James R. Piper was apprenticed to William Bromley (JP for Gravesend) a Greenwich ship owner. He then moved on to work for Mowlem’s at their East Greenwich Yard. After ten years Piper began to do work himself and then opened a small yard. Eventually he had one of the largest barge builders on the Thames. He also became involved in producing barges for racing. He himself was a successful rower. He also worked as a marine damage surveyor
(details from Yachting and Coast 17th June 1899)


J.R.Piper Ltd.  Barge ‑ Builders Piper’s Wharf: 79 Banning Street SE10

Jim Lee recorded at his home, on Thursday 16 October 1986, by Denis Smith.

” I started at Pipers, I suppose I should probably now refer to it as “The Yard”, in 1933. I was made a barge‑builder apprentice and I started work on the craft. I actually remember the first one I started, it was the Canada. She was an insulated barge and I worked with two tradesmen ‑ nice fellows, Bill White and George Goddard. I got on well with them ‑ I liked them. Our firm at that time, we were building, I suppose, only steel barges then. There were still some wooden barges about which I would have worked on, and of couyrse our sailing barges, which the majority were wood, some iron. All kinds of craft I suppose, you would have, open barges ‑ they would carry goods which didn’t matter if they got wet ‑ hatch barges, insulated craft, there were of course some tanker barges would carry oil, or molasses, thing of that nature. It was reasonably hard work. I remember ‑ my father worked for the firm, he was a blacksmith and of course the other barge‑builders used to say to me “Well, why didn’t your Dad have you as a blacksmith” and I’d say well “My Dad said it was too much like  hard work”. So they would immediately say well “Lift up that plank”, which was probably a plank thirty foot long, three by twelve BCP or Pitch Pine or something like that. Anyway, I was in the wood section of the yard, ‘cos the yard was split up into two sections ‑ there was the wood side and the “Ironfighters” as we called them; they were the boiler‑makers, platers, riveters, and all things like that. We had a fair  set up there. The yard, I suppose (living room clock strikes)

We did things properly, we had a mould‑floor and the craft were laid out on that. Templates were made, everything of that sort. The material used to come in one end and the barge went out  the other end. In my days things were delivered by horse and cart, and so it was all “handraulic” as things would be called. In other words you lifted things by hand, you carried them about by handand all that sort of thing. Sometimes, you know, in say unloading plates, you can imagine, that a plate would be made fast one end and a horse and cart pulled forward, and it dropped down onto the next lot of plates that were already there, and so there was job for the horse‑man, whatever you would like to call him, ha had to hold the horse down because it went down with such a crack that he would want to gallop away.

Plates from there would be taken into ‑ a chap, Ted Warden his name was, he would do all the marking‑off of  plates.Sometimes he would have a busy period, we had another fellow Sid Giles, also a plater. And they would go from there to the Punch and Shears, whatever, after they were marked‑off, etc. The angles would come through, they would be gauged ‑ one edge was always cut pff for caulking edge, the other flange of the plate would be undeneath the plate so the caulking edge wouldn’t be on the plate. A bit technical there but there we are. They would be punched and sheared, then of course the side frames, things like that would go into our various, either “Pot‑Fires” or “Long‑Fires”, they were coke fed, pulled out onto the slab and dog‑ground to the shape necessary at the foot. Basically, quickly, that’s  just covered like the area of the preparation of the plate. By the way, we had a large Countersinker as well, which countersunk for riveting ‑ this is all riveted stuff.

The outer part, or the building berths, our stocks would be prepared. You would have recalled the side‑deals, they go on quarter‑blocks, and intermediate blocks, swim‑deals, and Cross‑bearers. The plates then, they would be manhandled, literally manhandled, there would be ten men to a plate, and they would put wedges underneath it ‑ to get their fingers under. Then it would come up to knee‑height, then up to waist‑height. Half would then get down and put their shoulders, and when they would straighten up the fellows within their hand would lift up as well and come under the plate. So the plate was now up onto their shoulders. There was an incline in our yard, it was the reverse of what you might expect, you had to uphill to go to the river! But  they would walk these plates uphill and then lay them out in their position on the stocks. They’d be drifted together, pulled together, bolted up, bottom, sides, swims, bulkheads, decks, coamings ‑ all bolted up. And then after that of course they’d be riveted, caulked, painted ‑ lifted into position, put the slides under and launched into the river. Of course there wasn’t, as you may guess, a lot of woodwork on these. There would be ceilings ‑ we’re upside down in the shipping proceedings, ceilings for us is on the ground not up in the air. The cabins fitted out etc., fittings bolted down and all the rest of it.

