Above: Looking across the Thames at Woodward Fisher’s yard. In front of the old blue woodwork on the shore are lighters owned by Woodward Fisher. The view was taken from near the old Rotherhithe Fire Station in June 1976.
Detailed Description of the Image
The image was taken from Rotherhithe and looks across the Thames at a collection of buildings, some of which are still there. Starting at the left, there is a small building with a yellow and brown band across the ground floor which is the little pub known as the Grapes. To the right are several terraced houses which are now all in private ownership. The large building in dark blue is the old premises of Woodward Fisher whose name can just be made out across the timber frontage facing onto the Thames. All the lighters moored on the river were then owned by Woodward Fisher. It had an open area so that lighters could be brought under cover to be repaired. On the right of the blue building is a small beach with river stairs, known as Duke Shore Stairs. Further to the right of the stairs are old warehouses that have now been rebuilt at apartments. Out of view to the right is Limekiln Dock.
The Woodward Fishers (Dorothea and her husband William) worked on the river for over 50 years and owned three wharves in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs. William was a lighterman and when just out of his apprenticeship, in 1911, he won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge sculling race on the Thames. When her husband died, Dorothea – who liked to be called ‘Dolly’ – ran the business from her large house in Lewisham.
In 1955 the barge-yard of W N Sparks and Son was taken over by the lighterage firm of W J Woodward Fisher. Dolly and William had formed the company, buying the first barge for £20 and earning £5 per day hiring it. By 1973 the company had over 100 barges and 9 tugs. Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday that year (and by then a widow of many years), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission with a loss of 32 jobs.
Having conducted river trips on the Thames for 25 years, I met many licensed Watermen and all of them had known her. They spoke fondly of her. One skipper I worked with for many years, who knew Mrs Dolly Woodward Fisher, used to say “She always dressed like a man”. Other men on the river have also confirmed that she always dressed in a suit, with trousers, a shirt and stock.
Everyone agreed that she ruled over her business with a rod of iron. The small premises beside Narrow Street, were for boat repair although the company had several other interests in and around the Thames. The premises in Narrow Street were still to be seen until the late 1990s. The premises were not demolished until 1998 when a small block of riverside apartments was built on the site.
A story often told about Mrs Dolly Woodward Fisher was that when her lightermen argued about conditions she would say “I can remember a time when men were made of steel and lighters were made of wood!”.
Woodward Fisher was probably the last small boat-building yard on the Thames, a way of life that was to be completely swept away with the rebuilding of Docklands. In the early years of the 20th century that way of life, along with the days of sail, must have been the norm. It lasted until when the company was in its early years. It was motorised tugs that put an end to Thames sailing barges operating only under sail and that happened around the turn of the 20th century. In the 1960s vast quantities of cargo were being moved on the upper reaches of the Thames using lighters. Scenes like the one in the top picture of many barges, all clustered together on the river, were a common sight but, over the following decades, they gradually disappeared from the river. Today you may spot one or two along the Thames but for all practical purposes, their use has ended on the Upper Thames.