The Bargemen of Brentford

By David Blomfield, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 16, 2007

In the 19th century Brentford was the industrial power house of the Upper Tidal Thames. With the completion of the Grand Junction Canal in 1800 and the arrival of the Great Western Railway terminal in 1859, business boomed. This trade was supplemented by the gasworks and waterworks, along with the major vegetable market at the east end of the town. Most of the consequent demand for river transport (commonly known as lighterage) was met initially by fleets of barges owned by a handful of lightermen of London’s Company of Watermen and Lightermen (the Company). Their barges were crewed by their families and by local journeymen boatmen also licensed by the Company. At the same time there were smaller fleets owned by Brentford businessmen, but these were not licensed to man their own barges; so their barges were crewed exclusively by Company journeymen. However, as the demand grew, it seems that both kinds of fleets were unable to expand to meet the need. The subsequent scale of the change in barge ownership was captured in two illuminating snapshots of Brentford business.

The first snapshot was provided by the press coverage of the great flood in Brentford in 1841. This flood, following a breach in the canal reservoir, resulted in several deaths, a considerable loss of property, and the destruction of a number of barges. There was a countrywide appeal for relief, and committees were established, mostly for the distribution of charitable funds. However, one of these committees – effectively self-appointed – was concerned specifically with advising on the salvage of wrecks and the repair of the damage. This committee consisted of Messrs Grainger, Jupp, Brown, Banyon, Layton, Winter and Sims. The first two members traded in corn, the third in coal. The other four were all lightermen-owners. Banyon, who chaired the committee, worked from New (west) Brentford; Layton worked from Kew Bridge; Winter worked from Old (east) Brentford. Sims ran a wharf in Boar’s Head Yard. These four families, along with three others – the Dales, Harrises, and Clarks – virtually monopolised Brentford lighterage at that time, maintaining fleets of some eight barges apiece.

Barges at the junction of the Grand Union Canal and the Brent viewed from Brentford Bridge, 1946

The second snapshot, forty-nine years later, was provided by the parliamentary enquiry into the proposal for the Richmond Half-Tide Lock in 1890, when 42 ‘Barge Owners, Wharfingers and Lightermen in the neighbourhood of Brentford and Isleworth’, petitioned against the proposed scheme as ‘destructive of . . . the free use of the full strength of the tide’. The signatories claimed to own over 1,000 barges. Of these some 60 per cent belonged to just three owners – the Thames Steam Tug and Lighterage Company of Fenchurch Street in the City with about 310 open barges, Fellows, Morton and Clayton Ltd of Birmingham with about 200 canal barges, and Hope Lighterage of Brentford with about 95 barges. There may have been some creative accounting as it is difficult to identify the ownership of the remaining 40%. Significantly, however, of those 1000 barges only one was registered by the seven leading families of 1841. In 50 years the lightermen-owners had moved from a position of authority to one of total insignificance.

By 1901 the position of the lightermen-owners had deteriorated even further: according to the Census, only three members of their families were still working on the river, all of them simply as journeymen. (At that time there was, if anything, even more work available for those content simply to man the barges as journeymen.) The rest of the owners had left the river. For them there were no alternative river trades, as there were further up stream and on the Surrey bank, where the boatmen let out boats to the holiday trade. No-one would go to ‘dirty’ Brentford for a romantic day out on the river. Consequently, some of their families had moved into related trades, becoming coal and corn merchants. Some had moved into the professions. Others seem simply to have faded away into comfortable middle-class retirement.

The seven families
In view of this remarkable change of fortune, it is worth considering the families’ business histories one by one, to identify both their strengths and the weaknesses that eventually destroyed their businesses.

