Thursday, 2 February 2012


This article is by A.G.Linney - author of a couple of books about the port of London before the Great War.  It is taken from Co-partnership Journal which was the house magazine of  South Metropolitan Gas Co. - the local gas company and appeared in 1910.

Following along the riverside path from near Point Wharf to Greenwich-Pier one day I was surprised to find, just across the street from Union Wharf, a solid and rather imposing building below the eaves of which was lettered the inscription, "Harbour Master's Office."

I knew quite well that the only Harbour Master's Offices in the Port to-day are at Tower Pier and at Gravesend, with sub-offices at Woolwich, Erith, Greenhithe, and Leigh-on-Sea. I knew that since the Port of London Authority was created there had been no Harbour Master at Greenwich. What, then, was the history of this once official edifice, now having houseroom for two families of private persons?

A Greenwich and District Directory for 1843 gives the name of Captain Rowlands as Harbour Master, resident at Park Street, Greenwich—the building in question.  Clearly that was at the time during which the Corporation of the City of London had administered the Port, and a document referred to later shows that Charles Rowlands was First Harbour Master during 1851-52, having started as Fifth Harbour Master in 1821, so that while he was moving up in the service he was for a while at Greenwich.

In 1857 the Thames Conservancy was constituted, and three years later that, body took a 76 years' lease of the Greenwich property, the area leased including Union Wharf (which was definitely a Thames Conservancy wharf), the house and a garden behind it. Captain James, transferred by the Corporation of the City of London, was the first Chief Harbour Master of the Conservancy. In 1890 the Conservancy agreed to surrender the lease of the estate in part, including the Harbour Master's Office house. It has been suggested that the surrender came about, through the Conservancy, which had hitherto divided the River Thames below Kew into Upper, Central and Lower Controls, deciding to abandon the central district as a separate division. None the less, for a while, one of the Conservancy's Deputy Harbour Masters continued to live in the house.

A Greenwich directory for 1895 shows a Captain Bowen residing at the Harbour Master's Office, and there is definite evidence showing when he had entered the Thames Conservancy's service. I have been able to handle an old, tumbling-to-pieces handbook, which this Captain Bowen started to write in while he was Master of the steamer Edinburgh Castle on a voyage from London to Penang in 1879. His notes regarding this voyage conclude,  " July 8th, 9 a.m. Anchor'd in Penang Harbour all well." At sea he ceased to use this notebook, apparently, for it switches over a page or two to this unmistakable entry: " Appointed D.H. Master under Thames Conservancy, December 19th, 1881." Quite natural, then, that Captain Bowen should be living at the Greenwich Harbour Master's Office—seemingly used as a residence, but no longer owned by the Conservancy in 1895 ; I believe that, between times, he lived for a. while at the Harbour Master's Office, Limehouse (Narrow Street), which was demolished in 1925.

Captain Defrates, formerly one of the P.L.A. Assistant Harbour Masters, who retired from the service in 1927, has recollection of the time previous to the Authority taking over from the Conservancy when there were two Harbour Masters—Captain Fitzgerald and Captain Marsden—and Captain Bowen was deputy to the first of these. The pair above named retired in 1898, and Captain Bowen then became Chief Harbour Master, with deputies at. Woolwich and Gravesend. He remained in office for about five years, retiring early in the present century. From that time to the establishment of the Port Authority, the Harbour Service work was divided into two sections, one with its office in London (Temple Pier, Old Swan Pier, and now Tower Pier) and one with its office at Gravesend. The Harbour Masters then appointed were Captain R. S. Pasley (Upper District) and Captain A. W. Wilson (Lower District).

In the 1890's—the Thames Conservancy being in charge of river responsibilities—T.C. Head Office was at 41 Trinity Square, but the Harbour Master had his quarters on the hulk Marlborough, moored, off the Tower Gardens. Then when the Conservancy moved its head office to the Thames Embankment, the Harbour Master operated from Temple Pier and the Marlborough was sent away into exile and became storeship to the T.C. Survey Department.

From a " Return of the Names and Emoluments of the Harbour Service 1851-1852 " (Corporation of the City of London) which was shown to me at the Guildhall, I am permitted to extract these details: " The Principal Superintending Harbour Master, Chief office, St. Katharine's," received, in addition to his salary, a house, £5 for a servant, £2 for candles, £l for wood, 10 tons of coal, and £25 for travelling allowance. It is in this document that the name of Captain Rowlands occurs. He and each of his deputies received also a boat cloak, minor assistants getting simply a greatcoat. Boat cloaks were served out every two years and greatcoats every three years, distribution always being in October. An assistant employed in the Greenwich Office was given " a pair of water boots," but they had to last him four years! The Clerk of Stores received quarters in what is now Port of London Wharf, occupied by Messrs. Gregson & Company, Ltd.


1 comment:

Richard Rice said...

Captain Charles Rowland is listed in both the Masons Street Directory of 1852 and the 1851 census as being resident at number 1 (now 42) Burney Street so he was resident in Greenwich when he was First Harbour Master and quite possibly for the whole period 1843 - 1852.