Somewhere between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the massive Thames ship building industry moved, or was sent, to the North of England and Scotland. It was cheaper to build iron ships there because of the easy availability of coal and iron. Boat building – small boats, barges and lighters – has never really gone away. Undoubtedly the most common has been the ubiquitous Thames lighter – an open, unpowered barge.
Despite the clippers, Blackadder and Halloween, East Greenwich had never been famous for shipbuilding. Ironically it was after the big ships left that East Greenwich boat building came into its own. For several years at the start of the twentieth century a number of thoroughbred sailing barges were built here which went on to win prizes and many admirers.
(I am very nervous of writing about sailing barges since there are so many experts on the subject! Much of this chapter is due to the kindness of Elizabeth and David Wood, of the Society for Spritsail Barge Research, and of Pat O’Driscoll, ex- editor of Bygone Kent, and East Coast Digest and a one time sailor-woman on barges. Pat was also been kind enough to refer my work to Hugh Perks for comment, and I would also like to thank him. I would also like to thank the late Jim Hughes for information about Orinoco. Also of great help has been David Renouf who has provided information and answered my queries via his Thames Sailing Barge web page. Some books used have included Frank Carr, Sailing Barges, London, 1931, and David and Elizabeth Wood, The Last Berth of a Sailorman, SSBR, 1996, (which included an excellent bibliographic essay)
BARGE BUILDERS BEFORE 1880
There were several barge builders on the Peninsula before 1880 but little is known about them. In the 1800s barges were very common. Every factory and works needed them because they were the main means of haulage on the River and as common as lorries are in the late twentieth century. Barge repairers must have had a lot in common with motor repairers – dirty, unglamorous and with a bad reputation. They fitted into the holes and corners which others left and undertook a trade which everyone needed and at the same time disregarded.
The earliest boat builder recorded on the Greenwich Peninsula is a Mr. Cruden. (details
from Morden College Trustees Minutes). He caused a great deal of nuisance to Morden College tenants for some years. His work was done on the foreshore in the area where Charles Holcombe wanted to embank the River and build wharves. Cruden was not paying rent- and, apparently, did not intend to do so. He also blocked what had been osier beds with his barges. Holcombe reported this to Morden College and when James Soames took over part of the site he agreed to take the problem on. The matter was decided at Maidstone assizes and Mr. Cruden left.
Another barge builder from the 1860s was a James West whose barge house was alongside the Sea Witch Pub. He was either part of, or next to, a barge yard belonging to George Bullock who also had a ‘grid iron for ships’ further north, but advertised his services as a ship repairer and timber merchant from an address in Thames Street, Greenwich. (Greenwich Rate Books)
Augustus Edmonds leased part of the Blakeley site from Morden College before 1880 for a barge building yard. There must have been much more to Edmonds than appears from the brief note about his tenancy because he was clearly a rich man. In 1868 he had leased a very large and important house, which once stood in Westcombe Hill on the site of the present day Broadbridge Close. Did he have a business somewhere else? (Greenwich Rate Books, additional information from Neil Rhind.)
There are others ; Henry Pearmaine (Greenwich Rate Books) and perhaps Hughes who probably built the one East Greenwich barge still afloat – Orinoco – which in the 1990s could be found at Hoo Marina on the Medway. (When Jim Hughes (no relation) died his widow, Elsie, was kind enough to give me access to his papers. Among them were his research notes on Hughes Barge Builders. With help from Hugh Perks these were turned into an article for Bygone Kent. Before Jim died he had urged me to find Orinoco. She was at that time in Hoo Marina and her then owner, Graham Reeves, was very keen to involve her in the Millennium celebrations. Sadly, but inevitably, the organisers had no conception or interest in of sailing barges and Orinoco has now been sold elsewhere. It is understood that she has been berthed at Faversham)
BARGES UNDER SAIL
The most famous barges were the red sailed bulk haulage carriers of the Thames tideway and beyond – called ‘sprit sail’ because of the special arrangement of mast and sail which allowed them to be worked with a minimal crew. Bob Roberts, a well known authority on them, described his moment of conversion when he saw Reminder – ‘a grey steel barge.. gawky and awkward’ leaving the Albert Dock with ‘a fluttering of white canvas and within a matter of moments she was a cloud of sail’.(Bob Roberts. Coasting Bargemaster, London, 1949) ‘Reminder’ is still in sail and berthed at Maldon.