The Banyons carried considerable clout on the river in 1841, as Robert Banyon, chairman of the Salvage Committee, and his brother, John Banyon, had recently achieved the unique double of a family holding concurrently the two most powerful posts in their city company. The Company’s minute book records that John’s candidature for the post of Clerk at a meeting in 1829 provoked an historic riot. His opponents declared it unconstitutional, as John was already a Warden of the Company. However, John’s supporters led by his younger brother, Robert, took over the meeting, and declared John elected. His opponents subsequently accepted the fait accompli, and made no objection when John then resigned as a Warden and Robert was elected a Warden in his place. Four years later young Robert was elected Master. To have attracted such support, the family must have established exceptionally strong alliances along the whole length of the river – only one other boatman so far up stream would be elected Master in the 19th century. Yet oddly, within scarcely a decade of Robert’s death in 1852, the family business had collapsed. From Robert’s will it is clear both that he had a considerable business to bestow and that he had hardly anyone on whom to bestow it. All his sons were bound lightermen, but the eldest had died young and the next had left the river to become a stationer; so the conduct of the barge business was left to the youngest son, Alfred. In 1864, Alfred died childless, and the few remaining Banyon barges subsequently disappeared from the records.

The Laytons had a similarly high profile, and were distinctly ‘old Thames’. They could boast a Layton who was a Ruler of the Company in the 18th century, and another who was both a Royal Waterman and personal bargeman to George III. The achievements of their Brentford descendants, meticulously explored by Shirley Seaton in issue 9 of this Journal, culminated in the appointment of Thomas Layton as Chairman of the first Brentford Urban District Council. By then Thomas had sold off his barges – he had no son – and was known chiefly as an antiquarian, at which he was perhaps more skilled than he was as a politician: at the Richmond Lock enquiry he had to admit that his effort to hold a protest meeting had attracted just 15 people!

The Winters ran the largest of the lighter fleets in 1841, and Thomas Winter, the third lighterman on the Salvage Committee, should probably have declared an interest, as he was one of only four barge owners to receive compensation from the relief fund. All four received between £20 and £25. As this was scarcely a quarter of the value of a new barge, we cannot assess what each might have lost, but in the case of Thomas Winter it was apparently less than catastrophic, as his fleet continued to grow. By 1867 the fleet had been moved to New Brentford and been increased to 18 sailing barges. This had been achieved largely through the efforts of Thomas’s daughter-in-law – in emergency, the wives were expected to play major roles in the family business, widows being permitted to license barges and bind apprentices. (Other instances of widows involved in management, evidently with considerable success, were Martha Layton (1800-1815); Frances and Letitia Harris (1810 and 1819); Mary and Mary Ann Dale (1819-1848); Mary Ann Winter (1866-80); Emma Clark (1879-85); Bertha Dale 1901, ff.) However, Mary Ann Winter’s efforts were in vain. By 1887 all the Winter barges had gone: only one Winter remained on the river, and he was an employee.

The Sims, the fourth lighterman family on the 1841 Committee, were, for their time, unusually peripatetic. Charles Sims, had been apprenticed in Brentford in 1796, where he had attracted valuable patronage, gaining ‘protection’ from Lord Clifden of Clifden House. Such protection took the form of warrants, mostly issued by peers of the realm, which ensured that press gangs could not press the boatman concerned. Press gangs threatened all Thames boatmen between 1760 and 1815. Often, as with the Sims, the nobleman lived locally and it is easy to see why he might have needed the services of the boatman concerned – Thomas Layton, as a young man living on Kew Green, was similarly protected by his close neighbour, the Duke of Cumberland. Other connections, however, are more obscure: it would, for instance, be interesting to know why Lord Abergavenny and the Earl of Harborough protected Robert Banyon and Samuel Harris. And why did the Archbishop of York protect several Brentford boatmen? Did their lordships own property or have investments there?

Perhaps because he was armed with this protection, Charles Sims moved down river to work in Lambeth. When he returned in the 1830s, it was to run, and probably own, a wharf. He too, like Thomas Winter, received compensation for loss of craft in the 1841 flood. Later he was to live – unusually for a boatman – in the fashionable Butts. He had a daughter, who was a governess, and two lighterman sons. By 1861 Charles had died, the daughter had become Principal of the Rutland House College for Young Ladies in Ealing, one son had emigrated to Australia as a marine engineer, while the other son had left Brentford to live on the rents of property in Warwickshire. It seems that Charles had spent money on educating his children, and so ensured upwardly mobile progress in the meritocratic Victorian age.

