Chris Livett, waterman's story
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( CHRIS LIVETT, WATERMAN )

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THE INTERVIEW

My name is Chris Livett. I was born in Dartford in Kent, but at the age of six I moved with my parents, brother and twin sister to New Zealand for nearly three years. My father was a waterman and lighterman, as was his father and his grandfather before him, but he took a position as a master of a coastal tug around the North Island of New Zealand, so I was educated there for a bit. We moved back to London in the early ’70s where I grew up around Abbey Wood and Belvedere.

A waterman is somebody licensed to carry passengers on the river and navigate a passenger boat. A lighterman is somebody licensed to navigate barges: to load and unload barges. Those two licenses have been superseded by the modern boat-master’s license that has been around for the last five years or so. I’m a fifth generation waterman/lighterman, and I have a son and daughter who are sixth generation watermen/lightermen, so it’s been in the family for many years.

What do you refer to yourself as?

It depends on what company I’m keeping. I could refer to myself as the company director, as the managing director, as the chairman, the big boss… Or I could simply be a humble waterman/lighterman. It depends where I’m sitting.

"A hundred years ago, my grandfather would have been towing his tugs and barges up with petroleum, coal and frozen meat. Here I am, a fifth generation waterman/lighterman, and we don’t do that anymore, do we? We carry people. We’re in the entertainment business: We’re showing off the river these days."

Can you describe where we are right now?

We’re in my little pied-à-terre on Lafone Street in Eagle Wharf that we live in two or three days a week. I’ve always lived in and around London. I probably know it better than most others because I see it from north, south, west and east. Most people see themselves as a north-sider or an east-ender - we go right the way through the middle. We know north and south people as we know west and east people, and there’s definitely a change of character and personality.

Are there divisions between the east and west?

The east and west has always had its divisions over the years. I see the different types and demographic of people. Where has all the industry been? Towards the east. Where are the docks? Traditionally to the east. Where do the house prices score highest? In the west. Which is closest to the City? The west has been, but the east is merging into that quite nicely as we see today. I can tell you from a river’s perspective that I know people who work in Teddington, Chelsea, Putney, the City, Docklands, Erith and Gravesend, and they’re all different characters in one way, shape or form.

What does being a waterman/lighterman entail?

I’m licensed to drive and navigate passenger boats, tugs and barges. I’m the managing director and owner of three companies that have a combined fleet of approximately thirty vessels, including the largest passenger boat in the UK for inland waterways, the Dixie Queen - she takes up to 1,000 people and has Tower Bridge lift for her around 480 times a year. I have a tug and barge business and we barge freight aggregate predominantly from the Isle of Grain on the river midway up to various terminals in London. I also work as a marine co-ordinator for the film and television industry.

What is that like?

It has its moments! We’ve worked on some of the biggest projects that you can imagine, going back to The Long Good Friday with dear old Bob Hoskins who’s sadly passed away now. We’ve been involved in several James Bonds, lots of Harry Potters, Sherlock Holmes… Anything on the water that’s tricky or technical. We had a very busy 2012 with the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, where I was very fortunate to be a guest of Her Majesty on board the Royal Barge, which was really special. With regards to the Olympics, I had the privilege of David Beckham driving me down the river for the opening ceremony, so that was quite nice! Last year we did 53 film and television jobs, so it’s a significant part of the business. I’m passing it over to my son to look after, actually; he can have some glamour. I’m glammed out!

"I used to park my car right where City Hall is at now. You’d come ashore through the warehouse onto Tooley Street, which was the pits - grey and dark and horrible. There were no tourist attractions in those days and your dear tourist would say, ‘What can we do when we’ve left the Belfast?’ And I’d say, ‘Get back to the north as quickly as you possibly can!’ "

What was your first encounter with the South Bank?

One of the first encounters was with my grandfather; I’d have been aged 12 or so on board one of his tugs. He would have been the captain and we would have been navigating tugs and barges through the bridges running past the South Bank and at certain periods dropping barges off at places like Nelson’s Wharf, where London Weekend Television is now; Coin Street, where there was a big cold store; and Butler’s Wharf, where we are today. I can remember Docklands turning and winding down: from its peak in the ’50s, early ’60s, hitting the buffers in the ’70s, and then lots of wharfs closing down and lots of people being made unemployed. A lot of greyness and sadness is probably the best way to describe it. Not a lot of colour in those days, unfortunately.

There wasn’t a river walk in those days; you had to duck in and out of little lanes and alleyways to pick your way along from west to east. It was a very depressing and dangerous place: you didn’t have the luxury apartments and offices that you have today. It was a very hard area, south London; people were fighting, not just for employment but also for survival. They had to make a buck or two, so stealing, fighting and mugging were quite rampant.

We had an office on the HMS Belfast for twenty years; we came off the ship four years ago to go to Lafone Street. I used to park my car right where City Hall is at now. You’d come ashore through the warehouse onto Tooley Street, which was the pits - grey and dark and horrible. There were no tourist attractions in those days: forget the London Dungeon, the Italian restaurants and all that’s laid out there now; you had the Hole in the Wall café up by London Bridge and that was it. We used to run a ferry service from Tower Pier to the Belfast, and your dear tourist would say, ‘What can we do when we’ve left the Belfast?’ And I’d say, ‘Get back to the north as quickly as you possibly can!’ Those were the days!

What sounds and smells do you associate with the South Bank?

This area in particular was famed for its spices, but we’re losing that now. I can remember coming here, to Butler’s Wharf, and smelling the most wonderful spices as I walked along the warehouses. The smells were ingrained in them; soaked into the timber. Bankside Power Station - the Tate Modern today - was then an oil-fired power station. The tankers used to pump about 1,000 tonnes of oil a day to keep it going, so you’d have the smell of the oil as you went past that jetty.

What has been the biggest change in the area over the last 30 years?

I suppose the style of the area, the way the area has been moulded and planned to resemble what you see today. There were hardly any jobs or decent residential units. If I was to parachute my grandfather in from wherever he might be and walk him from Tower Bridge to Millennium Bridge, along past the Tate Modern, he wouldn’t recognise the place unless he looked at the river and saw those old Victorian bridges: they’re some of the few bits of evidence of what it was actually like during the Industrial era. If you look at the Thames on low tide, you’ll see evidence of barge moorings and things called camp sheds that are raised berths for barges to sit on. You might see the occasional bollard or ring or ladder that a lighterman would have used. Turn the other way - with your back to the river and look inshore - and you’ll struggle to find any real evidence of what was there before. Even the old warehouses at Hay’s Wharf - some of the facades are still there but the glasswork and the architecture around it have changed dramatically.

How has that change affected your working life?

A hundred years ago, my grandfather would have been towing his tugs and barges up with petroleum, coal and frozen meat. Here I am, a fifth generation waterman/lighterman, and we don’t do that anymore, do we? We carry people. We’re in the entertainment business and the property business, actually: I have a couple of residential barges based at my pier in Putney. We’re into food and drink and people coming out into the water: our passage-boat company handles something like 600-700 events a year. We’re showing off the river these days.

What do you think it would be like if you were to start your working life today?

I think it would be brilliant. There’s so much opportunity; there’s so much that will be happening and can happen that I think it would be a lovely thing to do. I think London is a very special place for business anyway; it’s not like the rest of the country. There’s far more opportunity here: the market is bigger, the facilities are bigger. It would be great fun, but like in any business, you take risk. You’ve got to have the balls to get out and do it - and there’s no better place to do it than out there.