Centaur

Centaur was launched by John and Herbert Cann on 15 February 1895 at their Bathside yard in Gashouse Creek, Harwich, for Charles Stone of Mistley who, with his wife, held 56 of the 64 ownership shares in the vessel. The area was in the grip of one of the coldest winters on record and theHarwich & Dovercourt Newsman’ reported that ‘owing to the severe weather the usual trial trip was disposed with’, noting that conditions were ‘of Arctic severity’ with as much as ‘25 to 30 degrees of frost’ in the previous week. At this time Cann’s yard was turning out one or two sailing barges each year: Kitty, which was also completed in 1895, is amongst a clutch of their barges which have survived.


Centaur, built of wood, was a coasting barge – able to trade all around the British coast and to the near continent. This meant she was larger than the river barges and had a more seaworthy hull form – the generous sheer and shapely transom contributed to her handsome appearance. James Stone, then aged 41, was her master. For crew he enlisted W. Smith, aged 37, as mate and James Smith, aged 18, as boy. Initially the barge traded to Calais from London, Portsmouth and Southampton. She also entered barge races – winning the 1898 Harwich race, in which five barges participated, and the 1899 Medway match.  In 1898-99 her trade took Centaur to Dunkirk, Calais, Antwerp, Ostend, Alderney, Bruges and the Netherlands, from a variety of home ports including Dover, Rochester, London, Lowestoft, Goole, Shoreham, Southampton and Newport. In August 1899, during a passage from Mistley to Hull to load wheat she lost a leeboard and her bowsprit off Sheringham and was towed into Great Yarmouth for repairs. In April 1902 Centaur’s steering gear was totally disabled after sailing from Shoreham for Burght in Belgium with a cargo of spirits of salts, and she had to be towed into Newhaven.

In 1903 George Langley became the managing owner, with his partner William Rogers in command of the barge, which continued in the cross-Channel trade. Accidents at sea were not unusual for coasting barges. Centaur was towed into Portland in January 1905 with a broken sprit and other damage when bound for Exeter from London with sugar. In December 1906 she lost both anchors off Terneuzen, in the Netherlands, and had to put back. In the same year William Rogers became the managing owner. However cargoes became more difficult to find and in August 1911 Rogers sold centaur to Edward Hibbs of Brightlingsea to work for the oil mills at Colchester. She traded between there and Millwall, taking linseed oil in drums to the London River and returning with raw linseed and cottonseed. Reportedly the oil mill barges were always very smartly turned out, and none more so than Centaur.

An incident during the First World War involving Centaur is related by Frank Carr in ‘Sailing Barges’. The barge was sailing in the Channel in a light air and thickish fog when the skipper heard the roar of a coastal motor boat’s engine nearby. A few moments later the sleek hull of the CMB – an early form of motor torpedo boat – travelling at speed shot out of the mist and, striking the barge amidships, leapt on deck and settled down on top of Centaur’s main hatch. This came as quite a shock for both skippers but the barge made port without problem and unloaded her unusual cargo.

After the First World War a trade in coke and pitch to the near continent provided profitable business. Whilst the ownership of shares in the barges changed regularly one skipper, Ephrain “Chick” Cripps, was associated with her for over 20 years. His records for 1928 and 1930 show that all of the barge’s passages were between London and the Essex and Suffolk coasts, with Colchester still the principal port.

In October 1933 Centaur joined the Colchester fleet of Francis and Gilders Ltd and entered the grain trade between the London Docks and Ipswich, Yarmouth and Felixstowe. In May 1940 she went to Dover to join the ships preparing for the Dunkirk evacuation, but was damaged by a tug whilst berthed at Dover and began taking in water. She was unable to sail for Dunkirk and had to return to Maldon for repairs. Centaur resumed trade around the Thames and East Anglia for the rest of the war, and afterwards continued in the grain trade.  Francis and Gilders were left as the last ‘seeking’ fleet, finding cargoes wherever they could: these cargoes were secured either by the masters of the barges or by the company’s agents in the city. Once a year the barges went on the blocks for maintenance, either at the company’s own yard in Colchester or at Cook’s yard in Maldon.

In January 1952 Centaur was on passage from the Surrey Docks to Felixstowe with wheat when her steering gear broke and, in winds of force 6 – 7, the sea was breaking right across the hatches (which was not that difficult considering the low freeboard of a loaded barge). A tow was needed and distress rockets were fired. Before the Walton lifeboat could arrive Centaur was taken in tow by the sailing barge SAXON and taken into the Colne.

