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Martin Phillips calls for positive recognition that barge building skills are still thriving

Martin Phillips has today posted a comment to our piece about the film of “The Quay”.   It appears of course on that post, but it is necessary to click on “Comment” in order to see it.    It deserves more prominence, so we repeat it in full here:-

“It is very sad that the landowner’s wish to develop the site has destroyed what had been developed at Standard Quay; however I feel that the coverage of this to date rather ignores reality of what has been achieved by the Thames barge and trad boat community in East Anglia.

It is depressing to read such statements as:  ‘A centre for ancient maritime crafts, the quay is a haven for the few dozen surviving Thames sailing barges.   But Standard Quay’s latest owner, a property developer, plans to turn it into a tourist trap with shops, restaurants and luxury houses….’

This publicity would give the impression that this was the last home of sailing barges and that the preservation skills of barge shipwrights and the home of barges has been destroyed for good by a property developer’s greed.

However this is simply a false picture. What had been achieved at Faversham in the comparatively recent past particularly around the rebuild of Cambria was great, and of course Tim Goldsack is still operating his business (albeit not at Standard Quay). The Iron Wharf is still thriving as are the regular Faversham barges Mirosa and Repertor and Lady of the Lea.

Why can’t someone make an optimistic film publicising the achievements of the TSBT (formerly the barge club) in keeping its barges sailing over the last 64 years, rebuilding two (Pudge and Centaur) WITHOUT Lottery support and taking thousands of people sailing? The Trust’s third hand/mate  training  has produced  about 8 of the current Sailing Barge masters (including myself). It has done so much good to preserve barges and helped to bring people into the  barge scene who go on to work on barges. Let’s celebrate this success please!

Maldon and the Blackwater are  home to a very active fleet of barges and two barge yard (Cooks and Blackwater Marina) with blocks and  2 drydocks operating. Then there is Andy Harman’s yard at St Osyth not to forget the Pioneer rebuild and all the smacks. TS rigging has a thriving trad boat business (rerigging the Cutty Sark for example) and there is a host of evidence that the area is a hot bed of traditional skills and specialist shipwrights, riggers, metal workers, a blacksmith and much much more all based around the rich maritime heritage of the area. Topsail Charters have built a successful business over a quarter of a century preserving a fleet of active barges carrying thousands of passengers a year and employing a group of skippers and mates.

Then there are the barges themselves and the unseen efforts and huge financial commitments of private owners that has produced the wonderful sight of beautifully restored and maintained barges like Marjorie, Adieu, Edith May, Lady Daphne, Repertor, Wyvenhoe,  Lady of the Lea and Phoenician and many others . Private owners are rebuilding barges like Melissa and Niagara, Ethel Maud etc, with more on the way and two new builds completed and more on the way.

I deplore the problems that have ruined all Brian Pain’s efforts to achieve a laudable goal but the picture is far from gloomy! Traditional skills are actually thriving in East Anglia and the fleet of barges and smacks is an often unpublicised gem. Where else in the UK  has a fleet of traditional craft in their home waters been preserved and transformed from cargo carriers and fishing boats to working and pleasure vessels?

Yes what happened at Standard Quay was bad for one person’s dream and destroyed his hopes for the future. I dare say it was undoubtedly bad for Faversham – but that is quite a big issue and no doubt many will debate what is best for the town and the use of its creek for many years to come. 

Let’s celebrate what we are really  achieving guys! Please can someone make a film to show what has been achieved and what a wonderful tradition we have kept going. Tell the public and above all encourage them to join in and come sailing on our wonderful craft.”

Martin has set out a view with which I certainly agree.   It does often seem that Maldon and the other places on the Essex and Suffolk coast are somewhat ignored by some leaders of the barge world.   As he says, there is a thriving barge community in East Anglia, with barge yards, wonderful craftsmen, and a fleet of magnificent vessels who call it their home. 

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Niagara Rejoins the Fleet

If you had been in the vicinity of Berry Wiggins Jetty on the river Medway today, 6 August 2012, you could have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching Reminder sailing.   How wrong you would have been, for today Niagara made her welcome return to the active barge fleet.   She slipped her mooring at Hoo and made her way out into the river in the late afternoon.  All around thunder rattled and lightning flashed, but unperturbed the crew of the Niagara was determined to set sail.

Niagara was built of steel in 1898 by Forrestt of Wivenhoe, who also built Atrato and Wyvenhoe.  Niagara was the biggest of the three barges by some 30 tons.  Originally built for Augustus George Hughes of East Greenwich, she was sold to the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Co Ltd of London in 1906, and by 1916 she was sold to John George Hammond of London. 

Niagara as a motor barge, India & Milwall Docks, June 24 1973

By 1924 her owners were the London and Rochester Trading Co Ltd, and, after being requisitioned by the Ministry for War Transport, she was fitted with a 3 Cyl. Kelvin engine in 1940.   After another spell requisitioned, she was sold in 1970 to William Mulcuck of Chatham who was her skipper at the time, and then in 1975 to Richard Twining of Battersea.

Niagara spent many years trading as a motor barge and her end was destined to be at a scrap yard, but her present owner, Peter Sands, acquired her in 2001 and set about returning her to sail.  Almost unnoticed down at Hoo in Kent, Niagara slowly started to take shape. And today Peter finally saw his hard work pay off as the Niagara set sails for the first time in over 70 years.

For just over an hour the crew put her through her paces, even boldly sailing her into the creek for a triumphant sail by at Whitton Marine where her rebuild took place.

It was a pleasure to witness, and to my untrained eye she looked to be going quite well.  It is hoped that she will sail in the Swale Barge Match on Saturday 11th August.

Well done to Peter and we wish you and Niagara well for the future.

An exclusive for The Barge Blog  –  words and pictures by Dave Brooks

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