Development of Sailing Barges


The origins of the Thames sailing barge lie in the 17th and 18th centuries when flat-bottomed wooden craft evolved for use in the River Thames and its Kent neighbour the River Medway. They were used to lighter cargo from ships to the wharves along the banks of the rivers in the developing ports of London and Rochester.

The ships were too deep to lie alongside the shore and had to anchor in deep water where the cargo was loaded into the lighter barge which was then rowed to the wharf and unloaded.

The craft were flat-bottomed with flat ‘swim’ heads and ‘budget’ sterns. They were literally floating wooden boxes.

This is a swim head, but on a lighter similar to our own SAILORMAN….

Over the years they evolved so that they got bigger and were rigged with sails. The spritsail rig which consists of a large wooden spar called the sprit, which supports a rectangular fore and aft sail is believed to have its origins in Holland as do the leeboards which were also fitted to barges. Leeboards are literally a wooden board which drops down the side of a vessel to provide lateral resistance- the force that prevents a sailing boat sliding side ways and enables the force of the wind in the sails to generate drive to take the vessel forwards.

By the mid 1800’s the old swim headed barges were often rigged with a sprit mainsail, a foresail and leeboards together with a smaller spritsail mounted on the rudder head to assist steering. The topmast. tops’l and staysail and bowsprit were yet to come.

This photo underneath is the PROGRESS….deep laden. You cannot see her rudder blade but the mizzen is sheeted to it. Note the size of the tiller, and the flush hatch to the Skipper’s cabin. There are no crab winches for the leeboards, they are raised and lowered on a hand tackle. The mizzen mast forestay is run forward to the tiller, which in this photo is lashed whilst the skipper poses for his photo off Bankside.

Some were built with a rounded ‘Dutch’ style bows and from this evolved a straight stem bow and transom stern with longer runs of planking from the ends to the still box like section in the middle of the craft.

The Thames sailing barges that had so evolved were actually coasting craft capable of taking cargo that arrived in London from all over the Empire and delivering it along the coast.

By the 1890’s the development of the Thames sailing barge was at its peak with the small coasters built in Ipswich and Harwich developing a style of their own. These were true ships that traded across the North Sea to Holland and Germany, down the English Channel to Belgium, and France.They delivered cargoes down the East Coast from the River Humber down to the South Coast with freights to Cornwall becoming quite normal.

Early 20th Century Heyday

In 1907 there were 2090 Thames sailing barges registered. They covered a wide variety of sizes from small river barges that carried less than 100 tons of cargo to large coasters that could carry 300 tons. A typical barge would carry about 140 to 170 tons.

After the First World War barge building was in decline although many barges were built particularly in steel. The last wooden barge built was the Cabby launched in 1928 and the final steel barge Blue Mermaid was launched from Mistley in Essex in 1930.

Thames sailing barges were unique for so many reasons. No other craft was ever developed that could sail light without ballast with her shallow flat-bottomed hull giving the ability to get up shallow creeks of Essex and Kent drawing as little as two feet unloaded. Because of their unique rig barges could be sailed by, in the case of a ‘small’ river barge, a man and a boy and even in the case of the larger barges by two men and a boy. Barges were very handy and manoeuvrable so they handled well both at sea and in the London Docks. With their large cargo hatches, cheap construction and the unique rig which stowed all the sails out of the way of loading and unloading cargo Thames sailing barges were perfect for the job they were designed to do. No other craft in Europe ever attained the numbers that the Thames sailing barge did.

They carried a variety of cargoes. Barges delivered the stone, bricks and timber from which modern London was built in the 19th century. The city depended then upon thousands of horses for its transport and it was the Thames sailing barge that delivered the huge requirements of hay and straw from the farms of Suffolk, Essex and Kent. Essex and Maldon in particular evolved a special variety of barge called the “Stackie” designed to be shallow and wide for sailing with a haystack on deck. The Ipswich barges particularly specialised in carrying flour and malting barley. Many were owned by the millers Pauls and Cranfields. The latter operated barges under sail until 1960. Barges also carried timber, stone, sand, cement, ballast, bricks, oilcake, oil, plastics, in fact everything that small ships can carry, was carried regularly by barges.

The last Hurrah -Thames Barges go to War

Despite the advance in technology by 1939 the humble Thames Barge played a vital role in the conduct of the Second World War.

Obviously importing goods into the country was difficult and achieved at the cost of many lives and ships. This meant that priority was given to vital war supplies and where possible foodstuff was provided from within the country.

The railways were used to capacity for troop movements and the road network was poor with petrol in short supply.

Many modern merchant ships were converted for a military use which brought the Thames Barge into an important role as it harnessed wind power rather than using valuable fuel and with a shallow draught could not only face coastal journeys but could access the many creeks of the Essex Countryside .

Having no engines barges were in particular demand for carrying ammunition and explosives as there was no risk of sparks etc to the dangerous cargo.

A manpower bonus was that it required a team of two people to sail it and one of these people could be a boy or a woman. This was an important feature in a country where fit adult males were required to join the armed services. Thus many barges serving in the war period were crewed by husband and wife or father and son teams.

With a large area of deck space and hold they proved an important part in the evacuation of Dunkirk when many barges made the trip returning crammed with soldiers to the warships out in deeper water. Sadly the barges made easy targets for the Luftwaffe and many were destroyed at Dunkirk including Clement Parkers Duchess.

Several barges were moored in the estuaries to act as mobile platforms for lookouts as part of the anti aircraft/submarine/ E boat warfare although their main duty was to report German aircraft dropping mines into the sea. Nearly 60 barges were used on the south coast for this duty.

Several barges were moored in the Port of London with barrage ballons attached as part of the Port defences.