In March 1951 Francis and Gilders merged with the London and Rochester Trading Company Ltd  but their barges continued to fly their purple and gold bob. However the new owners were soon intent on selling the acquired barges. Amongst Centaur’s last cargoes in 1954 – 55 were timber to Colchester and Maldon, sugar beet from Ipswich to Silvertown, ballast from Fingringhoe to London, cement from Halling to London, and 40 gallon oil drums from Grain to London. The last four remaining Colchester barges still under sail – Centaur, George Smeed, Kitty and Mirosa – were sold to Brown and Son of Chelmsford, for use as unrigged timber lighters. In October 1955 Centaur’s registration was closed since as a lighter she was no longer required to be registered. She joined a fleet of former sailing barges bringing timber from ships moored off Osea Island to the Heybridge Basin, where it was transhipped to canal lighters for transport to Chelmsford.

Centaur continued in this work for nine years before being sold in 1965 to Richard Duke who converted and re-rigged her for leisure charter work from Pin Mill and Maldon. A galley, saloon, toilet and four four-berth cabins were created in the hold, and the charters ranged along both the south and east coasts. She was also entered into barge races from 1965 onwards, with some success. In 1974 the barge was sold to the Thames Barge Sailing Club which offered crewing experience, cruises and charters to both members and non-members.  Initially she was based at Faversham, and later at Maldon. In the winter the club began a long and extensive phased restoration of the barge, which involved replacing most of the frames and planking and was not completed until 1995. In the winter of 1988/89 the Ruston auxiliary engine and gearbox, which had become unreliable, were replaced with a Bedford 500 six-cylinder diesel truck engine and a marine gearbox, together with a new propeller. This gave Centaur a speed under power of 9 knots, an improvement on her previous 3.5 knots.

Centaur continued to race regularly: in 1993 she won the Inter Match Trophy for the best overall performance in the four leading matches, the Medway, Blackwater, Pin Mill and Southend. She still works out of Maldon for the Thames Sailing Barge Trust (as the club has been renamed) with charters and cruises between May and October each year, taking up to 12 passengers. Her rig is typical of an Essex trading barge, rather than the bigger racing rig used by some restored barges.

TRADING with CENTAUR IN THE 1950s

an extract from  The Marine’s Mirror Volume 81 Number 4 November 1995, reproduced by kind permission.

WORKING A THAMES SAILING BARGE CIRCA 1950

written by Peter Thomson  in 1995

One of the best kept craft in the fleet of 30-odd Thames sailing barges that remain more or less active for recreational sailing is the Thames Barge Sailing Club’s Centaur, launched at Harwich exactly a hundred years ago. She is entered each year at the barge matches in the Medway, Swale, Blackwater, Colne, and Orwell. Also to be seen at some of these matches, though usually in charge of another barge, is the last-but-one skipper to have her in trade, Stan Yeates.

Stan Yeates

Stan Yeates at the wheel of Centaur in later years

Centaur was Captain Yeates’ third command, after ten years as a mate. In the previous two years he had skippered the General Jackson and Saltcote Belle, also Colchester-owned. It was in the latter that his wife Chick first shipped as mate. But it is Centaur that was described by one authority at the time as ‘perhaps the finest all-rounder in the [Colchester] fleet’.

She had belonged to the fleet of the Colchester firm Francis and Gilders since its formation in 1933. Josh Francis and Cecil Gilders had brought together most of the barges owned by local interests. In the middle of that decade the fleet numbered over 30. By June 1949, however, there were only 12 left without any kind of engine; and by March 1951, shortly before the remaining barges were taken over by the London and Rochester Trading Company, the number was down to seven. For the next four years, despite the takeover, the former Francis and Gilders barges remained Colchester-based. The last four, including Centaur, were sold to Brown and Son of Chelmsford in mid-1955 for use as timber lighters on the River Blackwater. That was the end of the Colchester barges and also of the Colchester barge yard, which closed. [ The other 3 barges also survive to this day, 2011  – Mirosa, Kitty, and George Smeed.]

