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PORTLIGHT of Harwich

Official No. 145405. 68 tons, built of steel at Mistley in 1925 by Horlock Converted to motorbarge by Greenhithe lighterage B. Tester rerigged her as bowsprit barge based at Hollowshore near Faversham. She has been bought by Noddy Cardy and is now based at Maldon. (information and picture with permission from www.thamesbarge.org.uk)


 

 'PORTLIGHT' of HARWICH

by Harold Mann

Published in three parts in the newsletter of the Hostellers Sailing Club - Autumn 1958, Spring 1959 and Summer 1959

~~~~ Part 1 ~~~~

"Finish your tea and we'll get the boat up." On deck, and the blocks hooked on, skipper and mate swing on one fall, then the other until the boat is hove up and bowsed in. "Tops'1 sheet" More heaving, and the clew creaks out to the sprit end. "Start heaving up,-" Link by link the cable clanks aboard; (I'll bet the bloke who wrote about "the merry click of the windlass pawls" never tried it!) "Drop a bit of mains'l out;" "Up tops'1; " "Heave up;" "Set the fores'l;" "Get the anchor right up." If I thought I was never going bargeing, I know I am now.  Time to recover some breath while I bowse the tacks down, coil the halyards on the hatch, gripe down the loose gear, get the stays'1 or bowsprit jet ready and bow the anchor.

But I ought to begin at the beginning.  A day or so after I joined 'Portlight' at Ipswich, on November 8th, 1956, with two or three bargemen giving a hand, we turned to windward, down the dock to the lock-gates, an interesting bit of handling.  I always found dock sailing had a relish of its own, perhaps because you were never quite sure how you were going to stop the darned thing.  We were bound "up", or Londonwards for orders, freight in that direction being a thing of the past for a sailing barge, and in light airs we were given a tow by the 'Pudge' and 'Scone' to the Stone Heaps, as the anchorage just above Shotley is known.  The next day turned out calm and foggy, so we had to stay put, but we were not without diversion.

A more accomplished author has referred in a rather lyrical passage, to the "finest traditions of the sailing barges" What these were I never discovered, but one of the most likely and useful, must be the bargeman's habit of foraging for himself, whether ashore or afloat. Accordingly, Gordon and a friend who was along for the trip, disappeared ashore with a twelve-bore, to return later with a hare, a portent of things to come.  Next day it went into the stew-pot when we brought up in the Lower Hope after a fair passage, made in company with the 'Xylonite' from Mistley.  Again we were fogbound for a day. Then, having reached Dagenham, we were met by our firm's motor barge 'Redoubtable' with the news that we were wanted at Tilbury for the morning's work.  So against the flood tide we were taken in tow to that bleak port, and in the morning loaded bags of rice bran from the 'City of Karachi'.  I had to board her to make fast and was told to get back quickly.  There was no ladder but 'Portlight's topmast was close to the ship's focs'le rail.  It looked a long way down but it was a much longer way round. Oh well, here goes, grab the tops'l halyard, swing out, shin down, back on deck; nothing to it after all. After getting our freight, there was another day's delay over Customs clearance, then the 'Redoubtable' towed us out, and, as it was very fine, we dropped off to our anchor in the Lower Hope or Duckpond, as it was known to the fraternity.

Again we had a Sunday with little wind, and got under way-only to let go again on the south side at Hope Point.  Here the 12-bore was given another outing, this time without result. However, a slant was not far away, so we turned out at 1 a.m. on the ebb tide.  There was a nice breeze S.E., but we had to turn down Sea Reach to the West Ouse before we would fetch away. The day turned out bright and the breeze freshened a little, with the result that having met the flood tide at the Black Tail, it was no more than high water at Parmeston, and we tied up at Mistley at 2 p.m., a very useful passage.  Two days later the cargo was discharged and the crew were 'squared up' in the customary way, half the earnings on the freight going to the owners and half to the crew, whose share was divided in the proportion of two to one, skipper and mate.

After two' days in the yard at Mistley to have a new leeboard winch fitted, (I say new - it was dragged out of a bed of nettles and hammered until it worked), we sailed again, and going on the 'phone at Cliffe Cement jetty, received orders to load at Tilbury. By now everyone was working out their movements with one eye on Christmas, which no bargeman reckons to spend afloat, so it was no encouragement first to sit out a two day strike, then have to wait a day for the last two bags of cargo.  We were given a 'chuck out' into the river and in a light breeze, crept over the flood, down past Gravesend and into the Hope.  Fog then came down, and for two days there we stayed, swinging around the anchor, listening to the ringing of ships' bells and the rattle of the anchor cables, keeping a look-out for the odd character who insisted on blundering ahead, and there were some.  It was not much consolation when Gordon disappeared into the murk, arriving back several hours later, with seven Christmas dinners.

On the evening of the second day the fog began to lift, but there was so much shipping bound up that it would have been suicide to get under way; even a motor barge bound the same way brought up near us to restore his nerves.  We made a start in the morning but the breeze was light and we had to let go near the Black Tail when the flood began.  As we lay there a motor barge could be seen coming up and presently the "Edith May" came alongside, initially for a chat, which however, was prolonged until late that night, when we brought up to one anchor at Harwich, whither she had towed us.  I came to know skipper Bob Childs as a good friend, as well as an expert on the history of barges, and we were more than glad to have him and his mate share with us, a brace of duck plus trimmings, and a 'diff' -traditional bargeman's fare.

We had to make our own way down to Mistley.  In the morning it was thick again, but with a breeze, so we made a start and coaxed the fog-horn into making the appropriate sounds.  For an hour or two, it was touch and go, but in the end, we tied up in time to join the crew of the "Memory" in a drop of Christmas cheer at the "Thorn".  I set off to the Lake District twenty-four hours behind the Group (the HSC was known as the 'YHS Sailing Group' in those days - Ed), and spent a Christmas well worth the anxiety it had cost.

