Canal and river barges of South East England.

The Thames sailing barge became the classic small working craft of all the rivers and creeks of the Thames estuary and the Essex coast and some of the bigger ones undertook voyages to the South coast and near continent as well. The smallest ones, the ‘Western barges’ could travel deep inland up the River Thames to Oxford and beyond and it was these craft that historically set the gauge for the canal and river navigations that connected to the Thames as the Canal age developed — the River Wey, Kennet and Avon, Thames and Severn and Grand Junction Canals.

They were flat bottomed for maximum carrying capacity in shallow water and the earliest pictures show them as all originally ‘swim-ended’, with both bow and stern shaped like a clumsy horizontal wedge. However, these soon developed into craft with a fine straight stem with a graceful run aft up to an elegant transom stern, and that became the basic pattern for the horse drawn canal barges too.

They remained ‘hard chined’ boats, still square sectioned for most of their length and this helped their sailing ability. The river and coastal barges were fitted with a lowering mast that carried a huge spritsail and topsail, a bowsprit to carry foresails which could be steeved up out of the way in congested docks and most had a small mizzen sail as well.

A barge hulk on the east bank of the River Adur in Sussex, just downriver of the old wooden toll bridge at Shoreham, taken in September 1970

Leeboards were fitted to improve their windward sailing abilities and these supremely efficient and versatile craft continued to work under sail until the middle of the twentieth century. With a massive payload and crewed by only two men, they were equally good working up tiny tidal creeks in the country or in the congested docks of the London river. With tanned sails, bright paintwork and bold scrollwork at bow and stern these beautiful utilitarian craft have been beloved by both artists and historians for generations and are well documented.

Of the thousands of sailing barges that were built only sixty five or so remain in commission but happily that number now remains fairly stable thanks to the dedicated care and maintenance of their proud owners.  The annual barge races are joys to behold and a visit to St Katherines Dock in London or Malden in Essex will usually find some of them at their moorings. (See our ‘Off the Mainline’ articles about Thames Barge Races).

Thames barges under sail
Thames barges under sail

The big cousins of the Thames barge are the Thames lighters, big steel swim-headed dumb boats that were once navigated individually by a single lighterman with a big oar and a detailed knowledge of the tides and currents of the river. However they are now more usually towed in gangs by motor tugs and still carry a considerable tonnage on the lower Thames. A fleet of smaller steel barges  operated on the Regents Canal and Lee and Stort navigations and many were still economically working  by horse power on to the lower  Grand Junction Canal into the 1960s, possibly the last horse drawn commercial traffic in the country. A number of broad gauge boats worked further up country on the Grand Junction Canal but in style they were built as wide narrow boats rather than small barges.

Thames barge bows at Malden
Thames barge bows at Malden

On the River Wey, the link to the Basingstoke and Wey and Arun Canals, horses were also still at work pulling the wooden grain barges of William Stevens into the 1950s, and several of these still survive. Two are on display at Dapdune wharf in Guildford where they were built and a third awaits possible restoration at The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. However there is little evidence left of all the little barges that once worked the river navigations of the south coast, the Rother , Ouse, Adur and Arun. One old chalk barge at Ellesmere Port and some fast vanishing wrecks in Shoreham harbour now have to represent them all. Sadly there is even less historic evidence for the old working barges of the Thames and Severn and Kennet and Avon Canals but it is possible to experience something of the working atmosphere aboard the horse drawn barge Kennet Valley at Newbury. For more information see Off The Mainline articles about Adur barges at Shoreham and Wey Barges at Dapdune Wharf.

Diligent, one of a fleet of horse drawn barges that worked the River Wey in Surrey, seen here in retirement near Sittingbourne in Kent in 1972.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 08/03/2022.

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