The River Thames was until the middle of the nineteenth century a main thoroughfare of London. From the fifteenth century water-borne pageantry was an important part of London life. The first reference to a barge in the Grocers’ Company archives appears in 1436, when one was hired. It was not until 1637 that the Company decided to purchase its own. Livery company barges were the Rolls-Royces of their time, and powerful symbols of status and prestige. They certainly had hard use. The barge bought in 1637 had to be repaired in 1640 and again in 1653, and was replaced with a new one in 1662.
Another barge was completely rebuilt in 1760.Although there are many paintings featuring the pageantry on the Thames, and especially that connected with the Lord Mayor’s Show, it is difficult to ascribe with certainty any barge depicted in them to the Grocers. A discovery of two designs for a Grocers’ Company barge in the archives of the Goldsmiths’ Company is therefore of great excitement. Although undated they must surely relate to the decommissioning of the Grocers’ barge in 1806, when the Company had to decline the invitation to join Lord Nelson’s funeral procession, when his body was taken from Greenwich up the Thames to Whitehall, on January 8, as the barge was out of action. From draft estimates and contracts that survive, and dated 1805, we know that the Grocers were debating whether to commission an entirely new barge or rebuild and refurbish the old. At £1,880 for the former, and £1,150 for the latter the Grocers chose the cheaper option. The designs probably relate to the discussions the Company had with Richard Roberts barge builder of Lambeth who oversaw the work of joiners, carpenters, carvers and painters. A contract was drawn up between the Company and Rogers on 12th December 1805, promising the completion of refurbishment by 15 July 1807. By 1843 this barge ‘was condemned as unfit for use’, the Wardens engaging a steam boat for the next Lord Mayor’s Day. It was sold two years later. The last river procession was held in 1856, ending some four hundred years of tradition.