From ancient times the Thames has been a main highway for moving people and goods from the Estuary up to London and beyond. The use of wherries was the only link across the River before the building of the first London Bridge by the Romans.
However evidence of the importance of the river was provided by Stow who, in his survey of 1598, related that some 40,000 men earned a living on or about the river. An Act of Parliament in 1514 regulated the fares charged on the Thames, but the Watermen continued to act independently until an Act of 1555 which appointed Rulers of all Watermen and Wherrymen working between Gravesend and Windsor, and thus the Company was born.
The 1555 Act also introduced apprenticeships for a term of one year for all boys wishing to learn the watermen’s trade. This was extended to seven years by a further Act in 1603.
The Lightermen (who carry goods and cargo, as opposed to watermen, who carry passengers) joined the Company in 1700.
In 1827 the Company was incorporated by a further Act of Parliament , thus ensuring its independence. Since then it has been governed by a Court of Assistants, which includes an annually-elected Master together with four Wardens.
The present Hall dates from 1780 and remains the only original Georgian Hall in the City of London. The architect of the current Hall was William Blackburn, who designed a small but beautiful building in the Georgian style, comprising a Court Room, Parlour and offices. This is the first Hall owned by the Company which had previously rented a mansion in Cold Harbour, on the north bank of the Thames immediately east of the site of Cannon Street Station. The mansion was destroyed in the Great Fire of London with the loss of much of the Company’s records, and its site is now marked by a plaque.
The existing Hall was extended in 1983 to include a more substantial dining and meeting facility, the Freemen’s Room, which blends in perfectly with the intimate atmosphere of the Court Room, the Silver Room and Parlour to form a suite of rooms that are both elegant and adaptable to modern day requirements.
The Company’s principal activity is that of a working guild, providing services to its Freemen, facilitating an apprenticeship scheme, acting as trustee for its charities and participating in the traditions of the City of London. The Company has over 390 Craft Owning Freemen and also some 500 Journeymen Freemen who have completed a five year apprenticeship to become qualified Watermen and/or Lightermen (now termed the Boat Master’s Licence).
The Livery Companies of the City of London represent historic trades such as the Fishmongers, Apothecaries and Vintners. Most are known as ‘Worshipful Companies’. Companies obtaining livery since 1926 are often referred to as ‘modern Livery companies’.
The Company of Watermen and Lightermen is recognised as a City company but is without livery for historic reasons and known simply as The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.