Watermen at War


Friday May 29th 1942


Barges and Canal Boats are Vital Links in Supply Chain


Through Fires and Bombs Up River in London Blitz

On the late afternoon of September 6th 1940 a solitary pair of boats, frail river craft, moved steadily up the Thames between banks of blazing warehouses, flying masonry, and under a sky noisy with ‘planes and the crash of anti-aircraft fire. The boats’ crew of five, including two Brentford men, were maintaining the slogan ‘Keep Moving’, which river and canal workers have nailed to their masts for the duration.

Canals and rivers are an integral link in the chain of transport carrying supplies for the Forces and for industry all over the country and to docks for export. The men who man the boats and barges have been born in the job; their companions are often their wives and families. Like the railway men and lorry drivers, a tin hat and a gas mask is their sole equipment at war, but they do not always have these. Most river men will tell you that during raids they came out on top of their vessels to watch ‘the show,’  unless it got too hot. Most have been in several raids, for the nature of their work leads them to legitimate targets – docks and wharves. Lives have been lost and boats blown to bits at places like Liverpool and Birmingham.

Grandstand View

The story of that Saturday afternoon when London had one of its first heavy raids was told me by 62-year-old Alderman Joseph Hart, who as lighter-man, was responsible for the navigation of the two boats, the ‘Briar’ and the ‘Uxbridge.’ With him was another Brentford man, ‘Bill’ Scaldwell (60), together ‘Bert’ Berrill and his two sons. The boats were empty, having delivered a cargo. As they reached Beckton in the afternoon off went the siren.

‘Hardly had it gone off,’ said Alderman Hart, ‘than the bombs started dropping, some quite near. Each time one fell in the river one’s craft swerved. There were ‘planes overhead, so many that we could not count them. All the way to Tower Bridge there fires blazing on wharves on either side and barges burning; at one point we saw part of a pier blown away. We never stopped, but kept steadily on along the centre of the river. We had no helmets, but we had to stay on top all the way to navigate. I held a hand bowl over my head, but nothing touched me, although there was plenty flying about.

Nothing Moved

‘Most of the other boats were tied up, and after Victory Dock we never saw a thing moving. Only at Tower Bridge did we meet the fire patrols coming in to action, and they almost swamped us. When we got through the bridge the ‘All Clear’ went. It was seven o’clock. We looked back and it was like an inferno of flames. Above there was the sun, below it was black with smoke.’

Alderman Hart recounted how at one time on this grim journey when strange fumes blew across the water, they thought that it was gas. The fumes came from a burning factory.

The ‘Briar’ and the ‘Uxbridge’ reached Brentford at 9.45pm, two and a half hours late. Another raid had already started.

It was not the last journey which Joe Hart or his mates made. The following Tuesday they were caught in another bad raid and were turned back by the river patrol, who suspected that mines had been dropped.

Near Misses

Every water transport worker can contribute his tale of near misses and lucky escapes at docks and wharves. They do not worry so long as they can keep moving. But in an area which is an obvious ‘target for tonight’ it is another matter. Most boatmen leave the fragile shelter of their craft, with its few inches of iron and wood between them and destruction, for a more solid structure on land. Barges have been lost, and there have been some miraculous escapes. There is the story of barges at one dock which were moored near a cargo boat. Bombs fell and the boat disappeared. When morning came, the humbler river and canal craft were still bobbing round the grave of their lost companion.

Sam Buck, a sixty-one-year-old Isleworth canal boatman, was in charge of three boats, one of which was smashed to pieces. On another occasion the blast of a falling bomb blew the fire in his cabin up through the chimney.

How They Live

The dangers of raids are the more dramatic part of the work on river and canal in war. But, like that of the soldier and sailor, there are dull, dragging hours to be endured, when blackout stops progress and rationing restricts meals. The men get their basic rations, butter, fat, tea, sugar and meat without difficulty, as they are supplied with special books, but trouble arise over goods which are for ‘registered customers first.’

Listen to Jack Jones, for 52 years on the water, whom I found taking a nap on top of his boat. His war equipment is a gas mask. He has no steel helmet. Recently he went from Liverpool to London with 46 tons of goods which had to be loaded and unloaded. For seven days, he said, he worked 17 or 18 hours daily and in the open for most of the time.

‘All on ordinary rations,’ was his comment. He pointed out that a large section of their journeys is through miles of countryside, where in former times milk, eggs and fowls could be obtained. Rations cannot be supplemented in this way now. Fresh milk has been hard to get, so has cake at times, while the favours that regular customers receive pass these travellers by altogether.

Another canal worker admitted that on journeys which were between 24 and 48 hours each he existed on sandwiches and tea, leaving his rations with his family at home. He ‘makes shift’ till he returns, but when home is the boat, as it often is, continual mobility forms a shopping problem which must cause some hardship.

There is a day and night service on river and canal, which only the pitchest blackness prevents operating. Forbidden navigation lights, they steer their course by the light of stars, and accidents are almost unknown.

The fleet which plies on these waters is a silent service. There are no communiqués about it and the public is barely aware of its existence. But that it is performing an essential and at times dangerous service was publicly recognised in a broadcast describing the men as ‘heroes of the transport war’.


Joseph Benjamin Hart’s father and his three older brothers were all Watermen/ Lightermen. His father and his two eldest brothers were all born in Kent but the family moved to Brentford about 1866.

He was elected to the Brentford District Council in 1924 and and continued when it became the Brentford & Chiswick UDC. He became an Alderman 1935/6

Joseph Hart died on February 11th 1943 not long after the newspaper article.

He had been ill for some time according to the local paper and had had at least one operation at West Middlesex Hospital.

His funeral was attended by the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors. He was described as of  ‘a quiet, unassuming disposition’.


One thought on “Watermen at War

  1. Hi I’m trying to find out about my ancestors called Holloway and Sharpe whose ancestors operated the old Isleworth ferry across the river my Great Grandmothers name before her marriage to my Great Grandfather Albert Sharpe was Ellen Holloway known as “Nellie” please email any information to kspotts17@gmail.com.

    Many thanks

    Karen Potts

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