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The Thames

John Taylor, the Water-Poet

Nowadays (depending on the traffic), a quick way to get round London might be to jump in a black cab. As you are whisked to your destination you may find your cabbie keen to regale you with his views on society’s ills and the famous people he’s had in the back.

John Taylor the Water-Poet
John Taylor the Water-Poet
© TopFoto.co.uk
Rewind 400 years and you might be haling a boat to take you across the Thames. As luck would have it, you end up in the back of John Taylor’s scull and as self-styled “Water-Poet” he would provide you with a satirical look at the days top stories – in verse! Here he is on the burning down of the Globe Theatre in 1613:


“Epigram 33 Upon the burning of the Globe

Aspiring Phaeton with pride inspir’d,

Misguiding Phoebus Carre, the world he fir’d:

But Ovid did with fiction serve his turne,

And I in action sawe the Globe to burne.”


A unique figure in the world of poetry, John Taylor was a working water boatman as well as a published poet.  He was born on August 24, 1580, and educated at Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester, where his studies ended when he couldn’t get a grasp on Latin grammar. He was apprenticed to a London waterman; that is, a member of the guild of boatmen that ferried passengers across the Thames (at this time there was still only one bridge – London Bridge). Watermen plied their trade in tiltboats, wherries and sculls – the latter was John Taylor’s choice.  It was an overcrowded profession with 4,000 men in the union in 1641. Its members were used as a naval reserve, and this is how John Taylor ended up serving in Essex’s fleet in 1596 then at Fore and at the siege of Cadiz, which probably gave him the taste for travel and adventures that he later exploited in his writing. In 1611 he published The Sculler, rowing from Tiber to Thames with his Boate laden with a hotch-potch, or Gallimawfrey of Sonnets, Satyres, and Epigrams.


He produced 150 publications in his life-time, mainly by subscription. He would pitch an idea by circulating a prospectus or “Taylor’s bill”, ask around for backers and write it when he’d collected sufficient promises of money to pay the printing costs. You can imagine him pitching to passengers as he rowed them across the Thames. Some of his works were exceedingly popular, such as The Pennylesse Pilgrimage, which told the story of his journey on foot from London to Edinburgh with no money at all. This had 1,600 subscribers so he printed 4,500 copies (although half of them decided not to pay in the end and he was forced to write a poem denouncing them!).


Taylor wrote about everything from a dog of his acquaintance called Drunkard (who had followed his master to war in France and then wouldn’t leave the corpse until someone else took his coat and wore it back to Westminster), a sonnet series on the signs of the Zodiac, An Apology for Water-men especially their unmannerly way of plying for trade, a memorial of monarchs (short poems about famous kings and queens of history), Taylor’s Motto which includes a list of popular card-games with names like “Tickle-me-quickly”, “Whip-her-ginny” and “Primifisto”, a poem about Thomas Parr who lived to be 152, a gibberish Poem In The Utopian Tongue and one of the first palindromes to be named as such: “Lewd did I live & evil did I dwel”.

The adventurer

One of his most famous Thames-related exploits began on July 24, 1619. He constructed a boat out of brown paper that was kept afloat with eight bullock’s bladders and set off down the river with oars made of giant dried fish tied to canes. While Taylor rowed, his companion Roger Bird prayed. They attracted a vast audience as they floated down the Thames and were received like heroes when they reached the shore at Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, after a record breaking journey of 40 miles downstream. The eccentric vessel was torn into pieces for souvenirs by the locals but the spin-off poem of the voyage did well in a compendium of pieces entitled: The Praise of Hempseed, with the voyage of Mr Roger Bird and the writer hereof in a boat made of brown-paper.

Find out about the recreation of this bizarre trip in 2006 here

During his life John Taylor went on ten such journeys around the UK and as far afield as Bohemia - you might find that your town has a John Taylor connection.

Full-time writing

John Taylor gave up being a waterman in 1622 to focus on his writing, publishing All the Workes of John Taylor the Water-Poet in one folio volume (63 pieces of verse and prose) in 1630. At the outbreak of the Civil War he became a publican first in Oxford, always close to his beloved Thames, then back in London. He died in December 1653. Dramatist and poet Ben Jonson said he did not “see ever any verses in England equal to the Sculler’s” but posterity has not been so kind. Unfortunately, John Taylor’s exuberant wit, brash personality and unlettered writing style have not earned him a place one of the great, celebrated, English poets. But as it says on the title page of his first ever publication: read and then judge.

Here is the Water-poet himself on the River Thames - it is perhaps not surprising that it was not an inspiration to high flown lyrical poetry:

“I was commanded with the Water Baylie
To see the Rivers clensed both nights and dayly.
Dead Hogges, Dogges, Cats, and well flayd Carryon Horses
Their noysom Corpses soyld the dunge, Beasts guts and Garbage,
Street durt, with Gardners weeds and Rotten Herbage.
And from those Waters filthy putrifaction,
Our meat and drink were made, which bred Infection.”