Tugboat life very tough on the Thames

LES REDFEARN is part of a long and proud tradition of lightermen who have sailed the waters of the Thames River. His great-grandfather helped to rescue survivors, and to carry the bodies ashore of those who drowned in the tragic sinking of the Princess A

LES REDFEARN is part of a long and proud tradition of lightermen who have sailed the waters of the Thames River.

His great-grandfather helped to rescue survivors, and to carry the bodies ashore of those who drowned in the tragic sinking of the Princess Alice pleasure steamer off Creekmouth, Barking, in 1878.

His grandfather, George Redfearn took up the profession, as did his father Walter, and at the age of 14, Les joined the family trade.

He wrote a short letter about his time as a lighterman - or tugman - which was published after he left to work for Midland Bank, which is now HSBC Bank.


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Les, of Thames View Lodge, Barking, shared his memories of life on the river with the POST: "I was born in Barking on the banks of the Thames and Roding.

"My father was a full Freeman of the 'Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen.'

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"It was at 11am on Tuesday, August 11, 1942, when I and five other lads were gathered by the court clerk to be marshalled into the great courtroom of the watermen's ancient hall.

"We were to be bound indentured apprentices for seven years, during which time we were required to learn the arts of the trade.

"And we were bound by honour not to drink alcohol, gamble, or swear, and to live at any residence our masters might desire."

For the first year Les served as a tug-boy, and remembers it as one of the most trying years of his life.

He said: "It seemed designed to either make or break a boy, and determine his future character, stamina, and work ability.

"My duties consisted of serving on a steam tugboat, shovelling tons of coal down bunkers, hosing down the deck and superstructures, and scrubbing the bare woodwork in cabins.

"I also had to maintain the fires in the cooking ranges, trim the wicks, and polish the ranges, brasswork,and gas lamps."

That wasn't all - Les had to learn how to splice ropes, tie knots, and memorise all the names of the Thames reaches and their compass bearings.

In his second year, Les remembers his time on the tugboats a little more fondly as he was learnt more and more about his trade.

Les said: "We were taught how to row barges of 50-100 tons by handpower alone, how to stow cargo, deal with passengers, and the art of navigation.

"And at the end of two years I was intensely grilled on the knowledge learned during that time.

"If successful, the authorities would grant you a two year licence which allowed you to work alone."

But to become a full Freeman of the Company as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him would take Les another five years.

Once this status was granted the world was an oyster.

Les said: "It meant that you were capable of working anywhere in the world, and would be much sought after overseas as a tugmaster.

"I went to the Far East for a time, working in the Indian Ocean, Malacca Straights, and the South China Seas before returning home to the Thames."

In the early days tugboats were mostly steamers, burning around 6-8 tons of coal a day.

The last tug that Les was captain of, before joining the Midland, was built in 1965, and had a six piston diesel engine.

Les said: "This engines was 16ft high, 36ft long, and 8ft wide.

"Think of a double decker bus; add 3ft on top and 5ft on the length, and you've got the size of that engine."

Sailing the Thames in these mammoth machines is a thing of the past, but Les remembers those days fondly, and was proud to keep the family tradition alive.

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