East Coast
and Thames Estuary


 YORKSHIRE, to its credit be it said, has claims to distinction for other things than ecclesiastical architecture, or even hams and fox-hunting. He that useth the dingy North Sea hath knowledge of Yorkshire's billyboys, its cobles and its keels, all distinctive types of sea-craft well suited to their work.


The Billyboy

The billyboy is generally a flat-bottomed, round-ended craft, whose Dutch descent is scarcely veiled by its paint. Rigged as a sloop, or more often as a ketch or dandy, it carries leeboards, the masts are stepped in tabernacles, and even in these days the square rig on the mainmast is often retained for fair winds.


With its clinker build, its rounded ends just fitted to the locks of the Fens, its high sheer fore and aft, and its snub-nosed bowsprit, it may be seen all up and down the English coasts, as well as far inland up the Ouse or in the Trent, with its masts and rigging comfortably housed on deck.


It is a handy, seaworthy type of flat-bottom cargo-carrier, well suited to its work about our great eastern estuaries, and not lacking in old-fashioned picturesqueness. In these days of grimy utilitarianism it often lacks the pretty conceits of ornament still adhered to by the more artistic Dutchman, or by its southern neighbour the Thames barge, both of which still love to flaunt their cheerful green and gold rails across the dull brown waters which they navigate. But, like them, it is generally handled with ease and skill by the skipper, his missus, and the family, with no other crew than the deck-hand in the shape of a curly-haired retriever.


The Coble

The glory of the coble Yorkshire shares with Durham and Northumberland. The coble is one of the most distinctive types of craft to be found perhaps in Europe or Asia. She was primarily designed for launching off beaches against heavy seas, and admirably she has met this principal requirement. With a high-shouldered bow, with deep grip, she carries a flat floor aft to her low stern, beneath which two skorvels, or shallow bilge keels, help to keep her upright and to launch her down the beach. A long, deep, dagger-like rudder, drawing three feet or more, is shipped as soon as the boat is in deep water. The deep forefoot is useful in coming head-first off the shore into a breaking sea, being a help in keeping the head of the boat up to windward if the wind is on one bow; and in beating to windward, drawing as it does from two to three feet, it gives her a powerful grip which, added to the hold given by the deep rudder, enables a coble to be a very fine performer on a wind, especially in a sea-way. The square-sterned boats are the best performers on this point of sailing, but round sterns are coming into vogue on account of their superior running power, the square-sterned boats being very difficult to handle running before a heavy sea.


As cobles also generally pull and tow best stern first, the round stern has obvious advantages for the fishermen and the pilot. The southern boats have most of them been built in this manner, and with the hollow bow at the waterline. The lean, flat stern is in strong contrast to the powerful appearance of the rest of the hull, and on the whole, therefore, the increasing fashion for round sterns is perhaps a gain from the artistic point of view, for it certainly makes a less insignificant finish to the boat. They are clinker-built, with broad sawn timbers of oak or larch, which give them a curious angular section; there is a pronounced tumble-home of the topsides, and the planking is finished flush with the stern.


The gunwale is worked outside instead of inside the top strake, and the thowl-pins and pins for belaying halyards, etc., project on the under side. With these characteristics, and the broad bands of light colours with which they are daringly painted showing up their bold outlines, these boats are beautiful creatures to meet at sea alive with wind and motion. Their rig is the simple old brown-tanned dipping lugsail, set on a raking mast. A small jib is often used in fair weather, and the racing cobles at Whitburn go in for a mizen also. But this sail is of little use upon a wind, except to balance an extra large jib, and is therefore not in general use. The mast is given greater rake for every reef taken in the mainsail; and with a reef breeze, and her mast raked from 8 to 10 feet, the coble will lift over anything in the shape of a head-sea, and stand almost any weather if kept by the wind.


At such times the short mast is set, and the coble is seen to her best advantage; she is sailed by the sheet, and never luffs to the stiffest puffs. The coble seems to have followed the fate of nearly all the most distinctive types of boats in its increase of size. The Sailor's Word-Book (by Admiral W. H. Smyth, published 1867) gives the general size of the coble as 20 feet long by 5 feet beam, and other old writers speak of it as a 'small boat.' Yet the coble of today is usually ten to a dozen feet longer than this, and from 7 to 10 feet beam -- a size not exceeded by many seagoing open boats. *1*


While the bilge keels and tumble-home of the top strake of the coble are very suggestive of Dutch origin, there are certain points in which this boat seems to retain some relics of distinctly Norse influence. The simple form of the pins set under the gunwale for belaying halyards to, the flat shape of the loom of the oar and its method of shipping with an iron ring set over a single thowl, as well as the flat head and low peak of the sail, and the light shades of green and blue used in painting the hulls, all flavour of what one meets to-day on the Scandinavian seaboard.