River workers and bargemen lived in a world that was a rather different shape to that of landsmen. It covered the River – went up to Brentford then down to the Estuary and well beyond. It was a closed, rather elite, world. There was the River, and then there was everyone else. The two didn’t really mix. (Certainly in my Gravesend childhood few river workers would have had dealings with land based factory working families, like mine).
The barge trade represented what was important about commerce on London River – they carried dirty, everyday, cargoes. Tar from Aylesford to Dunkirk; ‘Spent’ oxide from Portsmouth Gas Works to the glassworks at Rouen; timber loaded in the Surrey Docks; grain for the mills at Ipswich; cement to everywhere and anywhere; scrap iron from Goole; coal to Wapping; flour to Guernsey and granite road chippings back. They went on and on. (This itinerary is taken from a number of works on barges – once again working along the relevant shelf at the National Maritime Museum and using material published in such journals as ‘Topsail’, ‘Thames Sailing Barge Club Journal’ and ‘East Coast Digest’)
The Thames Barge design had evolved over many centuries but was refined during the nineteenth century. In many ways they were very modern. One barge still in sail in the 1990s – but not Greenwich built – is Xylonite. She was built in 1926 as a bulk acid carrier and named after her owners’ main product, the first plastic, British Xylonite. (Like most of the few remaining barges, Xylonite was up and down the river carrying charter traffic. I spent a memorable week’s holiday on her in the 1970s – impressed by her speed and solidity. I am not sure where she is now)
CITY OF LONDON
At least one prize-winning sailing barge, The City of London, was built at East Greenwich before James Piper arrived. Barge races began in 1862 but the builders of contestants are not noted for the first years. ‘City of London’ had been built in 1880 and came second in the 1881 Topsail class. She won the race in 1887 and was still racing ten years later. (She was built by Rennie at Dreadnought Wharf in Greenwich. Specific information about race results comes from Edgar J.March, ‘Spritsail Barges of the Thames and Medway’, London, 1948.)
Sailing barges are essentially glamorous craft. They have the same collectability as tea clippers or the great transatlantic liners! Like the clippers they represent the final moments of working sail during the period when the London river serviced the greatest port in the world. They were largely owned by river haulage companies for whom, through their distinctive style, their red sails and their racing prowess, they provided a living advertisement. Their status is shown by the names they were given – ‘the famous Giralda‘ was named after the tower of Seville’s cathedral. (Staying at a Devon B&B I noticed Giralda under my plate on a table mat made up of a series of ‘famous British sailing craft’)
Piper’s Wharf is one of the most famous barge building sites on the River – and the site is still in use today. In the early years of the twentieth century Piper’s produced a long line of successful barges – several of them built to win the annual barge races. Predominant was ‘the famous’ Giralda built in 1889 – ‘champion of champions’.
James Richard Piper had been apprenticed to a Greenwich ship owner, William Bromley, and then went to work for Mowlem’s in Greenwich. After ten years he opened a barge repair business where he began to build barges to his own designs and through hard work built the firm up. (I have to thank Elizabeth Wood for drawing my attention to ‘A Champion Barge Builder’ in ‘River and Coast’, June 17th 1899. In writing this account it is of great regret to me that the remaining Piper family have not agreed to talk to me about this important company – although I understand the reasons. Some of the material in this article comes from an unpublished interview undertaken for GLIAS by Denis Smith, with Jim Lee, who worked on Pipers’ Wharf for many years)
There were problems with his first site because of the movement of the tide and Piper moved as soon as he could do so to a new wharf, which became known as ‘Piper’s’. By 1899 he had designed and built the largest ‘dumb’ barges. His sailing barges too were becoming well known and his order book was full. Piper’s had some pretensions above the usual barge and lighter repairers of East Greenwich – advertising themselves from the first as ‘Barge and Yacht builders’. In due course James Piper was succeeded by Leonard and, then Malcolm. While they built a wide range of working Thames boats and some pleasure craft but they were rightly most famous for their classic sailing barges.
