Crossing The River: Of Whores and Watermen
By Clare Atfield
North and South, East and West: Movements in the Medieval World: Proceedings of the 2nd Postgraduate Conference of the Institute for Medieval Research, University of Nottingham, 30-31 May (2009)
Introduction: As a cultural perspective on the movements of local Londoners, this paper seeks to examine the nature of the River Thames as a boundary of propriety, behaviour, and acceptance in late-medieval and Tudor London. The chronological period for this study is the atypical continuum of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries; whores and watermen are placed together in texts concerning movement and criminal or sinful behaviour. The geography is narrowly confined to the wards of the City of London adjoining London Bridge and the southern suburb of Southwark. London Bridge was the physical link across the river, but it was the work of the watermen to provide access for the multitudes seeking pleasure, commerce, or escape outside the bourns of London. Known for its Stews, and the women who frequented them, Southwark was an area outside the jurisdiction of the Mayor of London. The movements of whores and criminals relied on watermen who provided a more efficient access to the south bank of the Thames than London Bridge. The following discussion does not focus on the widely discoursed movements of the wealthy, but on the movements of the poor, illiterate, undocumented, unwelcome local people, revealing how the watermen were essential to both the transport over and trespass of the River Thames.
Watermen, a term encompassing both ferrymen and boatmen, were local labourers who provided the important links of transportation. They were also damned as the accomplices of whores and villains, and undoubtedly many were. However, a reading of the sixteenth-century documents of rates and docks of the Waterman’s Company demonstrates how the illicit became legitimate with the rise and fall of whoredom in medieval and early-modern London. The Waterman’s Company rates, transcribed by the author, are included as an appendix.
The Liber Albus (the White Book), a fifteenth-century rulebook, compiles the customs and laws of the City of London, and provides a valuable textual reference for the expected behaviours of London’s citizens. Amongst the laws against thieves and whores (courtesans in the Victorian edition by Riley), a declaration on boatmen states:
Of Boatmen: And it is provided, that no boatman shall have his boat moored or standing over the water after sunset; but that they shall have all their boats moored on this side of the river, that so thieves and misdoers may not be carried by them under pain of imprisonment; nor may they carry any man nor woman, either denizens or strangers, unto the Stews, except in daytime, under pain of imprisonment.