Tag Archives: Essex

1940s and 50s barge crewman and skipper Jimmy Lawrence tells his story

Jimmy Lawrence barge skipper talks on Southend Pier 7

Jimmy Lawrence has fabulous recall of his days sailing on barges in the 1940s and 50s, and has an entertaining way of telling stories about those times. So when we heard that he was going to be talking on Southend Pier as part of the Southend Barge Match last week, we took the opportunity to hear him again.

It was only a shame that there weren’t more people – but Jimmy tailored his talk to the interests of the smallish assembled party of mainly sailing barge racing crew.

It was fun too to travel on the little railway that runs along the pier – at more than a mile long, it’s a considerable feature of that bit of coast.

Here’s one of his stories from the time when he got his first job as third hand on the sailing barge Gladys, which is now a wreck on Deadman’s Island, on the north bank of Stangate Creek. The third hand’s job was not a great one in many ways, not least for an experienced young man who was the butt of a lot of the older men’s jokes, some of them gentle and some less so.

Third hands were also expected to act as cook, and so the skipper might shout ‘Put plenty of salt in boy and pr’aps they’ll cry their bloody eyes out!’ or ‘He couldn’t cook hot water, not without burning it he couldn’t.’

‘This was just after the war and there was no lights on the Thames Estuary at all and it was ever so dark, and you just come down to the skipper’s knowledge, his compass and the leadline. It weas marked at every fathom and you had to call them out properly… You couldn’t just say ”two fathoms skip”, it’d have to be ”by the mark two”, or ”and a quarter two” or ”less a quarter two” with everything done ever so promptly.

‘As third hand you’d start to worry because if the barge went aground, you knew it would be your fault and you’d get a kick up the arse. When it got to ”and a half one” you’d get really worried.

‘The skipper would start making out he was a bit nervous too and he’d call out ”What’s the bottom like boy?” and you’d have a look [at the tallow at the bottom of the line] and you’d say ”Just soft mud skip.”

”You sure boy? It should have some grit in it. Lick it boy lick it!”

”It’s soft mud skip.”

”Right he said. We’ve brought up just by that bloody sewer outfall.”

I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many like Jimmy still around, so I hope someone somewhere is getting it all down!

Btw, there are instructions on how to use a lead line here.

My father's photos 1955-7 1

Ships and the Essex Coast – photos my father took in 1955-7

I love the atmospheric shots of Leigh Creek and Maldon. And talking of atmospheric, look at those ships at Tilbury – they were coal fired in those days and don’t you know it!

The young female figure is my Mum, but I guess you will have worked that out.

An American in Essex and Suffolk – Thad Danielson hangs out with the Strangers and the OGA


US boat builder Thad Danielson of Redd’s Pond Boatworks fame came to the UK this summer to join a meet of the Albert Strange Association and to attend an Old Gaffer’s Association for a rally – and he took lots of photos.

Read his account and see his photos here. You’ll be glad you did – particularly if you don’t know the coast of Essex and Suffolk

Ship builders of Essex

This is a great little film about the building of the fishing schooner St Rosalie - and very much of its time and people!

My thanks to intheboatshed.net reader Josef Sablatnic for pointing it out.

Seamew, Burnham Scow No 230


Seamew Burnham scow Seamew, Burnham scow Seamew, Burnham Scow, sailing dinghy

Seamew, Burnham scow, sailing dinghy Seamew, Burnham Scow, sailing dinghy

Seamew, Burnham Scow, sailing dinghy

Seamew, built by Stebbings of Burnham on Crouch in 1953, and repaired and restored in Bob Hinks’ workshop

Clea Rawinsky has been busy fulfilling a long-held ambition to own and sail a Burnham Scow, with the help of boatbuilder Bob Hinks (link one, link two) and their mutual friend Mark. Here’s the story as she tells it:

I first saw Seamew, dusty and forgotten, in a boat shed near my home years ago. I recognised the class easily: she was a Burnham Scow: an 11ft 3in clinker-built sailing dinghy.

One of the local yacht clubs, the Royal Burnham, adopted the class for their cadet section some 50 years ago, and a small number of them continue to grace the River Crouch. However, Burnham Scows are very rarely found for sale and tend to be passed down through families.