The earliest barge built at Greenwich by Piper was called, fittingly, James Piper – she ended her days as a Chelsea houseboat. She was followed by Haughty Belle, Gerty and Ernest Piper – a few remains of which can still be seen sitting on Medway mud at Bedlam’s Bottom, near Sittingbourne. In the early 1900s Piper’s were turning out at least one barge a year. These were commissioned, or sold to the river haulage companies.
Goldsmith’s of Grays commissioned Giralda. Ugly and flat-bottomed, she was built to win the prize money for Victoria’s Jubilee year gold cup. She followed this by winning race after race for many years. She had less success as a working barge and a row was to develop as to whether she could cope with the loads of cement, bricks, rubbish or corn – the routine loads of any working barge.
Piper’s followed with many other barges and most of them led useful working lives. They still aspired to racing success – a barge of 1904 was called Surge (Sure yoU aRe Giralda’s Equal). By the 1930s the annual championships were dominated by East Greenwich barges.
Sailing barge careers and their final fates are recorded in detail by the enthusiasts who follow them. Some Greenwich barges still remain useful, although there is no Piper barge now still sailing. Leonard Piper is now a houseboat at Chiswick and Wilfred is a Victoria Embankment wine bar. (I have to thank Denis Postle, the current owner, for a delightful afternoon spent on James Piper and for subsequent help and encouragement. I have not been so lucky with the current owners of ‘Wilfred’ – whoever they may be)
Piper’s built many other vessels at East Greenwich – lighters, motor barges even some launches. In the Second World War they turned out landing craft and ‘things of that nature’. For a while, in the 1950s, they specialised in refrigerated craft. They did conversions – in 1981 they converted a 3,000 ton vessel for cable repairers in New Zealand.
Memories of the sailing barges remained with them and for many years the great main mast of Genesta stood outside the Greenwich works, as a memento – she had been missing in a storm for four days off Blyth. The mast was in Greenwich but Genesta stayed afloat and went to Guernsey.
Shrubsall was another important Greenwich barge builder. They were an established company with a yard at Ipswich and at Limehouse and also at Sittingbourne. Then, in 1900 Horace Shrubsall rented a piece of land from Morden College – part of the area which was to be later used by the Delta Metal Co. Shrubsall later took over what was to be known as Tunnel Wharf. Shrubsall were established barge builders when they came to Greenwich with a good record of producing effective boats. Their barges were soon to challenge Piper’s – in the 1907 race Veronica was only two minutes behind Giralda. Veronica is now lying on the mud at Bedlam’s Bottom with all her ribs showing – but her bow boards are preserved in the Dolphin Yard Museum at Sittingbourne (this museum is now closed). No Greenwich built Shrubsall barge remains active. Sadly, Vicunia was burnt out at Maldon only in 1994. Verona is said to be in use as a houseboat in Stockholm. (There is a page of reminiscence material deposited at Greenwich Heritage Centre by Horace Shrubsall. Also see ‘The Shrubsall Barges’ by Richard Hugh-Perks in Coast and Country, Vol.10/3., and ‘The Shrubbie Barges’ by Nicholas Hardinge, photocopy at Woodlands. Also see Richard Hugh Perks, The Barge Builders – Horace Shrubsall of East Greenwich’ in Bygone Kent Vol.20.No.2. pp 87-95)
The barge fraternity was proud of its record in the Second World War. Several went over for the Dunkirk landings. Duchess was abandoned off Dunkirk in June 1940 where Valonia too was lost – although she was discharging tar from Aylesford at Dunkirk when, as her skipper is reported to have said, ‘Jerry got there first’. (Dunkirk Landings – taken from captions to exhibits at the now sadly closed Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum, Sittingbourne)
So recently was Norton’s yard in work that in the late 1990s odd bits of plank and chain can still be found on the foreshore. Old men from Greenwich Yacht Club say – ‘they were from Dick Norton’s ….pick up the barge nails’ – all that is left of a skilled and flourishing trade. Norton’s lasted into the 1970s and although Dick Norton sold the yard in 1966 he still came down. The yard housed an attractive jumble of old sheds minded by Fred the watchman. (Notes by Pat O’Driscoll for Greenwich Industrial History, Vol.1. Issue 1. April 1998. I also have to thank several unnamed members of Greenwich Yacht Club who have shown me the remains of Norton’s barge yard in the years before English Partnerships altered the foreshore beyond recognition)
Nortons built sailing barges on the foreshore at Bugsby’s Reach. A plan of the riverfront, drawn up for the steel works shows three Nortons – ‘R.Norton, Snr’ – ‘Norton Bros.’ and ‘Norton Jnr’. None had a wharf but existed on the foreshore with barge blocks running parallel to the bank. ‘R.Norton’ alone had a small area inland. Pat O’Driscoll remembered ‘There was a little wicket gate in the corrugated iron fence….. Norton had two sheds on the other side, one was for storing tools, nuts, bolts, paint, etc. The other was Fred’s living quarters’.
