My grandfather’s business card read ‘F E WALKER Ltd – Lightermen and Barge Owners’. The profession of lighterman has now disappeared, having been supplanted by the shipping container. But in the early years of the last century the lighterman was a critical link in the chain of trade. Large ships could not access many of the wharves and warehouses on the shallow upper waters of the Thames. Cargoes had to be unloaded in deep water onto barges, which were then towed upriver by the lightermen.
In the earliest days Thames barges were sail boats like the sail barges in the Warburton painting, and the first barge that my grandfather bought with money borrowed from a brother was a sailing barge. This was soon replaced by the new technology of towed barges – forty foot long floating containers made of welded steel plate – and a steam-powered tug.