The History and Background of Thames Barges in Whitstable

The Thames Barge... When and Why?

Barge on the mudflats at Reeves Beach at sunset

Barge at Sunset - Reeves Beach, Whitstable
Photo by Dave Taylor

Why the sailing barge?

The history of sailing barges probably dates back more than 300 years..... and it is hardly surprising!

In the absence of railways and decent roads, a ship was the only convenient way to move heavy materials and, in the absence of motor or steam engines, a sail was the only convenient way to move a ship!

Moreover, if you wanted to move those heavy materials along shallow waters, creeks and estuaries, a flat-bottomed barge was the most convenient hull on which to mount your sail!

Thus, from its early origins, the sailing barge commenced a glorious reign that spanned those three centuries.... until someone found more convenient methods of transport.

Why "THAMES" barge?

Why did the river Thames feel justified in adding its name to this particular category of a barge?

Well, the answer may be relatively simple. The River Thames provided the highway for the greatest number of sailing barges because it served London..... and London was located on a tidal river, some 50 miles from the sea. The requirements of the Thames estuary therefore had a big impact on the design of this type of craft as it gradually evolved into the familiar shapes that we know and celebrate today.

Barge design for a Thames requirement

The capital needed to draw supplies of food and materials from the surrounding counties of Kent, Essex and Suffolk... all of which had shallow waters or shallow estuaries on or near the mouth of the Thames. A flat-bottomed barge was ideal because it could work within a few metres of a beach.... and reach relatively remote locations (such as a farm, shingle bank or sandpit) provided that there was a convenient creek or shoreline nearby. ....

Barges moored off the Horsebridge at Whitstable

Barges moored off the Horsebridge at Whitstable (yr 2000)

It could even duck under the occasional bridge thanks to its hinged masts.

Work at remote sites meant that there would not always be a cargo for both inward and outward journeys. In this respect, the Thames barge had a "time-saving" advantage. It didn't need to take on ballast to steady it during "cargoless" trips.

Despite the basic design being crafted for river and/or coastal waters, larger barges were sufficiently substantial to reach beyond the Thames estuary. Some even crossed the Channel and North Sea to continental locations.

Economics came into the equation too. Sail arrangements were not designed purely for cheap and efficient propulsion. They were also intended to reduce manpower. In most cases, barges were sailed by a crew of two - the skipper and his mate. Not only did this keep the wage bill down... it also reduced the amount of space required to accommodate crew members. Reducing crew space meant that more of the hull could be devoted to commercial cargo. At the time of writing this article, the Americas Cup is being screened on Sky TV. It is fascinating to compare the size of the competition crews with that of a commercial Thames sailing barge of bygone days!

The Barge Trade - Network and Bases

For all the reasons I have mentioned, the Thames Barge came to prominence and a trade network developed around the mouth of the estuary with links to the Channel ports on the East coast of Kent.

The network included some significant bases from which barge owners could operate. Those bases were often seafaring communities that had other long term maritime interests such as fishing. They afforded sheltered harbours or anchorages and provided experienced manpower. They also offered skilled support services such as ship building, ship maintenance and sailmaking.

Although much of the network centred on London, other significant towns and cities of the South East also relied on barge transport to import and export bulky materials. Thus, barge operators weren't necessarily London-based and not all trade involved trips into the capital. Some operators worked certain areas of the network and became involved in particular types of cargo. This meant that their barges could be designed, modified or adapted to accommodate specific types of trade or to meet any special requirements or restrictions imposed by the localities in which they operated.

Barge Numbers and Size

In all, it is thought that some 2000 Thames barges were operating in the "heyday years" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were used to transport a variety of products including grain (wheat, maize, rye), building materials (eg sand, timber, stone) and coal! Most were of wood construction but, by the late 19th century, steel hulls were appearing.

Steel Barge "Spartan" at Whitstable Harbour in the early 1960s

The Steel Barge "Spartan" at Whitstable Harbour in the early 1960s
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

Barges could vary considerably in design, size and appearance. Those visiting Whitstable ranged from just under 40 tons to in the region of 85 tons. The average was in the range 50-60 tons.

