A new Channel 4 programme is to spotlight the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.

The programme, Men of the Thames, tells of stories of three families closely connected with the river during the summer of Jubilee year.

It is due for broadcast soon though an exact date has yet to be fixed. We’ll update with the transmission details when they are announced.

When the Queen came to the throne, there were thousands of watermen and London’s docks. Today there are fewer than 600 watermen left.

Through the stories of these last watermen, interviews and reminiscences on location, the film explains 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 crew 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.

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 reflects on the meaning of the Diamond Jubilee 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 sank 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.

He said:"The first it really hit me was when they said we are setting the morgue up, and the bodies will be arriving here soon’".

Meanwhile, Ken’s nephew, Merlin Dwan, has been apprenticed as a Thames waterman and is training hard for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race – 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.

Story dated April 19th 2013


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