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.