*1* Dimensions of Cobles :




Six lines, 2 miles in length.

Carrying 30 Nets, 180 ft. by 3 ft.


3 tons Capacity.

9 tons Capacity.


Length 28 ft.

33.75 ft.

31 ft.

Beam 5.5 ft.

10 ft.

7 ft.

Depth 2.3 ft.

4.75 ft.

2.5 ft.

Crew: 3 or 4 men. The length of mainmast is generally about a foot shorter than the over-all length, and that of the mainyard roughly half that of the mast.



The Keel *1*

This name is now applied in Durham and Yorkshire to a class of flat-bottomed barge navigating our north-eastern rivers. The Norse origin of the simple in vogue is obvious to all who have seen the old-fashioned Norwegian coaster or the Nordland boat, running or beating among the northern islands. The tall light mast carries a simple squaresail. The main halyards tie is of chain, and leads through a sheave below the main rigging, and aft to a purchase worked by a small hand-winch in front of the helmsman. In fine weather a small square topsail is carried, hoisting to a sheave in the masthead. A pair of shrouds on each side, and a strong forestay, form the only rigging; by means of the latter and the windlass the mast can be quickly lowered and raised again, all standing in shooting bridges.

*1* An old British name for long vessels, formerly written ceol and cynlis. Verstegan informs us that 'the Saxons came over in three large ships, by themselves Keeles.' -Admiral W. H. Smyth.

Swiz. Ceol =barge or small vessel.
Iceld. kjoll =barge or ship.
Dan. kiel =vessel.

The term is known for the square-rigged barge from Norfolk to the Tyne.

The keelmen agree that the square rig is the simplest and handiest for its purpose, and is preferable to a fore-and-aft rig for inland navigation. Its main disadvantages are felt when tacking. For this the two hands forming the crew must be on deck.


As soon as the ship is round, and the sail well aback to pay her off, the sheet and tack are let fly, the lee sheet and weather tack rope are quickly hauled in, as the sail swings, through nocks on the gunwale which lead to small hand-winches stepped for the purpose on each side of the long main hatchway at the fore and aft ends of the vessel. The tack is hauled down taut, while the sheet is trimmed to the wind; this often cants the yard until it looks like a square-headed lugsail. The lee and weather braces are in one piece, the bight being overhauled by the helmsman to brace round the lee yardarm. In going to windward the weather leech is often tautened by a bowline leading forward, and the keelmen claim that when on a wind they can look a point closer than any fore-and-aft rigged vessel; and any one who has seen them beating down the Humber in a strong easterly wind, will agree that on the whole they have good reason to be proud of the set of their sails.


In a strong wind, however, staying these boats is no child's-play, as the powerful sail is all adrift when being swung and takes charge freely, while before the sail is reset and trimmed the boat has often made three lengths of sternway. The bow and quarter rails are very reminiscent of Dutch scenery, though an inartistic blue seems to be coming into favour in preference to the older and prettier bright green with red and gold touches here and there. For inland navigation the leeboards, anchors, and dinghy are left behind, and ultimately the mast; yards are stowed on deck, sails below, and the very winches unshipped to enable them to pass beneath the low inland bridges; and thus denuded these boats may be met with at Leeds or Liverpool, or in the heart of Lincolnshire. They look big and safe enough in these quiet inland waters, but seen off Grimsby from the bridge of a steamer in a big north-easterly swell and a strong breeze, their freeboard seems none too much. *1*


The keel is undoubtedly the finest inland navigation boat we have in this country. Inland navigation, except in the Fen counties, is not nearly so developed in England as it is on the great inland waterways of the Continent, and naturally so. But while making due allowance for the smaller size of our rivers and canals, the ordinary canal-boat is a sorry piece of naval architecture at the best, and the keel is a refreshing change.

*1* The usual dimensions are about 58 ft. by 14 ft. 6 inches by 5 to 6 ft. draught when loaded, and they carry from 70 to 80 tons of cargo.

The barges used in the Mersey are, it may be noted, practically keels in all but their fore-and-aft rig, and their more grimy appearance.

Humber Keel Sail Dimensions











The coal-carrying keel on the Tyne, of which comparatively few survive, has quite forsaken its old square rig in favour of the fore-and-aft sprit main and staysails. In fact, the Tyne keel of the present day is much more like the Mersey barge both in appearance and rig than its sister of the Humber. It is interesting, historically, that at the beginning of the last century it was among the Teignmouth keels that centre-boards were first given a trial, about the time that the Admiralty were making experiments with the Lady Nelson sixty ton brig; but the centreboard does not appear to have taken on.


Owing to the narrower waters they navigate, these boats were always a much smaller class of vessel than the Humber keel now is. Their dimensions were about: length, 42 feet; beam, 19 feet; draught, 4 feet 6 inches; capacity, 21 tons. *1* It is said that about the forties in the last century, carvel build gave way to clinker building, whence the smaller Tyne wherry. As a rule, development is in the reverse direction, and classes of boats in these isles increasing in size, are apt to leave the clinker for the carvel style of build.