~~~~ Part II ~~~~

Our first freight in the New Year was the most memorable of all. It took just-a month from leaving Mistley to our return there and at one time it looked as if we might not get back at all.  Shotley was our first stop and we lay there five days, part of the time with two anchors out, in company with the 'Memoryl, 'Marjorie', 'May' and 'Venture'. We made a couple of excursions on Frimley marshes, mustering four guns, and several hares were persuaded to take up a seafaring career.  Then we had a slant which got us down to Colne (never THE Colne), where someone acquired two buckets of oysters. Our cabin being roomier than most, was packed for the ensuing feast. The Walrus and the Carpenter wept for the oysters before downing them, but tribulation overtook me during the following night. In the morning we had to 'get under way and the 'Norwegian Steam' was at very low pressure.  In a strong breeze we turned out of Colne and once clear, downed Channel. Being early on the tide, we hove to off St.Peter's Flats and had breakfast, then went on, with the lead going, until we were in the Whittaker and turned up to Shore Ends for an anchorage. We went ashore on Foulness for stores and the local people were intrigued to see five sailormen brought up where none had been seen for a couple of years. However, we outstayed our welcome as far as one farmer was concerned to the extent that he gave chase in a jeep, but not before some of his hares had gone over the sea wall. Further stores being wanted, it was thought a good idea to visit Burnham in one barge, so the 'Portlight' was got under way with five skippers and one mate, as well as a wife, and we turned up to that Mecca of sail. After refreshment it was found that the shops were shut, but some kind souls obliged us and our wants being met, we put off to the barge as a North Cone was being hoisted ashore In case a northerly blow should come the barges all shifted across to the north shore, though at that time there was scarcely enough wind to manoeuvre. In the morning there was still not too much wind and away we went.  "By afternoon it had fined away so that we could not punch the Ebb and had to bring up at Hope Point.  The 'May* and 'Venture' were, safely in the Mess, as owing to the petrol rationing brought on by the Suez crisis they were carrying their owner's flour to Strood.

Radio weather forecasts leave the bargeman plenty of room to exercise his own judgement, for a promised blow may be twelve hours or so away, leaving time for a passage to be made more or less safely.  On one occasion we got 'under way from the Hope immediately after a gale warning for the Thames area and twelve hours later, after an easy passage down, were almost becalmed off the Naze and glad of a tow into Harwich from a tanker barge. The bargeman's wind scale starts with a 'fatal calm' or just a fatal, which may be 'broken' by a little draught easterly; or whatever it happens to be. Then comes a 'staysail breeze' when that sail can be set on the topmast stay and that may freshen into a 'smart "breeze'. After that variety breaks in with a lot of wind, as much as you want, or even too much, or the appropriate number of the Beaufort scale may be used.