Barges at Brentford from a linocut by R A Wilson

The Dales were surprising absentees from the 1841 committee. They had been active in New Brentford, (the epicentre of the flood) since 1781. They also ran the Cannon inn. (Several lightermen ran inns or beer houses – perhaps to make money when times were hard and perhaps to attract business for their barge trade.) By 1886 Joseph Dale had expanded his fleet to 22 barges. As such, it was then the biggest fleet owned by a free lighterman in Brentford. Joseph seems to have been cannier than most of his contemporaries, as he had by then begun to specialise in corn and coal, as had the Laytons.

It seems likely that the Dales then decided (again like the Laytons) to sell off their barges and concentrate on the coal trade. Certainly, their fleet of barges disappeared from the records. By 1901 Joseph and both his sons had also gone; but the coal business had survived – run by Joseph’s daughter-in-law, Brenda, assisted by a nephew (not bound) and a niece. Brenda may not have been trading so successfully, as she no longer employed a servant. (Generally the lighter owners lived in some comfort, employing at least one domestic servant per house. In contrast the journeymen employed no servants, while many of their wives and daughters were themselves employed in domestic service.) Only one member of the Dale family was still listed as lighterman in the 1901 census, John T Dale, almost certainly a cousin. He was working as a journeyman.

The Harrises began work in Brentford well before the Dales, but initially as journeymen working on other owners’ barges, as colourfully instanced by this extract from an Old Bailey trial of three men indicted in 1801 for ‘feloniously stealing a sack, value 2s and four bushels of barley, value 30s.’ It was a crime common on the river, and boatmen were frequently involved in such cases as witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants.

WILLIAM BELL sworn: I belong to a barge which laid along-side the barge from which this barley was taken: On the 21st of March, I was in the cabin; I heard the alarm of thieves, I got out of the cabin, and saw a peter-boat lying alongside.

    1. What is a peter-boat?
    2. A boat used for fishing; when I saw the peter-boat, the three prisoners were in the boat, endeavouring to get it off; Samuel Harris, Joseph Harris, and I, hauled our own skiff along side, and pursued them; they made towards the shore, and we came up so fast, that they were obligated to jump overboard into the water; then we pursued after them, and took Davis and Blake by Solomon Chambers, the boat-builders. . .

JOSEPH HARRIS sworn: Upon the alarm of thieves being given, I secured the peter-boat, and found a sack of barley in it; I immediately took the peter-boat along-side the barge, the nails of the tarpaulin had been forced; the barge was laden with barley, to be taken to Brentford to be malted . . . I compared this barley with the barley in the barge, and it was exactly the same sort.

Blake, aged 22, Davis, 23, and Smith, 24, were sentenced to 7 years transportation.

By 1841 the Harrises owned their own fleet of barges, and the head of the family, Joseph Harris, was already one of the wealthiest of the owners, insofar as it is possible to make comparisons on the basis of surviving wills – some of them clearly understated the residuary estate. On his death in 1845 Joseph had even more to bequeath than Robert Banyon in 1852. He owned two copyhold properties in Twickenham and two at Smith Hill, Brentford, where he worked. However, Joseph and his family never ran more than two or three barges at any one time, and the grandson to whom he left his business seems to have done no more than re-register three of them in the 1860s.

He and the barges had all gone by 1881. He could still afford a ‘housekeeper’ – perhaps a live-in partner – but the profitable line pursued by his forebears had run into the sand. It may be significant that in his 1845 will, Joseph Harris left one of his houses to another grandson, Harry, who was not apprenticed as a boatman, a sign, even in the middle of the century, that prosperous lighterman-owners were content that at least some members of the family were moving away from the river. Perhaps Joseph had calculated that a family barging business could no longer maintain more than one member.

The Clarks were the last of the seven families to settle on the Brentford waterside. They worked there from 1820, initially as journeymen, but later as barge owners. Among the first to make a mark was a Thomas Clark who managed remarkably to appear twice in 1831 as a plaintiff at the Old Bailey. In both cases he complained of being robbed while intoxicated. In one case he had lost a watch, which was found hidden on the floor of a cab, and in the other the very considerable sum of £9 8s 0d. The cabby was found not guilty, but in the second case the defendant, Martha Jones, admitted guilt and was sentenced to deportation. (The sentences then were certainly harsh, but there is evidence that many were commuted on appeal. There was a striking case of a lighterman, Benjamin Hearne of Strand on the Green, who was sentenced to death for theft in 1807. A pencilled note in the records of the Company indicate that this was commuted to transportation, and there is doubt that even this sentence was carried out, as in 1817 he was back in the Old Bailey, this time for burglary, and again sentenced to transportation. One wonders if he ever made it to Australia!)