Time taken? ‑ we must think of this as a continual progress and one would be following another up all the time ‑ it was like a conveyor belt but hadn’t reached that stage, or speed. But on occasions launched two a month ‑ sometimes two a tide, well that was a bit of a struggle because that could only be done where our berths were long enough to put one craft behind another. At that point I suppose, the highest end of  the last craft, last barge we launched would be somewhere about seven feet up in the air, and you more or less had to work on stagings to do the jacking and preparations and stuff like that.

It was a good sight to see a craft launched, and you know gave everyone a bit of a thrill, normally we got quite a crowd of people round to watch things. We were unfortunate in one respect that we had to launch across a public footpath, and so we had to leave that area blank while preparation time went on, and it wasn’t till the last minute we put that linking point, to couple the outside slides to the inside slides. But do what you may someone would always walk in the slide. And as this was the old‑fashioned mess of the tallow, covered then with soft soap and cod oil, you can imagine what sort of mess people would get in if they took a launch themselves.

We had quite a fleet of sailing craft those days. Of course I suppose it’s our pride that we built the Geralda, now she was the fastest sailing barge ever built and won numerous barge races and she was Champion of Champions, won the Jubilee thing and all the rest of it. Of course she’s now passed on, but other people have made quite a record of her, who her crews were, who her builders and all the rest of it. But we always say “Well, we built the Geralda”. Now in my time, we had other craft racing, there was Fortis, she was a nice little barge and my God they didn’t half put some sail on her. She was a steel craft. Sometimes she went with a bowsprit, other times just staysail. Then there was the Thelma, she was another wooden craft. But they were the fastest two of our fleet. We had ‑ they ccalled them Ironpots ( bit insulting really ), ‘cos I rather liked them just the same, the steel craft. One I always fancied was one called the Lark, now though she wasn’t the fastest of craft she was a nice little barge, I liked her. Her shape was rather pleasing, her run aft started somewhere round about the mast position ‑ she was such a long run. I don’t know,  seemed to appeal me that did. But she was losty because she went to Dunkirk and was taking people off the beaches and things like that, but unfortunately she sunk and was lost out there.

Of course we made our own sails in those days. Our Sailmaker was Tommy Knight. He was a Whitstable man and he was a good sailmaker and in actual fact he worked, I think, at Camper and Nicholson, in the Isle of Wight, and he was what he said was the the Head of the Sail, and I assume he was the pace‑ maker in that case. Of course it was all hand sewn, no machine stuff or things like that. With a needle and palm ‑ I can see him going at it now. He would push through with the palm, with just the needle held with his finger and thumb. Push it though, pull it out, then with the left hand tighten it up. His little finger of his left hand used to be made of leather because, he didn’t wear a glove or anything like that, and so with the sewing twine cutting against that all the time, he really had hard skin there. Now Tom used to measure up a craft, or the spars, and he would lay it out ‑ we had a very big sail loft, big enough to take a mainsail of a sailing barge, so it was quite an area. And Tom would cut his cloth ‑ the aerofoil I suppose you would call it these days. He knew all about that. Of course we were all rule‑of‑thumb people and we worked by experience and knowledge of the past. But Tom would sew up all these ‑ I would see him sitting on his little stool, and he’s got his beeswax, and his little rubbing iron, his palm, his needle. There’s something like that ‑it’s not a bad little show, in The Maritime Museum, that’s the Greenwich Maritime Museum of course, they’ve got like a little set‑up there. There’s one thing I  dislike there ‑ in the boat shops there they’ve got a and Adze with the Helve in the wrong was (laughs) ‑ O never mind! But Tom, he used tosew up his sails and put the Bolt Ropes on, sew them, and the Head Rope, that would be a fairly hefty bit of rope, you know.  That was tarred hemp, about two inches diameter, I suppose about a five‑inch rope, four‑and‑a half, five inch rope. But that wasanother little sight, that’s just reminded me, of course the mainsail being such a large thing, we had to call out, more or less, all the outside gang as we called them, like the wood side which would include the helpers and things like that. And Tom would bundle up the sail, that’s rather a wrong expression really, but he would tie it all together with string and things like that, and we’d all ‑ possibly about twenty of us, would lift it up onto our shoulders and walk it out of the sail loft, down the steps, up the yard, down the bank and then go up a ladder, in turn, ‑ it was laright when you were down the bottom, but when you were on the top you used to have all the weight. And the we would walk down the deck and lay it out into it’s position ‑ so we were going along like one of these Chinese Dragons. Of course you always had a bit of sack, or something of that nature, on your shoulder because by this time the dressing was on the sail and still wet and moist. That was red ochre, yellow ochre, cod oil and water, a kind of emulsion we used to mix together and then put on with a deck scrub.