Decline of the Thames barge

The barge trade started to unravel with the arrival of other methods of transporting heavy goods. At first, the main competition came from the railways that spread a web across England during19th century. Later, improved roads and much larger motor driven coasters played a competitive role.

Attempts to modernise

The construction of the wooden barge largely ended in the 1920s and the construction of steel barges petered out a decade later. However, many existing barges were "modernised" in an attempt to overcome deficiencies. Sailing barges might have been elegant at sea but they were far less athletic when manoevering around the confines of a harbour before proceeding to open water. Various cumbersome methods had been used to overcome this (as described on the "Harbour Operations" page of this Barge feature article) but, now, auxiliary engines started to be added to some craft. Other barges were fully motorised and given a wheel house.

Thus, masts and sails began to disappear and barges became dour craft with far less appeal to us landlubbers watching from the shore! The process also brought even greater variation in the appearance of the vessels and not all scenes of Thames barges match the glossy magazine articles. This is nicely summarised in comments made by John Harman when describing a 1957 photo of his brother George's fishing vessel Mon Rêve. As John pointed out in the inset below, the background is as revealing as the subject itself....

Three Thames Barges at Whitstable harbour in the 1950s

The background to this photo of Mon Reve is of interest as it shows three barges:

  1. The one to the left is of steel construction
  2. The one in the centre has been motorised, with shortened mast and wheelhouse added
  3. The one on the West Quay has remained traditional!

The vacuum, suction device for unloading grain from barges can be seen, also a hand crane and another at the far quay. The concrete silo on the West Head (to the right) was very new in 1957..... but short lived.... before it collapsed!

John Harman

A Confused Picture and a Grubby Reality
Traditional working barge at the West Quay (circa 1950s)

Traditional working barge at the West Quay (circa 1950s)
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

John's photo and comments perhaps bring us down to earth a little. Whilst the present day descriptions rightly paint a romantic picture of the traditional Thames Barge in full sail, it wasn't the only picture. In reality, there were many variations on the barge theme and some were less attractive than others.

Furthermore, even the traditional barge was a working vessel involved with a less than romantic cargo. Thus, whilst crews maintained their charges with great pride, the craft could still take on a grubby appearance at times (see the photo right)....

As a kid, I had several nearby neighbours who were barge skippers and I played on the quaysides overlooking the barges.... but my view was never a romantic one.

My neighbours were doing a job and the barge was simply the way they did it. In those days, maritime romanticism was the province of the poet and the artist. The rest of us caught the mood after the barges had gone.... which is partly why they went!

Sad endings

Barges continued in commercial use until the 1970s albeit in dwindling numbers. Many were lost at sea in tragedies whilst others suffered equally quick deaths as result of being broken up, buried or burned when their commercial life ended. However, some endured long and painful demises as a result of being hulked along the creeks and estuaries of London and the South East coast.

Rescue and Preservation of heritage

Fortunately, the fascination with the Thames Barge in full sail, has prompted enthusiasts to rescue and preserve some of our maritime heritage. Such initiatives have varied in both approach and degree of success.

Some vessels were converted to houseboats by private owners and such "residences" can still be seen in certain locations in London and the South East. However, there have been a number of instances where such attempts have provided no more than a stay of execution before the craft returned to disrepair due to maintenance costs.

The most successful and heartwarming initiatives have involved restorations as full sea going craft by private owners or trust organisations. There are currently some "30 plus" barges in seaworthy condition (either as traditionally restored Thames Sailing Barges or conversions to motor yachts). Such restorations include not only the basic repairs but also the problem of reversing some of the modernisations/ conversions of the mid-twentieth century. Restored barges now serve a range of functions including charter, sea trips, small conference centres and sail training.

When to view barges?

Throughout the year, you may stumble across a restored barge or two at some port around the UK or even on the continent. However, to capture the real magic of the Thames barge, it is best to meet up with them at one of the annual barge matches when a large selection of those "30 plus" vessels are on show. Only then can you get a hint of what the Thames estuary and its harbours may have looked like back in the heyday of the 19th century.