Barges on the canal with Brentford in the background.

 Thomas Clark’s successors were of more sober and substantial stuff, especially John Henson Clark, from New Brentford, a highly successful lighterman / coal merchant. His son, John, built up their fleet to 13 barges, and later moved them east to Kew Bridge. Here he worked simply as a lighterman. It may have been a poor strategic move. By 1887 his fleet had shrunk to six, and it is probable that it had all been sold by 1890, as he was not among the barge owners at the enquiry into the Half-Tide Lock. Meanwhile, George Clark, who was probably a cousin of John Henson, had acquired 16 barges of his own. George and his widow, Emma, bound or contracted no fewer than 11 apprentices, including their son, George. Meanwhile, John Clark had bound seven, including his son, John. Yet neither of these sons ran barges. George became a stage carriage driver in Heston, while John became foreman at the Brentford pottery.


The seven families seem to have thrived when the going was good, deservedly so as they had the appropriate skills. They networked successfully, establishing valuable links with those with influence, from the landowners to those who wielded influence in Brentford and the City. They married wisely, their widows running the businesses when necessary until their sons succeeded. They also were careful to place some sons and grandsons in other trades and, indeed, to diversify in case their own trade declined. They were wise to do so, as it declined at an unpredictable rate, and in a way with which they were unable to cope.

The major cause of the decline seems to have been their failure to embrace new technology. In their case and at that time the most important innovation lay in the use of steam tugs. These revolutionised the economics of lighterage. Until the tugs were introduced in the 1850s, the barges used in Brentford were either ‘dumb lighters’ that travelled up and down river on the tide or sailing barges that were dependent on the wind. As a result the barges often missed the tide and had to wait twelve hours before resuming their journeys, or they got stuck on sand-banks, occasionally for as long as seven days. With tugs, however, they not only reached their destination on time, but also enjoyed an even more significant advantage: a tug could take as many as six barges in tow at the same time, and such barges needed only one, rather than two, qualified men aboard. George Collier of Brentford gave evidence at the Half-Tide Lock enquiry: ‘It is an absolute necessity to be a tug owner unless you are not a barge owner of any note.’

The tugs were introduced initially down stream in the mid 19th century, then spread up stream. However, there is no sign that any of Brentford’s original owner-lightermen ever used them, and they must consequently have found their prices being undercut by the big companies that did. There are signs that most of the owners jumped before they were swamped: the Laytons and Dales moved into coal, the Sims left Brentford, and most of the other families moved into other work. Yet, they could have stayed, as there was still space for some small fleets. George Collier, for instance, was doing well on the Thames with just ten barges – but he also had two tugs.

Guildhall Library, London, Mss Section: Archive of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen; Museum in Docklands, Records of the Conservators of the Thames; The National Archives, Kew: PROB 11 (Wills); Gillian Clegg, Brentford Past, (Historical Publications, 2002); Valerie Bott, Flood! The Brentford Flood of 1841 (Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society, 2002); Richmond Local Studies Library: RA1 L627 12 vol.1, Petition of Barge Owners, Lightermen and Wharfingers; Humpherus, H, History of the Origin and Progress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames vols.1-3 1514-1849 (1874; republished Wakefield: Microform, 1980); vol4 1850-83, eds King, J N, Dawson, J L and Wilson, W B G (Cambridge Daemon Press, 1998); Kelly’s Directory of Middlesex 1852, 1862, 1890; Pigot’s Middlesex Directory 1839;; Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674-1834;

David Blomfield (020 8940 8749) has compiled statistics on the boatmen of Brentford taken from these sources and from the work of many local and family historians. He would be happy to share these with others interested in the subject, and would welcome further information on any boatmen families who worked in the Upper Tidal Thames.


Visit Us
Follow Me