This time we were about ten days at Woolwich before we sailed up to the Albert and Victoria dock for a cargo of maize for Mistley, the grain being pumped out of the ship into barges and lighters by a floating suction plant or hopper. The winds were kind and we were able to sail back down the docks and away to the Hope where we let one boisterous day go by.

We got under way on Sunday morning, January 27th, in a strong breeze about H.W. As soon as the chores were done the focs'le hatch was battened down and a few fathoms of cable flaked over it just in case.  In the Wallet a class yacht was making a passage in-shore from us, but there was nothing between us until Harwich. He had taken in a couple of rolls for comfort, but with 130 tons of cargo we must have been ahead on handicap.

We were off the Naze when the first squall blew up, but the tops'l was down in time and 'Portlight' got her lee rail well under.  It seemed rather strange to be on deck standing knee-deep in the sea. After a few heetic moments it moderated and I crawled aloft again with the aid of the mastcase winch, a somewhat primeval device which suggested to me the building of the great cathedrals when similar 'engines' were no doubt in use.  We had about a mile to go when number two came on - this time we really saw what the gear would stand up to. Having dropped the tops'l I ran aft to where Gordon, knee-deep in water, was having a job to keep her from flying into the wind. We got the wheel over and hung on; rain poured down and spray must have been flying because I kept spitting out salt water. I looked up at the gear, expecting to see the lot go at any moment and observed that if there was no rigging there would be nothing to climb into if it came to that, also that it was getting dark and we might not be seen if things got any worse.  However, these gloomy forebodings were spared fulfilment, the wind and rain abated and after a few boards we made the harbour, flashing a torch to warn a motor launch of our unlighted presence.  We let go on the Guard, made a rough stow, set the riding light and retired to the comfort of the cabin, having picked up the odds and ends that had got adrift.  What place could be more snug,, with the fire going and the light of the oil lamp gleaming softly on brass and varnish work?  Gordon said that the boat had been afloat on the davits,  a detail which I had overlooked myself. Later we heard that the coastguard had reported the wind as force 9 and we weren't prepared to argue about it.

~~~~ Part III ~~~~

After the somewhat hectic start which I described in a previous issue, 1957 went ahead in a rather more even tenor and we had several freights without having to wait at the 'Starvation Buoys', getting our orders at Erith and on one occasion at Grays, where Goldsmiths, who once owned a large fleet of coasting barges had "been asked to look out for us". We kept company with the 'Memory', until she had the chance of a freight to Great Yarmouth and took it, knowing that we would have taken it if she didn't.  The only memorable passage at this time was much more tedious than spectacular, an example of the frustrations rather than the excitement of barging. Normally we did not go in for all-night passages in winter, preferring to muster in the small hours and have all the daylight to come.  However we left the Lower Hope this particular afternoon with a light breeze SW and by dark were far down Sea Reach.  In the Swin the flood came against us and at its peak we made barely 1 knot, but there was no work to do and it was a pleasant enough night with moon and stars out, and dozens of lighted buoys winking away cheerfully.

About midnight we had to gybe, and had no sooner done so than the wind headed us. A swirling mist came down and our idyll was over. Sheet and vang were got in and we began turning to windward.  The lead came into use and our whereabouts became a matter of guesswork which we tried to confirm by looking out for buoys whose main characteristic was once described as a long black flash - in other words they were unlit.  Eventually we picked up the light of the Swin Spitway buoy and set about trying to negotiate that channel - the bane of a bargeman's life, because he must time his arrival to find water through it.

For about an hour we persevered, with the ebb against us, sounding all the time in the chill water and never finding much over seven feet.  Still the mist, lit in macabre fashion by the moon, swirled around us, but a momentary clearance gave a glimpse of the Swin buoy and showed that we were getting nowhere.  We dropped back to bring up near the buoy, but the anchor was fouled and before it could be cleared we had fallen alongside the 'Peter Robin', a motor barge at anchor.  We took a turn, and the jostling of two steel hulls soon brought an anxious skipper on deck.  However he let us drop astern and hang on until our anchor was cleared.  We let go, made a pot of porridge and lay on the lockers for an uneasy two hours. It was just coming daylight.

