Watermen are one of those ancient professions that has pretty much disappeared. In the era before decent roads, travel by waterway was usually easier than travel by foot, horse or cart. Consequently there were professional watermen who would take you or a communication or a cargo from point to point for a fee. One of the oddities of the ‘Watermen’ in and around Plymouth Sound, the River Plym and the River Tamar was that an awful lot of them looked suspiciously not like men at all. In fact many of them had lumps and bumps that revealed them to be female! Ye gads you might say! “A lady, rowing a boat?” In fact this part of the country was famous for its female watermen dating all the way back to the 14th Century and almost certainly before that.
First let me explain what the 1791 by T Yates painting reveals. King George III and his Queen Charlotte were on a Royal procession throughout the Westcountry during 1789 visiting local dignitaries and military installations. They were travelling to Plymouth Dock (this is before the name Devonport was conferred upon the area) to open a new dock and launch a new warship. There is a funny aside to this story when the King inquired why the North New Dock was far larger than any ship existing in the Royal Navy. The answer was given that the French were constructing a new ship the ‘Commerce de Marseilles’ that was larger than anything in the Royal Navy and might one day be captured as a prize and would need to be serviced and repaired somewhere. Sure enough, when war broke out with France in 1793, the Royal Navy captured the ship almost immediately off Toulon and it became the first ship to enter the new North Dock upon its completion! After a successful Royal visit around the Royal Dockyard the King and Queen were to be conveyed to Saltram House by boat. Pride of place of this escort was given to a gig boat oared by six women and steered by a seventh all dressed in loose white gowns with yellow cotton safeguards (an early form of lifejacket) and purple sashes with a gold inscription reading “Long Live Their Majesties”. If you look at the painting you can see the small boat of women immediately above the boat flying the Royal Standard. The other boats were carrying other dignitaries or Royal Marines as escort. Now why might the King have such an unusual escort as a boat rowed by women? This was because Plymouth’s waterways were renowned for women providing many if not the majority of ‘watermen’ to and froing across Plymouth Sound and up and down the River Plym, Lynher and Tamar. These small gig boats tended to be used by a wide social mix of customers but especially by local landowners and aristocrats who often travelled to and from one another’s manors and houses being transported by ‘Watermen’ who often were not men at all. The high number of local female oarsmen was so widely known that it came to the ear of the King and Queen no less - and so a local boat of female ‘watermen’ was provided as a royal escort. The procession of boats duly rowed their way from Plymouth Dock across Plymouth Sound and up the Cattewater with the women oarsmen given pride of place on the right hand side of the King. They all rowed up to the Amphitheatre along the River Plym (which can still be clearly seen from the Embankment Road) where they were met by the Parkers and transported to Saltram House.
This is by no means the first Royal connection to the female ‘watermen’ of the local area. The Black Prince was said to have conferred free passage across the River Tamar to the people of Saltash due to being ferried urgently to Devon by two Saltash women to join his fleet before it set sail to fight in the Hundred Years War. They had refused to accept any payment for such an illustrious passenger and he was much taken with their prowess and their charity. The fact that there were two female watermen ferrying the Prince of Wales in the 14th Century illustrates that this was a profession already long in existence. It is hard to know exactly how many centuries previous to this women were ferrying paid passengers along these waterways but we can assume it was in no ways seen as unusual.
Then there is the story of Ann Glanvillle from the 19th Century - another female rowing resident of Saltash. She was born only five years after the above painting was painted. This remarkable woman had 14 children but worked as a ‘waterman’ alongside her husband even after he was too ill to work. One local recalls how she would regularly haul up to 80 bags of corn alone from Sutton Harbour upstream to Butt’s Head Mill north of Saltash. She got together an all female team of rowers for local regattas but such was their fame and prowess they were frequently invited to regattas across the country and even abroad to race. They went unbeaten by other female teams and were extremely competitive when racing against men often beating many if not all of the all-male teams. She became so well known that ships and sailors would hail or salute her as they passed her plying the local waterways deep into old age. Interestingly one of her sons would serve on HMS Galatea (which has an obelisk dedicated to it in Devonport Park) which was captained by the Duke of Edinburgh (Victoria’s second son Alfred) when it circumnavigated the world in a tumultuous voyage in the 1850s. Upon its return the Duke of Edinburgh invited Ann Glanville to their celebratory dinner at the Mechanics Institute (which still stands in Devonport close to the Devonport Municipal Hall). Another officer aboard HMS Galatea was Lord Charles Beresford who also knew her son and her exploits on the waterways. He would go on to become the Admiral of the Atlantic Fleet. Lord Beresford and the Duke of Edinburgh invited her aboard HMS Galatea in the 1870s when the ship was involved in the construction of new Eddystone Lighthouse which opened in 1882. Apparently they got on like a house on fire and laughed heartily in one another’s company. When she died she was buried in St. Stephen’s Church in Saltash at Lord Beresford’s expense and with a Royal Marines escort and band conveying her to her burial site. Despite her fame in many ways she would be a representative of one of the last of her profession as it was the technology of steamboats and steamships that finally put paid to the arduous job of rowing passengers and cargo up and down the waterways.
Rowing is regarded as an arduous activity at the best of times and even more so when hauling heavy cargo or passengers or when the weather is inclement or when the waves are rolling in as they often did before the Breakwater was constructed. The female watermen in and around Plymouth Sound reveal that these women were respected even at the highest levels of society for doing such a physically demanding job. We often assume people in the past had rigid views of the roles of men and women in their society. The ‘waterwomen’ around Plymouth waterways showed that these conventions could be broken and to become so commonplace as to become regarded as normal practice here. So what was unusual about King George III”s female escort through Plymouth Sound in 1789 was that in this part of the world it wasn’t regarded as unusual at all!
Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article
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