It was also virtually the end of the ‘seeking’ fleet of sailing barges as a whole. Only 20 Ipswich, Mistley, Gravesend and Whitstable-owned barges were left under sail alone; and most of those were used for shipping cargo, either (gun) powder or grain, belonging to the firms which owned the barges. The six years from mid 1949, when there were still 113 sailing barges in trade, to mid-1955 marks therefore the very last chapter in the traditional trading life of these remarkable craft. The following, which refers to the first half of that period (i.e 1949-52) is drawn from a long conversation with Stan Yeates last year. (By Peter Thomson in 1994)

For the Francis and Gilders barges, ‘seeking’ meant being available co carry any kind of cargo anywhere in the Thames Estuary or along the adjacent Essex, Suffolk or Kent shores.
(Unlike the big coasting barges belonging to the Greenhithe firm F.T. Everard, they did not generally venture to the Humber or down-Channel). In the late 1940s and early ’50s the main cargo was imported foreign grain, and East Anglian wheat for export, between the Royal, Milwall, and East and West India Docks and the mills at Maldon (Greens), Colchester (Marriages) and Ipswich (Pauls and Cranfields). Timber was also carried from the Surrey Commercial Docks to Sadds at Maldon, Brown Brothers at Colchester and Whitalls at Faversham.
Sand and ballast from the Fingringhoe jetty on the Colne to distribution points at Bow Creek, Limehouse, and Fulham was a trade Centaur entered only after Stan Yeates’ time .

Centaur being loaded with ballast at Fingringhoe Wick

By then she was in the charge of her last skipper in trade Nelson Wilson.

Nelson Wilson

Loading was usually undertaken by a gang of five stevedores. One would work the forward hold and two would be responsible for stowage on each side of the main hold. But they were no very conscientious trimmers. This meant for grain that the space close under the deck at the sides and fore and aft (’the cupboards’ ) would not be filled, and for timber that more efficient stowage on one side than the other gave the barge a list. It was therefore very much in the crew’s interests to take an active part in trimming.
A further problem with loading timber was the construction of the deck stack. Unless the crew were very vigilant, they would find that baulks of timber fouled the rigging or even the wheel, or that the stack was simply too loosely stowed. Either case entailed lot of work restowing after the two full days the stevedores had spent on the job.

Although the bargemaster was free to fix his own cargo if he saw the opportunity, freights were generally arranged by the firm’s agent at Dominion House in the City. He had an office staff of three and a couple of runners. Between them they took care of the paperwork. For the individual skipper the important thing was not to miss his turn to load, because there was always some risk that his cargo would be put into another waiting barge from a rival company.

The agent passed on the freight fee to the bargeowner after deducting his commission. The owner then deducted towage charges and dock dues where applicable (sailing barges could enter the docks in the Thames free of charge) and light dues (levied on any barge that had already completed ten freights in the current year). The balance was divided equally between the owner and the crew and from the crew’s share the skipper took two-thirds and the mate one-third. For almost the whole of Captain Yeates’ time in Centaur his wife acted as mate. This gave them an income of about £35 per freight. Maintaining as they did an average of a freight a fortnight, this was considered not bad money at the time.

Where their situation was unusual, and what gave them an economic advantage, was that the barge was their home. They ate and slept in the after cabin, warmed by a coal stove. Cooking was done in or on top of a coal fired oven and a primus stove in the foc’sle. The owner paid for paraffin, which provided cabin lighting, because it was his responsibility to light the barge externally; but not for coal, nor of course for food. Washing was done with a bowl of water heated in a kettle on the after cabin stove. The only lavatory was a bucket. But the real hardship was the cold and wet on deck in winter on a barge loaded down to 9 ins freeboard Against this the only protection was as many jerseys as could be worn without affecting limb movement, thigh-length sea-boots, and an oilskin coat.

As with any boat there was constant maintenance to do when waiting for a cargo: touching up paintwork; oiling standing rigging; whipping, splicing, or replacing running rigging; minor repairs to sails; greasing blocks, shackles and steering gear. When the Yeates were neither working nor working on the barge, the main diversions, in the absence of electricity to power a radio in those pre-transistor days, were reading, modelmaking, and, Stan Yeates vividly recalls, looking for firewood.

Captain and Mrs Yeates would try to take a few days off around Christmas, but this would depend on where the barge was in relation to the next cargo. Otherwise the only time life assumed a different rhythm was once a year when the barge went on the blocks at Francis and Gilders’ yard at Colchester. As the yard was above the bridge ,(The old Hythe Bridge) , this called for lowering down: first the topmast then, with the stayfall taken to the windlass, the mainmast. Once the barge was alongside, the sails were laid ashore for replacement of worn panels by the sailmaker and for dressing by the crew. With the assistance of the yard’s single labourer, the crew, who were paid £6 between them for the week, would also replace rotted planking and any condemned rigging, and clean and tar the hull. For any more extensive repairs the barge would be sent to Cook’s yard at Maldon, where there were shipwrights and riggers.

