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Monday, 24 January 2005
A brief history of Thames barges.

Few maritime sights are more evocative than that of a Thames Barge under full sail and it is difficult to believe that such magnificent vessels originated from a humble medieval boat. Centuries ago, people who lived near the Thames used a small boat to take their produce up river to London for sale. The boats had to be flat-bottomed because the Thames estuary is shallow and when the tide went out they could rest on the muddy bottom. They also had to be easy to sail so that one man could take the cargo to London while the rest of his family stayed behind to make more goods or plant more crops.

As years went by, the estuary people wanted to trade further afield, with East Coast towns like Colchester and Ipswich, which had grown bigger and richer. Knowing that many sandbanks in the coastal region would be a hazard, they built larger versions of their shallow, flat-bottomed river barges but quickly discovered that the simple square sail of the early barges was not sufficient to power these bigger vessels. A new and much larger sail had to be made, but it still had to be possible for one man, perhaps helped by his wife or son, to handle the boat. Before long a suitable design had been developed and the new sail plan was called “a spritsail rig” after the big pole, or “sprit”, which ran diagonally across the main sail.

The other problem these early coastal traders encountered came from lack of a keel. To fit a keel to the barges would have meant they wouldn’t be able to cross sandbanks or sit upright on the mud but, on the other hand, they were easily blown off course without one. The solution was to provide “leeboards”, large wooden boards which were attached to each side of the vessel and which could be let down into the water as and when required.

By the beginning of the 19th century there were hundreds of Thames barges, many of them built in Essex towns like Maldon. Often they were called after members of the owner’s family and had names which now sound old fashioned, like Edith May and Violet Maud. These boats played a vital part in Georgian and Victorian England’s economy and transport system, when roads were little better than rough tracks and horses were the only means of carrying really large loads, quickly and economically, to and from the capital.

Many of the barges carried hay for the horses which pulled the London cabs and there’s no doubt that it would have been impossible to sustain so many horses in town without this regular food supply. Often the stack of hay on the deck was so high a boy had to sit on top and tell the captain which way to steer, and barges loaded like this were nicknamed “stackies”. It wasn’t just a one-way traffic, for the barges used to return to Essex laden with manure for the fields! For more than 200 years the barges remained the best way of carrying goods from one East Coast town to another, but they often went further from home, taking supplies such as bricks to Cornwall and coming back with tin from the mines. Many used to sail to the Continent, taking woollen goods and returning with cargoes as varied as Dutch cheese, like Gouda and Edam, and stone from Bruges in Belgium.

Perhaps the finest hours of many traditional Thames barges were their last ones, for a whole fleet of them participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. For the sake of speed most were towed over, their vast holds laden with desperately needed food, water and ammunition. Just off the French coast, they hoisted their topsails and drove hard and high onto the beaches. Abandoned there, as the tide receded, they became vast dumps of vital supplies, sacrificing their own existence in order that countless lives might be saved.

Some were more fortunate, 273 exhausted soldiers boarded Tollesbury and managed to get her off the beach and hoist her sails. Dive bombers attacked her, mines exploded all around her, destroyers sank beside her but Tollesbury survived to reach Ramsgate with her cargo of soldiers. She was not the only one; Pudge brought back 300, Glenway 190 and perhaps the luckiest of all were 260 French soldiers who refloated Beatrice Maud on June 4, after evacuation had been abandoned, and made their escape in her.

Up to  50 years ago, the Thames was still full of the reddish-brown sails of these beautiful ships, but by then lorries and motor ships had become more efficient and they were coming to the end of their useful commercial life. The last barge to trade under sail was Cambria which,after she had delivered her final cargo, was lucky enough to be preserved as an example of an era in transport history. Hydrogen and Trilby worked even longer , trading with sails removed and powerful diesel engines in their place until the mid 1970s. By many other barges had already been abandoned, left to rot in East Coast creeks.

Fortunately, despite this age of mass production, people have come to appreciate fine old objects which man made with his own hands. The diesel engines, which had been the barge’s commercial downfall, now became their saviours, as powerful engine driven winches dragged them onto dry land and machines turned up new parts. Soon a whole fleet of these wonderful vessels were sailing again, for the desire to own such a beautiful ship led many people to undertake the restoration of one of the barges. However, maintaining a ship of this size is a costly exercise and beyond the resources of most individuals. Now many are company owned and help to pay for their keep by acting as hospitality vessels or taking paying guests on holiday charters. Centaur and Dunkirk veteran Pudge are owned by a club for barge enthusiasts. Anyone can join and enjoy the fun helping to maintain and sail the ships. Graceful Ethel Ada has been fitted out rather like a homely big yacht and a weekend sailing on her costs less than a stay in most hotels. Xylonite is operated by a charitable trust, which provides low-cost sailing holidays for young people.

All the barges which offer holiday breaks sail the traditional routes of their trading days, visiting towns and villages which are steeped in history. You might go to Maldon, where so many of them were built, or moor in Ipswich’s historic inner dock, by the Victorian grain mills they once served, or you could anchor near the Orwell’s wooded shores and row ashore to the ancient “Butt & Oyster” pub at Pin Mill, haunt of bargemen for centuries. It really doesn’t matter where you sail, for to cruise anywhere on the East Coast on one of these historic vessels is an unforgettable experience.

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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