Thames Barge Operations at Whitstable Harbour

Harbour Operations & Areas

There were distinct patterns to barge operations within Whitstable harbour as John Wraight explains in this message emailed form his home in Australia.....

G'day Dave,

I have scanned a rough drawing so that I can explain myself better.....

Working areas of Whitstable harbour

Area 1... was called the West Head. It only became the west quay/pier when it was extended and used by the Westlands company.

The Buoys (marked with red circles)... were large permanent features and they were used in the old days to winch barges out of the harbour before motor. From there, they set sails and took to sea.

Area 2... was a shingle area where barges would moor, scrub & tar before the tide returned. There was not a lot of time to do this!

Area 3... was a berth not used for unloading. You could say a dedicated berth for barges doing small or long repairs not requiring a slip (ie painting, sail fitting) or a barge waiting for the tide so that they could leave port.

Area 4... was the dedicated silo area for unloading wheat/flour etc.

Area 5... was the whelk/cockle area. All the sheds were here... backing from the lighthouse almost to Long Beach.

John Wraight

Getting the Picture...

We can illustrate John Wraight's description with a series of lovely photos sent to us by Tony Stroud from his home in Australia. This first shot was taken from Dead Man's Corner at the south eastern edge of the harbour basin in the late 1950s/early 1960s....

Areas and Features of Whitstable harbour

Areas and Features of the harbour
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

By that time, the barge trade was in serious decline. A solitary grain barge can be seen beneath the towering silo on the West Head. The photo below shows the seaward side of the West Head before construction of the current day West Quay....

View looking east from the seaward side of the West Head

View looking east from the seaward side of the West Head
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

At low tide, a shingle area was uncovered and this was used as the "repair area" (Area 2) described by John Wraight. Such repairs were often referred to as being done "on the hard" and we will return to that phrase a little later on this page.

Tony's third shot shows the main channel of the harbour before the appearance of the "new" West Quay....

Main channel of Whitstable harbour

Main channel of the harbour
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

We can take a closer look at the minor repair/departure area on the eastern rim of the West Head (Area 3)....

A barge at the West Head of Whitstable harbour - awaiting repair or the tide

A barge at the West Head - awaiting repair or the tide
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

The name of the barge is unclear but we believe that it may have been one of the town's most notable vessels - the Kathleen. It is also unclear whether she is being repaired or merely awaiting the tide.

By this late stage in harbour history, the wood decking (shown on John Wraight's plan) had disappeared. Thus, on the extreme right edge of the photo, only the wood piles can be seen.

John Wraight's plan shows the location of two fixed cranes used to unload barges. Thanks to extracts from two of Tony's photos, we can see what these devices looked like in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The first shot shows the crane on the inner west quay.....

Small crane on the Inner West Quay (Whitstable harbour)

Small crane on the Inner West Quay
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

The second shows an identical piece of equipment to the right of the silo gantry on the north quay.

Crane and silo gantry on the North Quay (Whitstable harbour)

Crane (circled) and silo gantry (to the left) on the North Quay
Photo kindly supplied by Tony Stroud

These may seem fairly crude devices by modern standards. However, they were a considerable step forward from a much older method of unloading deployed at the harbour until the 1920s. Take a look at the fascinating article entitled "The Jumps" by Brian Smith on our Harbour of Bygone Days section.


As commercial vessels, barges were hardworked and repairs needed to be undertaken swiftly. As John Wraight has explained, minor repairs (or those involving sails and rigging) could be undertaken in the harbour itself. In some cases, the vessels would use the berth on the eastern side of the West Head prior to setting sail. A variety of skilled craftsman (such as sailmakers) operated from the small premises that fringed the waterfront of Sea Wall.

Major repairs and refits involved the boatyards of Whitstable and their slipways. These were scattered along the beaches of the Horsebridge and Island Wall. Thus, together with the fishing industry, the barge trade generated and was supported by a wide range of landbased commercial activity.

