Perfectly Normal?!

Remarks to: the Company Of Watermen & Lightermen, on paddle steamer Elizabethan, on 8 July 2021.

Master, Wardens, Fellow Freemen, Ladies & Gentlemen.  Thank you Master for inviting me to join our company on this evening, as we pay tribute to the immense service Colin and his team have given us over the past quarter of a century.

People in the livery sometimes ask why I am a craft-owning freeman of the Watermen & Lightermen.  I am proud to say as a sailor and rower that water runs in my veins, and that having owned a Thames sailing barge, the Lady Daphne, for over two decades, some of that water in my veins definitely comes from the Thames.  In fact, next week, I’m giving a lecture to the Guildhall Historical Association on the economic history of the Thames, the lighters, and the barges.

Many things are great about our Company, and one of them is keeping Thames history and tradition alive.  One of the stalwarts here is Chris Livett, who keeps us in film and television, for me most notably including several barges, lighters, and boats in Daniel Deronda, as well as many modern films.  We all owe Chris our gratitude this evening for MV Elizabethan and this wonderful setting and dinner.

My shorthand historical description of us, particularly given our founding in 1514 under Henry VIII when the Thames was the only highway for London, is that we were Tudor taxi drivers.  I pity poor Samuel Pepys during the great fire of London.  “Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff”.  I suspect he buried his enormous round of Parmesan cheese to ensure that one of us didn’t take it as a black boat cab tip for crossing the river.

Many things are great about our Company, and one of them is being practical and calm under pressure.  I remember the day in the 90’s, shortly before my wedding when I bought Lady Daphne.  As many here will know, the odds of buying any boat after your wedding are much diminished.  Many of you will remember that Ray Bateman lent a model of Lady Daphne that sat in the display cupboard at Watermen’s Hall until last year.  Anyway, having bought Lady Daphne, I headed off to get married and returned for our first sea trial. 

Lady Daphne hadn’t been sailed in years, and as a wooden boat we had some significant concerns.  This trial was just ahead of our first MCA visit.  We were on the Blackwater off Osea Island when we set sail.  As we heeled over, I could feel her slowly filling with water.  Elisabeth, my newly-wed-wife, muttered to me that she could hear water pouring in behind the skirting.  “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, newly-wed-wife”. We broke out one fire pump, “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, newly-wed-wife”. Then a second fire pump, “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, newly-wed-wife”. Then a third fire pump, “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, newly-wed-wife”.   Amidst the din of three diesel fire pumps and gushing water, we wanted to break out a fourth fire pump, but strangely didn’t have one. 

When my skipper, Adrian Mulville, suggested we might want to run the boat aground to save her, drain her, and put some tingles on, I pointed out to Elisabeth, “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, newly-wed-wife”.  Despite Adrian’s advice, I insisted that we carry on and let Lady Daphne soak and swell a bit so she could firm up.  In the end that worked and several hours later we limped into Maldon, sodden, quite a bit more seaworthy, yet with fountains like a fireboat.  We scraped through our first MCA survey and managed to save and restore Lady Daphne over the years.  Oh, and the marriage too.

Well, our delightful and charming Master, our first woman Master in over 500 years, has had to deal with our Company during covid-19.  She has shown immense practicality and resourcefulness, remaining impressively calm under pressure.  She seems to exude the phrase, “That’s perfectly normal, my darling, dearest, Freemen”, at all times.  We are delighted that tonight we can honour both Colin and Gina seeing us all through these demanding times and making it all look like smooth sailing.  We thank you both enormously.

Now, we scientists know that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.  So it’s time for me to fall out.

All hearts here today are in maritime and shipping.  Our Company sails proudly on the high seas of commerce, community, and charity, with fellowship.  So may I propose that while “There are tall ships and small ships, even professorships, the best ships are friendships.”  To the Company of Watermen & Lightermen, may it flourish root & branch.