Saturday, August 17, 2013

A 1931 Thames Barge - Lady of the Lea

Lady of the Lea.  Photograph by D. Renouf
from the thamesbarge.org.uk website
The Lady of the Lea is one of a small number of surviving Thames barges that can still be seen sailing in British water.  She was the last wooden Thames sailing barge to be built.

Today Thames sailing barges, often recognizable from their red-brown sails, long low lines and lee boards, can be seen moored up on the downriver side of Tower Bridge, and within St Katherine's Dock are some fine examples that are chartered for events.

Thames barges came in a variety of forms, all variations of a basic theme, with the main differences lying in their hull construction and rigging. They were flat-bottomed and were designed for estuaries and coastal waters.  Some of them were also hauled along canals.  Their distinctive red-brown sails were made of flax and waterproofed against salt water with a mixture of red ochre, (which was boiled with tar, tallow and oak bark), and cod or seal oil.  The cod gave the sails a browner appearance, the seal oil a redder colour).  Most of the surviving Thames barges were built during the late 18th century and 19th century, when they were used for carrying an eclectic mix of cargoes around the country, including bricks, coal, grain, straw and timber, but their origins lie in the Medieval period and the later legacy of canal barges. Like other ships of the 19th Century wooden hulls were replaced by metal. They could handle a significant tonnage and were an important part of the country's cargo handling infrastructure until well into the 20th Century.

A stumpy-rigged Thames Barge at Greenwich
1890, Illustrated London News
Lady of the Lea is a spritsail barge said to have been built by H.A. Oliver and Sons at Albion Wharf, where barges had been built and repaired for many years.  She was typical of barges being built along the Thames at the time for use in the Thames itself, the Thames estuary, coastal waters and inland waterways with coastal access along the east coast.

Constructed in wood, Lady of the Lea was equipped with a tiller connected to the rudder and was originally stumpy rigged, meaning she had no top mast or top sail.  The fact that she was stumpy rigged, a rig designed for barges that had to pass under the low London bridges, argues that she was in use on the Thames in London during her early years.  She was built to a design based on canal barges because her intended use meant that she had to use a narrow canal passage at the gunpowder mills where she loaded and unloaded.  Designated a War Department Sailing Barge, she was used to carry up to 500 barrels of gunpowder, as well as other armaments, between Woolwich Arsenal and Waltham Abbey.  There is apparently a display at the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey showing her at work.  She travelled on both open water, under sail, and canals, when she was horse-drawn.

Lady of the Lea. Photograph taken from the 
nationalhistoricships.co.uk website.
In 1943 the Navy added a petrol engine to  Lady of the Lea. She was sold into private ownership in 1980 was provided with a diesel engine, undergoing major reconstruction in the following decade.  Lady of the Lea is now one of a number of barges, listed in The Illustrated Guide to Thames Sailing Barges by Rita and Peter Phillips, that takes parts in exhibitions and matches.  The photograph of her in the book, copied above, shows her as she is today with a wheel, main and mizzen masts, a bowsprit, and rudder.  Her current sails are a jib, forsail, topsail and mainsail on the main mast and a mizzen sail on the mizzen (rear) mast. Her current dimensions are 72ft length and 13ft beam, but the extensive work carried out on her hull in recent years probably means that these are slightly different from her original dimensions.  Even with the changes made to her since her launch in 1931, the illustration at the end of this post shows how little Thames Barge design changed over the decades.  102 years separates Lady of the Lea from E.W. Cooke's beautiful drawing, but there are very few differences in overall appearance.
Many barges were built in Rotherhithe, but finding out about the names of the builders and their barges, the designs employed and where they were used is not proving to be particularly easy,  so it is particularly good to have found out a few details about one of those elusive barges.  It is also great to know that H.A. Oliver and Sons operated well into the 1960s.



Thames Barge by E.W. Cooke in
E.W. Cooke's 1828 Shipping and Craft.


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