*1* The dimensions are from Notes and Queries for Jan. 26, 1901, which gives other interesting particulars.

First-cousin to the keel of the north-east coast is the ordinary humble lighter, barge, or flat, variously called, more variously rigged, but invariably grimy, hard- working, and of little repute. Yet despise it not, for in that low freeboard, square-ended little craft, life, real life is to be met with.


Navigating over wide, stormy estuaries, east, west, and north, in dripping fog-bank and howling gale, in glaring sun and black night, without shelter or help, and but a little simple rope and canvas, two men, or a man and boy, carry thousands of tons of this country's merchandise, year in, year out, with unfailing regularity and certainty. In simplicity and efficiency they are not excelled.


The Norfolk Coast

Coming southward along the east coast we may pass by the Humber, with Hull and Grimsby, the great northern trawling ports, in these days full of iron steam-trawlers, across the entrance to the intricate channels of the Wash, to the twin ports of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. With the decay of Harwich as a fishing-station during the last century, these two ports, favoured by their situation well out in the North Sea and near to the trawling-grounds then beginning to be systematically worked, have become the home of the largest sailing-fleet of trawlers and drift-net boats in our islands.


At the beginning of the century deep-sea trawling was in its infancy, and before the advent of railways no fisherman went farther from his market than he could avoid. Simultaneously with the increased sea traffic in our estuaries steam came in, and while it helped to scare the fish out from many portions of the shoreline, it enabled the fisherman to go farther afield and to use the port nearest to his fishing-ground rather than that nearest to his market. Although Lowestoft and Yarmouth, therefore, are ancient ports, their importance as fishing-stations is of recent origin. Brought up among the drift-net fishermen of the west country, one was educated to look upon 'east countrymen,' as the Lowestoft and Yarmouth boats were known, as sacrilegious Sunday-breakers and outer barbarians generally, and we used to criticise them from our small boat much as the small-line man does the trawler, the pedestrian the cyclist, or the teamster the scorching motor.


Consequently, when one first moored up alongside their long wharves, it was with some surprise one began to find the Lowestofters much as other sailor men, and East Anglia not only a delightful country, but one from which several remarkable types of naval architecture have emanated -- a fact which argued even to our prejudiced west country mind a high state of civilisation. In fact, to give the Norfolk coast its due, there are few coastlines of equal length which have done more in this direction.

The far-famed old Yarmouth yawls are unique, and with the exception of some tropical-built canoes, are probably the largest open boats in the world. They are long, narrow, clinker-built boats, stem and stern alike, with very fine entrance and clean run, and are often 50 feet in length with 10 to 11 feet beam. The older boats often exceeded 50 feet in length, the Reindeer, which challenged the America, being stated to have been 69 feet and to have sailed sixteen knots on a reach.


These boats were rigged with three lugsails and jib. This three-masted lugsail was a very favourite one at the beginning of the nineteenth century among sailors on both sides of the Channel. It appears to have emanated from the Breton coast, and at a time when the French fleets were beaten off the seas by the British, these gallant sailors were able to carry on very harassing warfare with their three-masted armed luggers. The old bluff-bowed king's cutter on this side of the Channel was no match in speed for these easy-lined French luggers, as the flourishing smuggling trade abundantly proved at an even much later date, and the bellying cut of the fore-and-aft sail of that day made it impossible for our armed cutters to compete with the lug-rigged vessels from across the Channel in weatherly work.


Hence it came about that our own navy adopted the rig for certain classes of small craft, and it was also used in vessels of from 50 to 60 tons both at Whitby and Yarmouth. It was so sufficiently a national rig in the middle of the century that, in Folkhard's first edition of The Sailing-Boat, this rig was given as being characteristic not only of the Yarmouth beach yawl, but also of the Hastings boats. It is interesting, therefore, to note that in both cases the three-masted lug rig very soon gave way to the present form of main (dipping) lug and mizen (standing) lug, which (with the addition often of a running bowsprit and small jib) may be regarded as the most typical rig of the British fisherman.

Even the long, sharp-lined beach-yawl has discarded the old mainmast, enlarged the dipping-lug foresail, and brought the mizen well inboard, increasing its area to about two-thirds that of the foresail.


The existing rig today, therefore, is, notwithstanding the far greater length of the beach yawl, identical with that used for the service cutters in the navy, a fact which goes far to prove the contention of some of my naval friends that this rig is the handiest and most powerful which can be put into an open boat with a strong crew on board, the latter being a very essential condition to its success. In the meantime, on the south side of the Channel, the French have loyally adhered to what may be regarded as the national small-boat rig, and the three masts with bowsprit and maintopsail may be very generally seen to this day anywhere west of Nieuport and Blankenburg, alike in trawlers, traders, and men-of-war service-boats.