Seamew had split planks, a bashed-in gunwhale and had obviously enjoyed a great history – but she also looked like she hadn’t been touched in decades. She needed more work than I was capable of, but just knowing she existed allowed me to dream.

Then, last year, I was introduced to Bob Hinks. He and our mutual friend, Mark, had a cracking day out sailing Cirrus, Bob’s strip-plank built 20ft day-sailer with an electric inboard motor. Bob was clearly a craftsman and I was intrigued by his modest view of his obviously outstanding talent as a boat builder.

One day I was showing Mark and Bob my own boat, a 26ft Polaris. She was in storage awaiting a new owner and by chance happened to be chocked off right next to Seamew. Both guys saw, as I had, the potential in the little elm-on-oak relic. As if by magic, Bob was heard to say how he’d been looking for a winter project.

That was last autumn. There and then the three of us tacitly agreed we’d be sailing her next summer. It has been a whirlwind time making it happen.

Seamew went to Bob’s workshop in London, a perfect, centrally-heated space at the bottom of his garden. We all chipped in but it was Bob’s skill that defined the project. He stripped out the damaged wood and made up the list of materials required to rebuild her.

The new timber arrived just before Christmas and Bob set-to, teaming planks and making up fittings that we couldn’t buy, sometimes using the workshop in his former company, Asylum. He used his own bandsaw to cut notches in a bronze bar that was destined to become our bespoke centre-plate handle.

He kept us up-to-date on the progress by regularly emailing new images, showing the skeleton of the boat, fresh copper fastenings, the next new plank, the new thwart knees and a sumptuously rich finish on the mahogany rudder cheeks.

As if the project wasn’t rolling along quickly enough, Bob moved up a gear when I mentioned there was an opportunity to have the boat at the RYA Volvo Dinghy Show. It was a bit of a long shot: the Royal Burnham had space booked at the show at the Alexandra Palace show in early March, but didn’t have a boat to put on the stand. Bob was more than willing and the club was too, as it turned out.

In the end she looked fantastic on the stand, and drew a lot of attention. I found myself thinking of her shipwrights, back in 1950s Burnham in the old Chapel Road boatshed… I fancy they may have smiled to see her, almost a lifetime later, under the bright lights, on show, up in the big smoke. In fact, it wasn’t her first experience of brief fame – she was put on show at the Earls Court Boat Show, 57 years ago.

Roll on the warmer weather and a champagne launch some time in May.

Thanks Clea – that’s a very cheering story. It’s particularly nice that you managed to get some history on the boat itself as well as the class.

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A folklorist looks at cannibalism afloat: the ‘custom of the sea’

The ninth wave, by Ivan Aivazovsky. Before the advent of radio, cannibalism among shipwrecked seafarers seems to have been so common it was seen as normal – and even excusable. Image from the Wikipedia

A gruesomely fascinating  article in this year’s Folk Music Journal examines cannibalism at sea and the songs about it that have come down to us in our time.

The ‘custom of the sea’ is the horrific name for the once fairly common practice of killing and eating fellow crew-members in survival situations afloat when the alternative is death for all, and a number of songs and printed ballads – both silly and serious – continued in the oral tradition well into the last century.

I’ll spare you the goriest details, but author Paul Cowdell reveals how these killings worked and describes some historical instances, including the story of the waterlogged and dismasted Francis Spaight, whose survivors apparently attempted to catch the attention of passing vessel by waving their victims’ hands and feet in the air. I’m surprised the method seems to have worked, however, for if I saw something like this I think I might be inclined to sail in the opposite direction!

Happily, he also adds that such events have been rare since the advent of ships’ radios and that this may be the reason that humorous songs about the issue were found among sailors in the mid and later 20th century, whereas in earlier times sailors seem to have treated the matter in a very serious way.

Among the broadsides and songs Paul discusses are the Shipwreck of the Essex, the widely admired The ship in distress, La courte paille (otherwise known as Il etait un petit navire), W S Gilbert’s comic Yarn of the Nancy Belle, and various versions of  William Makepeace Thackeray’s humorous skit Little Boy Billee, including the version famously sung by the well known barge skipper Bob Roberts.

Paul’s paper is well worth reading, and so is his weblog post on the issue. The reference is: Cowdell C (2009) Cannibal ballads: not just a question of taste Folk Music Journal 10(5): 723-47 and the journal is available from the English Folk Dance and Song Society at http://www.efdss.org.