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.

Mike Maloney’s Red Sails sailing barge film now available

Red Sails A4 free screening poster

Red Sails, the new film about the story of the sailing barges made by Mike Maloney, is now available on DVD from the Countrywide Productions website following a public screening last week.

I’m looking forward to receiving my copy and will write about it shortly – but I’m expecting a lot, given the welcome it has received:

  • Many congratulations on the magnificent film. I think the applause at the end expressed everybody’s sentiment – William Collard – project manager, Cambria Trust
  • Bob and I – and many other people I talked to afterwards – thoroughly enjoyed Red Sails. It was well researched, beautifully filmed and put together. The film is a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Thames Barge – Lena Reekie
  • I was very impressed by the film and treatment of the subject. It ‘reached’ me and I thought that the treatment of Jimmy Lawrence and Bill Collard was very effective in binding the film sections together – Phil Latham, ex-mate of the Cambria

Brightlingsea photos: sailing barge Centaur, the Aldous smack dock and the wreck warehouse

Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur

Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur

Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur Brightlingsea sailing barge Centaur

At Brightlingsea this weekend we were lucky enough to look over the sailing barge Centaur and even more lucky to spend a while listening to traditional sailmaker and sailing barge skipper Jimmy Lawrence tell wonderful stories about his time on the barges, and sing a few songs.

The Centaur is one of two well known barges in the care of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust, an organisation that keeps the boats in good shape and offers them for charter.

The trust dates back to 1948, a time when it was already clear that the barges were doomed to be replaced by trucks riding motorways and dual carriageways, and to some extent by steel-built Dutch barges famously built with government subsidies.

The Trust’s other barge is Pudge – and she’s in desperate need of work to get her back into sailing and chartering trim. If you can help with a donation or by running a fundraiser or simply by providing your labour, please contact the organisation’s officials.

On Jimmy Lawrence – the old boy is well worth hearing if you can. He has an amazing, fluid talent for entertaining and a teriffic collection of tales. One concerns his first day as a boy on the barges: apparently while he was finding his berth his new skipper barked a few orders at him and threw a new house flag to mount at the top of the mast.

Jimmy tells the story of how, as a lad of maybe 15, he then climbed the mast for the first time with no supervision. To do this job you raise the topsail, climb the ratlines, then ascend the topmast using the hoops holding the topsail to the mast, then you shin up the rest, clambering over the gold-painted plate-like object near the top and remove the old flag. Then you climb down, take the old flag off the frame, sew the new one on, and climb back up to mount it on the button. The whole thing must have been bloody terrifying, and either young Jimmy was fearless, or desperate to succeed or more frightened of his skipper than he was of falling, or a mixture of all three.

I took care to photograph Centaur’s mast above, so that readers could consider the situation in which the young Jimmy found himself.

Skipper Jimmy had a big roomful of non-sailing folkies in stitches as he told the tale. At the time I roared along with the rest,but the story was told so vividly that it has since been giving me nightmares – there’s no denying it has a dark side of callous  risk-taking where young employees are concerned. It’s a good thing we have employment laws and health and safety legislation these days.

Jimmy’s been retired for some years, but the sailmaking business that bears his name is still in existence.

PSPaul Mullings points out (in the comments below) that our pal Dylan Winter has a bit of film of sailing and conversation with Jimmy in his Keep Turning Left series. See it here. Great work – thanks Paul!

Brightlingsea Wreck warehouse

The Brightlingsea Wreck Warehouse

Brightlingsea struck us as a nice little town by the sea. It’s greatest curiosity that we saw was the Wreck Warehouse, which  dates from the late 18th century and was built to house goods recovered from wrecks. It’s worth noting that the local Lord Warden was due 20 per cent of the value of anything acquired that way. It’s a good job, being in charge of stuff like that…

Also, check that look out tower. Don’t get into trouble, or those Brightlingsea boys will be coming to get your stuff!

Finally, after asking members of the Colne local yacht for permission we took a stroll along the Aldous Smack Dock, which is on the site of the legendary Aldous boatbuilding yard, famous for building smacks and is now used for mooring preserved smacks.

Brightlingsea Aldous smack dock Brightlingsea Aldous smack dock Brightlingsea Aldous smack dock