Ipswich has long been associated with sailing barges, over 120 having been built here at various yards between the 1840s and the early 20th century. Between the 1940s and early 1950s, Ipswich was the home port of probably the largest fleet of commercial sailing craft in northern Europe. Today, thanks to the dedication and skill of their owners and skippers, a small number of these wonderful craft remain trading out of Ipswich’s Wet Dock and at a few other east coast ports, but now carrying a new cargo – people – fortunate enough still to be able to enjoy the unique experience of sailing on a century or more year old Thames Sailing barge.
The Thames Sailing Barge evolved from Thames lighters capable of carrying the maximum cargo on the shallowest draught. The spritsail rig and leeboards were developed over the years from the 17th to the mid-19th century enabling the barges to trade along the East Coast, across to the Continent, and down the Channel. The smallest barges usually loaded between 70 – 120 tons, the coasting barges up to 180 tons, while the largest had a capacity of between 280 – 300 tons. At their peak in the early 20th century there were well over 2000 under sail, engaged in trading cement and bricks, grain for flour, and cattle feed. Indeed, every type of commodity from malt to machinery and coal were all regular freights to the bargeman.
Today barges continue to ply their trade and make an important contribution to Ipswich, but as pleasure craft instead of commercial, showcasing themselves on the waters they used to sail on.
The display Thames Barges: Then and Now; Here, There and Everywhere illustrates the evolution of the sailing barge from its earliest shape through to the final form familiar to us today. The display highlights the ports to which they traded, the distant travels to such places as Remagen in Germany, Dunkirk in France and Ramsgate and Southampton, as well their more local landings on the farm wharfs & creeks of the Stour and Orwell, such as Johnny All Alone and Slumpy Lane Wharf. It was in the local creeks that sadly many of the barges finished their lives and the display has relics of some of these fantastic and historic craft including the splendidly named PRIDE OF IPSWICH. These relics are both a monument to the spritsail barge and a testimony to the forethought of those that saved them.
We have carefully conserved and restored several pieces of iron and woodwork from former barges, including the Bilge Pump from Sailing Barge Memory. We used a linseed oil mixture on the metal of the pump to prevent further rust and deterioration after many years of use.