The weather had cleared up in that time.  We hove up, went through the Spitway, rigged the bowsprit, set the jib and were able to fetch down the Wallet.  At Harwich we were again balked by the tide and had to bring up outside.  All we had ready for dinner was the 'duff, so we polished that off and sought some sleep before the evening tide. Then at last we got inside and anchored off Shotley for the night, not reckoning to turn up the Orwell in the dark. We were glad enough to have made our passage and been able to get turned in for the night.

Our life at this time was considerably brightened by the exploits of a certain barge which was featured in a radio programme.  In the course of it, after some discourse on the ardours of a bargeman's life, the audience was invited to go on a trip to 'see why they did it'.  During a non-stop passage from London to Great Yarmouth, in a southerly which increased to a gale, it became clear from the soliloquies of the skipper at the wheel and the mate toiling at the brail winch that they were doing it for money and the things money could buy.  This was heartening, for if there was one thing Gordon and I were not getting out of it, it was that very same stuff.

Inspired by these storm warriors, next day we made a good run from the Lower Hope to Ipswich and as we passed Pin Mill, the 'Cabbie', last wooden barge built, was at anchor. Skipper Alec Rands was on deck hanging out some washing and hollered out, 'I know you've only thrashed her down here because the mate wants some new curtains!' Weeks later when the radio barge advanced to T.V. and the status of 'ocean going barge' Alec brought the house down at Woolwich with the idea of her skipper phoning his owners to report that 'he'd burnt out another main horse!'. Just before Easter we joined the 'Xylonite' at Shotley and set off together on Good Friday to make a holiday passage to London.  Off the Naze we met Reg Hopkins (a founding member of the HSC - Ed.) in command of a chartered yacht for the holiday, waiting for water into Walton Backwater. We went on to Shore Ends and in the afternoon went foraging ashore on Foulness, where we aroused the dissatisfaction of a W.D. policeman.  Gordon craftily got him on to our pet idea of going through Havengore Creek and across the Maplin Sands, which-our sleuth's knowledge of those waters IB d us to abandon. The following day we had a fine sail to Grays, and along the Maplin discomfited a yachtsman who was keeping pace with us by setting a jib tops'1.  'That's not fair' he called over, We replied that we knew we could beat him, but were more interested in keeping in front of 'Xylonite'.  At Grays the mate of 'Xylonite' and I explored that old haunt of bargemen, the 'Theobalds Arms' and found one of our firm's skippers already installed there.

It was seven weeks before we went down Swin again; for the next freight we waited a fortnight at Woolwich, and then it was only timber to Southend. Rainham Creek was our loading port, just below Fords, and we brought up outside to see about getting a tow in. However that was settled for us by the timely arrival of Bob Childs in the 'Edith May', bound for the same place.  Next morning while we lay at the berth the gateman came over and threw down the morning paper.  I sensed something behind this gesture, which emerged when he said 'I know what it's like, I used to be in this game myself!'  It turned out he had been in Parker's barges from Bradwell, but gave up in 1931 when he found that a Swin passage taking six weeks was not the right enterprise to support a wife and young family. While at Rainham we took a walk along the river wall where a stretch of wasteland lay, its desolation a silent contrast to the teeming motor works that it bordered, a contrast heightened by the hulk of a barge being burnt out on the beach.  Bob Childs said that she was the 'Matilda Upton', which in her hey-day had driven through Southend Pier in a gale!  Having shown the flag at Rainham, we towed down to Southend alongside the 'Edith May1. Reluctantly Bob was made to take turn ahead of us for his services, so we spent a week on that roistering shore, and while 'Portlight' was discharging we ourselves helped matters along-by unloading the flour-laden 'Adieu', for which no hands were available.

