Letter from Pat O’Driscoll (includes description of the yard)

Forest Hill,

London, SE25  5TF.


Dear Mary,

On Monday I went down to Greenwich and walked along the river bank (I refuse to call it Mudlarks Way – ridiculous name) end took photos before Greenwich Council makes any more changes.  I took Redpath’s Jetty, a container ship passing, the Amasco Jetty, the edge of Pear Tree Wharf and the flagstaff and weather vane still remaining from when the Greenwich Yacht Club had its buildings there.  The I returned to River Way and took a photo of the Pilot and the row of cottages (now all boarded-up) but there were lots of cars there so  I fear it isn’t a good picture.  The pub still busy.  At Redpath’s several men were  making heavy weather of moving an old Cory lighter into the corner by the downstream side of the jetty.  The wind was ‘on’ but they were having a lot of difficulty pulling the craft in, so I suspected an off mooring still secured.  As usual, nobody around who knew the past of the area.  While waiting to cross Blackwall Lane on my way to the ‘bus stop I got into conversation with a middle-aged man who had just parked a small truck.  He came from the other side of the river and he said ‘do you know the woman  bushes in the bushes?’  Apparently there is a woman living rough in the waste ground just off Blackwall Lane.  He said he had seen her once.  This is the first I’ve heard, of it so I thought I’d ask you if you had heard of her, whoever she is.  while sitting on a seat near where Norton’s used to be I was looking downstream through the Barrier and saw a sailing barge alongside, just through the Barrier think she must be on Sargent’s.  Have you heard of a sailing barge there?  have yet to discover how you get at Sargent’s now that they have moved to jus below the Barrier.  There must be a way onto the river bank there but so far have not been able to find it.

I  had also heard of a pirate in connection with Bugsby’s Hole.  Bugsby is rather a mystery.  In the April 1988 issue of “P.L.A. Monthly” it says that the name  Bugsby is first seen on a map of 1822.  In an 1851 Guide, Bugsby’s Hole is listed, but Bugsby’s Reach not seen on pap until 1845. One reason why the Hole was occupied by colliers was because they could ‘ at anchor  float there, awaiting a discharging berth further upstream.  In the 19th century the river was so silted-up for lack of dredging that ships above a certain size could only move a couple of hours before High Water, so they had to come up-river in stages.  The City Corporation had jurisdiction over the river then and neglected dredging, which is why the Thames Conservancy was established  in 1856-7, so that such things were actually done and not just talked about.  City had representation on this body, together with the Board of Trade and Trinity House and (I think) the Admiralty.  The P.L.A. took over the river below Teddington from the TG in 10^8.  After 1856-7 the Lord Mayor’s Show no longer had par its procession on the Thames and the City Barge and similar barges belonging other livery companies which had taken part in the water procession were dropped, but watermen did have a part in the land procession so that the rive: link was not entirely broken.  More information available if needed.

Norton always had a barge up on the blocks and often there would be a trading barge lying off the yard in Bugsby’s Hole, so that the yard became a favourite haunt of enthusiasts who would come down to the old shed, built against Redpath’s wall, just to talk barges. The origin of Bugsby’s Hole is said to lie in a pirate of that name who was executed here in the 18th century.

I used to visit Norton’s yard often, either to chat with him and his Workmen or to take photographs of the craft. Like myself Mr Norton had been a member of the Surrey Athletic Club – in his time he was a noted athlete – so we were able to speak on common ground. He told me that his father and uncles first started the barge repair yard on this site, and that they had later built barges also: the ‘Scout’, ‘Scud’, and Serb.

I have drunk many a mug of stewed tea in the tumbledown shed-cum-office-cum-workshop where the key was always hung up on the outside! He kept a number of old photographs of himself in his running gear and other photos of launchings etc.,’ but he would never permit them to be re-photographed.

In the shed there were bins containing small pieces of ironwork – bolts, spikes and rings – and of course trunnels (treenails). Mr Norton still had his original ‘trunnel plate’ which he had used since he was a boy for making these oak pegs. He told me what he had earned banging oak sticks through to make the wooden’ nails – it was not very much per 100 nails! Blocks, leeboard hangings, chain by the fathom, iron round rod and square rod, some chaff cutter wheels in fact a good supply of items for barge repair work hunt from the walls and besides all this was his workshop tools and forge, complete with anvils and masses of tools propped up against the quenching bath and of course his wood working section which included all manner of tools – common, uncommon and peculiar to this local trade.

The shed was a wonderful little place full of atmosphere with walls which were hung with old sails to keep out the weather. Most of his bits and pieces had some story attached to them and yet Mr. Norton and old Fred seemed to know exactly where each piece had come from.

Outside the shed by the bankside lay the remains of the sailing barges ‘Royal George’ which was cut down in the River and beached and ‘Iverna‘ the Sandwich coaster, pieces of old leeboards Masts heaps of old chain, anchors and so forth. Latterly skippers used to take their barges onto the blocks and do their own minor repairs. I took some photographs of Captain Harold Smy and ‘Beatrice Maud’ here about 14 years ago. Horlicks auxiliary barge ‘Repertor’ was lying off the yard at the time.Finally in the last few years when trading barges were few and far between Norton just used to walk down more from habit than need, I think. and open the shed up

All for now,



Return to Riverway


Return to Bugsby’s Hole some background


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