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Is there a Thames Lighterman in your family?

John Kite writes:

New Brentford was an important area because of its location at the end of the Grand Union Canal and the River Thames, and so many of the local residents earned their living from water transport.

If you are researching your family tree and there is a lighterman or waterman in the family, you are lucky because: (a) there are probably generations of them - the tradition was handed down from father to son and (b) the profession was well-regulated.

A lighterman started his apprenticeship between the ages of 14-20, and The Company of Watermen and Lightermen kept meticulous records which are stored at The Guildall, London. Luckily for researchers, they have been carefully transcribed by Rob Cottrell of Kent who offers help in searching the Guildhall Apprenticeship Bindings. The Bindings show the name of the apprentice; the date he was bound; his master; his area of work, and the date of his release. The date and place of birth of the apprentice was also verified and recorded.

Family history source material can be notoriously unreliable. A census enumerator would write down (not always legibly!) what he thought he heard. If the person talking was illiterate he could not know what had been recorded. However, the excellent Guildhall records mean that all the problems, guesswork and transcription errors are taken out of searches - for example, the Guildhall records show that the Hilliards were lightermen for generations so Thomas Hillyer, lighterman in a census return is a definite error because there are no Hillyers (or Hilyards, Hillards or Hillier) for that century in the records of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. You will get far fewer irrelevant results and wasted searches and have more time to find out more interesting details of their lives!

So if there is a lighterman in your family, take a look at the excellent website at, and details of Rob Cottrell's extremely helpful services at

Thomas Hilliard lived with his family in Catherine Wheel Yard in the 1840s, but I have little other information at the moment - so if you know anything at all about any of the Hilliard families in New Brentford I'd love to hear from you.


Page published November 2009