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Thames sailing barge

Updated: 2017-07-18T11:50Z
Thames barge, Edith May, sailing on topsail alone on the River Medway

A Thames sailing barge is a type of commercial sailing boat once common on the River Thames in London. The flat-bottomed barges with a shallow draught and leeboards, were perfectly adapted to the Thames Estuary, with its shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers. The larger barges were seaworthy vessels, and were the largest sailing vessel to be handled by just two men .[1] The average size was about 120 tons and they carried 4,200 square feet (390 m2) of canvas sail in six working sails. The mainsail was loose-footed and set up with a sprit, and was brailed to the mast when not needed. It is sheeted to a horse, as are the foresails so need no attention when going about. The topsail was the main working sail in heavy weather, the upper reaches of the rivers and constricted harbours. It is controlled from the deck by halliards, in-hauls and sheets. The mizzen boom is sheeted down to the rudder- assisting the helm. The masts are mounted in tabernacles so they can be lowered to shoot bridges with little loss of headway. The bowsprit where fitted could be 'topped' where space was limited.[1]

The barges also traded much further afield, to the north of England, the South Coast, the Bristol Channel and to continental European ports. Cargoes varied enormously: bricks, cement, hay, rubbish, sand, coal, grain and gunpowder. Timber, bricks and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain was carried loose in the hold. They could sail low in the water, even with their gunwales beneath the surface.

They sailed the Medway and Thames in a ponderous way for two-hundred years; then in the 1860s a series of barge races were started, and the barges' design improved as vessels were built with better lines in order to win. The Thames barge races are the world's second oldest sailing competition, second to the America's Cup.

Build and rigging

The vast majority of barges were wooden hulled (although a significant number were also built in steel), between 80–90 ft (24–27 m) long with a beam of around 20 feet (6 m). The hull form was as distinctive as their rig, being flat-bottomed with a degree of flare to the sides and plumb ends. The stern was a transom, shaped like a section through a champagne glass, on which was hung a large rudder. The hull was mainly a hold with two small living areas in the bow and stern, and access was through two large hatchways, the smaller before the main mast and a much larger aperture behind.

Sails on a Thames barge

They were usually spritsail rigged on two masts. Most had a topsail above the huge mainsail and a large foresail. The mizzen was a much smaller mast on which was set a single sail whose main purpose was to aid steering when tacking. The rig also allowed a relatively large sail area on the upper part of the mast, to catch wind when moored ships, buildings or trees blocked wind on the water's surface. Sail areas varied from 3000-5000 sq ft (278.8-464.5 sq m) depending on the size of the barge. The typical, rusty-red colour of the flax sails was due to the dressing used to waterproof them (traditionally made from red ochre, cod oil, urine and seawater). These barges required no ballast. No auxiliary power was used originally but many barges were fitted with engines in later years.

The mast was mounted in a tabernacle at deck level and could be lowered and raised while under way, enabled the barge to "shoot bridges"-pass under bridges, on the Thames and Medway without losing headway. When no wharf was available, the barge could use the ebbing tide to stand on the mud, close to shore and offload its goods onto carts.[2] A barge with no topsail - or top mast sailing stumpy-rigged required a smaller crew. With a shallow draught, they could penetrate deep into the back waters. Not needing ballast reduced their turn-round time. Where fitted, the bowsprit could also be "topped up' - raised, to allow it to use a shorter wharf.[3]

In good conditions, sailing barges could attain speeds of over 12 knots, and their leeboards allowed them to be highly effective windward performers. The unusual sprits'l rig allowed any combination of sails to be set: even the topsail on its own could be effective in some conditions.


The precursor to the square spritsail barge was the London lighter or dumb-barge. they fltted up and down the river delivering cargo, using the incoming tide to send them up river, and the ebbing tide for the return journey. They were maneouvered by a pair of bargemen using long sweeps (oars). These barges had a flat box like bow (swim-headed) and a near flat stern, or a square sloping stern (budgett stern). There is a print in the Guildhall Library dating from 1764, showing a 1697 built, round bowed barge with a spritsail rig- but with no mizzen. [4]

Mizzenless barges, known as luff barges, were smaller and more streamlined: they principally worked the upper reaches of the Thames. In a 1752 engraving of the Chelsea Waterworks there is a stumpie with a transom stern.[5]

From 1809 -1930 EW Cooke made a series of engravings barges on the river, leaving a record of all the possible rigs.[6]

Thames sailing barges, with typical red-brown sails, in the East Swin[7]

The flat-bottomed hull made these craft extremely versatile and economical. They could float in as little as 3 feet (1 m) of water and could dry out in the tidal waters without heeling over. This allowed them to visit the narrow tributaries and creeks of the Thames to load farm cargoes, or to dry out on the sand banks and mudflats to load materials for building and brickmaking (it was no coincidence that their use peaked while London was expanding rapidly). The main mast could be lowered to clear bridges. Furthermore, unlike most sailing craft, these barges could sail completely unballasted — a major saving in labour and time. The predominant rig was spritsail, though there were some that were sloop rigged with a gaff and an overhanging boom, and some that were ketch rigged. Mulies were rigged spritsail on the main and gaff rigged on the mizzen. [8]

1863, 1864 and 1865 saw the first Thames Barge Races. These continued unbroken until 1938. The aim of the founder William Henry Dodd, "The Golden Dustman", was to raise the status of the bargemen, and to improve the performance of the barges. There were two classes, one for stumpies (under 80 tons) and one for heavier (under 100 tons) topsail barges. These were fiercely competitive - and soon new barges were being built, using the improved techniques learnt, to win the next year's race.[9] The Medway races started in 1880.[10]

Their heyday came at the turn of the 20th century when over 2000 were on the registry. That century saw a steady decline in their numbers. The last Thames barge to trade entirely under sail was the Everard-built Cambria in 1970, owned by Captain A. W. (Bob) Roberts. Roberts sailed the Cambria for more than twenty years, and gained a reputation for hard sailing and fast passages in other Everard barges.

