Men of the Thames
On London’s iconic river, boats are handled by a closed community of Watermen and Lightermen – men whose families have worked the Thames for centuries. They were once a powerful working-class tribe, proud of their royal connections and ancient customs, but today the jobs are drying up and their traditions are under threat.
Men of the Thames delves into the hidden world of three Thames dynasties - die-hard tug drivers, the Andrews, riverboat royalty, the Dwans, and passenger boat entrepreneurs, the Prentices. With a unique perspective on big river events from the Jubilee Pageant to the Olympics, this film charts the Watermen’s summer of London 2012, the personal and economic challenges they face and a historic way of life fighting to survive.
For these cockney men, the Diamond Jubilee year has been bittersweet – in part a celebration and, in part, a reminder of a world they lost when London’s docks shut down and EU directives sank their 450-year-old tradition of apprenticing their sons into the river trade.
In the 1950s, when the Queen came to the throne, there were thousands of watermen and London’s docks were heaving with goods brought in from across the world. Today there are fewer than 600 watermen left. Through the stories of these last watermen, interviews and reminiscences on location, the film unpicks why the decline has been so rapid – from the death of London’s docks in the 1960s to the impact of the Marchioness disaster in 1989 and, in 2007, the introduction of a new European-standard boat masters’ licence which threatens the centuries-old tradition of watermen apprenticing their sons onto the river.
The Andrews family are ‘lightermen’ - who drive tugs and handle cargo. But work has been drying up fast. Colin Andrews has decided to leave the river and his son Bert has to drive a black cab as well as work the river to make ends meet. Bert is angry that the government hasn’t supported the river trade and feels that a little bit of England’s history has gone. they have decided to ‘bastardise’ the Watermen ‘with the rest of Europe’. he says. ‘A little of bit of England’s history has gone.’
The Prentice family got out of lighterage in the 1980s and invested in passenger boats. Bob Prentice now runs five boats and has risen to become a Royal Waterman. Bob dreamt of bringing both his sons into life on the Thames. His younger son Jamie, however, did not buy into the dream, briefly becoming a gangster and ending up in a coma for 22 days after a high-speed car crash. Gradually, Bob has brought Jamie back to the river, and the cameras are there as Jamie nervously takes a job as a skipper in the Jubilee Pageant flotilla, hoping to prove himself. Bob reflects on the meaning of the pageant for the Watermen’s work: ‘I think sadly so much of it disappears over the years and it's just turned the clock round. It proves to people what can be done and the river is still here.’
The Dwans also own passenger boats. But their story is tinged with tragedy. Ken Dwan was owner of the Marchioness, which tragically sunk in 1989 with the loss of 51 lives, and the aftermath of the disaster has had a huge impact on his life and that of his family. ‘The first it really hit me was when they said we are setting the morgue up, and the bodies will be arriving here soon’ he says. Meanwhile, Ken’s nephew, Merlin Dwan, has been apprenticed as a Thames waterman and is training hard for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager – the oldest rowing race in the world – from Tower Bridge to Chelsea Embankment and open only to Thames watermen. The film follows the build-up to the race and as Merlin’s family nervously watch on to see if he can continue their winning streak.
Prod Co: ClearStory
Dirs: Duncan Bulling, Danny Bullman
Exec Prods: Russell Barnes, Molly Milton
Comm Ed: Anna Miralis