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Nelson’s Last Voyage on the Royal sailing barge, 1806

My grandmother, who was called Phyllis Bennett, who told me when a child that the Bennetts go back several centuries on the Thames, as Members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

I visited the Guildhall Library to look at some of the Apprentice records for the Bennetts and as far back as the 1700s in beautiful handwriting the books list son apprenticed to father over many generations, all named Valentine Bennett! I didn’t have time to look further back in time – but I have fond imaginings of one of my ancestors ferrying Henry VIII or Elizabeth I (or Thomas More) upriver to Hampton Court or downriver to Greenwich!

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Watermans Hall

In Victorian times the Bennett clan gravitated to Gravesend, where there are still branches of the Bennetts living today (one or two still even plying the barges on the River). Our particular branch, thanks to increasing public education, seem to have moved up the Embankment onto dry land and started to move into clerical jobs in the Civil Service as they became more literate.

My Granny’s sister, Great-Aunt Connie, ended up working in the Foreign Office for one of the Under-Secretaries in the middle of the twentieth century. Having myself spent my childhood in Africa after my mother married an overseas civil servant, fate brought me back to London in adulthood – and I feel a special thrill about being working in the vicinity of what I see as my ancestral river! I married an Egyptian and have sailed up and down the Nile (also a sacred river) but the Thames has that added dimension and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen have agreed to scatter my ashes on it when the time comes.

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Lighter in Poplar Docks 1932

(Top image courtesy of the National Archives UK Flickr photostream
Bottom image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum Flickr photostream)