Of course, barge matches are not a modern invention for Thames barge enthusiasts and curious landlubbers. Such races have their roots deep in the history of the vessels and go back to the days when commercial crews took part for the honour of both their employers and their barge. They were also useful in terms of understanding and progressing barge design and development.

Whitstable - The Why?

If you have read the background paragraphs above, it is not hard to understand why Whitstable played some part in Thames Barge operations. After all, the town was located alongside the Thames estuary and, as one of the nearest seaside towns to London, it was a supplier of fish products to the capital (most notably oysters).

Furthermore, Whitstable Bay provided a shallow, relatively safe anchorage and, as a town steeped in maritime history, Whitstable had all the necessary skills to support a barge network. That included boat builders, sailmakers and sailors familiar with the local waters. In effect, the barge trade was an extension and expansion of wider maritime operations that included fishing, oyster dredging and links to foreign countries.

Local ship operators were no doubt keen to cash in on the barge trade. As a result, businesses such as the Whitstable Shipping Co (and, later, Daniels Bros) added barge trade to their other maritime interests.

However, Whitstable wasn't just in a position to support the barge trade for London. It's location just 8 miles north of Canterbury meant that, for centuries, it had served as a sea port for its famous city neighbour. This function had grown in importance as the city's own port at Sturry had silted up and become unusable for vessels of any real size. As I shall explain shortly, it culminated in the construction of Whitstable Harbour and the Canterbury-Whitstable Railway (aka the Crab and Winkle line).

You can read more about Whitstable's origins and some of its links with Canterbury by consulting a collection of articles on our Whitstable history pages. See the following

Whitstable - The Where?

The Horsebridge Operations

Although we normally associate the barge trade with Whitstable harbour, it was not the only port of call on our waterfront... nor was it the first. In fact, a much older landing area was in use a little further west..... at the Horsebridge. Cargo operations here actually predate the Thames barge and go back many centuries. In part, they explain the road link that makes its way through the main street of the town and on to the city of Canterbury via Blean.

In the 19th century, the Horsebridge boasted a stone ramp which enabled horses to drag carts into the shallow waters (or onto the shingle seabed) in order to meet incoming barges at low tide. The flat bottom design of the Thames barge was ideal as the craft could approach within a few metres of the ramp and rest on the shingle and mudflats in a stable condition for unloading. The informal approach and the broad expanse of level mudflats meant that a number of barges could be handled at the same time from the single access way. It was a relatively inexpensive way of providing a docking facility - with stone ramps coming a lot cheaper than harbour walls!

The photo below shows the modern day ramp at the Horsebridge during the year 2000. However, don't get too excited! The barges featured in the background are not preparing to unload. In fact, they are not close enough. They are moored in readiness for an annual barge match.

Thames Barges off the stone ramp at the Horsebridge, Whitstable

Thames Barges off the stone ramp at the Horsebridge, Whitstable

The picture of the ramp may also be a touch misleading. This ramp is a relatively recent construction - built after sea defence enhancements had raised and widened the beach. Older ramps were much shorter as the sea reached closer to the shore and even lapped around the concrete steps and foundations of the old Oyster Store in the 1950s. However, I understand that the granite blocks are those from the ramp that many of us recall back in the mid-twentieth century.

Barge activity at the Horsebridge enabled other commercial activities to grow up in the immediate vicinity as John Harman describes below.....

"The modern day photo above is reminiscent of the days when there would be barges there "on the hard" - being unloaded on to horse drawn carts. Often, these barges came with timber stacked high on their decks. Mostly though, it would have been coal for the close by Brownings Coal Yard."

John Harman

Amazingly, barge trade continued at the Horsebridge until the 1930s. I say "amazingly" because, 100 years earlier, the Horsebridge had gained a serious rival for trade in the form of the present day harbour. Despite the competition, cargo operations at the Horsebridge were even enhanced by the construction of a Horsebridge Pier - complete with manually operated crane. In his book, 'Merchant Ships of Whitstable', Wallace Harvey writes that the pier was constructed of timbers from the 'Herbert' in 1913 & demolished in 1956. It belonged to the Whitstable Hoy & Trading Company.

