The Thames barge


The development of the Thames sailing barge
The Thames sailing barges we see today have been evolving since the Middle Ages and, through their various uses as training vessels, private yachts and corporate hospitality centres, continue to evolve today.

In The Middle Ages, the forerunners of the Thames barges were, simple flat-bottomed small to medium sized open vessels designed to ply the creeks and estuaries of South East England, probably rigged with a single mast and one large square sail.

D Goodburn, The marine archaeologist, in a paper on boatbuilding in the fourteenth century presents an illustration of a curved ended, round bottomed cargo carrier with extensions below the bow and stern rather than lee boards to reduce drift. Known as Hulks and superseded for ocean going work by handier Cogs These could perhaps be thought of as the forerunners of the barge. (see “A brief and concise history of medieval shipping”

Decks were introduced to these early vessels, not only keeping the cargoes dry but also making the barges more seaworthy, a good thing as trade across the Channel developed!

One of the first written records of barges trading is Daniel Defoe’s account of cargos of chalk being fetched to Essex to lighten the clay soils in the eighteenth century. A 1655 oil painting by Hendrik-Jacobsz Dubbels shows a scene of a Dutch Hay barge. The early Thames barges are likely to have been very similar.

Evolution continued apace, lee boards were fitted to reduce the downwind drift inevitable with a flat bottom and no keel, the bow shape evolved from a flat shovel shape, like a lighter, through a raked bow to the vertical stem of today.

Mizzen masts were fitted to improve handling and bowsprits to give more sail area to the bigger coasting barges.

Of the smaller craft, Essex barges generally found a bowsprit useful while their Kentish counterparts, working smoother waters, found a stays’l rig without a bowsprit, more convenient on the congested “London River”.

An 1825 illustration “Barges” by Thomas Shepherd clearly shows spritsail rigged barges and lighters in the London docks, reflecting the importance this mode of transport had attained by then.

1863 saw Henry Dodd, the so called “Golden Dustman” inaugurate the first barge sailing “Match” on the river Thames. These Matches which have recently been revived give a splendid opportunity to see the barges in action.

The nineteenth century saw barges gradually increased in size, with cargoes of 100 - 200 tons common by 1890. Later in that century came another development when the ships wheel started to replace the tiller. The first barge that we know for certain was launched with this arrangement was the Anglo Saxon in 1873 or Anglo-Norman, depending on which source you use!

Probably the last example of a barge sailing with a tiller is the Cygnet, a small 16 ton barge built in 1881 usually based at Snape Maltings. Sometimes sailed single-handed in the summer months she can often be seen attending local Barge Matches. .

The sail arrangements of barges is a story in itself. The spritsail rig is seen depicted in contemporary paintings of the Thames going back to the seventeenth century, (and was probably used by many sorts of craft for a long time before). Ketch or “boomie”, rigs were perhaps more favoured for open water work.

By the beginning of the twentieth century many ketches (such as Thalatta) were changed to spritsail rig as a crew of two could work this whereas a “boomie” required up to six hands.

A “Third Hand” would often help with the cooking and general work on board, frequently a youngster learning his trade. The Thalatta Diaries gives a first rate description of what it is like to be a Third Hand today.
The spritsail barges carried a small mizzen though some, mainly used for more sea going work, found a larger ketch rigged mizzen to be handier. These vessels acquired the inelegant, if understandable appellation “mulie.”

A further increase in efficiency was achieved by the introduction of steel barges from the nineteenth century. Needing less internal bracing and of lighter weight than the equivalent wooden barge they were able to carry greater loads at higher speeds.

The heyday of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the barge fleet travelling all around the South and Eastern coasts of Britain and up many of the rivers of Continental Europe. These barges were trading for a wide range of industries, including bricks, ballast and cement for building. (A barge specialising in carrying such a cargo was known as a “brickie”)! One barge could carry enough bricks in one cargo to build two semi detached houses.
Coastal barges carried coal from the North East, with perhaps a return trip laden with a cargo of wheat. Even the sea walls built at that time were constructed from stones transported by the barge fleet.

A flourishing trade grew up taking hay and straw to London to supply the horse drawn transport system, the return journey being made with a cargo of the recycled product to act as manure for the East Anglian farmers!

Barges in this trade were known as “stackies” from the way their cargoes were frequently stacked above deck. Usually built with slightly wider decks, some sported longer sprits to allow the mains’l to be reefed up clear of the stack. Of the current fleet, Dawn and Melissa at least were built as “stackies”.

In short, if something needed taking to or from the Capital or from farm to mill, there was a good chance it would go by barge. They were in fact, the H G V’s of their day.

It can be said that the growth of the British economy, infrastructure and hence Empire, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries depended less on “Ships of the Line” than on the humble Thames sailing barge.