Heroic Rescue by Whitstable Barge Skipper George James Packman in 1923

Collision on the Thames

During February 2007, we received a real gem to add to our Thames Barge collection.... thanks to Jan Smith (Hutton). It concerns an act of bravery back in 1923 by her barge skipper granddad, George James Packman. Let's start with Jan's introduction.....

My grandfather, George James Packman of Albert Street Whitstable, worked for Daniels Brothers on the Thames barges. I that know he was on the Duluth and Savoy.
Photo Portrait of Goerge James Packman

George James Packman

Photo kindly supplied by Jan Smith

I have attached a cutting from the Whitstable Times dated 1923 describing his barge the Why Not's collision with other Whitstable barges on the Thames.

Jan Smith

Newspaper clip of the Vigilia incident

Newspaper clip of the Vigilia incident
Reproduced with kind permission of the Whitstable Times

The story is an amazing one and it shows that the serene scenes of barges under sail could occasionally turn to moments of unexpected danger and tragedy. Take a look at Jan's newspaper clip (see right).

John White (Society for Sailing Barge Research) has very kindly provided some more details of the incident. It occurred near Greenwich on 6 March 1923. The Virgilia was a relatively new cargo ship that had been built just 5 years earlier in 1918. The Why Not and W H Randall were smaller and rather older than most of the barges mentioned in our feature. Why Not was built at Faversham in 1866 (38 Reg Tons) and W H Randall was constructed at Sittingbourne in 1876 (44 Reg Tons). Kathleen was a little larger at 53 tons. All three were of wood construction and none was a match for the 5,697 ton Virgilia.

Miraculously, Why Not received only light damage to her stern. The Cunarder continued on her voyage of destruction into Talbot's barge roads, damaging several lighters and setting others adrift before running herself ashore by Wood's Wharf. The W H Randall was towed ashore and subsequently broken up at Whitstable. Kathleen was saved to become one Whitstable's most well remembered barges.

The Virgilia remained with Cunard until 1925 when she was sold to Chambers & Co of Liverpool and renamed Corby Castle. In 1927, she passed into the hands of Japanese owners and suffered her own tragic end when, on 17/02/1944, she was sunk in the Pacific Ocean by US warplanes.

In our modern era of fictitious super heroes, it is easy to overlook the fact that real life heroes are, more often than not, quiet and unassuming family people. That's partly why the picture below is such a gem.

George and Emily Packman on board a barge at Whistable harbour

George and Emily Packman enjoying a quiet moment, on board a barge at Whistable harbour

It features George and Jan's grandmother, Emily Elizabeth Packman (née Baynes) aboard an unknown barge in the tranquillity of Whitstable harbour. We discuss this quaint scene in more detail on our Bargmen page - along with other memories of bargemen and their families .

Many thanks to Jan for sharing this lovely piece of local history with us.

Other Troubles and Tragedies....

Jan's records have helped us piece together more background to some of the town's most prominent barges. In our Where are They Now page, we attempt to record the history and current status of the vessels with the help of Michael Land, John White, John Harman, John Wraight and Nigel Robinson. Amazingly, many of the craft suffered mishaps, tragedies and untimely ends. It is worth considering some of these incidents here... in the wake of George Packman's actions on the Thames in 1923.

We can start with some of the barges mentioned in Jan's email....

  • Kathleen survived that sinking and, from 1928, she was sailed by another well known local skipper - Fred Wraight. She featured in a further incident at the Anderson, Rigden & Perkins boatyard in 1953 when the flood tide swept her off the slip and she demolished a section of the boatyard buildings.
  • Why Not was sunk in another collision off Northfleet and also ran aground at West Beach while carrying a cargo of Quaker Oats. It seems that the cargo didn't react with the water and, so, Marine Terrace was saved from becoming the biggest plate of porridge ever recorded.
  • Duluth was damaged in the Lower Hope in a collision in 1897, sunk near the Nore lightship in 1912 and stranded near Scrapsgate (Sheppey) during the great gale of November 1921. Each time, she was repaired and returned to service. However, she was finally lost in World War II. Skippered by Alf Fryer she ran over the wreck of a mined steamer near Mid-Shoebury Buoy on 10 May 1942. Four months earlier, poor Alf had hit another mine while master of the Daniel's vessel HKD.

Many other Whitstable barges either survived or succumbed to adversity. Here are just a few of the stories....

  • Azima was sunk in the Medway before being hulked and eventually buried at Stood creek in 1986.
  • Cereal was washed onto the shore at Ramsgate shortly after her launch in 1894 and the crew had to be taken off. In 1929, she blocked Whitstable harbour when shifting cargo tipped her on to her port side.
  • Colonia was wrecked in 1929/30 but survived. However, she was sunk off Ness Houses in 1956 and the crew were taken off by Southend lifeboat. She was never raised but she has the distinction of being the last barge to trade under sail in the Medway area
  • Major served as a munitions barge during WWII and survived an incident when she broke away from her moorings and ran onto the beach at Whitstable in 1946. However, she was sunk in the Thames estuary in 1962.
  • Trilby survived a care in 1944 when she was stranded on Buxey Sand. She was salvaged and repaired
  • Vigilant was beached alongside the Neptune pub where she served as the HQ of the Whitstable Sea Cadets for many years. She actually started life as the Lady Ellen but was run down by a steamer in fog. This resulted in her shorebound life on our waterfront
  • Greta is now familiar sight at the harbour.... but did you know that she took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and is now the oldest active Dunkirk "Little Ship"?

Life on a Thames Barge may have been a good life and there may have been many moments of tranquillity. However, as that newspaper report clearly indicates, it was also a tough life.... and, sometimes.... just sometimes,.... it called for a quiet family man to become a hero.... like George James Packman of Albert Street.

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