed out until 40 days after the victim either recovered or died. Fearing for his wife and second son, Payne quickly sent them away, back to the countryside, and said nothing to anyone. Three days later Payne’s son died, and a distraught Payne quietly buried his little body in the garden of his house without telling anyone. It was only when Samuel Pepys saw the tears in his eyes as he ferried him across the Thames that Payne admitted to him what had happened.

Pepys was as worried about catching the plague as the next man, which was the main reason he had moved out of central London, to Woolwich, which at that time was still very countrified. But being the educated man he was, Pepys knew that a casual encounter such as he had with Payne would in all probability cause him no harm. Pepys also afforded himself the added protection of the tobacco plant, which when either smoked or taken as snuff, was said to protect the user from the plague. It most definitely worked for him as he lived through the epidemic and much beyond, recording life and death around him as he did so.

Payne wasn’t so fortunate however, and within days of burying his son, found the telltale black lesions upon his skin, that he had been dreading. He had heard of victims being attacked in the streets and beaten to death, and others being thrown into the Thames and drowned. On the 27th August 1665, just after nightfall, Payne dressed from head to foot in black, so as not to be recognised, and took his skiff out onto the Thames, ignoring the calls from people on the bankside who required his service.

At daybreak the following morning, Payne’s body was found washed up on the shore of the Thames, close to Barge House Stairs, the wreckage of his skiff was also found close by. The cause of his death was recorded as being a victim of the plague, as anyone could see at first glance the ugly black wheals upon his face and body. No mention was ever made of how his boat came to be smashed up and his body washed overboard.

There was much talk and rumination amongst the watermen as to the real cause of Payne’s death. Some said he must have collapsed because of the plague, and have fallen into the water and drowned. Others said that he had killed himself after the tragedy of losing his son and then finding out that he had the plague himself. One man however had a completely different theory as to how Payne had died. The man was a carpenter, who said he had been called out just after Payne’s body had been found, to carry out some urgent repairs to the Royal Barge. The man swore that the red paint on the damaged boards of the barge, matched the red of Payne’s skiff exactly.

Was Payne’s death due to him collapsing and falling into the water, or did he kill himself, or was he in a collision with the Royal Barge, which was then quickly hushed up? The truth will never come to light now; it is buried along with all the thousands of victims of the Great London Plague of 1665.

The history of watermen, plying their trade on the River Thames, goes back for hundreds of years. All trade carried out on the river, used to come under the jurisdiction of the Crown, until 1197 when King Richard I sold the Crown's rights to the Corporation of the City of London, but it still remained under Royal prerogative until 1350 when King Edward III passed an Act of Parliament prohibiting any obstruction of the River. So many structures had been built jutting out into the river for fishing and milling purposes that it was fast becoming almost impossible to navigate around, especially with large vehicles, such as the Royal Barges.

Henry VIII was particularly perceptive to the watermen and their needs, and in 1510, granted them a licence, giving them exclusive rights to carry passengers on the river. An Act of Parliament was also passed, which set up a trade body to govern tariffs and help reduce accidents. The trade body was overseen by the London mayor and aldermen, who chose eight watermen each year, to make and enforce regulations. The body had jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor in Berkshire, and Gravesend in Kent. They also produced other rules and regulations, many of which were not very popular with the watermen, such as trying to implement a seven-year apprenticeship for all watermen, and ordering them to pay quarterly contributions. These rules and regulations caused a great deal of grievance amongst the watermen, who accused the trade body of taking bribes to supply licenses to so called apprentice watermen, and also lining their own pockets by imposing the quarterly charges.

The watermen finally managed to oust the ruling body and introduced a more representative form of management. The 55 leading towns and stairs between Windsor and Gravesend would then choose each year, representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to govern their body.