Second World War Service

I had an interview ‑ I went to the Yorkshire Grey, that’s where I did my medical you see, and I passed my medical and the rest of it and I was interviewd by an Army major. He said “Well, what would you like to be? Well I’d heard of it from the First World War, I said “Well, I’m a barge‑builder, I’d like to go into the inland water transport”. He said, “What’s that? and I,  “Well it’s a branch of the Royal Engineers”, I said “They deal with all kinds of things to do with the wharfage and things like that, and you build barges and the rest of it”. He said, “Never heard of it!”‑ and he was a Major in the Engineers!. There we are, perhaps it was true, I don’t know, but it was the biggest place ever at Queenborough where that went on in the first World War. So, anyway,  he said “You’ve passed grade one, what would you like to be then? So I said “Well, put me down for the Air Force”, I said, “I’ve got experience on boat‑repairs as well” I said “I could repair on these air‑sea rescue launches, things of that nature which you have”. So that was the last I heard of it until I got called into the Navy (laughs).

We had another Company, which was Piper’s just the same, called T.Scoley and Company, which was our lighterage side. This did hire of craft ‑ these would be open craft, hatch craft, and of course the insulated craft which I’ve already mentioned. But the sailing craft used to work basically in ballast, which was the stone and sand, pick up at The Engine, as we called it down the lower reaches of the river, and it was delivered to Greenwich at Whiteways & Jackson, or the Union Wharf which is now Cutty Sark. The pub used to be called The Union but is now called The Cutty Sark. Progress always in mind of course, we started to build the motor barges [ Me prompt when?]  I should think the very beginning of the’thirties. The Peter Piper was first, the Piper II, and the J.R.Piper ‑ J.R.Piper was having her Board of Trade survey being done when I joined the firm. The stuff was laid out ‑ I remember the stuff being laid out on the fore‑shore, to inspect the rockets and boat gear and all these necessary things for the vessel’s safety.

These ran into ballast from The Engine as we called it to Greenwich, and to augment the load, shall we say because they went light and came back full, we built a series of craft, called the Q Craft and these were resident barges but specifically for ballast. They were shallow draught, a bit more beamy to carry the load, and hatched, as I say resident barge, so in other words the cabin was fitted out with bunks, stove, ‑ very basic, all these things, lockers and things of that nature.And they were towed back with the motor craft. So now, in effect, you were getting the same engine pulling two craft, so you get a gain in that direction. At the time just prior to the War we were converting some craft ‑ and the War broke out and that sort of work finished, and during a period of time, that War time I was called into the Navy as a shipwright, and the yard itself was doing various jobs such as Landing‑Craft and things of that nature for the war effort.

The “Old Man” as we used to call him, never mind it was said with affection, he’s Mr.James R.Piper, he started the frim ‑ I’m only guessing, I can only go by hearsay,  what other people have told me in the past when I was a boy, about 1885. Now how true it is I don’t know, because here again it’s hearsay, he started to repair some barges at Union Wharf, and the site wasn’t all what he wanted really,because you had high tide and no place to work with the tide up, and the site became available at Dawson Wharf. I don’t know why it’s called Dawson’s Wharf ‑ I’ve only worked there fifty years! I’ll have to find that one out. Yes he opened up the yard at Piper’s Wharf and he’s continued through the years, there were sons in the business, sons who worked in the yard, that would be Mr.Leonard Piper, and then Mr.Malcolm Piper , he was on the lighterage side. Today, his grandson is Mr.D.J.Piper ‑ “Peter Piper” in other words, quite a personality around that area, and his two sons Richard and Christopher.

