Once upon a tide there were more than 2,000 sailing barges trading from the Thames around the East and South coasts of England. Fifty years ago, Dick Durham served on the very last one.
“We’re ready for you, sailorman,” the cry from the dockside would come and skipper Bob Roberts and I would use heaving lines to haul Cambria, the last vessel to carry cargo under sail alone in Great Britain and northern Europe, alongside a ship.
That was the only polite term used by the London dockers about a vessel which caused them more work. Dumb barges, or ‘lighters’, as they are known on the London River, do not have masts and sails and therefore could be dipped beneath the ship’s mooring lines and brought between the ship and the quay to be loaded by the towering dock cranes. Cambria could not be dipped beneath the warps and therefore had to load from the ship on her offside, which meant rigging out the ship’s derricks. That meant extra work. Dockers did not like extra work. I had joined Cambria as mate in 1969 and as soon as I signed the articles, the ship’s dog Penny, a border collie, gave me a lick.
I had joined an engineless vessel and for the next eight months we were fossil fuel free. If there is a single moment in time which symbolises the end of British commercial sail and the beginning of its heritage, it is the day Cambria shipped an engine. That moment was in May 1970 when Bob Roberts, purchased a petrol-powered motor pump for his 91ft Thames
It was a motor, but not to propel her from the bustling London docks where she loaded freight to sail to the solitary East Coast quays where she discharged it, but an engine to stop her sinking en route. When deep-loaded and, despite a 63-year-old man and an 18-year-old youth – myself – pumping day and night, Cambria had started wetting freight.
After a heavy-weather passage, the dusty bulk-loaded wheat or maize would be sucked out of her until the discharge nozzle hit a crusty bottom layer of hardened grain. This then had to be dug out of the barge with shovels, bagged and given away as pig feed rather than being ingested into the grain silos.
The grain merchants were unhappy in case any bad corn had accidentally mixed in with the good, and we were unhappy as the spoiled freight – six, sometimes eight tons of our 175 total – would come off our share. It was only a question of time before merchants would tell the agents they did not want any more freights coming to them in that “bloody old museum piece”.
The days of Britain’s last sailing ship were numbered. It was inevitable that the sixty-year-old timbers of a trading vessel would wear out. In her best years, she had carried anything from ‘dirty’ freights like timber, clay and coal to ‘dry’ freights such as sugar, wheat and barley to all ports between Goole in Lincolnshire and Exeter in Devon, or across the Channel to Rotterdam, Antwerp, Calais and Le Treport.
By the time I came to join the barge as mate in 1969, her Board of Trade limits had come right down to those between Ipswich and Dover. The department ruled she was no longer seaworthy enough to go further afield.
Although her destinations were limited, the arcane silhouette of Cambria’s rig was still throwing shadows in the London Docks, themselves in serious decline as containers replaced bagged freight.
I recall the 2 am arrival at the Royal Docks entrance…
I hopped up on the dockside to get a turn as Bob let the topsail sheet go, but the 237 acres of docked water, formed by the 10 miles of quayside that was the Royal Victoria, Royal Albert and King George V dock complex, was completely deserted.
There was no one to let us in!
“Nip along and wake up those lazy buggers,” Bob ordered and I banged on the door of the PLA building and out shuffled duffle-coated reluctants to operate the lock gates.
“What craft are yer?” one asked.
“Cambria,” I said proudly.
“What yer come here to load, cannon-balls?” he said and another spotting Cambria’s lofty masts added: “Where’s Nelson, down in the cabin?”
But the rueful Cockney humour ended when it came to loading from the ship because we were a ‘sailorman’, in fact, the only sailorman left.
Once, in the Tilbury Dock, I recall a mouthy ship worker voicing personal comments, first saying “What’s that, an effing old galleon?” promtly followed by “Where’s the captain’s parrot? It probably died of starvation!”.
Bob, a boxer in his youth, walked calmly across the deck and started scaling the rope ladder up the ship’s side. The ship worker ran away.
And yet, rather like a son criticising his father, disparaging remarks about the Cambria were OK if kept in the family. However, they did not take kindly to ‘outsiders’ panning their ship, that despite the dockers humorous jibes, they were actually very proud and defensive of.
Perhaps nowhere was Cambria’s stem rubbed more into the 20th Century than at the Tilbury Grain Silo.
With a cacophony of bells and buzzers and men 40 feet above us wearing industrial helmets and ear muffs pushing buttons on hand-held remote-control units, a vast sewer-sized pipe was aimed at Cambria’s hold and 45 tons of grain shot out in 10 minutes, listing the barge alarmingly.
