At the quay outside Wensum House

At the quay outside Wensum House Norwich, June 1971.

On 31 October 2011 I  did a blog on the Thames Barge Cambria. She visited Norwich seven or eight months after she was retired from commercial trading in October 1970.  Her last cargo had been cattle cake to Ipswich docks. She was kept under sail power long after the other barges had been left to rot, were broken up or converted to yachts. Her skipper was Bob Roberts and although his barge Cambria was the last to use only the wind for power I can remember others; these were motorised barges. A few of these came up the river Yare to Norwich in the 1950s. Their cargoes would have been grain for Read’s flour mill in King Street. Their top masts had been taken down so they appeared as “stumpies”, and whether they still used sail at all I do not know.

These barges, together with many of the small freighters that traded to Norwich, were owned by F. T. Everard & Sons Ltd. They were not the well-preserved leisure craft that are now the only Thames Barges we are ever going to see. These were workaday craft that had to earn a living however they could, and they were worked hard and looked rough, though in an endearing way. Many barges were employed in taking bricks and cement to building sites in London from North Kent, but others would take lime down stream from kilns in East Anglia or malt from Snape to London. The river Orwell was a particular magnet for Thames Barges while they still had a commercial use, and once the trading had ceased Pin Mill became the East Anglian centre of the leisure Thames Barge.


MARTIN LUTHER (note the fish carved at the bow). 1958

The Martin Luther had been built in 1884, spending her working career carrying bricks from the Medway and latterly taking Portland cement into London. When her trading life was over she was taken up the river Blyth in Suffolk. There she settled into the mud, never to sail again. She was broken up in 1960 but for the last 30 years or so of her life she was used as a houseboat. With no mast or rigging she lay on the Southwold side of the river, where she appeared as a charming piece of history when I was a child on holiday at the seaside resort.

I suppose the action of the water and mud on her underside eventually made her unsuitable even for summer holidays. The reason she took to the mud at Blackshore so well is that she was flat-bottomed as all Thames Barges were. With leeboards instead of a keel they were designed for the muddy estuaries  of south-east England. When the tide went out these craft could remain upright, unlike keelboats which needed beach legs; lacking these they would heel over at a steep angle which was distress for any cargo. These keelboats required a berth which retained enough water to float them at all states of the tide.

Being crewed by a man and a boy, and relying on wind power only to get around they did not cost much to run. The times were against them however; by 1970 it was getting increasingly hard to keep young men as crew-the pay wasn’t good and the work was hard. Also it was getting difficult to find dockers who were prepared to load and unload the barges. This could not be done with modern equipment and meant a lot of manual labour. Moreover the craft were getting old by the 1950s, they had nearly all been built before the First World War.  They were mostly built of wood, although some of the later vessels were made of steel.

The typical Thames Barge was about 85 feet long with a beam of 20 ft. They had four sails, a foresail, tops’l, mains’l and mizen. These were a reddish brown colour. A stumpy, which had no top mast (hence the name), had no topsail either of course. The advantage of this cut down rig was that it made lowering the mast to navigate bridges that much easier. On the upper reaches of the rivers and creeks that the Thames barges plied such hazards were common. In 1940 Thames Barges were among the little ships that went across the North Sea to Dunkirk to evacuate the British Army. One of the large steel built barges, the Ethel Everard, was lost on the beach in France.




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