A Waterman is a person who navigates a boat carrying fare paying passengers. In early years these boats would have been some form of rowing boat, sometimes with sails.
A Lighterman is a person licenced to load and unload ships and barges with a lighter and to transport cargo.
The service of a Waterman was much demand in early times in London as the river was the most important artery through London. The roads were in a very poor state and horse drawn transport was slow, much to the advantage of the Waterman. In the early 17th century John Taylor, a Westminster Waterman and later a writer and poet, together with the Company was successful in preventing the introduction of hackney carriages onto the streets of London for a period of 35 years, unless their journeys ended at least two miles from the river!
Over the years the Waterman and Lighterman gained many other skills connected with the river industry. They performed local pilotage duties in the docks and on the river and acted as a helmsman or safety officer aboard large foreign vessels.
In 1514 Parliament found it necessary to introduce some form of control over the forty thousand men earning a living on or about the river and introduced an Act regulating fares on the Thames. The Watermen, however, continued to act independently. In 1555 another Act was passed appointing "Rulers" for all Watermen and Wherrymen working between Gravesend and Windsor. Thus the Company of Waterman was born.
The Act also introduced an apprenticeship for a term of one year for all boys wishing to learn the Waterman's trade. In 1603 the apprenticeship was extended to seven years. Originally the boys were bound for seven years to a Master who was a Freeman. The Master was responsible to house, clothe and feed his apprentice and even had to consent if the boy wanted to marry before he was freed after his seven year apprenticeship, normally when he was 21 years old.
In 1700 the Lighterman, who hitherto had been members of the Woodmongers' Company, succeeded in petitions to the Parliament and the Act of that year brought them into the Waterman's Company.