This unobtrusive relic of medieval London, hidden away in a side wall of a Greek Restaurant, is the only remaining evidence of the less than salubrious life on the River Thames before all of the bridges were built, before the city was cleaned up and turned into the shiny, chrome metropolis it now is.
On the Thames near Shakespeare's Globe, the Bankside Pier and Southwark Bridge, is a small alleyway called Bear Gardens. It can be hard to find, it is simply a nondescript, narrow gap between two tall modern buildings with chain restaurants on the ground floors, which are plastered in their logos, menus and other marketing paraphernalia.
Just inside the alleyway, built into the wall of the Real Greek restaurant, is the ferryman's seat, a tiny and well worn stone ledge, with a small silver plaque above it.
This simple little ledge is all that remains of the ferrymen, also known as watermen or wherrymen, of the Thames.
Until the 18th century there was only one dry bridge across the Thames; London Bridge, which was narrow and congested, so for centuries people would pay to be transported across in what were essentially water taxis.
Being a ferryman was skilled work, as knowledge was required of tides, currents and handling the boats, whether it was a barge, ferry or passenger wherry, and it was a job which would pass down through successive generations.
By the Tudor period, many grand houses were built on the edge of the Thames, and there was constant demand for the watermen's services. Whenever the construction of a bridge was proposed, the watermen would fight against it, as they did against the introduction of sedan chairs and hackney carriages on London's roads or indeed anything that could threaten their livelihoods.
All sorts of men, work all the means they can,
To make a Thief of every waterman :
And as it were in one consent they join,
To trot by land i' th' dirt, and save their coin.
Carroaches, coaches, jades, and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares :
Against the ground, we stand and knock our heels,
Whilst all our profit runs away on wheels
John Taylor (The Waterpoet), An Arrant Thief, 1622
There were thousands of ferrymen in London; they would gather at the many sets of stairs leading into the Thames, plying for custom by shouting "oars, oars, sculls, oars, oars". They were considered a caste of their own, a 'rough, saucy, and independent lot', with their own 'water dialect', known for their bad behaviour and bad language, and they ruled the Thames. In the 16th century when some prominent seamen formed a group, Trinity House, to encourage sailors to work as watermen between voyages, fights would often break out between them and the regular watermen, who called them 'hog-grubbers'.
Trade was brisk in Southwark which was one of the oldest crossing points and in operation long before London Bridge was built.
Legend has it that in the 7th century, the Southwark crossing was owned by a John Overs, a notorious miser who had a lucrative trade which enabled him to own land and have watermen working for him.
One day he faked his death, thinking that his family and employees would fast in respect while mourning, which would save him paying them a days wage. However, on the news of his death, his servants made merry and feasted, causing John to fly into a rage. One servant was so startled by the 'corpse' leaping out of his death bed that he picked up a broken oar and beat John's brains out.
John had a daughter, Mary, who sent for her lover - he raced across the city to claim his inheritance but fell off his horse and broke his neck. Mary was so distressed by this double tragedy that she spent her sizeable inheritance founding a convent, where she spent the rest of her days. Cannonised for her charity, a church was built to Saint Mary Overie in 607, which is the predecessor of Southwark Cathedral. (source)
In the Elizabethan era, when playhouses were banned in the City of London, the watermen had regular income from taking theatre goers from the city to Southwark, where playhouses such as The Rose (1587), The Globe (1599), and The Hope (1614) were built away from city regulations. When the ban ended during the reign of James I, the watermen were hard hit and petitioned unsuccessfully for playhouses to not be allowed in the city.
Southwark was a rough place for a long time, out of the remit of the city of London and owned by the Bishops of Winchester who were notoriously corrupt. The area was famed for criminality, drunkenness, prostitution, bear-baiting and general lawlessness. Add that to the stench coming off the Thames, the open sewers and the tanneries and it must have been a wretched place for the ferrymen to work.
These ferrymen's seats were where they could rest between customers, a surprisingly small perch that probably offered little comfort and certainly no protection from the elements. This flint ledge is the last remaining ferryman's seat in London. Its age is unknown (although guesses are 12-13th century) but it has been put on each successive building that has stood on this spot in Bear Gardens - home to the last official Bear Baiting pit in the capital, which closed in 1682.
With the arrival of the assorted bridges across the Thames, starting with Putney Bridge in 1729, the need for the ferrymen decreased until they passed, probably kicking and screaming, into the pages of history.
Find the Ferryman's Seat at w3w: giving.chefs.much