At one time all ot England's major rivers had their own distinctive commercial craft. The Thames had the spritsail barge, a descendant of the old London River lighters used for unloading ships swinging in the tideway before the docks were built. Then they were little more than oblong boxes with blunt swim-head bows and sterns. Originally the tide alone moved them, with a little help now and then from a favourable wind. In all probability the distinctive spritsail (pronounced spreets'l) came over with Charles II at the Restoration.

Their present day shape is the outcome of 50 years hard racing begun by Henry Dodd in 1863. Dodd, known as the Golden Dustman [the source the chsaracter in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend?], made himself rich shipping London's rubbish to the Essex marshes. What he wanted was a better barge. His races transformed the old craft into a vessel a man and a boy could handle with ease even under 5000 square feet of tan canvas. (The colour was the result of wind- and water-proofing with red ochre, cod oil, linseed oil and horse fat.) In a good wind and with a good tide barges could do up to 12 knots.

By 1900 there were 2000 of them, all busy. Their cargoes were humble. Some called — stackies — literally carried hay stacks for London's horses. Others carried beer, cement, bricks, mud, chalk, pitch, coke, wheat, cattle cake, stones, coal. Between 30 and 40 survive.

Cambria is the Maritime Trust's officially preserved representative. She was built at Greenhithe by one of Frederick Everard's two sons. Both boys had to build a barge apiece when they finished their apprenticeship. William's Cambria cost �1885: his brother's Hibernia, ten pounds more. . . Cambria went on to become the last barge trading undersail in 1971.

Other drawings and photographs of Victorian barges


Sullivan, Dick. Old Ships, Boats & Maritime Museums. London: Coracle Books, 1978. Pp. 64-65.

Last modified 12 April 2012