The great length, fine lines, and shallow draught of the Norfolk beach yawl would seem to indicate a very fast and capable smooth-water vessel, and it is nothing less than marvellous that these boats should be such magnificent vessels in the very heavy weather which is the rule when their crews put to sea. Yet they are in reality designed and used almost entirely for bad weather, their business in life being the succouring of men and ships when no other craft but the splendid sailing lifeboats of the National Lifeboat Institution can put to sea. Such work in the largest and most powerful of the Institution's modern lifeboats is dangerous enough, but in a big open boat such as the beach yawl, in the confused and dangerous sea which runs in heavy weather along the banks off the Norfolk coast, it calls for greater nerve and smarter handling than any salt-water job known to seamen. Before the days of the National Lifeboat Institution, the whole of the life and property-saving work on the coast was carried on by the beachmen's companies either in the big sailing yawls or in the smaller gigs.


There are now only some half-dozen of these companies left along the Norfolk coast, but they still do their fair share of salving notwithstanding the rivalry of the Institution's fine sailing lifeboats and of the powerful modern steam-tugs, which also show no reluctance to venture in among the banks if a ship is in distress and there is enough water for them. While the gigs belonging to the companies pull from eight to ten oars, the yawls carry crews of between twelve and twenty men, a big crew being necessary both in launching these big boats through the heavy surf, and in handling sail, bailing, and bearing assistance on board distressed vessels.


Nothing is more common than for small coasting-schooners, ketches and the like, to get into trouble for sheer want of hands and weight of bone sufficient to cope with emergencies in a hard wind, and a few strong Norfolk hands out of a plunging beach yawl have time and again saved crew, ship, and cargo.

Of the fishing-fleets sailing out of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the drift-net boats are probably the more interesting from the present point of view. While the trawlers, fine, powerful, sea-keeping craft, of from 60 to 90 tons, have developed out of the category of boats and have all adopted, with wonderful unanimity, the handy North Sea ketch rig in common with their sisters from Grimsby and Ramsgate, the smaller 'driving' boats have had a history and have evolved a rig quite their own. The deep-sea trawlers from these ports are among the finest productions of any fishing industry in the world, but are beginning to give way to the steel steam trawler which was the production of the last sixteen years of the last century.


But the old sailing smacksmen of the North Sea will not be forgotten, even when everything carrying a trawl is under steam, by any one who has seen their fleets and sailed with them. They have set fashions even in the yachting world: the ketch rig is common among yachtsmen now, and even the old habit of carrying a jib-headed topsail over a reefed mainsail, which I can remember hearing stigmatised as 'only a smacksman's dodge,' is now perpetuated with regularity in the smartest of the Y.R.A. classes in a blow. Although a few steam-drifters are now coming in, sails will probably long continue to hold their own in this fishery. Houldsworth, in his Deep-Sea Fishing, 1874, gives several cuts showing the Yarmouth drift-net boat of that day, from which it is evident that, with a few slight differences, these boats were practically identical in rig with the present Brighton and Hastings luggers.


The Norfolk boats, however, have had the advantage of deep-water havens, and have therefore steadily increased in size, while the southern boats are handicapped by the necessity of beaching in the absence of anything in the way of a protected harbour, and have consequently had to be kept down in size. There is no doubt that one of the contributory causes to the alteration in rig which has taken place in the Norfolk drift-boats since the seventies, is the Norfolk practice of taking to sea for the season a number of unskilled hands from the shore. These men form the majority of each crew, and are taken mainly for the purpose of handling the nets. The other principal cause has been the increase in the size of the boats themselves. The disadvantages of the big dipping lugsail become more and more apparent as the size increases, and the danger attending the handling of this sail in strong winds and high seas becomes infinitely increased when it has to be done by an inexperienced crew, or by a short-handed one.


The configuration of the banks off the Norfolk coast also makes a long series of short tacks often necessary, and the fore-and-aft rig, with its quickness and handiness in going about, has advantages on such a coast not to be disregarded. The result has been that the Norfolk men have practically gone in for the split lugsail. The luff of the old dipping lugsail before the mast has become a small staysail of almost identical proportions.


The fore-and-aft mainsail retains roughly the size and shape of the former lugsail as it stood abaft the mast. The foot is cut so that the sail sheets to an iron horse just before the mizen-mast, and no main boom is used. Practically no alteration has been made in the placing of the masts, and consequently the long space between them available for handling fish and nets, which is one of the principal advantages of the lug rig, is retained. The forward rake of the mizen, which has been adopted in the majority of large mizen-carrying fishing-craft at the present day, has been exaggerated in a remarkable degree in these boats. In place of the old standing lug-mizen this has also been made a fore-and-aft sail, fitted with a boom along its foot, sheeted to the end of the round counter. The convenience about this sail is that, when lowered, it is gathered up by its lacing or mast rings on the mast, out of the way of the crew, the bunt of the sail being easily made up on the gaff, and the boom topped up. Everything is thus stowed out of the way, and the long mizen jigger is got rid of.