The Horsebridge Whitstable with the site of the old pier marked

A landing facility for Thames Barges - The Horsebridge Whitstable with the site of the old Whitstable Hoy Trading Co pier marked

The shot below is an extract from a family photo kindly sent to us by Tony Stroud. It is taken looking east towards the Horsebridge from a location close to the old Anderson, Rigden & Perkins boatyard. The Whitstable Oyster store is visible in the distance on the right... as is the crane at the end of the pier. It is possible that the boat featured on the right is on the slip of another boatyard - that of R J Perkins.

The old pier at the Horsebridge, Whitstable

The old pier at the Horsebridge, Whitstable
Photo with kind permission of Tony Stroud

Here it is worth mentioning an aspect of Whitstable waterfront that is now long gone. Leisure and maritime activities always took place in close proximity. Yes, there were bits of beach that swimmers avoided because of the boatbuilding but it was not unusual to see families lounging or playing on the shingle nearby. Sometimes, there was an overlap. For example, it was not unknown for older children to dive or jump into the water from that crane!

After World War II, the harbour became the sole port of call for Thames Barges and the Horsebridge operations faded into history. As Wallace Harvey's book notes, the pier was dismantled in 1956. However, it's location was marked by a pile of concrete blocks well into the 1960s. This concrete was not actually part of the original pier. I understand that it was the remnants of military beach defences that had been constructed at the outbreak of war. The concrete was broken up after the conflict and dumped under the pier where, I suppose, it may have protected the wood pylons from wave action.

The Harbour Operations

The current day harbour opened in 1832 and it confirmed the town's importance as the sea port of Canterbury. The link between the two communities was reinforced by the famous Crab and Winkle railway line which had commenced services two years earlier - in 1830. The line forged a commercial path direct from the harbour's quayside to the city.

The railway tracks surrounded the harbour quays and a marshalling yard was established behind Long Beach on the harbour's eastern side. Trucks were steered around the sharp corners of the quays by means of turntables powered by horses. Horses would also have been used for shunting the trucks in the confined spaces.

Little evidence of the railway remains today. A restaurant on the South Quay (The Crab Winkle) keeps the name alive. A boat showroom occupies the old stable building alongside the harbour's west gate but there have been suggestions that this may be demolished.

The railway marshalling yards (between the harbour and Beach Walk) are now occupied by a collection of modern buildings including the Oyster Indoor Bowls Centre, the AMF Ten Pin Bowling Alley and Harbour Garage.

We have devoted a separate page to the role played by the harbour in the barge trade.

Barges and the Whitstable Economy....

The barge trade provided direct economic benefits for barge operators and those employed in crewing and unloading the vessels. It also benefited companies who "exported" or "imported" their materials or products through Whitstable. However, there were many other spin offs. Along with the fishing industry and trade involving larger cargo vessels, barges helped to sustain a wide range of support industries along the Whitstable waterfront.

Sea Wall Area - Small Support Industries

Smaller maritime businesses sprang up along Sea Wall - between the harbour and the Horsebridge. These included such things as a forge, chandlers, cabinet makers and sailmakers. One of the best known and long lasting was the sail loft of the Goldfinch family.

Island Wall - Heavy Industry and the Boatyards

West of the Horsebridge, more substantial industry was established in the shape of the boatyards needed for construction and repair. Various boat builders traded in different eras and some of the names may have been lost in the mists of time. However, I can mention a handful of the more famous ones.

R J Perkins was located within  a few yards of the Horsebridge ramp... alongside the Pearsons Arms public house.

View of the R J Perkins boatyard at Whitstable

Left: The R J Perkins building can be seen in the background of this 1963 photo kindly provided by John Harman. John explains some of the detail....

