Our friends at The Shipowners' Club gives an insight into the rich but often overlooked history of the humble Thames Sailing Barge ahead of the Thames Sailing Barge Parade on Saturday 17 September.

“Laden deep with sugar, with barley, sand or coke, spitties keep on sailin, they were built of English oak. But their day is passing, fewer with each tide, grace old London's river, London may their rare charm abide.”
Poem, origin unknown

Origins

During the 17th and 18th centuries Thames Sailing Barges played an important role in ferrying cargo to and from ships to the London wharves. The very first barges were different from those we see today and lacked the distinctive sails which were introduced over time.

Court case statements from the 1800s paint a picture of London at the time, for instance detailing the work of the lighter men. One individual, Joseph Edward Sholl, reports that he assisted in shifting 917 sacks of oats from the ship ‘Kepler' and on to the barge ‘Henry’. One court case records a theft from one of the barges of 240 sacks of oats (and one tarpaulin!).

Barge owners needed protection from the costs of these legal disputes and Protection and Indemnity (P&I) Clubs like The Shipowners’ Club were set up to help with situations like this. In fact, after the Club’s formation in 1855 some of the earliest entered vessels were Thames Sailing Barges. 

The Heyday

The early 20th century saw the number of Thames Sailing Barges increase with over 2000 registered in Britain.

The barges remained integral to the trade and work of the Thames - no wonder, as they came in a variety of sizes that could carry from 100 tonnes, (river barges) to 300 tonnes (large coasters) to suit a range of needs.

Their unique features aided their popularity, with their shallow, flat-bottomed hull they were one of the only vessels to be able to sail along the shallow creeks of Essex and Kent. 

However, by the First World War, building was in decline. The last wooden barge to be built was Cabby in 1928, which was insured by the Shipowners’ Club for over 30 continuous years.

Pride of the Nation

The Thames Sailing Barges played a vital role in the Second World War and were converted for military use alongside other merchant ships. They had many advantages, and so were in high demand. As the barges didn’t have engines they were ideal for carrying  ammunition and explosives as there was no risk of sparks to the dangerous cargo. Powered by wind they had no use for fuel, a valuable commodity during the war.

Moreover, due to their unique rigging, barges only required a team of two people to sail them. Women and young boys often took charge of this whilst men were called up to fight.

Thames Sailing Barges were even used in the Dunkirk evacuation. Their large area of deck space and holds, were ideal to load with soldiers and transport them to waiting warships in deeper water. Sadly the barges made easy targets for the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, and many were destroyed during the evacuation.

Closer to home, several barges were moored in estuaries to act as mobile platforms for lookouts, their main duty to report German aircraft dropping mines into the sea.

Others were used as barrages, acting as a 'protection barrier' to prevent the enemy from getting onto English territory.  Several of these barges, such as Edme will be at the Thames Sailing Barge Parade at West India Dock on Saturday 18 September for the public to board and hear more about their role during the Second World War!

Decline of the barges  

In 1954 only 160 barges were still in trade. Developments in road transport and container shipping changed the way goods were transported, and motorised vessels made transferring goods quicker and more cost effective. 

As barges disappeared so did the communities, the generations of barge builders, sail makers, owners and ‘sailormen' that had grown up around them. Many barges were de-rigged and put to use as lighters. Some were turned into yachts, while others became house barges and some simply put in to lay-up. 

Don't miss The Thames Sailing Barge Parade at West India Docks on Saturday 17 - Sunday 18 September to get a closer look at these remarkable boats that have played such an important role in British history.