In 1908 they rebuilt the wrecked Empress as Scudo and then built Scout, Scud and Serb from new. Scud was a 64-ton vessel, which worked for seventy-three years until she was broken up in Sittingbourne, only in 1980. Serb, bigger at 75 tons had a shorter life of only thirty-eight years before she was sunk off the North Foreland in 1954. (Plan of Norton’s yard. This plan was given to me by Kenny Hilbrown who was at the time fighting English Partnerships for possession of Redpath Brown’s old jetty. He told me that it belonged to him I have since been told by members of Greenwich Yacht Club – from whom Kenny had parted following a dispute – that it belongs to them. The last thing I would want to do is to upset Greenwich Yacht Club and I hope that they accept that I used it in good faith)
BARGES AND BOATS
Barge and boat building has been very tenacious at East Greenwich – so much so that it would be no surprise to walk along the riverside one-day and find something quite large under construction. So resilient was this industry that the Barge Builders Union continued to meet in Greenwich until the early 1980s. (The Barge Builders Union records were stored in Greenwich Labour Party offices in big wooden chests. They remained there until 1987 when Head Office staff took the offices over during the by-election. They turfed everything out into the garden. It was pouring with rain – tipping down – and I had no means of contacting any barge builders. I got the chests loaded into the back of my mini and took them over to the archive at the Museum in Docklands. Sorry to any barge builders who had wondered what had happened to them, but it seemed to be an emergency)
Still to be seen are the disused barge building slips at Bay Wharf built for Humphrey and Grey. (these were demolished 2012). In 1908 a Mr. Humphrey had joined several other barge builders at Point Wharf. By 1919 he was in partnership with Mr. Grey, Jnr. and then moved to Bay Wharf where the slips were built. Thomas Hughan replaced him at Point Wharf and remained there for many years.
Joe Jackobaits moved to Point Wharf after Hughan left it. He had had a business in the Royal Docks and, ousted from there, stayed at Greenwich as long as he could. At Point Wharf he built a number of boats on a special – if makeshift – structure constructed so as to allow pedestrians past. It is instructive to learn that as late as 1987 he was still at work there and can point to some surprisingly large Greenwich built vessels in use on the River and elsewhere today, which were built on the site adjacent to the Dome’s building site entrance. (Joe’s ‘dry dock’ , remarkably,survived the Dome and rusting away on the riverside until at least 2011. My attempts to interview Joe or to find out the truth of what he built at Greenwich – or indeed elsewhere – has floundered on his general elusiveness ‘sorry love, too busy, the bailiffs is ‘ere’. Hopefully it will be possible to catch up with him one day! If it is true that he built ‘Elizabethan’ there (and I only have other peoples’ word for it) then it looks very good on the Boy George pop-video of Karma Chameleon disguised (to a minimal extent) as a Mississippi river boat! Hopefully someone will read this and correct me)
As the Millennium Dome nears completion, next to the smart offices at Ordnance Draw Dock lies a rusting heap of marine artefacts – necessary for the boat building business, since boat builders say that pedestrians on the riverside path obstruct their work if more traditional methods are used. They clearly intend to start again as soon as possible – Dome or not.