There is a little more gear aloft in this than in the usual lug rig, for the pole-mast is adhered to, and when lying to nets the fore-mast is lowered aft by means of the forestay and a tackle and winch, just as in the case of the lug. There is the additional advantage that the small staysail may be replaced by a balloon staysail, the most powerful of fine-weather sails in light winds, and yard topsails can be easily set on both masts. Both main and mizen sails are fitted with bonnets by which the weight and size of the sails are easily reducible in hard weather. The build of the boats themselves has improved remarkably of late years. The newer boats are large carvel-built vessels of remarkably sweet lines. A handsome round counter is the rule, in place of the old counter overhanging the transom-stern below.


The bow is clean, but full enough to give lifting power in a seaway. A considerable number of these boats have been built in Cornwall of recent years. The small local open and half-decked boats employed in shrimping and long-lining are rigged in the regular Norfolk fashion well known on the Broads, namely gaff and boom mainsail, and one large jib set on a longish bowsprit. An enormous gaff topsail completes the outfit. They are beamy boats, with a broad transom-stern and centre-board, and carry their pile of brown canvas well, and in short are a very handy type of craft.


The Wherry

The boat par excellence of Norfolk is, however, the wherry, employed upon the inland navigation of the Broad district.


She is, perhaps, the best known of our distinctive types of sailing-craft by reason of the accessibility of the Broads to large numbers of our fellow-countrymen who prefer sailing close to a bank by day, and tying up to a bush in safety by night, to practising the art of seamanship among the uncertainties and excitements of tidal waters. The form of the black, high-peaked sail brings back to many recollections of healthy days among quiet scenes, first impressions of the unreasoning strength of the self-willed jib-sheet, of the obstinacy of the reluctant quant, of the tenacity of certain kinds of mud, or lessons in hard facts about blocks and ropes and saucepans, which are well for any man to have, and are nowhere better got than in the Broads at Easter, or in a wet summer.

It is in autumn, winter, or early spring that the deep-water boat-sailor will most appreciate the qualities of the Norfolk wherry, and the admirable handling to which she is subjected by her crew. When the bonnet is off the mainsail, and a cold wind howls through the big forestay, the wherry is at her best. For there is skill and nerve required to take thirty tons of cargo and fifty feet overall length through the narrow rivers of the Bure or Ant in half a gale of wind; yet the wherry's skipper, with the possible assistance of his wife or son, thinks nothing of it, and would feel far less sure of himself if he had thirty miles of comfortable sea-room on every side of him.



The wherry is a light-displacement boat, the first necessary qualification for shallow-water navigation. The draught unloaded is under 2 feet 6 inches, with a beam of 13 feet, and length of about 52 feet. The bow is short and hollow, and the greatest beam is well forward, partly no doubt to carry the big mast, which is placed under a quarter of the length from the stem. The stern is sharp, wherry-fashion, and the run aft is fine.

The mast, a fine stout spar about 40 feet to the hounds, has but a single forestay, by which it is lowered and hoisted in its tabernacle, 30 cwt. of lead bolted to its foot making this manoeuvre the simplest of matters. Simplicity is the keynote of the wherry's rig, and a single halyard hoists the long 30-foot gaff. The halyard, by an arrangement seldom seen elsewhere, runs through the large double block at the masthead to a single block at the throat, back to the second sheave of the masthead block, and so to the peak, where a bridle distributes the strain. The arrangement is so simple and efficient that I often wonder it is not more extensively used in small craft carrying fore-and-aft sails. The wherry's sail has no boom, and the sheet travels on a horse on the after end of the cabin-top, in front of the helmsman. It is a lesson in light-displacement sailing to see the wherryman leaning with his hands in his pockets against his tiller, dodging along the leeward shore, now and then luffing off a little, but mostly depending on the pressure of the water between the mud to leeward and the sharp bow to shoulder his ship off to windward. In this way, with hardly any diminution of speed, the wherry will work along a reach close-hauled, with the wind so far ahead that she can hardly lay it, while a heavy-displacement boat has to tack many times to keep off in deep water, and if she does not completely avoid the neighbourhood of the mud, a big wave drags up astern, emptying and filling the dykes, and deadening her way until she seems almost to be aground. The other most striking manoeuvre of the wherry man is that of shooting a bridge, when he douses sail, lowers the mast, hoists all up, and is under way again in about a minute and a half. A considerable number of these boats are now built and fitted as pleasure-boats, the long hold and raised hatches making absolutely perfect accommodation. For cruising in sheltered waters it is safe to say that no boat can equal the wherry, but don't ever be beguiled to sea in one. In the smallest wind and sea the wherry loses her head entirely, and develops a suicidal tendency to bury herself and crew.


