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My journey along the Working River – with Brian Denny

A special episode of the UnionDues podcast.

Royal River or liquid history?

The River Thames is a special place in so many ways.  A cradle or cauldron of  poetry and literature,  of music and the arts.  Of industry and empire.  But also, of poverty and strife, struggles and strikes,  insurrection and inspiration.

For such a short river, not even 220 miles from source to sea,  it is hard-wired into our national psyche.  Not just part of how we see ourselves, but also how others see us. 

Old Father Thames is one moniker.  But there are others.  The Royal River claim some,  A bar of liquid gold, William Blake is said to have said.  Liquid history said 1890s trade unionist John Burns.  One thing is for sure, as Brian Denny says in his introduction to this collection – our monarchs and rulers have always sought to be associated with the river as a symbol of power and authority.

Trade union stories

But take away the Tudor palaces,  Shakespeare’s plays, Handel’s Water Music, great paintings from Turner to Monet and look instead at The Great Rebellion of 1381,  1450’s  Battle of London Bridge, The Nore Sands mutiny of 17971889’s Dock Strike for a minimum wage of 6 old pence a day – the dockers’ tanner.  The history of the Thames is often the history of our trade union movement.

But as more bridges put paid to the once might industrial muscle of the Thames Watermen, and global super-power level docks put paid to the lightermen,  there is a danger that the stories of triumph over despair,  resilience over injustice, value over price get washed away as one tide follows another and follows another.

The collection is built upon these historical foundations.  Strike For Better Wages (Bill Pardon) , Sing A Song Of Sixpence (Caitlin Rees) and the Match Girls Song (the Pete Dunhill Choir) are all clear in their references.  

Richard Parker and Goldspring Thomson

So too is the lament to the leader of the Nore mutiny in Death Of Parker (Anne Dearman and Steve Harrison) – the aforementioned Richard declaring at the gallows that  “the ignorant and violent will call me a criminal but when it is remembered what were the demands I made of my unprincipled employers, I know the discreet part of mankind will acquit me”  Also commemorated in song is co-mutineer and survivor Goldspring Thomson in MG Boulter’s eponymous piece.

But the jobs of years gone by are also rightly remembered.  The song collection was released 50 years to the day since the last working Thames barge made her final commercial trip.  The Bargeman’s Year (Goodbye Old Man) by Jack Forbes and the Last Barge by The Silver Darlings are both particularly poignant. Lighterman Tom (Adam Rees) goes even further back in time.

There are songs to give us a taste of what working life is still like as the estuary meets open sea water in Stormy Weather Boys (Micky Denny) and the inclement weather is front and centre in a tale from the 1800s, There’s A Place In Heaven (Tony Prior)

Eternal truths and Essex icons

And then there are songs which capture that essence, the feeling of a connection between us and the river, the glimpse of some eternal truth that survives change and challenge (the instrumental Lapwing To Shore (Kate Waterfield and Charlie Skelton)) or the irrepressible human spirit.  (Sweet Thames Flow Softly (Joe and Jolene))

The Thames runs like a vital, visceral thread through the lives of all those who live within sight or sound of the river.  The Fisherman (Potiphar’s Apprentices) and Mudlarks (Dan Forbes) give a deep sense of place,  and iconic estuary towns form the anchor for Lizzy Little (Brian Denny – Leigh on Sea), The Wreck Of The Princess Alice (Crafting for Foes – Sheerness) Day-Trip To Southend (The Hoy Shanty Crew) and the Kentish hills (My River – Kitti Theobald). 

The mish-mash of those who live on the water as opposed to by it is captured in Jack Tar On Shore (Gavin Aitkin – “When Jack Tar he comes on shore/With his gold and silver in store/There’s none can get rid of it so soon/”) and Rolling Down the River (Jack Forbes and friends).

London Is the Place For Me

Although it flows through Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Surrey, past or through stately homes, royal places and regal estates,  on and out to Essex and Kent,  the Thames is as integral to London as the capital is to the river.  And I am a Londoner.  So the Windrush-inspired calypso London Is The Place For Me (Ossie and Dave) gets my vote for track of the album – though it’s a very, very close run thing.

Working river – Songs and music of the Thames is available as a CD (£10.99) or download (£8) from Folktree recordings.  There’s a great illustrated commentary from Brian and all proceeds go to the GFTU educational trust – a good cause indeed. 

And there must surely be songs and music from our other great industrial rivers – the Mersey, Tyne, Humber, Clyde and others. I’d love to hear those stories too.

You can listen to our earlier discussion with GFTU General Secretary Doug Nicholls here,  and the Hoy Folk Club is on Twitter.

Trade union education is something we will return to  in the third series of the UnionDues podcast, which will be with you early in 2021.

You can access this and all UnionDues episodes here.

Stream, download, share, rate but above all enjoy! 

Stay safe.

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