Sorry to barge in

barge1Remember a couple of entries ago I mentioned visiting St Katharine’s Dock? I hope you do, because I sure as hell don’t. Suffice it to say that in future I’m going to leave vodka producing to the professionals. Anyway, while I was at St Katharine’s Dock, I found the chaps on the right.

These craft are as much a symbol of London as the Underground or the Routemaster. They are Thames barges. These distinctive craft plied the Capital’s river from the mid-seventeenth century right through to the end of the 1960s. Sailing historians, or at least the one I’m reading right now, suggest that they may have descended from Viking longships. They were designed – or perhaps “evolved” would be a better word – as a go-anywhere vessel. Their flat-bottomed hulls meant that they could operate in shallow water and, if they became stuck, they would remain upright. Their rigging could be lowered to pass under bridges, a vital quality as London grew and the number of river crossings increased. Even the distinctive red sails were coloured with practicality in mind – red ochre and seaweed were used to waterproof the canvas.

barge2They were initially developed in response to the fact that ships in the middle ages were getting larger and heavier and, correspondingly, too fat to get beyond the Pool of London. Their cargo would be transferred to those early barges, which would sail upriver. Later, it was often decided to cut out the middleman – the Thames barges were capable of coastal sailing and even made it overseas from time to time (some, for instance, made an appearance at the evacuation of Dunkirk).

Although they should, in theory, have been made obsolete by the coming of steam and diesel-powered motor boats, they were reprieved by virtue of their simplicity. They were fast enough to keep up with most river steamers, they only required a two-man crew and, of course, they used neither coal nor oil. During the World Wars, they were much in demand due to the fact that they made minimal use of the resources needed for the Front Line – no need for fuel, machine parts or able-bodied men here.

What really did for them was the decline in river trade and, ultimately, the rise of the lorry. During the 1960s, shipping began to move downstream – ships were simply too big for the docks to handle them. Lorries were seen as the better bet for flexible deliveries, particularly with the rise of container traffic. While the poor old sail barges had many advantages, they were somewhat limited by the fact that most businesses aren’t built next to rivers.

As you can see, plenty of Thames barges survive, mostly in use as pleasure craft. Fortunately for them, their decline coincided with the rise of the preservation movement in Britain, and so the future – for at least some of them – was safe.

And who knows? With the government ever-keen to promote environmentally-friendly transport, maybe we’ll someday see these square-sailed chappies recalled to life.

Further Reading – The Sailing Barge Association is dedicated to the preservation of these vessels. – If you want to buy one, here’s the place. – Footage of shipping on the Thames in 1935, including several Thames barges.


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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, East End and Docklands, History, London, Thames, Transport

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