After the war the barges were decommissioned although it was not until 1947 when the last sailing barge was returned to it’s owners although the subsequent decline proved that for the sailing barge World War two provided it’s last hurrah.


After the Second World War many factors hastened the demise of the Thames sailing barge as a sail trading vessel. Although the fleet had dwindled to 34 sailing barges 44 with auxillary engines and a further 82 trading as pure motor barges with their masts and sails removed by 1954 the survival of what was now the largest fleet of trading sailing vessels in Europe was a uniquely British phenomenon.

The development of the diesel engine in small ships and in large lorries meant that most of the trade that barges had depended on was now carried in lorries by the newly developing road system or by modern powered coasters.

In the 60’s and 70’s the development of containers and demise of the London docks killed off coasting work as most goods came on large container ships and then travelled around Europe by road. The larger modern steel coasters did not require the skill of the sailormen (as London’s dockers had traditionally called the barge crews) and a powered ship was able to run relatively according to a timetable in conditions which would have kept a wooden barge wind bound for days or weeks.

The rise in living standards and increased standards of safety and comfort in the workplace left no place for the often dangerous and uncomfortable life of the coasting seaman in the days of sail.

The final end of the road came in 1955 for the 5 barges still operating under sail from Colchester. Centaur among them, they were unrigged and sold to become lighters at Heybridge Basin carrying timber from ships in to the lock for transport by canal to Chelmsford.

It was a strange twist of fate that these fine barges returned to the work that had spawned the evolution of their kind as lighters. This left the 5 Ipswich barges (most were finally sold in 1960 and the last barge owned in Ipswich as a sail trader was Spinaway C, sold in 1963) and the Cambria. The latter was a big coaster that was to continue until 1971 carrying occasional cargoes and eking out a meagre living in the hands of Bob Roberts who became famous as an author when he wrote a book about his experiences entitled the “Last of the Sailormen”  ( Ask Roger if he has a copy to sell you  here ) in 1963. A few auxillary barges and motor barges continued in to the sixties. Pudge was among them trading until 1968.

The passing of the days of trade under sail was notable enough given the maritime heritage of Great Britain but the fact is that the barges died as the way of life of which they were an integral part died too. Whole communities in the late 19th and early 20th century were based around the ownership of fleets of barges which were essential to the whole commercial infrastructure of the areas where they were found. Barges were far more than the articulated lorries that have replaced them. The skills in building and maintaining them, sail making and shipwrighting and above all sailing them were spread across the communities generation to generation. The agricultural and industrial communities that were building up were dependent on the Thames sailing barge to get their harvests and products to the markets and to get deliveries of the essential supplies of food and materials. The spread of far greater employment and social mobility, building of factories and spread across the country of industrial society saw these communities change beyond recognition and the loss forever of established patterns and traditional ways of life.


However the loss of the traditions and skills of sailing for a living and barging in particular was not unnoticed. The Colchester barges and others used at Heybridge were saved from being broken up or rotting as houseboats like so many others before them. Some enthusiasts did not want to see barges die and many barges were rerigged in the mid 1960’s and began a new lease of life carrying people on weekend charters in place of the cargoes they had carried. The holds were converted in to basic cabins and these old ladies were once again under sail on the traditional waters of the Thames sailing barge.

Since the Second World War there had been enthusiasts who saw the potential of barges as yachts or sailing homes. The Thames Barge Sailing Club had been founded in 1948 to try and preserve a barge with Frank Carr the Curator of the National Maritime Museum as its first Commodore. Carr was a noted historian prominent in saving the Cutty Sark Clipper ship for the Nation and who had championed the historical uniqueness of Thames sailing barges in his 1931 book “Sailing Barges”. The book was republished in 1989 with a Forward from Prince Philip who wrote:

“…this must be some sort of tribute to the affection in which Thames sailing barges are held by many enthusiasts… This book therefore has become both an obituary and the definitive history of a form of water transport that reaches back over many centuries. I am sure that it will be highly valued by maritime scholars and historians long in to the future…”.

Carr who died in 1991 was then President of the TBSC which had kept at least one barge sailing since 1948 and since 1963 had operated two craft. The 70’s saw them acquire Pudge and Centaur.

And so the traditions of the sailormen were kept alive by enthusiasts and many former trading bargemen who went back to the craft they had so skilfully handled under cargo to pass on the traditions to new generations of bargemen. The foundation of the Sailing Barge Association to represent owners and the Association Of Bargemen to represent crewmen has successfully lead to a system of self regulation under the auspices of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Barge Skippers have to pass strenuous examinations of their skill and prove years of experience under existing skippers as well as attaining an HGV style medical standard. Safety standards are set regularly by negotiation with the MCA and barge owners who carry passengers have to ensure that their craft are up to the required specifications. Barges also have to have a strict out of the water survey every 5 years to ensure seaworthiness.

Only Pudge and Centaur owned now by the Thames Sailing Barge Trust are owned and operated for the public benefit and purely for the purpose of their preservation in perpetuity as historical vessels and the associated objectives of teaching the skills of sailing them under sail in their traditional waters. The remaining barges are either privately owned or operated as businesses or as promotional vehicles for their owners’ businesses.

The renaissance of sail at Maldon –a barge port for three centuries- is a phenomenon unmatched elsewhere in Europe because a fleet of craft remain sailing their traditional waters as they have done for centuries having swapped their cargoes of goods for cargoes of people. There are usually 5 or 6 barges (including Centaur and Pudge) operating from Maldon in the Summer. The barge races (which bargemen always called Matches) have been revived on the Thames and Medway, at Pin Mill and Maldon, Southend on Sea, The Swale and The Colne. There is even a Passage match from London to Harwich which echoes the truly competitive nature of barge sailing when bargemen did race each other to get to port first and get the next cargo.