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The life of a Lighterman review
I have to admit that I had no idea what a lighterman was before this talk although on reflection, there were times in my youth when I witnessed them in operation on the Thames without any thought for their occupation. For those of you who were unable to see David Lewis’s presentation, a lighterman is a worker who operates a flat bottomed barge or ‘lighter’ which transports products up and down the river to and from quays, docks, wharves and riverside factories. Originally, a ‘lighter’ was created because it could load and unload products from a vessel which was too large or unable to moor at a dock or key side; the name is believed to have come from the now very old fashioned and underused phrase ‘to alight’ meaning to exit, leave or depart.
David’s exposition set the historical background and interspersed it with an audio testimony from 96 year old Laurie Dews who personally made the challenging return journey along the river Ouse from Selby’s seed mills to Hull docks in the 1930s up until the late 1980s. Laurie’s vivid memories gave us a first hand insight into the work involved in the job which he learned from his father before him. For hundreds of years, generations of families have worked as lightermen along our rivers and, not only were they highly skilled, tough and resourceful, but they required an intimate knowledge of the river’s shifting currents and tides to minimise delays and find the fastest course as well as a lot of muscle power to operate the paddles or oars which steered the unpowered craft to prevent it running aground or hitting a bridge support.
The role of the lighterman has remained essentially unchanged over the years however, their numbers have seriously depleted as changes in shipping technology rendered them largely obsolete along some river routes. Between them, David and Laurie explained the intricacies and risks involved in unloading seed from a chute or heavy sacks and bags from a board via a crane or derrick straight into the lighter’s hold. Every lighter had a lighterman who rowed or punted and a ‘boy’ to assist him however, the introduction of powered tug boats enabled the lighters to be towed in multiples of four or in a single convoy depending on the width of the river.
Manoeuvering a ‘lighter’ is no easy task and can be dangerous as the lighterman has to walk up and down the perilously narrow ledges along the sides carrying enormous ropes and pulleys to attach and reattach
them so the tug can pull them in different directions to achieve the desired position. There is very little margin for error and, at 100ft long and 17ft wide, a 200 ton loaded lighter is only six inches above the water level so dexterity in handling boats is a prerequisite of being a lighterman.
By the 1980s, it was cheaper and quicker to use lorries to transport products rather than sail lighters up and down the river Ouse between Selby and Hull. As a consequence, the use of lighters eventually stopped altogether on this route leaving the many once bustling wharves and jetties to fall into disuse and disrepair. All in all, this was an enlightening presentation about the role of a lighterman and the essential but almost unrecognised job he performed under extremely difficult conditions.