I recall seeing black bilge water spilling out onto the white, dusty corn as the barge heeled over alarmingly from the sudden burden. Bob waved and shouted trying to get the pipe moved.
Twenty-five minutes later we were loaded with 150 tons of maize, but before the dust had settled, we were ordered off the berth as another craft was scheduled to come in before we’d even had time to cover up. We had to haul her across by the dolly line – a hauling cable on a roller fitted above the windlass – to a road of adjacent lighters to get the hatch-boards on. They were simply unprepared for the time it took this old lady to be made ready for sea.
It took two days to discharge her at the sleepy mill at Fingringhoe off the River Colne in Essex.
So, Cambria was becoming obsolete and her skipper seen as some purist eccentric: He was regularly offered motor-ships by his last employers F T Everard & Sons, which he equally as regularly, turned down.
It is true that Bob, an author and journalist as well as a barge skipper, was not shy about promoting his antipathy towards engines: As early as 1935, while fitting out Quartette, the Ramsgate sailing trawler, for his second transatlantic crossing he penned this for Yachting World: ‘We have no auxiliary power, although about forty different people have tried to sell us forty different engines. For the last time I would like to announce to all engine owners, suppliers and manufacturers that we do not want an engine, thank you. If this were not in the Yachting World, I would tell them what to do with them all.’
Thirty-five years later, as skipper of the last sailing barge, he told the BBC during a feature film, Look Stranger, made in 1970: “It takes so long to learn barging, sailing and seamanship that it seems silly to give it all up. Give it up when you can’t get your leg over the rail anymore, but if I wasn’t barging what should I do? I’ve been offered command of motor-ships but all you do is stand there going boomp, boomp, boomp watching her head go up and down from Christmas to Christmas and what becomes of you? There’s a radio telephone at the back and some clerk telling you to hurry up…some clerk who’s never been to sea, probably. I don’t want that sort of life.”
Watch the original ‘Look Stranger’ documentary here.
When Cambria’s trading days were over Bob Roberts sold her to the Maritime Trust where she was kept afloat at Lower Upnor on the River Medway in Kent and then in St Katharine’s Dock, London. But she was not well looked after and started deteriorating.
In 1987 the trust’s Historic Ship collection was disbanded and the barge went to the Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum in Sittingbourne, Kent where her wheel was stolen as enthusiasts tried vainly to replace rotten planking in an ad hoc fashion.
Then the Cambria Restoration Project was started a year later by Tony Ellis and in 1992 the National Register of Historic Vessels was formed with Cambria on the list.
In 2007 over £900,000 was earmarked for Cambria from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Cambria Trust was formed to raise the rest that was needed for her
£1.4 million restoration.
Thanks to a donation of free oak from a private forest in Somerset, shipwright Tim Goldsack started rebuilding her in 2007 aboard a steel lighter at Faversham, Kent. Four years later and 90 per cent rebuilt she was sailing again, coming first in the Coasting Class of the 2011 Thames Sailing Barge Match.
Cambria took part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant and represented Kent at the London Olympics. She has been regularly chartered by, among others, skipper Richard Titchener, who takes youngsters to sea to show them how a sailing vessel works. Richard is now skipper of the newly built Blue Mermaid and Cambria is now in the hands of the well-respected East Coast sailor, Ian Ruffles.
The barge will also act as a floating classroom for lessons on the social and economic history of the Thames Estuary, its docks and ports. A programme to apprentice shipwrights is also being set up.
Cambria, mule-rigged spritsail sailing barge
Built in 1906 at Greenhithe, Kent at a cost of £1,895.
Owners and builders F.T. Everard & Sons.
LOA between perpendiculars 91.1ft (with a 38ft boltsprit)
Depth 2ft 6ins (light) 7.3ft (loaded)
Gross tonnage 109 (79 net)
Cargo capacity 170 tons, up to 200 tons with stack
Mainmast 49ft, topmast 43ft
Mizzen 45ft sprit 62 ft
Sail area 5,000 square feet
Dick sailed as the last mate aboard Cambria from August 1969 until October 1970, under her skipper Bob Roberts.
The last freight the pair carried was 100 tons of cattle cake (coconut husks used as cattle feed) from the SS Falaba, loaded in Tilbury Docks and discharged at Ipswich.
Dick, a former newspaperman, is married with three children and lives and sails on the East Coast. He has written six books, including two novels, about sailing, including the biography of Bob Roberts, The Last Sailorman, Terence Dalton, 1989. He writes a column for Yachting Monthly, is a regular contributor for Classic Boat, and is editor of Ocean Sailor Magazine.