Thames watermen played an important part in the very early movements that ultimately led to the creation of the modern trade union movement in the United Kingdom. In the 1600s they successfully petitioned the curtailment of the growth of hackney coaches, and by 1644 they were deemed so important to the economy that the House of Commons exempted watermen from military service. This might have saved them from death on the battlefield, but it didn’t save them from premature death due to circumstances surrounding their jobs. There was no effective police force in London during the 1600s, and watermen were often attacked and killed as they plied their lone trade, by mobs and vagabonds in a city prone to riots and mob violence. They also faced further risks, such as accidental death by drowning, but perhaps the biggest threat to their lives was their susceptibility to Bronchial Diseases caught from working and living close to the murky waters of the Thames.

Two hundred years later, when the health of the greater population of the country was improving rapidly, one would have thought that the watermen would also have benefited, but unfortunately, the invention of the flush toilet in the 1840s quickly turned the Thames into a giant sewer causing Typhoid and Cholera outbreaks and the Great Stink of 1858. The whole of the city’s sewerage system had to be redesigned, starting with the Embankment area, which was a popular area for watermen to ply their trade. The sewage had to be re-routed away from the river, but in doing so, it also meant removing the stairs and sloping incline to the river, and replacing the access points with piers.

In 1865 Charles Dickens set out the grim lives that watermen led in his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Dickens was always interested in social reform, and would use his popular novels to get such messages across to the public. He also wrote a short essay entitled Silent Highwaymen in 1879, again highlighting the plight of the watermen; both works proved very controversial at the time, and sparked a new social conscience.

In 1893 the Amalgamated Society of Watermen, Lightermen and Bargemen was formed, eventually merging with the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1922. During World War I many watermen turned their barges over to government use for the transport of coal and goods that were of particular importance during wartime. In 1934 the British Tug Owners Association was founded, allowing watermen to use their skills, particularly in close quarter manoeuvres, in ports overseas, skills that in recent years with the use of newer technology have seen a decline in use. In 1938 speed trials took place on the Thames for Armed high speed launches, some of which would latter form the fleet of boats used in Air Sea Rescue piloted by watermen during the 1940s 400 barges or Thames lighters were turned over to military use as bumboats (small boat used for ferrying supplies or goods to a ship at anchor or at a mooring) or simply beached during the Normandy landings of 1944.

During the Blitz of World War II the London docks were severely damaged, putting thousands of men out of work, but by the 1960s, newer container technology and relocation to Tilbury had brought back some of the work, but had made the work of watermen and lightermen obsolete. One consolation came a little earlier during the Festival of Britain in 1951 when lightermen were encouraged to set up river cruise companies. The cruise companies offered a good service and provided many ex watermen with fresh employment. They also utilised the river further by buying up surplus barges from smaller lighterage companies that had gone into decline, and capitalised on this opportunity by using the empty coal barges, on return trips, to transport rubbish from London's streets.

Regular and fairly well paid work for Thames watermen in times of economic downturn was on the so-called Bovril Boats, (Bovril Boat was a slang term used to describe the specially designed sewerage dumping vessels, also known as "Sludge vessels" that operated on the River Thames from 1887 to 1998). EU legislation prevented the dumping of sewage at sea and forced this process to stop in 1998, thus cutting off yet another valuable source of revenue for the ever-declining watermen.

You will not find watermen waiting to take you across the river today, in their small boats, but you can still take a trip on a river-cruiser along the Thames, probably the modern day equivalent of the watermen’s skiffs of yesteryear. You can still also visit Old Barge House Alley, which once led down to Barge House Stairs, and the Royal barge house, where the King’s barges were moored. The Alley is conveniently located, approximately halfway between the Tower of London, and Westminster.

It is difficult to imagine today, that this street, which looks more like a trendy Chelsea mews, or a West End yard, with craft shops, restaurants, and art galleries, was once a narrow alley leading to the Royal barge house.

The adjacent, Gabriel's Wharf, also houses more shops and restaurants, and caters almost entirely, for the passing tourist trade, most of whom could never envisage this area as it was just fifty or sixty years ago. It was then filled with tall, smoke blackened warehouses, sitting edge to edge, blocking out all traces of sunlight, along the banks of the Thames, but how many visitors, or even locals, come to that, really know that the ground they are walking on, in the beautifully laid out park, and the nearby shops and cafes, was once the very ground which King Henry VIII, walked upon, on his way to his Royal Barge.

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