After the War, of course, things had to get back to the usual running of matters and our craft which had been requisitioned during the was, for various reasons, were returned, ‑ a lot of them were made into Barge Landing Craft, or converted to Balloon Barges, and for running personnel out to craft, various things like that. So that made us reasonably busy in converting them back to their normal use in life. We also carried on building, we were building then 160 ‑ tonners, 200‑tonners, and orders were coming along pretty well. We then took up the idea again of converting craft to motor barges and one we did was Pip ‑ Pip and also the Wilfred, and of course of sailing barges. We had three at one time, Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred  which was a cartoon in the Daily Herald, or something, or Daily Mail, I dont know ‑ can’t remember. But anyway we had the three. The Squeak was a wooden one, she had been the Dorcas years ago and was burnt out, went on down the river on fire,causing quite a bit of bother at one time ‑ and we rebuilt her and she was called the Squeak from then on. The Wilfred was a sailing barge, and we took the gear out of her, and the Pip was a sailing barge and they took the gear out of her ‑ and they shoved engines into them. The Pip had a …… engine and the Wilfred had Crossley engines ‑ sorry vicky verky; the Pip had Crossley and the Wilfred had ……….. Quite successfully done, they were good sea craft and they carried on in the ballast trade the same as the other craft. We had a bit if a slack period at one time, after the War, repairs you know, but we built up again and we were continuing with the insulated craft and we reached a period of time when insulated stuff wasn’t cold enough. So then we had to work then on refrigerated craft and the old style of ‑ insulated craft were cork‑lined on pitch and things of that nature, and the hatches were quite meaty ‘cos they were cork‑lined and they had T & G on top and bottom on to container, oak carlings and so they were a bit heavy. And at the same time as we had the refrigerated craft we changed over to polystyrene and plywoods. {me: which year?) Roughly ‑ late fifites I expect. These were fitted to take the refrigeration units. The cabin was stripped out, and then the engine and the plant were put in the cabin area and another cabin was made forward in that case, it was more convenient to work things that way. They were quite successful ‑ well I remember placing a bucket of water down there in the first instance as a rough test to see what it would do ‑ well it not only froze it, it came up all ground up together, all lumpy, where it was so blooming cold. So they were quite a successful turnout, and the stuff could be left in storage in the craft, and hadn’t to be rushed up to the warehouses to be put into the warehouses at Nelson’s or Gun and Shot or something like that. Sometimes, you know, there was bit of a panic station, with the insulated craft, when the fact that it was meat, ‘cos it was meat and butter, things of that nature ‑ perishable goods were put in then, could have been going off, so you used to put cardice, boxes of cardice, used to throw in and hatch‑up again.

After the War of course, I’d not mentioned before, I came back to the yard. I went into the Navy when I was twenty so I was still an apprentice basically. My aprrenticeship paers ‑ I had to sign for because I was not out of my time when I went to the Navy. So I signed for them on the building blocks so , in true barge‑building fashion, there’s tar on the back of my indentures. Anyway after the war I came back to the yard and they offered me the Foreman’s job which I did not take up because I thought well, after the war I want to settle down for five minutes, you know, a bit of peace and quiet. So I worked on my tools for two years when they offered me the Foremanship again, when I accepted. That was, war ended forty‑five, that’d be two years, forty‑seven then. I was Foreman then from that date for twenty years when they offered me the Yard Managership position, which I accepted. So you can say I went from Apprentice, Tradesman, Foreman, to Yard Manager ‑ which I’m not ashamed of.

