The home of The Company of Watermen and Lightermen the present hall dates back to 1780, but the first hall was built in Upper Thames Street in the 16th century. The Company dates back to 1514, which seems quite late given that there were watermen working on the Thames from very early times, ferrying passengers up and down and across the river. (Watermen do passengers; Lightermen do cargo). They were nominally under the control of the City Corporation and were supposed to charge fixed fares, but they were a pretty unruly bunch and eventually, in 1514, there was an Act of Parliament, mainly to suppress extortionate prices. Then in 1555 a more important Act was passed that gave the City the power to appoint eight watermen as overseers. It also stipulated that watermen had to serve apprenticeships and be licensed, and in fact brought about the formation of the Watermen’s Company, the only City guild to be formed by Act of Parliament. They are NOT a Livery Company although the outside of the hall shows many similar characteristics to them. In 1700 the Lightermen (carriers of goods/cargo) joined the Watermen’s Company.
As mentioned, the first Hall was in Upper Thames Street, so it was right on the bank of the Thames. It was burnt down in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1670, then rebuilt again in 1721. But in 1780 the company moved to St Mary-at-Hill to a new building, and this is basically what remains today; the only original Georgian hall in the City of London!
The hall was designed by William Blackburn, who was actually the leading prison architect of the Georgian era – he designed a number of prisons around the country, though none in London. He was also the surveyor for St Thomas’s Hospital and Guy’s Hospital; he was born in Southwark and is buried at Bunhill Fields.
The hall is described on the Watermen’s website as “a perfect example of 18th-century domestic architecture, with Parlour and Court Room”. The building has a stone frontage with Ionic pilasters and a large Palladian window. The hall was damaged in the Second World War, but was repaired and improved in 1951 and 1961. In 1983 it was extended to include a larger dining and meeting facility called the Freemen’s Room.
Among paintings in the hall is a portrait of John Taylor, a 17th-century Freeman of the Company who called himself “the Water Poet”. There is also a painting by the 18th-century marine painter Peter Monamy of a winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race – it is traditionally held to be the first winner, but it may have been a later one. The painting usually hangs in the Court Room in the hall, but at times is loaned to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Today the hall is used for functions and conferences, but also for the Company’s business. Most of its powers have now passed to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but it is still a working guild, organising an apprenticeship scheme, acting as trustee for various charities and taking part in traditional activities such as the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race, which is competed for by Watermen apprentices, though the race is organised by the Fishmongers’ Company.
The Queen’s Royal Barge-master is a Freeman of the Watermen’s Company, along with several other Royal Watermen. They take part in the Swan-Upping in July each year, and they attend when the Queen is involved in ceremonies on the Thames.