“MY FATHER WAS a Thames Lighterman. So had his father been before him. And his, and his. Back through the generations. I suppose that, looking back, there was never much option about me following in the footsteps of my ancestors.”
This is the opening to Men of the Tideway, a book in which author Dick Fagan looks back over his working life on the Thames when the river teemed with barges and tugs in its lower reaches.
The lighterman’s job was hard and dangerous. He was in charge of an unpowered barge or ‘lighter’, laden with up to fifty tons of cargo, and could use only the tides, currents and huge wooden paddles to get to his destination. In the picture below you can make out the lighterman standing at the stern:
There’s an annual Thames Barge Driving Race to preserve and commemorate those skills.
One passage in Men of the Tideway describes the different kinds of whistles the lightermen used to recognise one another on the river. Fagan relates how he discovered that their origins lay in birdsong. It’s great to read his excitement at this and his appreciation of the long continuity of the lighterman’s way of life.
One of last year’s blog posts here, titled The decline of whistling, mentions in passing the bird impersonator Percy Edwards, and it’s interesting to wonder whether whistling in general sprang from the imitation of birdsong.
Anyway, here’s Dick Fagan on the whistling lightermen of the Thames:
“One of the things I learnt to do, this may surprise you, was how to whistle.
I ought to explain that every lighterage firm had its own kind of whistle – the sound, I mean, because all the whistling was done with the mouth and not with any instrument. Whistling was a way of identifying yourself across distances, especially at night, with other men working for the same company. Very useful. Getting it right was a work of art though. At first I just imitated others, stuck two fingers in the mouth, stretched the lips apart, blew like fury, hoped for the best. You had to aim for a variation on half-a-dozen notes that made your call different from that of any other firm. The high notes would sail across the water beyond the reach of any human voice; after a spell the answering call would float back clear and clean against the wind and the noises of the river.
It took plenty of time and practice to get perfect at it. In the end I got it so that I didn’t take a blind bit of notice of any whistle that wasn’t intended for me, while everyone who heard my effort knew exactly what it meant and where it came from.
But for years I never knew how all these different whistles, each with its own sort of melody, originated. Then one day, when I was courting, my girl and I felt an urge to get away altogether from dockland, to be really and truly on our own. So we took a day trip to the country. We finished up in a large wood way beyond the last of London’s houses. Shouldn’t be surprised if today the wood hasn’t vanished and the houses go on for ten miles beyond it. In years to come you’ll never get outside London on a day excursion.
We wandered through these woods, down paths that were soft to the feet; it was all quiet and we never met a soul. I’ve got to confess that it was the first time I’d ever been in real country. Southwark Park was about the only open space I knew. You couldn’t call that brimming with peace and beauty, though it was better than nothing.
Finally we were sitting on a fallen tree trunk just dreaming. Then it happened. A loud shrill whistle, very close. My firm’s whistle.
I was shaken rigid. I damned nearly jumped to my feet and started searching for the nearest pair of paddles. My girl made a little worried noise.
“Whatever’s the matter?”
I didn’t answer. It had just come to me that the whistle I’d been using for many years was part of a bird’s song. After a bit I spotted the bird as large as life up on a nearby tree with its beak open and the familiar notes pouring out of it as though it had been a lighternan all its life.
In Bermondsey we only had sparrows. Who’s ever heard of a whistling sparrow?
Then another bird started up with a different tune, after that another, and another. I listened to them in amazement because I could connect each one’s song with the lighterage firm that had converted it into its own whistle.
Soft green grass, graceful trees, peace, love – yet because of the birds’ song it was all connected with the hustle and struggle of river and dock life. The whistles of watermen must have been invented long, long ago, when London’s river was still close to open country, when all these birds were singing in Shoreditch and Wapping, in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, when the largest ship wasn’t much bigger than the barges I now rowed every day.”