As the years went by of course the river started to fall down. I’m not going to lay blame on anyone’s doorstep, but my thoughts are in certain directions, I think London could be still a working river, but not in London but in Tilbury. But there you are just my thoughts. So we had to diversify and Badcoles, a wharfage near to us, well next door, packed up and we took over the site etc. because things getting bigger those days we had to use a crane which there were two of on the old wahrf, and also the yard we then used as warehousing and road transport, so we moved into that direction as well. But at that period of time also we were doing some small modification and repairs on cable‑laying craft, this is power cable, this was BICC, Balfour Kilpatrick. And I suppose we must have satisfied them because we gradually did more for them, we did bigger modifications, bigger layouts, and these craft were basically for the Scottish Islands and things like that where power cables run across from the mainland to the various islands. Because they had their own plants and it was running out a bit dear. Also with breakdowns you could use the mainland cable and the other plant as stand‑by, things of that nature. Craft got bigger, jobs got bigger, the lays got bigger, and so we were then, or they were hiring in craft of Crescent Shipping, which went up in tonnage. The original craft I suppose we started on was about 200 tonners, then 500 tonners, 1,000 tonners, as jobs got bigger, and things got more complicated. You can imagine these things for handling cable which was, power cable, about 33,000 kilowatts, or something like that, which was about five inches in diameter, by the time you’d got all the insulation and steel supporting wires inside it. We had to build the various “skids” as we called them which is that paraphernalia overhead. We desinged and built those, various fittings for masonry, many winches for masonry because they had to lay anchor patterns down so they’d work on four mooring positions and work themselves into position on winches. Things got quite meaty, you know, ‑ large I should say, excuse my expression. The last one we worked on was a 3,000 tonner ‑ that would have been 1981, something like that. Here again we had to build  larger skids, the fore‑hold would be laid out in cable‑stowage areas which would have to be portable, there’d be plant down below, compressors, divers’ equipment,  welding equipment, all the thing pertaining to cable‑laying, repair, jointing, and the rest of it. She eventually went out to New Zealand, into Cook’s Strait, she did a cable repair out there, and of course extra hands are required there so we had to make up mess‑rooms, sleeping accommodation, toilet facilities, you have it, you know, all this had to be done. Also it was quite an arrangement of cable‑tracking laid out to lay the cable from the various holds. This cabel had to be continuous so all this arrangement had to be made. Hatches had to be specially reinforced because you had to be reinforced and sealed, because you couldn’t have an open hatch ‑ all had to come under Board of Trade, and Lloyd’s requirements. There was tracking went round on gantries which were just below bridge level and then it was payed out over the stern skid as well. Quite complicated, you know, a smashing job, it was nice to see it go away, ‑ to be capable and produce a satisfying job.

At this time I was now on retirement time. I don’t know what happened to things ‑ when I went there I thought I had a job for life, and I’m packing up already kind of thought goes through your mind ‑ I had been there fifty years. So I retired in ’84, and Mr.George Smith took over General Managership of the yard, prior to my leaving, so there was continuity of work. On leaving, the work was still carrying on, the repairs and modifications being done as necessary to various cable‑laying jobs. Strange to say, that when I left there was a job in hand, and various other trenching equipment being built and fitted to the vessels and it was going to Surabaya ‑ and the last place I left when I came out of the Navy was Surabaya!

You see I’d been through the war, okey‑dokey, got knocked about a bit, and the war was over with the Japanese turn‑out and I was at Singapore then, Tricomalee, and we actually had one of the surrunders signed aboard us, not the Mountbatten one ‑ another one. Then there was a dust‑up starts in Surabaya, Dutch East Indies, and I thought, blimey, I’ve not got through the war and getting bumped off in Surabaya so that’s why Surabaya always sticks in my mind. It’s strange that when I left, a craft was going out there to do a cable‑laying. So, as I say, on leaving the work was still carrying on with other odds and ends of work. One of the jobs, strange to say, was those cement craft on the river, have you seen those? They’re the ones with like domes coming up, actual cement in suspension in those pressure vessels ‑ we used to work on them as well.

We did take on a few apprentices, but as time went by ‑ well I suppose with the work falling off as it did, it wasn’t a practical thing to do. In that period of time I suppose, under my care I had one, two, three, four, perhaps four apprentices. At that time they’d be five‑year men, not a seven‑year man as I was, because they were leaving school at sixteen in those days weren’t they

Return to Piper’s Wharf


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