The Thames Barge

The Thames Barge, or Spritsail Barge, was an iconic sight on the river Thames and its estuary for well over a hundred years. It is true to say that, before the coming of the railways and the motor vehicle, the Thames Barge was the truck that built London.

It had its origins in the fact that the river Thames, all the way through London and out to the sea, is tidal. Twice a day the river level rises and falls by as much as 24 feet. The result is tidal currents into and out of London that can reach as much as 8 miles an hour. So from the very start of Londinium, built by the Romans, there were barges on the Thames, floating up and down with the tides, that carried the goods that the new city needed. The simplest of these were manned and guided by just one man and a single oar, and by anchoring or mooring when the current was unfavourable, they could load goods from ships that needed deeper water or from farms or markets downstream from London, and carry them back up into the heart of the city.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that adding a sail and a rudder, and an extra man or two to help both in sailing and in loading and unloading, would make these craft more versatile and profitable. Their movements would still be dominated by the tidal currents, but if the wind was favourable, they could be much faster, and make headway for more hours in the day. And they could go further down the estuary, to where it widened into the English Channel and the North Sea, to trade all along the coastlines.

As the city grew, so of course did its trade. And the fertile flatlands of the Thames Estuary had the natural advantage of the tideway to let them produce, transport, and sell all those things that the City needed. As soon as the goods left the barge, they had to be carried through the streets to their users, and this mostly meant a horse and cart. So the most reliable of all trade goods for London came to be the horses’ fuel, hay, and it’s return load, horse manure, back out to the hayfields to grow the next crop. It was never the best paid or the pleasantest load for the barges to carry, but it never stopped. Until, of course, the coming of the motor vehicle. More and more sailing barges were built, and, with the commercial pressure to be able to pick up and carry any cargo available, they evolved special features to suit their work, shaped by the conditions of the Thames Estuary and the rivers around it.

They were flat bottomed. The land around the Thames Estuary is low-lying and the rivers shallow. So the barges were flat-bottomed to give them a shallow draught and to let them settle on the exposed flats as the tide went out so they could be loaded and unloaded by a cart driven alongside. My favourite of all the stories told about the Thames barge is that of a mate, stationed by the main mast, yelling back to the Captain, “It’s getting shallow, should we turn?” The Captain’s reply, “Is that seagull swimming or walking?”.

The mainsail was huge, and was held up by a spar that ran diagonally from the bottom of the mast to the top rear corner of the sail. From this corner a heavy rope or even a wire ran to the mast to hold up both the top of the sprit and the top edge of the sail. There were loops of line running around the back edge of the sail and back to this wire or to the mast itself, and these loops could be pulled in from a winch on the deck to fold (furl) the sail against the mast. The loops were called the brails and the process, brailing. Similar brails were used on the huge topsail that flew above the mainsail, on the mizzen, and on the lower foresail. So all the red sails on the picture could be furled by a single man working from the deck, in spite of their size and weight. If the mainsail had a gaff, like the mizzen sail, it would be so heavy that it would need two or three men to raise and lower it. There just isn’t the money in a cargo of manure to pay extra men. With the spritsail rig, all these sails would come down just once a year, to be spread on the dock and repainted with the preservative mix. (Red Ochre, Linseed Oil, and Horse Urine!). The white foresails in the picture are a much lighter canvas, flown only in light winds.

The main topmast was held in a special pair of brackets on the top of the lower mainmast, and it could be slipped down by a tackle to lie along the front of the mainmast. To do this the two fore topsails would be taken off and their stays dropped to the deck. The stay that supported the lower heavy foresail was itself a very heavy one, and had, at the base of the bowsprit, a 6 way heavy tackle. This could be used to lower the mainmast, topmast, sprit and sails, all down to the deck, using the anchor windlass. The bottom of the mainmast was finished in a quarter round so the mast could pivot up and down in the deck mounted socket. (The tabernackle.) Another tackle could drop the mizzen. The purpose of all this palaver, so the barge could go under bridges on the smaller river estuaries, to load or unload at the river banks. You can still find old pubs right next to those bridges. These were the hang-outs for casual labourers who could earn a few pennies going out to a barge to help lower and raise the masts, and “shoot the bridge”.

At the side of the barge, you can see what looks like a huge “flipper”. This was called a leeboard, and was a Chinese invention that was brought to Europe by the Dutch. When the barge was lightly loaded, and trying to sail across or even into the wind, the shallow draught would let the barge “skate” sideways across the water. The leeboard on the side away from the wind direction would then be pivoted down to dip below the bottom and provide sideways resistance. There were two winches just in front of the wheel that were used to operate the leeboards.

The rudder on the barges was long and shallow, because it didn’t extend below the flat bottom. Otherwise it would have interfered with the barge being grounded at low tide. So the rudder was really not very effective. The purpose of the mizzen sail (the sail nearest the stern), was only partly to provide power to drive the barge ahead. On older barges, it started as a smaller sail with its mast right at the stern and with its control sheet attached to the top rear of the rudder. Moving the rudder would push the sail into the wind, and, in turn, the sail would push the stern around, helping the rudder.

Another common load for the barges was bricks. The North side of the Thames estuary has extensive clay beds, so the red bricks that are such a common feature of London buildings were mostly made at factories and kilns situated right beside the clay. Gives a more literal meaning to “the barges that built London.”

The picture that you have been looking at is that of the “Will’. Originally built in 1925 as the “Will Everard” by the barge company Everard brothers, it is the protoype for my Thames barge model, although my model is that of a wooden barge, and the Will was built in steel. The “Will” has a great history, and is still sailing today, based in London as a ship you can charter for parties and special events. May she see and survive a second hundred years.