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The London Waterman

[ Roud 1186 ; Bodleian Roud 1186 ; Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) / trad.]

A wherry is a light rowboat that is used for racing or for transporting goods and passengers in inland waters and harbours. In 1555 an Act of Parliament set up the Company of Watermen and Lightermen to control the watermen on the River Thames who were responsible for the transportation of goods and passengers. Today Watermen and Lightermen are still licensed by the Company, with Freemen of the Company eligible to participate in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race. Winners of the race have the honour of wearing the Scarlet coat, breeches and silver arm badge based on the original costume of 18th Century Watermen.

Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) wrote The Jolly Young Waterman for his ballad opera The Waterman, which was first performed at Haymarket Theatre in 1774. Over the years the song changed somewhat in the folk process until barge skipper Bob Roberts sang it some 200 years later in 1978 as London Waterman on his Topic LP Songs From the Sailing Barges. He probably picked it up from either his mother, from who he learned many of his songs, or from other bargemen he worked alongside. Unfortunately, A.L. Lloyd doesn’t say anything about the song in the album’s extensive sleeve notes.

Peter Bellamy learned The London Waterman from the singing of Bob Roberts. He sang it live at the Cockermouth Folk Club in January 1991. The whole concert was published on his cassette Songs an’ Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks, and this track was also included in 2006 on Fellside’s 30th anniversary anthology Landmarks.

The Albion Band’s show The Albion River Hymn: A Celebration of the River Thames was compiled and written in 1978 by Mary Miller and Ashley Hutchings. It was recorded in 1981 by Radio Trent, produced by John Shaw, but with different personnel than in the original show, e.g. June Tabor singing instead of Maddy Prior. June Tabor’s singing of London Waterman in this Radio Trent recording was included on the bonus fifth CD of the box set Burning Bright: The Ashley Hutchings Story.

Jon Boden sang The London Waterman as the 3 September 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in the blog:

This is worth learning in case you find yourself on a midnight punting expedition in need of an appropriate song (as happened to me once). Ian Giles [of The Oxford Waits] sings the Dibdin original—I think I prefer this version though which has gone through the folk-process.

This YouTube video shows Kath Hallewell singing The London Waterman at the Forest Row Festival 2010:

The Willows sang this song as True Lovers’ Ferry on their 2018 CD Through the Wild. They noted:

Learnt from the singing of Peter Bellamy, a joyous story of love on the waterways of our capital city!


Charles Dibdin’s The Jolly Young Waterman

And did you not hear of a jolly young waterman,
Who at Blackfriars bridge once used to ply;
And he feather’d his oars with such skill and dexterity,
Winning each heart and delighting each eye.
He look’d so neat, and rowed so steadily;
The maidens all flock’d in his boat so readily;
And he ey’d the young rogues with so charming an air
That this waterman ne’er was in want of a fare.

What sights of fine folks he oft row’d in his wherry,
’Twas cleaned out so nice, and so painted withal;
He was always first oars when the fine city ladies
In a party to Ranelagh went, or Vauxhall.
And oft-times would they be giggling and leering,
But ’twas all one to Tom, their giggling and jeering;
For loving or liking he little did care,
For this waterman ne’er was in want of a fare.

And yet but to see how strange things do happen,
As he row’d along, thinking of nothing at all,
He was ply’d by a damsel so lovely and charming,
That she smil’d, and so straightway in love he did fall.
And would this young damsel but banish her sorrow,
He’d wed her tonight, before to-morrow;
And how should this waterman ever know care,
When he’s married, and never in want of a fare.

Peter Bellamy sings The London Waterman

Did you ever hear tell of the young London waterman
Who from Blackfriars did regular ply?
He feathered his oars with such skill and dexterity
Pleasing each maid and delighting each eye.

And he sang so sweet, he sang so merry,
The couples all jostled to hire his wherry,
And be became known as the true lovers’ ferry,
But he could not find a true love of his own.

Till there come a young goose girl from Stratford St Mary
And she wanted taking to Farringdon Fair,
But she had not the ha’penny to pay for a wherry
And she stood on the steps in her pretty despair.

But she sang so sweet, she sang so merry,
He put her and all of her geese in his wherry,
And her pretty face was the fare for the ferry
As he rode her over to Farringdon Fair.

They was married next May time in Stratford St Mary;
And now they have waterman one, two, three, four.
They all feather their oars with such skill and dexterity,
Taking the people from shore to shore.

And they sing so sweet, they sing so merry
The people all jostle to hire their wherry,
And everyone goes by the Blackfriars ferry
While he stays at home with a love of his own.


I found the words of Charles Dibdin’s song in The Melodist, London, 1828.