The Twickenham Museum
People : Watermen and Divers

James Arthur Messenger
Teddington boatbuilder and Royal Bargemaster

James Arthur Messenger

Born in Twickenham and establishes Teddington business

James Arthur Messenger was born in Twickenham in 1826, the son of James and Sarah Messenger. His father worked on the river at Twickenham, probably as a fisherman, and the couple had six children. The family is mentioned in the 1841 Census as living at Water Lane, Teddington, James Senior having died and Sarah having remarried to John Francis. James Arthur became apprenticed as a waterman (a boatman who carries people by water) to his stepfather on 14th October 1841. His apprenticeship ended in 1848 and he was 'freed' on 7th November. Almost the first thing he did in his independent state was to marry a seamstress, Charlotte Sarah Johnson.

By 1851 he is described as living at 20 Water Lane with his wife Charlotte, daughter Emily aged 2 and son William aged 5 months. An 1853 trade directory lists him as 'Boatbuilder and Waterman at the Lock'. A few years later he took part in the World Sculling Championships and on 20th November 1854 he beat Tom Cole, the reigning champion, to take the title, which he held for 3 years.

Appointed Royal Bargemaster

The Queen's Watermen. Messenger is seated in the centre

In 1861 he was living at 31 Water Lane with his wife, 5 children and an apprentice, Henry Harris. He is described as a Boatbuilder and Waterman employing 4 men and 3 boys. At some point around this time, he must have been made a Queen's Waterman, an honour which is only bestowed on the most accomplished watermen.

An advertisement from 1868, describing Messenger as "Barge Master By Appointment"

In 1868 his advertisements were describing him as “Barge Master By Appointment To Her Majesty”. They also noted that he had a second boatyard in Kingston and went on to say “J.A.M. begs to state that he builds Rowing Boats of every description, Eight and Four-Oared Cutters, Pair-Oared, Sculling, Single Streaks, Canoes, Gigs, and every kind of Boats on the shortist notice, and on reasonable charges.” That same year, he purchased 2 lots of the old Maude Cottage Estate in Stanley Road for £146.00.

Business was good and Messenger's boats were successful. By 1871 he and his family had moved to 38 Ferry Road (Water Lane had been renamed). Besides James and Charlotte, the house was occupied by Emily 22, now in the business as an assistant, William 20, James A Jnr 18, Charles 16, all boatbuilders, Wilhelmina 11, Gertrude 7 and Fanny 5, all at school, Frederick Wooldridge 19, his nephew and a waterman and a domestic servant, Caroline Hallett. He is noted as Boatbuilder and Waterman employing about 30 men.

Chosen to build portable boat for Stanley's second African expedition

At this stage in his career, his reputation as a builder of one-off custom made boats was growing and soon a further commission was to add to his fame. Dr David Livingstone's body had been returned from Africa for burial in Westminster Abbey in April 1874. Henry Morton Stanley had led the pallbearers and shortly after, was summoned to the office of the editor of The Daily Telegraph, Edwin Arnold. Interest in Africa was running high after Livingstone's funeral and it was decided to fund a further expedition, in conjunction with the New York Herald, to finish the work started by Livingstone. Both papers wanted Stanley to lead it. Stanley readily agreed and the start date was set for 17th July 1874.

The Lady Alice

Stanley had designed a portable boat capable of easy inland transit to the African Lakes. The boat, which was to be built of Spanish cedar, was in five separate 8ft sections, with each section in two halves capable of being carried by porters. When assembled, the boat would be 40ft long with a 6ft beam and 30in deep. She was to be named Lady Alice after Stanley's fiancee, Alice Pike. A search for a competent boat builder was commenced. Quite what happened next is unclear but in later years the owner of the Telegraph recounted :

“At that time I had a small Country house at Twickenham, and in river matters relied upon the well-known firm of Messengers.”Stanley wrote to Messenger and met him for lunch at The Anglers Hotel. Over lunch, he explained to Messenger what was required and set out his plans for design. Messenger was pleased to take on the commission and agreed to the building, testing and shipping before the expedition date. In his next set of advertisements, he would go on describe his achievements thus :“Builder of the five-section Boat 'Lady Alice,' the Livingstone Expedition Boat; Builder of the 'Nautilus' Canoe belonging to W A Baden Powell Esq, ... Builder of the five-section twin-screw Steam Launch 'Daisy' for the Church Missionary Society etc.” He had also established another yard at Raven's Ait, Surbiton.

By 1881, James Arthur had taken something of a back seat and his son William Arthur was running the business with his nephew Frederick Wooldridge. Two other sons, Walter and Herbert were also in the business but James Jnr and Charles had both moved on. James Snr was now described solely as Bargemaster. William was doing well and was also a Queen's Waterman and deputy bargemaster, giving swimming lessons to members of the royal family.

Boatyard closures and family tragedies

At some point between the 1881 and 1891 censuses, something went wrong and the business empire fell apart. The Kingston and Surbiton yards were either sold or closed. The Royal Barge which was housed in Messenger's boathouse and “was jealously guarded by him” was moved to the Kensington Museum (it is now in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich). William was still boatbuilding along with two sons, nephew Frederick was a waterman and James had moved to the High Street and was still Bargemaster.

Disaster struck in January 1892 when his daughter Emily died. His wife, Charlotte, died in June. This must have put a strain on James and the fire seems to have gone out of his advertisements. More bad luck was to follow in November 1899 when William, aged only 48, died suddenly. Both Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice sent wreaths to his funeral. This was a blow from which James never fully recovered. Already William had been carrying out some of his duties as Royal Bargemaster and these were now taken on by a grandson. James moved into William's widow's house where he too died in June 1901.

The Messenger Empire had dispersed as quickly as it had grown.


Censuses: 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891
Phillips Directories: 1868, 1876, 1890
History Today Vol 18 1968
Mr Stanley, I Presume? The Life and Explorations of Henry Morton Stanley. Alan Gallop, Sutton Publishing, 2004

This article, by Ken Howe, was first published in TW11 Magazine, Issue 12, July 2013. Minor changes have been made for publication on the web.

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