In between the minor and major repairs, there were maintenance tasks that didn't warrant a slipway or boatyard but did require the barge to be temporarily removed from the water. Such tasks included routine maintenance such as tarring and caulking.

The easiest way to achieve this was to undertake the repairs at low tide. However, the heavily silted harbour basin could not be used for this. Barges were therefore moved to the seaward side of the West Head where the ebbing sea left a substantial area of shingle in its wake (the Area 2 mentioned by John Wraight). This type of repair work was often referred to as being done "on the hard".

Tarring On The Hard....

The work of tarring and caulking "on the hard" is captured in a very special picture that adorns the home of Bill Dancer in Canada and has other connections with Whitstable history ....

Tarring on the hard by Laurence Irving

Print: 'Tarring on the Hard' by Laurence Henry Foster Irving

I was given this print (see right) by Nellie Brett the wife of Ned Brett who ran a nursery in Harwich Street when I emigrated to Canada. It hangs in my living room in a place where the sun does not throw direct light on it.

The title is "Tarring on the Hard" and it is identified as the Whitstable Hard. The artist, Laurence Henry Foster Irving, lived in the Bostal Hill Windmill at one time and I believe he was the grandson of Sir Henry Irving. His name appears on the print along with the date 29.4.27 and the latin "del et imp" (roughly "it is complete let it be printed") which, I believe, is written in pencil presumably by the artist.

Associated with "Tarring on the Hard" was the process of "caulking". The seams between the planks were made watertight by driving in spun oakum with a caulking iron and mallet and then covering the seams with tar.

I spent many hours as a Cadet in Clan Line caulking the teak decks that surrounded the accommodation.

Bill Dancer
British Columbia

Getting Stuck... "On the Soft"!

I mentioned above that the heavily silted harbour basin could not be used for repairs to the hull. The mud also caused other problems as John Harman recalls...

Most of the working barges that came into Whitstable were fully loaded. The waterline of a loaded barge was barely 6" from the deck amidships.

In the harbour they would wait a day or two to be unloaded, without their Master onboard. As you know, the harbour bottom is a very oozy mud, in which settling boats would make huge pockets. A fully loaded barge would really settle in this when the tide was out. With a barge's flat bottom, the suction was really great - sometimes more than the barge could lift itself out of, with the incoming tide. This was only noticed once the deck was awash, then panic struck!

This is where another use for that long spar 'the sprit' came into use. The sprit can also be used as a crane. In this case, the tender (as a weight) would be hoisted into the air and swung from side to side (beam to beam) releasing the barge from the suction. This too is why there is a high coaming around the cargo hatches.

John Harman

For an explanation of the term "sprit", take a look at our Guide to the Barge page.

Harbour Manoeuvres - Warping

In full sail and in open water, the Thames Barge was an effective and pugnaciously elegant craft. However, within the confines of the harbour, it needed a little help. John Wraight has touched on this with his reference to the static buoys that lined the western approaches. John Harman adds to this with an explanation of two important pieces of equipment on board a barge - the hand winch and the tender or barge boat.....

Back in the days when there could have been as many as 10 or more barges in the harbour at one time, each sailing barge had its tender... 'a barge boat'. It was not just a lifeboat up on it's davits...... it would also have spent time in the water as a working tool.

These heavily built dinghies were used to assist in manoeuvering the barge around the corner of the inner harbour. The mate would have to scull with one oar over the stern - leaving the free hand to handle a rope. In this case, it was a thin steel cable (called a warp) that came from a hand winch on the barge. He took it to the far side of the harbour. The winch could then pull the barge around into a position to head out. This was known as 'warping'.

With all these barge tenders in the harbour, no boy needed a boat to learn to scull. It was a regular playground for future barge mates and young fishermen.

As I have mentioned, the barge boats were heavy..... and so too was an oar which was long, straight and made of ash . In fact, the craft were too heavy to row single-handed with a pair of oars. However, even a very large boat can be sculled along once it gets moving.

John Harman

Of course, such practices began to disappear when barges were provided with auxiliary engines or became fully motorised.

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