Barges

The Thames Sailing Barge – a brief history

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As recently as the 1950’s one of the waterborne equivalents of the 44 tonne articulated lorry was the sailing barge ‑ The Thames Sailing Barge, to use its proper name. The difference was that the barge had three or more times as much carrying capacity and relied mostly on completely free and un‑taxed forms of energy to move bulk cargo from place to place… the elements ‑Wind and Tide.

The barge was developed and rigged so that she could be worked 52 weeks of the Year in winds of up to Force Eight on the Beaufort scale. The Thames Sailing Barge is recognised as a masterpiece of sailing ship technology. 5000 square feet of sail could be spread by one man from the foot of the mast in a couple of minutes. It is not our way to celebrate our achievements ‑ perhaps because they are so plentiful, but this humble vessel deserves our unqualified admiration for its subtle sophistication and all‑round handiness.

Distributing cargoes

Industrial-Thameside

The Port of London had, since before the Romans came, been pre‑eminent as the port of entry to the Kingdom. The river Thames is navigable by large sea going vessels right into the heart of the City. Throughout our history all the paraphernalia needed for international trade was to be found along the banks of the Thames. The political will, with crown and parliament at Westminster, the merchants and money from the City, shipbuilding technology at Deptford and Blackwall and armaments at the Tower. All of these could be reached on a tide.

The coming together of all these key elements produced a need for an effective, reliable and low cost distribution system. Bulk cargo could be off loaded and taken to warehouses or to the smaller ports and landing places along the river Thames and to the coastal counties that serviced the ever growing metropolis of London and, by the rivers that ran North, South and West. And so the barge or its predecessor was born.

The flexible carrier

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The barge ‑ a large floating wooden box for moving cargo from ship to shore or vice‑versa. The word barge probably comes from the Latin Barca. Small, shallow draft boats on Thames, Medway and surrounding rivers, have been variously called hoys, barges, lighters, wherrys, peter boats, tilt boats, smacks, and bawleys. Names were also given to the function or purpose of the vessel, ferry or canal boat, for example. It was only later, as sailing technology developed that boats, including barges, were identified by the way they were rigged, spritsail, boomie, stumpy, ketch, for the barges. Ship, Brig, Barque, Barkentine, Schooner for deep‑sea vessels.

Earlier, reference was made to landing places and this is very significant, because many of the places that were accessible by water 52 weeks of the Year, did not have a quay or harbour. Because of her origins as a floating wooden box, the barge had a flat bottom, which she retained, as hull shapes were refined. This meant that the barge could be beached and horse drawn carts would be brought to the landing place to be loaded at low tide. This function of the barge gives explains the characteristic shape of the hull that uses lee boards that may lowered to provide stability under sail instead of a fixed deep keel.

Dawnandwivenhoe

On the River Blackwater, Stone is a typical beach‑landing place where a barge could be beached safely. Hay from the farms on the Dengie Hundred could be loaded at low water for the thousands of horses working in London in former times. The horses provided a valuable return cargo, suitable for dressing the fields. We call that an eco’ system nowadays. I will leave you wonder what the bargemen called it ‑ they were noted among seamen for their colourful use of language. The gradual evolution of the barge, during times that changed things slowly and over several generations, produced subtle developments in the basic design of the floating, wooden box. Ideas on the rig and techniques in building were borrowed and adapted, materials gradually improved in strength and reliability and progress, driven always by market forces, made its impact on the humble barge, as it still does on everything that we strive to achieve.