Centaur was a satisfying barge to sail. She went well to windward and was quite handy in narrow waters. Until the last year or two of her trading days, unlike today, she carried a bowsprit. As a result she was better balanced, needing very little helm. She sailed best on the sheet, with a freeish sprit. On the bowsprit, she could carry both a jib and a topmast staysail, but it was usual only to set the former. She-would carry full sail (i.e. without the staysail) in a Force 5 wind, although in associated sea conditions offshore the skipper would be looking for shelter if deep-laden. When reducing sail due to weather the jib came in first, followed by the topsail and then if necessary the first few cloths of the mainsail. A Force 6 wind was generally considered to be the overall limiting condition.

For tacking in narrow reaches the jib would be taken in, the bowsprit steeved up, both leeboards lowered and both backstays set up. The weather leeboard could be left down because both boards were hung so as to flare when on the windward side. The skipper would be at the helm; the mate at the foresail bowline, taking care to keep the foresail backed until the bow was well through the wind. The trick then was to sail free enough to keep plenty of way on.

When coming to an unoccupied buoy the aim would be to reach across the tide, starting slightly up-tide of the buoy, under topsail, foresail and mizzen having brailed up the mainsail immediately beforehand; and to swing the barge into the tide at the last moment. Alternatives were simply to anchor close to the buoy, get the sails off, run a line to the buoy ring, and heave in; or to put the barge head to tide above the buoy and ‘drudge’ down onto it stern first.

Drudging was a part of everyday life. It enabled the barge to be moved under command in the direction of the tide when there was no wind. For the mate it was a matter of trailing the crown of the anchor on the bottom so that the barge was drifting astern more slowly than the tide. This would enable the skipper to sheer the barge surprisingly sharply sideways by judicious application of the helm, and thus retain a degree of control. To achieve the necessary braking effect the mate would release or heave in no more than a link or two of anchor cable on the windlass barred. It was a procedure used not only in rivers to save towage fees, but also when the wind fell away in the channels between the sands off the Essex coast.

One of the problems facing a crew of two was breaking out a well-buried anchor. They were better placed than recreational sailors today because they were unlikely to be heaving up when the tide was running strongly a trading bargeman would only get under way very shortly before the tide turned in his favour. But even at slack water the efforts of both the crew on the windlass could be to no avail. In that case the drill would be to hoist the sails, sheer the barge over as far as possible to one side using tide and helm but with the sheets free, reverse the helm, sheet in the mainsail and foresail, heave in as much slack cable as possible, and use the surge of the barge to trip the anchor.

Proceeding up the Thames with the wind in the south-west involved tacking in almost every reach. The space available to a sailing vessel then was less than today because there were continuous lighter roads on each side of the river. This meant short tacks. The river was, moreover, considerably busier than today with steamship and lighter traffic. A prudent bargemaster would be thinking three tacks ahead. Nor would he fool himself that power would give way to sail.He would be constantly ready to take way off by easing the barge towards the wind and backing the foresail. There were anchorages available to him above Gravesend, off Erith, and at the ‘mudhole’ a mile or so below Tower Bridge. But if his objective was one of the docks, he would usually aim to secure alongside the ‘knuckle’ outside the dock gate which was shaped so that he could lie there without getting in the way of ships emerging into the river.

Entering and leaving the various ports and docks regularly visited by Centaur involved a variety of procedures. At Whitstable and Felixstowe, where the harbours are, or were, tidal basins enclosed off open channels, the usual sequence would be to enter under all-sail except the jib, turn with the mainsheet free, check the barge’s way with the anchor, put a line ashore, and then get the sails off. The approach to the dock entrance at Ipswich and to the Hythe at Colchester, and handling in the London docks, would usually be under topsail only, because of the blanketing effect of nearby buildings. The very tortuous and confined channels up to Maldon and Faversham made some tacking inevitable. Maximum use would be made of the flood tide. In the narrowest stretches the skipper would hope that a motorboat would be available to help bring the barge’s head round. Failing that, the barge would have to be ‘poked’ up with setting booms. In the absence of a ‘huffler’ to help, the skipper would have to push on one side, the mate on the other, and the barge would be unsteered.

