18 May, 2013

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen—and an 80th birthday

I recently attended my father-in-law’s 80th birthday party—a lovely lunch with extended family and a handful of close family friends.

It was great fun. Not least because it gave me the opportunity to catch up with various family members who I don’t very often see and because, let’s face it, eighty years on this earth is something worth celebrating. But also the venue itself was something to write home about. The lunch took place at Watermen’s Hall in the City of London—the home of the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Just to emphasise the point, we were greeted on arrival by a bloke in full Company livery wielding a large oar!

The Hall itself is beautiful. It was built in 1780, having been designed by William Blackburn for the Company and holds the honour of being the only original Georgian Hall in the City of London. The room in which we ate was stunning—large, light and airy with a huge wooden dining table decked out in the Company’s silver and decorated with sprays of fresh flowers. My father-in-law was seated centre stage in the (very impressive) Master’s chair. Just right for such an important celebration.

In 1514 Henry VIII gave royal assent to the earliest Act of Parliament for regulating watermen, wherrymen and bargemen and, on the back of this Act, the Company initiated apprenticeships for individuals who wanted to learn the skills of the watermen. The lightermen (cargo men) joined the Company in 1700.

Thus, in 2014, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this 1514 Act. And the Company is still actively involved with the River Thames and those individuals who work on it. Talk about longevity!

Watermen’s Hall epitomises many of the things that I love about London—the history; the continuing traditions; the architecture; and, best of all, those hidden gems which (if you’re lucky enough) you just happen to find out about during the course of a lifetime.

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