We sailed back to Woolwich and another wait for a job, which was wheat for Ipswich, done in record time. Reg Hopkins, who joined us in a pierhead jump, must have brought us luck!  After loading on a Friday morning we left the dock at 6.00 p.m., the Maidon barge 'Ethel Maud' giving us a start over the flood.  She brought up at Erith and we and .the 'Memory' sailed on through the night in a light breeze which freshened bravely as we entered Harwich and made short work of Ipswich river. After a nap at the buoy we entered the dock on the evening tide, in time to take our choice of the many establishments in that busy town, catering for a hard-won thirst.  The rest of Whitsun weekend was spent on-a busman's holiday with Reg in 'Penny Plain'.

We were back at London in a few days, had our orders at Erith and with the 'Memory' loaded wheat in the Surrey Dock.  The day of the annual barge race found us turning down Sea Reach as the flood began, and after a few legs with no progress made we ran back and brought up at Hope Point. There we had a grandstand view of the last lap of the race, and were among many to be pleased at the victory of 'Sirdar' from Rochester, rigged as she was in more work-a-day style than her rivals. We hoisted Portlight's champion pennant for 1928, all 25 feetof it, to the sprit end, and dipped it to the winner as she passed. After a few days of easterly weather we got away to Southend and from there had a weary passage of 22 hours to Harwich.

In case anyone should ever seek directions from a bargeman around the East coast, it may be a help to know the unofficial names of some of the seamarks.  Starting down Sea Reach, the Blyth sand on the Kentish shore is often called the Ely, and clearing it a short cut can be taken through the (Jenkyn) swatch to the 'Ness, or Sheerness. Southend's famous pier, since the first one was built in 1829, has been known from the seaward end as the Jetty, and at Shoebury we come to the Boom, the line of stakes marking the shoreward end of the wartime defence boom, Further along the Maplin are the measured mile beacons - the Admiralties.  Coining into the Swin, the S.W.Swin lighted "buoy is still known by a former name as the West Mouse, and the Maplin Spit buoy is always the Sheers, for the sufficient reason that a lighthouse once stood there, mounted on sheer legs.  The mouth of the Crouch still bears the name of Shore Ends, and two other anchorages in frequent use are the Guard, on the Harwich shore just inside the harbour, and the Stone Heaps, in the Orwell above Shotley Spit.  If they serve no other purpose, these may be of use to students of lifemanship,

As I thought would happen, I did not leave 'Portlight' without another dusting down.  This took place one merry morning when we got under way from the Yantlet at 5.30 a.m. in company with the 'Memory' and 'Xylonite'.  The wind was about SSW and freshened as we went, to force 6-7 and all hands were needed on deck, depriving the skipper of his breakfast and getting us to the Spitway too early for comfort. The auxiliary barge 'Cabbie' was there ahead of us, less deeply laden, and we followed her through without trouble, but from then on it took both of us to steer 'Portlight' down the Wallet.  Hard work it was too, though the three barges may have made a brave sight for the Walton coastguard as they plunged and lurched along with decks awash on the rollers that swept up from astern, their backs white-streaked. When we came to gybe for Harwich the tops'1 halliard was a sodden tangle in the lee scupper, having been unwisely left coiled in its usual place on the hatch, so I had to let go and hope for the best; luckily it ran clear. Soon we were in calmer waters if not calmer air and arrived at Ipswich with little time to spare from getting the boat into the water, handing the jib and topping up the bowsprit. With the wind as it was the barge kept moving smartly even with all sail off, and no time had to be lost in taking a line away in the boat and making fast to the buoy as she came abreast of it, and by that time I was just about licked, not for the first time, but a good deal quicker than ever before, for it was just about 1.00 p.m.

We made a good passage back to London, Harwich to Woolwich in 12 hours, but having got a job we were balked, also not for the first time, by a dock strike, and my time running out I paid off in the King George Dock, August 10th, 1957.  Soon afterwards 'Portlight' sailed her last freight and was laid up at Mistley.  Now she and 'Xylonite' have been sold to a Greenhithe firm, probably to end their days as lighters, so that seven barges, the youngest of them 54 years old, are left still trading under sail only.  To those who have seen them, can the whine of jet propulsion or the hum of nuclear power ever match the glory of a team at work in the fields, or a sailing ship at work upon the sea? I've had a go at both, so I guess I can't grumble.