Whitstable and the Thames Barge "Vigilant"

An Introduction to the Vigilant

The names of Whitstable's barges live long in the memories of many people who had connections with the barge trade or harbour. For those people, the names of vessels such as..... Kathleen.... Savoy.... Cereal.... and Trilby trip off the tongue as easily as the names of the streets of our town.

However, one barge name lives on in the memories of ALL Whitstable people.... and yet it may never have traded from Whitstable, may never have visited the harbour and may never have put to sea from our waterfront. Even more certain is that it never sailed under the name that now trips off the tongue as easily as a street name. She was, of course...... The Vigilant.

The Vigilant arrived under a very different title in the wake of a tragic accident and she was renamed by local people. She never left our shoreline and, from the 1920s to the 1960s, became a permanent feature of the beach on the eastern side of The Neptune public house.

Some years ago, John Harman explained some of the history and provided me with photos from his family album. His message is given below in his own words...

by John Harman

This sequence of photos was taken back in 1963 when my wife Anne and I came home to the UK for a brief visit.

The Vigilant barge on Whitstable beach in 1963

Anne alongside the Vigilant in 1963

The shot above features Anne in the foreground in the soft light of evening. In the background, we have the Vigilant barge..... looking somewhat worse for wear.

The vessel was actually a sailing barge and my brother Ray tells me that it was originally called the "Lady Ellen". However, in the late1920s, it was run down in fog by a steamer far out off Whitstable.

Although this was before my time, my elder brothers and sisters recall her being brought ashore by the Whitstable Sea Cadets with the help of a nearby ship yard that had the necessary equipment. At that time, my cousin Harry was the Drum Major and he played a large part in the process of beaching the craft.

Of course, the vessel never returned to the water. It was renamed The Vigilant and became the Sea Cadet's HQ for many years. I have been told that, in the early days, social events were held in her including 'whist drives'.

A door was inserted in the hull to form an entrance.... and that door marked the very point in the starboard quarter where she had been struck by the steamer!

The photo below was also taken in 1963 - looking east from the Neptune. It shows the bow of the Vigilant looking a bit seedy.

The bow of the Vigilant on Whitstable beach in 1963

The bow of the Vigilant in 1963

In the distance, the long shed of another boatyard (RJ Perkins) can be seen just to the right of the old oyster store. 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.

At this time, the Vigilant appeared to have been sheathed with metal in order to protect her or cover up her decay. The sheathing was rusting and had a bleached look rather than the shiny black of the past.

However, it was not always so. My next photo is an extract from a picture taken of me in 1947... with the Neptune public house and the Vigilant in the background.....

The Vigilant barge and Neptune Pub (Whitstable) in 1947

The Vigilant barge and Neptune Pub in 1947

Here, the old ship looks quite trim for her age. The stouter mast in the centre was much used by the cadets in the distant past. The more daring ones were sent to the top to do semaphore with hand held flags! This mast could be seen from all over town and appears in many old photographs.

John Harman

As you will see from our "Where Are They Now" page, many Thames barges underwent alterations after they ended their working life.... including conversion to barge yachts and houseboats. The Vigilant was itself modified in order to meet the requirements of a Sea Cadet HQ. Below, John explains the alterations using his opening photo and bit of photographic trickery.....

by John Harman

As a barge, the vessel would have had a large main hatch to the cargo hold and forward of the mast, a smaller one with decking between them. The mast which was hinged at the base stood on this portion of deck.

In the conversion to the VIGILANT, a cabin top was built over these two hatches with the mast sticking up through the top. That portion of deck was now inside the cabin and formed a balcony of sorts. From the lower hold, it could be accessed by stairs (a companion way). On the balcony, there was a door in the cabin top to exit to the outside surrounding deck.

The Vigilant with an artists impression of the extended cabin

The Vigilant with an artists impression of the extended cabin

That elongated cabin can be glimpsed in the background of another of John's family photos... along with some characters who were well known in local maritime circles.....

Local maritime characters with the Vigilant in the background

Local maritime characters with the Vigilant in the background

This photo is taken on the beach in front of the Anderson, Rigden and Perkins boatyard in 1949. In the background the extended cabin of the Vigilant is visible.

In the forground, we John's dad (one of the most well known of local fishermen at that time), Tom Harman, Ray Harman (John's brother and a craftsman at the AR&P boatyard), Mutton Collar and his dog, Charles (John's brother-in-law) and Una Frost. They are standing in front of George Harman's first fishing boat - the Welcome Messenger II. (Note: Tom Harman was the owner of the first Welcome Messenger).

Although the Vigilant never put to sea again, she inspired many young sailors in her shorebound role as the TS Vigilant. She also occupied a place at the very heart of the town's maritime industry - surrounded by seagoing "friends" as described by John below....

by John Harman

The photo below shows my wife, Anne, standing alongside the bow of the Vigilant in 1963...

The bow of the Vigilant in 1963

Anne alongside the bow of the Vigilant in 1963

The boat immediately behind Anne is the Gamecock which had recently been bought by Bill Coleman and was undergoing extensive repairs by him. Previously, Gamecock had belonged to the Stroud Family. After refloating at the end of the war, she was Bert Stroud's fishing vessel and was used for shrimping. During that time, Bert bought another boat for fishing - a very fast one. It was an ex German Navy boat from the war. Strangely enough, it just happens to be the other boat in the picture - the blue one.

The shed that you can just see above the blue boat, is the one that local artist and signwriter Peter Dadd occupied. For years before that, it was Bento Rigdens!

The large shipyard building to the left of Peter's shed and the Peoples Free Mission all went up in flames in 1974 - eleven years after the photo was taken.

John's photo helps to show the size of the Vigilant. It also features the large concrete block on which the bow rested for many years.

As John has pointed out, the vessel was in quite a state of disrepair by the early 1960s. Eventually, the passing of time and the effects of weather took its final toll. The Sea Cadets were relocated to a brick building alongside Bonners Alley in Middle Wall and the Vigilant was removed from the beach for ever. David Smythe describes its demise....

by David Smythe

My family lived (1962-66) in what was then called 'The Old Vines' 48 Island Wall. At that time, it was all one property and the 'Chalet' Cafe in our garden was called 'The Wigam'. This was run by me and my mum when I left college.

I was responsible for the demise of the T.S. Vigilant (about 1965) when it was derelict on the beach directly in front of the Wigwam. It became so unsightly and was the joy of many amateur arsonists. So, I offered the Sea Cadet captain my services to break it up. I and many of the lads literally pulled it apart and burned the debris on the beach.

The three foot square concrete block on which the bow had rested remained there for many years and I am sure people wondered why it was there.

Now you know!

David Smythe

In the years that followed, the nearby boatyard also closed its doors for the last time and it all looks so very different in the modern era....

The empty Vigilant Beach (Whitstable) in modern times

The empty Vigilant Beach in modern times

The beach is now empty and the yards have long been replaced by neat seafront residences. However, memories live on for those of us old enough to recall the Vigilant as both a familiar feature of our shoreline and an integral part of the town itself.

For newcomers and younger members of the community, there are, of course, reminders that ensurethe Vigilant will never be wholly forgotten. The small section of shingle that once housed the barge continues to be know by locals as The Vigilant Beach and the Sea Cadets still proudly wear the name "TS Vigilant" on their caps. Hopefully, no amount of redevelopment will change that.

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