WHY PEOPLE GIVE A BOAT a particular name I often wonder. I suspect it can be down to a thousand different reasons, some of them logical others completely mystifying. In some cases we are personalizing the vessel, if you like, almost giving the boat a human-like status. In the case of my own boat the name Shoal Waters is pretty telling that it is relevant to the environment she spends most of her life in, and a former boat I named Huffler was given so after the Thames sailing barge pilots “hufflers” as they were known, a local man that new all corners of his creek, its mud shoals and any other hazards, well enough that they were called on to guide a barge safely along it typically to a farm wharf that lay at its head. One immense pleasure of cruising around the Thames Estuary is being able to sail alongside these majestic spritsail barges of which there are around 30 still in commission. I for one could never tire from witnessing the timeless scene that is the distant sight of a sailing barge, her topsail set, edging a way up the coast before slipping out of sight wending into one of the rivers.
Many of the Thames barge names I come across can be a constant source of wonder and intrigue. After the last spike was struck home and the paint tins put away shipwrights, yard workers and the ensemble gathered round to watch the new barge being launched. Many were given female names like Edith, Gladys or Marjorie and became part of the family but they were also given bold, powerful names that strangely seemed to elevate the vessel to a kind of super human level. Take the 81 ton Phoenician – a name evoking visions of a whole chariot-lead army behind her transom in an infinite long line. The British Empire is another. A name that demands far more than for what she was built as she carried hay down to London and would have returned with muck from the capital’s horses but her title commanded she done it standing bolt upright with a taught 32 inch waste, and wide 44 inch chest bulging with all the aura of a job well done! Sadly she has not fared as well as Phoenician for she is now hulked at the top of the River Crouch but at the time she was christened, in 1889, the country she was born to was a powerful empire. Still sailing out of Maldon is Hydrogen, another bold name just oozing the notion she just could make the loudest bang at any moment. Although, in a shallow cut of saltings opposite her berth lays a hulk that ran out of puff, her sister ship, Oxygen.
|The British Empire|
Then there are the pet names like “Pudge” who also sails from the Hythe, Maldon, or your good mate across the road “Victor” often seen sailing around the Rivers Orwell and Stour. Fishing boats were emblazoned in glory too. The Leigh shrimper Victorious, built in 1945, was named after the victory of WWII. And let us not forget the enterprising Pioneer and the forward thinking Excelsior - all three of these vessels are still sailing. During the late 19th and early 20th century there were well over two thousand Thames barges plying the Thames Estuary so it shouldn’t surprise us that many were given such great names.
At the same time there were collier brigs plying the coastal waters too. With a course laid south, from Newcastle and the River Tyne, those colliers brought coal down the East Coast. This was no easy task for after dodging The Wash they had to harden up past Norfolk where the fist of the Thames Estuary awaited them. Its knuckles the massive sand bars completely invisible at high tide. In daylight and at night many fell in the grip of the estuary at places like Shipwash, Cutter and Cork Sands while others fell at Gunfleet, Sunk or Long Sand. For those that made it through the maze of swatchways their cargo of coal fed the brick kilns around the estuary in places like Havengore, Benfleet and Conyer creeks which in turn kept the barges in work carrying loads up to London. In certain instances it wasn’t unknown for two men to load 40000 bricks still hot from the kilns and by hand in less than a day. The type of brick was called a stock and is mainly yellow in colour but red bricks were made too. Today these same bricks are being salvaged from demolished buildings and, after cleaning off the soft lime mortar, are fetching a £1 each and are very sought after by housing developers. Then there was the mud barge that never saw the crest of a wave break outside a creek or rill. In one instance at Conyer it was the job of one man to shovel mud into a barges hold alone. A laborious occupation where the employee would likely be on first name terms with local curlews.
Staying south of the Thames the Burham Brick, Lime and Cement Co built a succession of new barges named after the seasons and then days of the week. In 1879 Spring was built, and in the same year Summer came off the blocks too. Autumn was built in 1881 and so to was Winter. Monday came off the blocks in 1882, as did Tuesday. Wednesday was built a few years later in 1885 and just to give us an idea how busy it was on the rivers back then, during the decade 1880 to 1890 a hundred barges came and went from the River Medway on every tide. It must have been a fantastic time to be around the water but heaven help the Harbour Master who had to organize this little lot: Confusion may well have reigned when the Winter came in during a warm summer and the Tuesday came in on Wednesday, or the Monday didn’t arrive until the following Thursday! Around the same time William Lee built barges at Lime Dock with winning names Superb, Swift-Sure and Victory being just a few of many more they built and interestingly, instead of the usual brown canvas, their stumpy barges set black sails with a white jib set off a bowsprit.