John Taylor – Water Poet

Today’s post is about the little-known poet John Taylor, who worked as a ferryman in London, rowing people back and forth across the Thames to the theatres on Bankside.

Taylor was born in Gloucester in 1578, and in the early 1590s he moved to London and became apprenticed to a waterman in Southwark. As well as ferrying passengers across the Thames, a vital service since there was only one bridge in London at this time, the Watermen’s Company also supplied men for the navy in times of war. In 1596, Taylor took part in Essex’s expedition to Cadiz. He also may have been at Ostend during the siege of 1601-4. He completed his apprenticeship in 1597, and in 1612 he married. The identity of his wife is uncertain, but she may have been known as Abigail Miles. The couple settled on Bankside in London and lived there until 1643. In 1605, Taylor was appointed Bottleman at the Tower of London. The job essentially involved Taylor rowing out to the incoming ships transporting wine, and demanding two large bottles as payment due to the Lieutenant of the Tower.

Taylor’s natural wit and polite manner, as well as his charming personality, meant he stood out from the rough men working the Thames. He often conversed with the courtiers he ferried back and forth, and in 1613, Viscount Haddington recommended Taylor become one of the King’s Watermen; a liveried group which served the crown on ceremonial business. Taylor also became spokesman for the Watermen’s Company on official business, and in 1614 he pressed a suit to the King on their behalf, protesting against the building of new theatres north of the river. To relocate the theatres would be a serious blow to the Watermen’s trade, since they relied on the huge numbers of visitors crossing the river to the Globe and other theatres on Bankside for their trade. Despite support from Francis Bacon, the King ignored the Watermen’s protestations.

Taylor’s strong links with the Bankside theatres meant he was in continual contact with playwrights, poets and actors. As a result he developed a love of books and writing. In 1612, he published his first collection of poetry, The Sculler.


To the whole kennell of AntiChrists hounds, Priests, friers, monks, and Iesuits, mastiffs, mongrells, Islands, Spanniells, blood-hounds, bobtailetike, or foysting-hound: the Sculler sends greeting.

Curse, exorcize, with beads, with booke, & bell
Poluted shauelings: rage and doe your worst:
Use conjurations till your bellies burst,
With many a Nigromanticke mumbling spell,
I feare you not, nor all your friends that fell
With Lucifer: ye damned dogs that durst
Devise that thundring treason most accurst,
Whose like before was never hatchd in hell:
Halfe men, halfe devils, who never dreamd of good,
To you from faire and sweetly sliding Thames,
A popomasticke Sculler war proclaimes,
As to the suckers of imperiall blood.
An Anti-Jesuit Sculler with his pen,
Defies your Babell Beast, and all his den.

In The Sculler, Taylor makes various derisive comments about his fellow writers, including Thomas Coryate, famous for his Crudities published in 1609. This led to a bitter pamphlet war. In 1614, he became involved in another conflict, this time with William Fennor. The two arranged a contest at the Hope theatre, but Fennor failed to turn up, and the packed house all but rioted against Taylor in their disappointment. In addition to personal verse, Taylor also wrote commendatory poetry on public events, such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613. He counted many of the well-known writers of the time among his friends, including Samuel Daniel, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Samuel Rowlands.

Despite this illustrious company, Taylor failed to achieve recognition as a poet. He embarked on several voyages, which he documented in print, and continued to work as a Waterman. In 1625, he was one of the royal wherrymen to escort the new queen, Henrietta Maria, to Oxford to escape the plague. However, with the disintegration of Charles I’s rule, Taylor became something of a political commentator. He wrote a series of polemical pamphlets defending the episcopal church and satirising the radicals; these pamphlets

were designed to boost morale rather than convince the uncommitted, and the tone was jaunty and confident. Taylor was more concerned to establish appropriate images for the king and his enemies than plunge into the details of the issues at stake, largely beyond him and many of his readers. He presented the king’s war as a defensive struggle, with Charles a good protestant upholding the established church and his traditional prerogatives against hypocritical and aggressive parliamentary enemies.

Taylor’s last years were spent in poverty. With no royal court, and the Watermen’s Company in the hands of his enemies, he turned his hand to inn keeping, and by 1647, he was running the Crown alehouse near Covent Garden. He continued to supplement his income with published poetry, and made several further trips which he documented in print. However failing health finally overcame him in 1653, and he was buried on 5th December in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

Taylor was never afforded serious recognition as a poet, but his flair for literary entrepreneurship ensured he was a much more prosperous writer than many of his contemporaries, and he enjoyed a successful literary career which spanned over fifty years.

Source: Bernard Capp, DNB.

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One comment

  • October 20, 2011 - 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Waldemar Januszczak, on the English 17 century painter William Dobson, contends that the older of the two men depicted in Dobson’s double portrait in the Coutauld collection is John Tayor.

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