Above Bridges

This picture gives the general idea – but dates from before the turn of the century – note wooden stayfall blocks. This is a tiller steered barge and the Skipper’s wife is at the helm. The Skipper and Mate are at the windlass struggling to raise the gear.  The anchor is catted off the windlass, and the unused sweeps show on either bow

Leaving these ports would involve the reverse process. At a river berth, the ebb tide would generally be strong enough t swing the bows of the barge even with an onshore wind. If not, the precaution would be taken of putting an anchor down off the berth on the way in; of the kedge would be run out in the barge’s boat. Where the harbour was enclosed the barge would be warped over to the most favourable position at the entrance.

The barge would then be sailed off the wall or pier, with the aid, if the wind was ahead, of a spring. When leaving the London docks she would be hauled through the lock gate by a shoreside capstan with enough way on to take her clear into the river.

The tide governed the life of a sailing barge. It made for the most irregular working hours. This was so almost as much on the coast and in the estuaries as in the narrow waters of rivers. A combination of head tide and head wind was unassailable. As the prevailing wind is south-westerly, this meant that a passage up the coast from the Orwell/Stour or Colne/Blackwater estuaries to the Thames or Medway usually followed the pattern of the tides very closely. From the Colne or Blackwater a barge would be able to make the anchorage in the Lower Hope reach below Gravesend, or a least the shallow water off the Kent shore just downstream from Hope Point, in one tide even with a head wind. This was not possible from Harwich. In that case the skipper would have to consider his options when he got to the Spitway channel between the Buxey and Gunfleet Sands off Clacton. He would have just enough flood tide left to get to an anchorage off Foulness, called Abraham’s Bosom, where he could find some shelter from the Maplin Sands. If it was beginning to blow up he would reach inshore straightaway to anchor off Brightlingsea, inside the Colne, or Bradwell, under the lee of Sales Point. If he went a little further and then decided he needed more shelter, he could make for Shore Ends, just inside the River Crouch, although that involved considerable loss of time. Southend would probably be too far. Although a useful anchorage in a north or north-east wind, it was in any case too exposed for comfort with a heavy wind or sea from any other direction.

Navigation was largely visual. In bad visibility, the only aids were compass and leadline, The latter was particularly important when tacking in such conditions through the Swin channel between the Maplin and Barrow Sands, off Foulness, because a steady course could not be laid. With neither radio nor barometer available to him during this period, Captain Yeates also relied entirely on traditional means to estimate the weather. Cloud, sunrise, sunset and certain light conditions would warn him of bad weather from the west, a swell and the movement of spiders in the rigging of wind from the east. The key judgement was whether there would be enough time to make a passage between two successive gales. When gales followed one another too closely, a barge could occasionally be windbound for two or three weeks. But much more usual was a period of two or three days, as a single depression moved through. A further cause of delay for a loaded barge would be a heavy swell after a period of strong easterlies. In all these cases the crew would not, of course, be earning. Nor would they be earning when lying postwar, for only a day or two at a time, on the ‘starvation’ buoys off Woolwich.

starvationbuoysjr2

Woolwich ‘Starvation Bouys’ in the 1930s – barges waiting for a cargo.

There they would be waiting for word from the agent, whom the skipper would ring twice a day, of a cargo fixed in the London docks or back down the coast. But Captain Yeates’ memory is of a leveling out over the year, as his average of a cargo a fortnight shows For an energetic skipper, barging thus offered a reasonably steady living, with a degree of discomfort in exchange for a good deal of day-to-day independence.

As the Centaur was not one of the very last sailing barges to have been built, so Stan Yeates is not one of the very last to have learned the trade. That fell to those who shipped as mates at the age of sixteen (to become skippers within two or three years) in the late 1940s and early ’50s as older bargemen moved into tugs and motor barges where the money was better. That postwar generation includes men like Jimmy Lawrence, now a well-known sailmaker, Pat Fisher, who regularly skippers the Reminder during barge matches.

But Captain Yeates is one of the last of those who started in sailing barges in the 1930s, when they were still an everyday sight in the rivers and creeks either side of the Thames estuary and up and down the Thames itself. The matches in which he and Centaur still take part, when up to 20 surviving barges come together, are a small-scale reminder of that era,