Cambria's last mate was Dick Durham from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with whom Bob carried the last freight under sail alone: 100 tons of cattle cake from Tilbury Docks to Ipswich in October 1970. Dick wrote Bob Roberts's biography: The Last Sailorman.[11]

Following the Second World War, the coastal barge trade diminished as the nation became more mechanised. Cargoes went by road instead of by sea, squeezing the purses of the barge owners, until most of the once-handsome barges were given motors and relegated to short, lightering passages within the Thames Estuary.

The matches

Pudge leading Repertor in a sailing match on the River Colne

The barges' performance was perfected through the annual sailing matches, in which they competed for trophies and cash prizes. The matches are credited with encouraging improvements in design, leading to the craft's highly efficient final form. They were begun in 1863 by a wealthy owner called Henry Dodd. Dodd was a plough boy from Hackney, London, who made his fortune carrying the city's waste to the country on the barges. He may well have been the model for Charles Dickens's character the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend. On his death in 1881, Dodd left £5000 for future match prizes.

The Thames and Medway barge matches were temporarily discontinued in 1963. In the matches that year, the Spinaway C (skippered by George Morgan) won the Thames race and came second in the Medway. The Memory came second in the Thames (skippered by Hedley Farrington) and first in the Medway (skippered by "Dick" Springett). These two were the very last of the restricted staysail barges to win the old classic races.[12]

The matches have ceased and been reinstituted several times, and are now considered the world's second oldest sailing race (after the America's Cup). The course was originally from Erith upriver, but as of the early 20th century the start was moved to the Lower Hope downriver from Gravesend into the Estuary and back to Gravesend.

2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Thames Match - and to celebrate the finish line was at Erith. There is a full programme of races in 2017 on the Medway and Thames.

The 109th Medway barge race took place on Saturday 3 June 2017. The course was 29 miles (47 km) from Gillingham Pier, following the channel to the Medway buoy east of the Nore in the Thames and back to Gillingham. The 110th is scheduled for 19 May 2018.[13]

Operation Dynamo - the Dunkirk evacuation

Thirty barges were part of the fleet of 'Little Ships' that rescued soldiers of the retreating British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkerque. Eighteen vessels returned: one of these, Pudge, was harmed by a mine but has been fixed up and is still used on the rivers today; another, the Ena, was abandoned by her crew in France but was floated and sailed home carrying a group of soldiers with only holiday sailing experience. [14]


Inspired by a mention of the Norfolk Wherry Trust in Hervey Benham's book Down Tops'l, the Thames Sailing Barge Trust was founded on 15 April 1952 in the cabin of the sailing barge George Smeed, anchored at Blacktail Spit in the Thames estuary.[15] The committee members were Jim Lawrence (chairman), Colin Leggett (treasurer), John Kemp (organizing secretary), and Tom Hawkins. In 1955, the trust bought the sailing barge Memory, which it operated as a cargo vessel until 1960 when the trust was dissolved. The Thames Sailing Barge Trust referred to here was not the same body as the current organization with the same name.

Barge blocks for scraping barnacles and applying anti-fouling paint at Cooks Yard, River Blackwater

The Memory was bought from the trust by Sailtrust Limited, a partnership between John Kemp and Brian Beer. Following a suggestion by Hervey Benham, she was converted for use as an adventure training ship. However, the company was unable to make sufficient money from adventure training and they operated the Memory as a weekend charter vessel with John Kemp as the skipper. The Memory was the first sailing barge to engage in charter work.

In April 1965, Sailtrust Ltd were contracted to the London Borough of Redbridge to take parties of school children sailing, each week from April to October. This contract lasted for eleven years. During the second year of this contract, the Board of Trade tightened up the regulations for charter vessels and the Memory could no longer be used for that purpose. She was replaced by the auxiliary sailing barge Thalatta, previously owned by R & W Paul and operated as a cargo ship until 1966. Both barges were skippered by John Kemp, with Jane Benham as mate. Operation of the Thalatta was eventually taken over by the East Coast Sail Trust.

See also


  1. ^ a b Underhill 1938.
  2. ^ March 1948, p. 15.
  3. ^ March 1948, p. 11.
  4. ^ March 1948, pp. 17-19, 21.
  5. ^ March 1948, p. 19.
  6. ^ March 1948, p. 22.
  7. ^ East Swin is a deep channel to the east of Foulness Point, Essex: Admiralty Chart SC5606, April 2004)
  8. ^ March 1948, p. 24.
  9. ^ March 1948, pp. 122-151.
  10. ^ March 1948, pp. 122-167.
  11. ^ Durham, Dick (1990). The Last Sailorman. London: Terence Dalton. p. 168. ISBN 978-0861380671. 
  12. ^ Kemp, John: A Fair Wind For London, page 114. Sailtrust Ltd, 1983.
  13. ^ Medway Barge Sailing Match Programme,Saturday 3rd June 2017
  14. ^ Essex Family History 2015.
  15. ^ Kemp, John: A Fair Wind For London, page 18. Sailtrust Ltd, 1983.
  • March, Edgar J (1948). Spritsail barges of the Thames and Medway. London: Percival Marshall. 
  • "Thames Barges at War Essex Family History". Retrieved 19 May 2017. 
  • "Simple Guide to the Thames Barge". Retrieved 27 May 2017. 
  • Underhill, Harold A. (1938). Sailing Ship Rigs and Rigging (Second (1955) ed.). Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson Ltd. 

External links

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