Songs and Music of the River Thames

Working River is an open-ended joint project between the General Federation of Trade Unions Educational Trust and Folktree Recordings designed to collect and popularise music and verse recording the lives and deeds of those who live and work around the Thames, one of the most famous rivers in the world.

While we know a lot about the deeds of the rich, the details of the lives of working people are largely hidden histories. It is their songs and words that tell the stories, legends and deeds of those who so often go unheard or are even lost completely with each turn of the tide.

We have produced an initial CD of 21 songs to showcase just some of the music and song, new and old, that tells their stories but we believe there is much more to be uncovered and researched. Therefore we want to create a memory bank on the GFTU website which holds what we have already discovered and seeks to add to our knowledge as and when new material emerges. This collective memory can inspire old and young to look into their past anew in order for us to understand our collective future.

This is open to all and, who knows, people in other regions of our country may look into their own pasts and teach us about their heritage and hidden histories as yet unknown to the wider world.

Brian Denny

Folktree Recordings

Track listing

  1. Lighterman Tom (W H Squire, arr Rees) Adam Rees A song written about the lightermen that unloaded ships before the coming of the enclosed docks.
  2. Sweet Thames Flows Softly (Ewan McColl) Joe and Jolene This song follows the fortunes of two lovers as they journey down the river.
  3. Goldspring (M G Boulter) M G Boulter This song tells the story of Goldspring Thompson who escaped during the Nore munity. Remarkably a photograph of him survives as an old man standing outside St Clement’s church in Leigh-on-Sea.
  4. Death of Parker (trad) Anne Dearman and Steve Harrison. A contemporary broadside telling the story of how the leader of the Nore mutiny was executed, buried then dug up by his wife at night and given a decent burial.
  5. Strike for Better Wages (trad) Bill Pardon A marching tune sung during the great London Dock strike of 1889 which resulted in victory and establishing strong trade unions for the first time.
  6. Sing a song a sixpence (trad) A rhyme sung by children during the great London dock strike.
  7. The Match Girls Song: (trad) The Pete Dunhill choir Another rhyme sung by striking young women and their supporters in 1888 while marching from Whitechapel to Trafalgar Square.
  8. Lizzy Little (Brian Denny) Brian Denny This song tells the story of renowned 19th century Essex smuggler Elizabeth Little who contrived a funeral to evade the customs men.
  9. Lapwing to Shore(Kate Waterfield and Charlie Skelton) Kate Waterfield and Charlie Skelton Music inspired by a visit to Two Tree Island on the Thames estuary.
  10. Miles and Miles of Mud (Jack Forbes) Hoy Shanty Crew This song describes Londoners coming down to Southend for the day only to discover the tide was out.
  11. The Sinking of the Princess Alice (trad, arr Rees) Crafting for Foes A poem put to music about the sinking of the pleasure ship Princess Alice at Wapping, the largest loss of life ever on the Thames.
  12. Stormy Weather (trad, arr Bob Roberts) Micky Denny An account of a drunk and disorderly barge trip from Rotherhithe to the Druid’s Arms in Yarmouth.
  13. The Bargeman’s Year (Goodbye Old Man) (Jack Forbes): Jack Forbes A farewell to a bargeman whose barging days are coming to an end
  14. The Last Barge (George King) The Silver Darlings A song about the last working barge on the river being laid up for the last time.
  15. The Fisherman (Trad, arr May/Cubbins) Potiphars Apprentices Taken from the album Life in the Old Dog, this song was collected from James Punt in the Old Dog pub near Brentwood in 1904 by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
  16. Jack Tar on Shore (trad, arr Harry Cox) Gavin Atkins One of the songs sung by sailors on ships sailing out of London's docks.
  17. Mudlarks (Dan Forbes) Dan Forbes Mudlarks were bedraggled figures who scavenged in London’s river and sewers to scratch out a living by selling the articles they found.
  18. There’s a Place in Heaven (Tony Prior) Tony Prior A song documenting the Herculean trials of fisherman Michael Tomlin who rowed from Southend to London to sell his catch before it rotted.
  19. My River (Kitti Theobald) Kitti Theobald A personal love letter to the Thames recorded live here at a local singaround.
  20. London is the Place for Me (Aldwyn Roberts) Oss and Dave A rendition of a song performed in 1948 by the ‘King of Calypso’ Lord Kitchener before he disembarked at Tilbury dock from the Empire Windrush which brought workers from the West Indies to Britain.
  21. Rolling Down the River (Jack Forbes) Jack Forbes and friends A celebrated song sung around the world recorded here in 2014 in Southend during an evening to honour the work of Roy Palmer.