The Thames Estuary

When Edward the Confessor builded his great church to the glory of God and the honour of the blessed Saint Peter, where Henry's proud Abbey of Westminster now stands, it is recounted that upon the eve of the consecration, a solitary fisherman was hauling his nets from his boat upon the shallows of the wide river. A venerable-looking traveller hailed him from the shore and asked that he might be ferried across to the new Abbey Church upon the Isle of Thorney, and forthwith as the stranger landed the great windows of the church were filled with light, and the lofty stone vaulting with the glorious music of the Hosts of Heaven. And thus was the church that night consecrated by the heavenly choirs and by the holy Saint Peter himself.


No coin did the saint leave on the after thwart of the poor fisherman's little boat, but a blessing to all good Thames fishermen, which has lasted down to our own times -- until the days when Satan, as some do aver, placed steamboats to ply upon the river, and stone embankments along its shallows, and turned it into little better than a tidal mill-sluice.

Such is the first authentic record which we have of the little 'Peter' boat, which has been a characteristic Thames type longer than the present Abbey walls have stood. The grateful fisherman after that long-remembered night evidently took the liberty of calling his boat after the fisherman's saint who had so honoured his humble craft, and so the name was handed down, and the simple build of the old Thames fisherman remained characteristic of the river, so that even as late as 1901, when the writer was last at Putney, two weather-worn little Peter boats lay there as it had been eight centuries ago. In E. W. Cooke's time these little boats were still fairly common above and below Bridge, and he depicted them frequently. They were shorter than the old Thames wherry, more beamy, and higher in the side. They were stem and stern alike, and had no gunwale (wherry fashion), and being sturdy in build could carry sail and stand rough water when required. They had a fish-well nearly amidship, and were probably the first form of well-boat built for fishing purposes among Western nations.


The Hatch-boat

The Thames Hatch-boat, the glory of the Thames before steam days, was an offspring of the humble Peter boat; it had its origin in the need of the fisherman for larger boats in the rough tidal waters of the lower Thames and a large class of wherry-built sailing-boat with a half-deck and cabin shelter came into use both for fishing and for general waterman's work among the shipping. The late Mr. Cooke seems to have taken a real pleasure in delineating these boats, and there is no doubt that they were among the smartest of the smaller sailing-craft of their day. Rigged at first with the simple old spritsail and foresail, than which there is still no better setting, handier rig for a small open boat, they soon had added a topmast to enable them to catch the light airs floating above the river banks in fine weather. The sheets ran upon a horse, and the mainsail was quickly and easily brailed into the mast. In the larger boats a regular gaff mainsail was eventually adopted, without a boom, and fitted with brails as in the older spritsail, and vangs controlled the gaff.


A small mizen was often added, and running bowsprit, and the boats reached eight and ten tons burden, with roomy cabin and well-space. But to the last even the largest of the hatch-boats retained the beautiful wherry model, the sharp stern, and the yoke steering gear common to the tribe. And what beautiful cruising boats they would have made to the modern Corinthian yachtsman!



The Thames Barge

The Thames Barge, one of the most distinctive types of sailing-vessel, is a native of the Medway and London rivers, but claims Dutch descent. The rig is the spritsail of the old Lowland traders, the great convenience of which consists in the fact that the sail is furled aloft, without coming on deck, while the chief weight aloft is brought very low on the mast, to the heel of the sprit. This spar, often 60 feet long, is held at its heel by an iron cap shackled to a shoe upon the mast, and a stout wire heel rope leading aloft. Its weight is enormous, and causes more anxiety to the barge skipper at sea than any other part of his gear, and when the vessel is rolling with a bit of a sea, it is an unpleasant shipmate even to the oldest bargeman.


A powerful staysail sheeted to a stout wooden horse, and a small sprit mizen sheeted to the long rudder, comprise the sail area of the ordinary stumpy or pole-masted barge. The larger barges, however, running from 72 to 80 feet in length, carry a topmast, setting a big jib-headed topsail, and are known as topsail barges.

The sails mentioned are invariably tanned with a preparation of oil and red ochre, to protect them from the weather, for they are stowed aloft by brails worked from a hand winch on deck, and are never covered up. A light flying jib, designated by the bargeman 'spinnaker,' is set in light weather from the topmast head to the stem. This is generally of light duck; and in all the large new seagoing barges a bowsprit is added carrying a fair size jib as one of the usual working sails.

In these vessels the mizen, instead of being stepped on the rudder head as was customary in the old barges, is stepped well inboard, and is so increased in size as to be of great use if anything goes wrong with the mainsail or its spreet. In fact, these craft are developing for Channel trade into regular ketch barges.


