Dolly Fisher – ‘Tugboat Annie of the Thames’

[Thanks and apologies to isleofdogslife.wordpress.com for the inspiration and blatant ‘borrowing’ of some text and images. You know I’m always happy to return the compliment.]

Recently, a friend, Con Maloney shared with me a link to an online version the 1962 documentary, ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’. Controversial and patronising in places, it compared the life and attitudes of inhabitants of Dockland with those who had recently moved to a New Town. The Dockland area in question was the Isle of Dogs; and the documentary contains some unique and magical images and sounds of a lost world and people (OK, I admit that sounds a bit dramatic – we’re talking about 1960s London, not the lost city of the Incas). You can find the link at the end of this article.

A couple who feature larger-than-lifely (I might have made up that expression) in the documentary are the husband and wife owners of a well known barge-building firm of the time, Dorathea (Dolly) and William (Bill) Woodward Fisher of 94 Narrow St, Limehouse.

Not Islanders, not even East Londoners, but still with close links to the Island; due not only to business dealings along the river, but also to their active support for a number of good causes, including that of the Poplar and Blackwall District Rowing Club, which at the time kept its boats (or sculls, or whatever their proper name is) in a wooden shed in Ferry St and used the Princess of Wales pub (‘Macs’) round the corner in Manchester Rd as club house.

1960s broadcaster, Dan Farson, knew Dolly and Bill well, for he rented a flat above their barge-building works for many years around 1960. Farson wrote in his autobiography, Limehouse Days:

Sometimes referred to as ‘the Tugboat Annie of the Thames’, she commanded a fleet of 200 barges from her control room in her handsome house in Blackheath [actually, Lewisham], cultivating a startling resemblance to George Arliss by wearing well-tailored suits, a stock, and sometimed a monocle. Everybody obeyed her, including her husband William, a born riverman.

I grew to know the Woodward Fishers over the next few years and though Mrs. Fisher….proved a splendidly vigorous octogenarian, one of the true characters of the river, I never lost my fear of her.

Tugboat Annie is a 1933 American comedy film starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery as a boisterous and argumentative middle-aged couple who operate a tugboat.

I’ve never seen the film myself, and have no idea if the comparison is fair or complimentary. There certainly seems to have been no physical similarity,

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Dolly and Bill on the balcony of their firm. A screenshot from the 1962 documentary ‘Postscript to Empire, Britain in Transition’.

Farson again:

My first meeting was with her son Ken, a courteous young man, smooth and citified in contrast to the rough background of his parents, who started their fleet with £20 and a single barge, subsequently absorbing the wharf owned by W.N. Sparks and sons, builders of wooden sailing barges.

…he did his utmost to dissuade me, stressing that the place was unsuitable except for a hardened East Ender or impoverished students. This was followed by my first meeting with Dolly Fisher in Narrow St, where she led me to the balcony and pointed out the disadvantages  with scrupulous honesty: the excruciating scream of the electric scrapers as they removed the rust from the worn-out barges; the grime from the coal-loading wharf near by, settling a layer of black dust where we stood; the smell, or rather the stink, of the river at low tide.

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Dolly in front of the coal wharf.

Beneath her gruff exterior, with that bark of a voice frequently mistaken for a man’s as she roused her workmen from their tea-breaks on the radio, Dolly Fisher was a kind if abrasive woman, and she sensed my passion – and indeed she shared my romance with the river.

Incidentally, it was while living in the flat above the barge building firm that Farson discovered it once served as a beerhouse, named Waterman’s Arms, a name he later re-used when he purchased the Newcastle Arms on the Island.

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William wearing his Doggett’s coat and badge.

William was the winner of the coveted Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the annual rowing race of six young watermen on 1 August, started in 1716 by an actor called Doggett to commemorate the accession of George I. As a prize he offered an orange coat of antique cut with a silver badge on the right sleeve denoting the White Horse of Hannover, hence the name, though this had been replaced by a gift of money.

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Narrow St in the late 1950s, with a Woodward Fisher van parked on the left. Photo: Dan Farson.

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Woodward Fisher’s from the river.

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The tug, Billdora, which Bill and Dolly named after themselves.

https://isleofdogslife.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-woodward-fishers-of-limehouse:

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar. When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward Fisher took over the business.