"The tall, silver section is a sacrificial front with huge doors constructed of corrugated steel. These could be opened (or completely removed) to allow a newly constructed vessel out".

Vigilant Beach with the AR&P and R J Perkins boatyards highlighted

Vigilant Beach with the AR&P and R J Perkins boatyards highlighted

One of the older and, arguably most influential of yards, was that of Collars. The location is now marked by Collars Alley which leads from Island Wall to the beach.

Further west, Anderson, Rigden and Perkins was located close to the Vigilant Beach on the "Upper Island" Section of Island Wall.  Taken circa 1952, John Harman's photo (right) shows both the AR&P and R J Perkins yards. Collars was located between the two but it had long disappeared by the time John 'sat' for that family photo.

The AR&P and R J Perkins companies were the last of the major yards to remain operational in the town - with the AR&P yard the final one to close.

RJ Perkins is now occupied by Keam's Yard car park and the Cushing's View platform. The AR&P yard is now home to the Shipwrights Lee housing development which retained some of the old boatyard buildings.

Boatyards further west (beyond Wave Crest) tended to meet their demise much earlier. Two were located on the more isolated "Lower Island" section of Island Wall.

The most well known was the Whitstable Shipping Company. In addition to its boatbuilding, this enterprise managed its own shipping line. Its history is described in more detail on our "Barge Operators" page. It eventually became the well known Daniels Bros company. Along the way, it ditched the boatbuilding, relocated its offices from Island Wall to Starvation Point (opposite the harbour's west gate) and concentrated on its shipping interests. Part of that shipping enterprise included a fleet of Thames barges and some of those vessels operated well into the mid-twentieth century. Daniels Bros was the main barge operator in Whitstable and a well known player in the wider history of the Thames estuary barge network.

The original Whitstable Shipping Company yard is now largely occupied by the current day Daniels Court housing development in Island Wall.

Site of the old Whitstable Shipping Company Bat Yard - now occupied by a housing estate

Site of the old Whitstable Shipping Co Boat Yard - now occupied by a housing estate

The later offices of Daniel Brothers have long since been demolished at Starvation Point to make way for a small public garden.

Another yard, for which we have discovered very little information, was located close to the West Beach roadway at the eastern extremity of Island Wall. The site is now occupied by a caravan park but, in the year 2004, the remnants of the slipway were still in evidence.....

Remains of an old boatyard slipway at West Beach

The remains of an old boatyard slipway at West Beach

Wider Commercial Impacts and Community Issues

Boatyards themselves needed suppliers in the shape of sailmakers, timber merchants, coal merchants, cabinet makers, blacksmiths and so forth. In turn, income generated from maritime activity boosted the local economy in general and helped to support not only a thriving town shopping centre but also other enterprises seemingly unconnected with the sea.

There were other financial links between the maritime world and the average local landlubber! As you will see from our page on  "The Barge Operators", a number of local people invested money in part ownership of a barge even though they had no other connections with the sea. It was seen as a way of making money in the same way that we might take out an ISA in modern times - albeit with considerably greater risk!

People in maritime industries also invested in land-based activity. There may have been a number of reasons for this....

  1. They may have wanted to add a second string to their "economic bow" in order to see them through periods of depression in the maritime industry or periods of bad weather
  2. They may have wanted to provide their wives, sons and daughter with employment opportunities that were less dangerous than sailing a barge
  3. There may have been close links between a landbased activity and the sea. For example, if you import coal or timber into Whitstable, why not cash in to a greater degree by opening a timber or coal merchants in the town? If you were a skilled carpenter experienced in fitting out ships and boats, why not make some furniture for local landlubbers?

Over the years of running Simply Whitstable, I have been amazed by the wide ranging business interests of some well-known local maritime families. These activities varied from "the obvious" such as coal sales to the "more obscure" such as the mineral water (fizzy drink) industry that became popular at the backend of the 19th century.

Together with the fact that marine people and landlubbers lived in such close proximity, it helped to create a close knit community. Even as late as the 1950s, I recall having many neighbours who worked in the harbour, barge, shipping and fishing industries.

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