The White Death, and the beginning of the end of the Watermen and Lightermen’s Tribe.
Joseph Reuben was the couple’s only son to survive into adulthood. With his Father gone, and his Mother remarried to Levi Hill, he was apprenticed as a Butcher’s Boy by his Redknap relations in Hampton Wick back at the west end of the Thames. But it would not be long before he was in the Tribe of Lightermen working with his Redknap and Pressman relatives up at the docks around East London, where he met and married Harriet Patterson, a Mariner’s daughter, in 1863.
Conditions in the cramped living conditions of East London were very different from the leafy lanes and terraced cottages of the watermen in Twickenham. Diseases stalked the east London tenements and courts, especially “The White Death” colloquially called Consumption; because it consumed it’s victims, withering them away to pale thin wrecks. This was Tuberculosis, TB, or Phthisis as it was called at the time, and in the spring of 1876 Joseph Reuben became a victim, weakening, losing weight, coughing up blood, losing the ability to work effectively, until his death in the cold winter month of February 1877 after a nine month illness. His mother Sarah (now Sarah Hill) reported his death.
As TB could incubate in families, sometimes with no obvious outward symptoms for decades, parents would infect children and children their siblings and their own children over generations, in this germ ridden environment it is quite possible that Joseph Reuben’s father, Joseph Edward Redknap may have disappeared from the records if he was suffering from the disease and died in the workhouse or on the river without properly being entered in the records. The White Plague may have been haunting the family.
The Dockers Tribe
Joseph Reuben was the couple’s only son to survive into adulthood. With his Father gone, and his mother remarried to Levi Hill, he was apprenticed as a Butcher’s Boy by his Redknap relations in Hampton Wick back at the west end of the Thames. But it would not be long before he was in the Tribe of waterman working with his Redknap and Pressman relatives up at the docks around East London, where he met and married Harriet Patterson, a Mariner’s daughter, in 1863.
After Joseph’s early demise, Harriett keeps body and soul together for the family by moving in with a Norwegian Mariner, Arent Anderson. It wasn’t that unusual for a attractive Cockney Widows to marry Scandinavian sailors plying their trade between the Frozen North and the Port of London. Arent agreed to Marry Harriett in 1880 once she fell pregnant by him, but managed, by being away at sea for much of the following 15 years to put off actually marrying her. Despite this she bore him two daughters in 1881 and 1891, eventually marrying him in 1895, and dieing a year later, perhaps the marriage was a concession by Arent to Harriett before her health finally failed her. Her demise would cause her husband to settle for a while in Poplar working as a Dock Labourer, bringing us into contact with the Docker’s Tribe. But fate would be cruel to the family and Arent would die in 1907 while away at sea in Norway, leaving £15 2s to his eldest daughter Harriett to administer.
Levi George William Redknap (Harry Redknapp’s Great Grandfather) worked as an errand boy after his father Joseph Reuben’s death, to help bring some money into the household prior to his mother taking up with Arent Anderson. Levi graduated from that to the obvious employment in the Docklands of a Dock labourer; the opportunities for Watermen and Lightermen had dwindled thanks to the more efficient transport of steamships, that had forced the muscle power of the Watermen and Lightermen off the Thames and into the Docks, using their muscles to unload sacks of goods instead of boats.
The Tribe of Watermen and Lightermen had had its day, and was entering the twilight of its existence, to dwindle to a shadow of its former numbers into the Twentieth Century.
The transition from Boatmen to Dock Labourers was a desperate one. This was not an upward move brought about by new technologies, this was a trade and its associated Tribe collapsing, leaving the descendants of the Tribe to scramble as best they could for whatever other work they could get, which, around the Docks, was Dock Labouring; this would turn into the London Tribe of Dock Labourers. Levi did have an advantage, in as much as being a Lighterman from a long line of Watermen and Lightermen on both sides of his parents’ families, he would have stood higher in the dockside pecking order. Well connected through friends and family, Levi would have found it that much easier to get into work in the dockyards, and by the time of his late teens or early adulthood Levi was working on the Dockside, albeit at the bottom of the pile as a Labourer. Despite the hardness of the times, in 1888 Levi married Ann Garner a girl from Peckham.
The Trade in the London Docks had been growing since the Napoleonic Wars. Although subject to the occasional downturn due to government legislation restricting imports and exports over the years, as a whole the tendency was upwards. With the coming of the Railways from the 1840s, allowing goods to be shipped out of the growing dockyards of London, and onto the home counties and beyond by goods train, rather than just serving the river borne and horse borne cartage area that had restricted the onsale of goods before the railways.
Although trade to the London Docks had been on the up, the same cannot be said for the wages of the Dockers. The owners of the Docks squeezed them hard, and there was widespread petty corruption on the part of the Foremen and their cronies, the “Royals”; friends and family of the Foremen, deciding who would get work on which day.
Wages were starvation level for a common Dockside Labourer, at 5 pence an hour. The Dockers were demanding “The Dockers’ Tanner” six pence an hour, plus a small bonus for unloading a ship ahead of schedule, and 8 pence an hour for overtime; trivial amounts by today’s standards, but in an age when Labouring Dockers had to literally fight each other at the Dock gate for the jobs on offer whilst the Foremen and Royals looked on and laughed, the Dock owners felt that their Labour force was ripe for exploitation.
The scene had been set over the previous two years when the Match Girls had gone on strike and won, followed by the Gas workers at Becton. Unions for the more skilled workers on the Docks were already in existence, and a power struggle ensued to control a Union for the common Dockside Labourers. This struggle was ultimately won in 1889 by Ben Tillet. In the same year Dockers down tools and walked off the job, Tillet pounced, declared a strike, and garnered support from not only the other dockside unions and other workers, but also from the Catholic Church, whose Priests saw first-hand the hardships and deprivations of their mainly Irish Catholic Parishoners in the London Docks, as well as being in the spirirt of an edict from the Pope who had spoken out against both exploitative Capitalism, and Revolutionary atheistic Socialism, both of which were rife in Europe.
Levi would have been in the thick of this situation, times would have been hard to say the least, no work meant no money, breaking the strike would mean fist fights day in and day out with the rest of the community while the strike lasted, solidarity and holding their nerve was the only option, and the support was massive, 100,000 people marching from the east End to Hyde Park for a rally showing support for the striking Dockers, the Government was jittery, there was the whiff of Revolution from the unwashed masses of the East End a nightmare in the making. However, the strikers had to tread a careful line, as working class protests had been physically broken up by Police and the Army with great violence by both protestors and the authorities a few years before.
The strikers walked a careful line, undoubtedly there was a degree of violence and intimidation, but overall the protests were treated as “Cockney Knees-ups” boisterous and physical but overlaid with a degree of hard working class humour and banter. This approach, along with the obvious reasonableness of the strikers’ demands, plus the backing of the greater working class community, the Unions, and the overt backing of a number of authority figures including the Catholic Church, swayed the balance in the Dockers favour. The popular rising of the Unions worked, and within a month, the Dock owners capitulated and the Dockers got their Tanner.
Life got a bit better in the Docks after this, and Levi and Ann’s family grew with five sons born between 1889 and 1909. But times were still hard, with the last two boys born in 1900 and 1909 both died young at four and two respectively, followed by Levi himself in 1910.
With the death of Levi, his eldest son William (Harry Redknapp’s Grandfather who started spelling Redknapp with two “P”s at this time) followed his father into the Docks, and his younger brother George started work as a Milkman. The First World War interrupted the precarious existence of the family, and William enrolled in the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade.
If you would like your own Family Tree researched, and your Family Story written up, please contact:
for more details.