She also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a club house for the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, of which her husband was a member. She was “inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse” – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.

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1960 launch of the new boat, Kenneth, in Ferry St. Dolly is peering into the boat, while Bill is standing to her left. North Greenwich railway station, on the right, made way for the new rowing club later; Manchester Rd is in the background. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith.

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1960. Dolly helping the new tenant in the Princess of Wales, Mrs Pat Pearce, to celebrate her arrival. Photo: Island History Trust / Bill Smith

In 1961, Dolly was awarded an OBE.

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She had become quite a celebrity in the conventional sense.

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Life Magazine. 1966

In 1972, the BBC made a programme about Dolly, naming it ‘Mother Thames OBE’. Nancy Banks-Smith, reviewing the programme in the Guardian, wrote:

At 77, Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher has gladdened many a heart; and to everyone on the river she is known affectionately as ‘ Mother Thames.’ Meeting Mother Thames … is an illuminating experience. Inebriating even … She is a great swell, a rip, a nut. Her clothes, her caps, her cigarette, her silver, her style, her soul are dashingly individual …

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She was often in demand for interviews; the following is an extract from one in Woman’s Weekly in 1973:

A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”

“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”

Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorathea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorathea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.

“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”

(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)

Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday in 1973 (and by now long a widow), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She should have done so four years previously, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart. She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much money these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which included three wharves on the Thames.

Women’s Weekly:

Mrs Fisher’s could easily be just another “tings ain’t what they used to be” sob-story. But it is lifted out of the ordinary by the amazing personality of the woman at its heart and by the accelerating decline of the Thames as an artery of commerce, which is a tragedy for London and Londoners.

Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”

Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”

She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.

She had a fercious sense of humour too. “Did you hear the one about the bishop and the lady learner driver who arrived simultaneously at the Pearly Gates?” she asks. “St. Peter came out and invited the lady driver in, in front of the bishop. ‘Oh no,’ said the bishop, you can’t let her in before me.’ ‘My good man.’ St. Peter replied, ‘she’s put the fear of God into many more people than you ever did’.”

She might have been talking about herself. Dolly died a few months later.

Link to film, which is well worth seeing: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-postscript-to-empire-britain-in-transition-1962/

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4 Responses to Dolly Fisher – ‘Tugboat Annie of the Thames’

  1. What an extraordinary woman! Dorothea Woodward Fisher was the owner of a property in Narrow Street sold to the writer and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter for £25,000 in 1972. In her autobiography ‘Fall Out’, J S-P recalls: “I went down to Lewisham to visit Mrs Woodward Fisher in her control room on the ground floor of a vast Edwardian villa […] She greeted me wearing her customary monocle and pin-striped man’s suit, with a parrot on one shoulder, and continued barking instructions through a two-way radio set to her employees running her fleet of barges and tugs on the Thames.”

  2. Richie Brown says:

    Hello Mick. Thanks for the article. I have posted it on the PBDRC forum as many of the newer members ask about Mrs Woodward-Fisher and by sharing this article they now have a very good idea what sort of character our ex-President and chief boathouse fundraiser was.

    I always enjoy your blog especially anything to do with the rowing club/river.

    Richie Brown

    • Thanks Richie. I was looking at the PBDRC website yesterday, the history page in particular, and was surprised to see there is no mention of the Woodward Fishers.

      That same page asks questions about this photo: http://www.pbdrc.co.uk/pbdrc1.jpg. Is that Dolly in the centre of the photo? It’s hard to tell.

      Here are some more photos that might be interesting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/islandhistory/sets/72157646548248489/

      I was myself a member of the club briefly in the very early 70s (turned out my lack of swimming ability prevented me going on the river).

      Cheers
      Mick

      • Richie Brown says:

        Hello again Mick,

        Yes that is Mrs Woodward-Fisher in the centre of the photo. The occasion would have been an annual dinner-dance at Dunster House in the City, certainly in the Sixties.
        You mention that you came to the rowing club in the early Seventies so our paths would have crossed as I was Club Captain around that time. Also, in the photo of the boat christening by Mrs Fisher I am the little lad holding the megaphone as at that time I was the crews coxswain.

        Regards
        Richie

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