Drawing about 14 feet with their leeboards down when loaded, and able to float in two feet of water when light, these vessels are without exception the handiest cargo carriers in the world. They are fast to windward, quick in stays, and handy in every point of sailing in any wind. With a crew consisting only of a man and a boy, you may meet them with all their rigging lowered on deck, at Hampton Court, or making their way, with sweeps out, through the London bridges; with mast on end, and the vane fluttering 70 feet above your head, among the fields of Kent, or working under topsail up a placid creek not wider than your drawing-room; with close-cropped canvas slashing round Dungeness in half a gale of wind, or rolling up mid-Channel merrily.


From Bruges to Plymouth, from the Fal to the Wash, in any town or village with three feet of water, there, likely as not, you will find a Thames barge, with her warm brown sails brailed up aloft, and her gaudy spreet and stern adding cheerful colour to the scene.


As my friend the skipper of the good barge Mary and Jane said to me one day, as he looked proudly down at his craft lying with mast and sails on deck, up at Putney: 'Yes, it's heavy gear that is, but me and the boy can put it all on end in ten minutes. It's a bit of a job for two sometimes in a hurry; but see what she'll do: she'll do anything ye ask in reason, and go most anywhere's if there's water enough to wet your boots. She's like a toy, that's what she is,' -- which explains in a word the ubiquity of the Thames barge.


Deep-sea sailors may look askance at the barge beating down-Channel in half a gale of wind, with her decks all awash., but as my friend says in Sea Reach, pointing scornfully at a high-sided barque rather tender under upper topsails: 'Lor', I'd rather be in 'er than in that lot, rollin' like a hempty lighter! I knows her anyways, and she'll go through more weather than any man 'as the heart to put her through, she will, and them sailor men 'll want to be 'ome 'fore me and my barge takes in our torps'l.'


The form of rig of the Thames barge of today has not been long stereotyped. In fact, changes and developments are continually taking place even now. From old drawings it is evident that the gaff mainsail was at one time much used in this type of vessel, before it became so distinctive, and that the squaresail and square topsail were frequently used in sailing free.


The charming and clever drawings of Mr. E. W. Cooke, R.A., the greatest of our boat artists, show that as late as 1830 the flat overhanging Dutch bow, seen still in the dumb lighters in the Thames, was general. Mr. Pritchett, in his book published in 1899, also shows this shape of bow in his drawing of a Medway barge, but at that time it had been practically out of date for many years. The straight bow of the present day is quite modern, and undoubtedly makes for speed, and gives that patient 'take me where you please' expression which is on the countenance of every decently behaved barge.


In speaking of the Thames barge a word must be said of her skipper and the boy. So far I have never met an unpleasant or an incompetent member of either class; such may exist, but they are few and far between. They are mostly frank, generous, cheery, and thoroughly at home in managing the towering masses of spar and canvas by which they make their voyages in all weathers by night and day, summer and winter. Like all true seamen, they are always ready to bear a hand, to spin a yarn, or to crack up their own ship. They will go out of their way to oblige you; if you ship for a voyage they drop the 'sir', and expect you to do your honest share of work. They will afterwards walk six miles with you 'to see you off'. They are easily pleased by any little show of friendliness, and in emergency they are of all men laconic and swift to act. Once when beating down Sea Reach on the ebb in a stiff easterly wind, a condition of things which is often trying to upper spars, the weather topmast stay of our barge carried away close to the deck.


I looked aloft and saw the topmast whip like a trout rod. But by sheer instinct, without a second thought or a word spoken, my friend the skipper was spinning his wheel like an express locomotive's fly-wheel, and round she came upon the other tack. The boy hearing the report sprang up through the fore-hatch, and before I could get forward and had dodged a comber and got round to the lee side, he had secured the broken end, and in a few minutes all was set up again. She was put back on the other tack, and then as the skipper looked approvingly aloft, he took his pipe out of his mouth, and reflectively made the only remark which passed on the subject, 'Near thing for the topmast: beautiful spar,' and then resumed a yarn about his wife.


But a topmast does not always hold on so long, and when making time into the London river with an easterly gale, under topsail and brailed mainsail -- an unusual combination of sail-spread which is in great fashion with the bargeman -- topmast and topsail, with a crash and a tremendous clap, go soaring away over under the lee of the mainsail. The boy looks up the after hatchway and smiles; the skipper remarks, 'There she goes !' but doesn't move his pipe or a spoke of the wheel. There is nothing to be done until they get to shelter, and they know it. But conceive for a moment what confusion and excitement there would have been on a Chinese junk, or a French chasse-maree, in the mob which is usually required to work a vessel of the tonnage of the Thames barge. *1*

*1* The dimensions are roughly as follows:

  • Mast to hounds, 30 ft
    • Topmast to hounds, 36 ft
    • Masthead, 6 ft
  • Length spreet, 53 ft
    • Diameter, 11 inches
  • 3600 to 4000 sq. ft. sail area.
  • 40 to 50 tons register.
  • 120 to 125 tons carrying capacity.
  • 150 tons displacement.
  • 72 to 84 ft. length.
  • 14 to 18-1/2 ft. beam.
  • 6 ft. loaded draught, 2 ft. unloaded.
  • 12 to 17 ft. length of leeboard.
  • 8 to 10 ft. drop of leeboard below bottom.
  • 7 ft. 6 in. width at bottom.
  • Materials: Oak and Oregon Pine.
  • Cost: about £1100 for first-class barge.

