Sometimes as many as five or six people piled into a boat, launching out into a street that they normally crossed on foot. Well-dressed men in bowler hats and thick woolen overcoats frequently sat next to workmen in caps and cheap jackets. Rather than using oars, boatmen propelled their craft by plunging long poles into the water and pushing off the surface of the street below, one reason why so many commentators began comparing the situation to Venice.

The pilots of these boats remain anonymous, but they were likely river workers, who would have had access to boats and knowledge of how to steer them. Passengers sometimes wondered whether this act of kindness was a form of profiteering since the police usually reimbursed the boatmen. To quell any fears of exploitation, boats piloted by police or sailors eventually replaced private boats.