The sailing barge dominated the East Coast from Dover to the Wash for about a hundred years, from the 1840s to 1950s. They made their presence felt as far north as the Tyne and down channel to Falmouth, but the Thames Estuary was their natural home. Which is why they are known as Thames Sailing Barges. The last barge to trade under sail alone was Bob Roberts’ CAMBRIA, who brought his last freight (100 tons of cattle cake) from London to Ipswich in October 1970. From then on all remaining trading barges were motorised, many having had all or part of their rig removed. However, the sailing barges lived on, and continue to survive, as enthusiasts maintain a small but now dwindling number as barge yachts.
The essential characteristic of the sailing barge is the ‘sprit’, which enabled the sail to be easily lowered (to set the sail) and raised (to stow it), while permitting the whole rig to be lowered to allow the barge to pass under low bridges, such as those on the River Thames. The first design, with a ‘swim’ head, was similar to the dumb lighters seen on the Thames, while the next step was the introduction of a sprit rigged mizzen sail to help bring the head to wind. More sails were then added, jib, and topsail, although some barges were built as ‘stumpies’, without a topsail and topmast. Finally came the bowsprit, and associated staysail.
This display celebrates the Thames Sailing Barge, of every size and type, with stories from the many bargemen who spent their whole working lives sailing them on the east coast in all weathers throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The beauty of these craft have always attracted artists and photographers, and the display also features oil paintings by local artists including Roger Finch, Anthony Osler, Honor Surie, and Cor Visser.
The display features a one-third scale detailed model showing exactly how these unique wooden vessels were constructed, and the methods and tools the barge builders used.