The sea-going barges show a tendency to increase in all principal proportions.

The Bawley

The Bawley is a shallow-draught, wide-beamed native of the Thames, and is well designed for the requirements of a fishing vessel which must knock about the great estuary, dodging along the edges of the innumerable banks in search of fish, tide-cheating over dangerous flats, or beating through rough tidal seas in the open channels. With its high freeboard forward, the Bawley has a somewhat haughty expression of countenance. It has a short lower mast, long and clumsy masthead, and a very long gaff, giving a nearly perpendicular leech of the mainsail, which has no boom, but is sheeted to a horse inboard. These peculiarities, with the long, heavy bowsprit, do not make the Bawley beautiful as regards its sail plan. Yet no more pleasant-mannered, amenable little craft exists, and if in a calm the Bawley does look a rather untidy, badly dressed little creature, remember her beauty when, with spitfire jib and half-brailed mainsail, she is soaring over the wicked-looking seas down Swin in half a gale of wind, light-heartedly shaking the combers off her that would puzzle many a twenty-tonner.


Then the spirit of the deep can call the beautiful individuality of a living being out of this ugly, commonplace-looking little boat. And in the matter of her dress no type of boat is worse used than the Thames Bawley; her poor mainsail has no rest in any weather, and half the time she is under way it is being pulled about with brails, and having every trick played upon it that a long-suffering, handy little sail can undergo, brailed up to check the speed of the trawl along a bank, scandalised to a passing squall, set up for a turn to windward, or triced up into the most inconceivable shape for a run down wind. There used to be many more of these boats in the Thames hailing from Gravesend than there are at the present time. The fish have led the Bawley farther afield, and the more open waters of the present cruising grounds have resulted in a much larger type of boat than was known thirty years ago. Leigh, the Medway, and Whitstable neighbourhoods are now the home of this little boat, and the casual stranger who visits these places at low water may be excused for supposing that the Bawley is a mere kind of mud crab, that spends its time dozing in placid sleep or meditation.


There they lie, reclining at gentle angles on all sides, their heeling masts looking like the weathered trees of a small forest bowed in one direction by the wind. But wait for high water, and see them waking as the tide comes in to them; sitting up slowly to the first summons, shaking their mastheads lazily; and then as they 'fleet' beginning to jump and strain at their unsentimental anchor-chains, looking this way and that as they sheer about, longing to be off; and exchanging who knows what greetings with their neighbours. Not a few Bawleys may now be seen with a mizen added as a convenience when working nets, but in some cases it has resulted in the mainmast being placed a little too far forward, with a consequent loss of speed: for though the Bawley is not generally fanciful, she is very particular as to where you place her mast, and a foot too far forward may quite spoil her temper when beating to windward.


The old Thames boats seldom exceeded 22 feet in length with about 8 feet beam and 3 feet draught, and were clinker-built, but most of the new boats are over 30 feet long and about 11 feet beam, and draw about 4 feet, while they are wholly decked in and carvel-built.


Their great beam makes them delightfully roomy below. A somewhat deeper class of boat is used on the northern coasts of the Thames estuary, at Harwich and in the Blackwater, drawing 3 to 4 feet forward, and nearly 6 feet aft. The crew generally consists of three men.


 A description of the craft of the Thames estuary would by no means be complete without some reference to the smart little cutters used in the oyster and local fisheries, and hailing from Burnham, Mersea, Brightlingsea, and other small ports situated on the Essex rivers.


They are not unlike the Bawleys, except that they have somewhat old-fashioned counter-sterns, and boom mainsails of a pretty yachtlike cut. The lower mast is longer, and all the gear aloft is far more taking to the eye than that of the Bawley. They are remarkably weatherly little vessels, and form the recruiting-ground of a large number of our smartest and best yachting hands, who work their boats in the winter season and go in yachts during the summer. A hardier training-ground than these waters in the winter it would be hard to find.

The centre-board open boats of Burnham, rigged with a balance-lug and jib, are very fine boats of their kind, and would make splendid yachts' boats for owners cruising foreign in big craft. For they are powerful, and of strong clench build, and would be far better adapted for heavy shore work and long sailing trips than are most yachts' boats, and bright varnished as they are they would need little doing to them.






Contents: Mast & Sail

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