Long-lived bargeman, merchant seaman and rigger Stan Mayes (1921-2014) was born in Grays, and was fascinated by the sailing barges from an early age. His recollections recorded and written out by himself and Brian Watson include all sorts of wonderful stories and adventures, including shipwrecks and rescues, World War II, waiting for work at the ‘starvation buoys’ off Woolwich and so on are well worth reading.
He was clearly quite a character: for example, during his time as a rigger, he worked on 3,127 vessels of all nationalities and kept a note of each one. Detail like this makes his record very valuable indeed…
‘Some of my most treasured souvenirs of my 4½ years in barges are the postcards I sent home to my parents in Grays – and which, thankfully, my father carefully preserved over the years. The messages they contain may be short and to the point , but they instantly take me back over fifty years to the pre and early war years, providing memories not only of the barges in which I sailed but also the Skippers of the craft, ports visited and cargoes carried. I went into barges at age 15½. It was a very hard life especially in wintertime.
‘The younger skippers would push and punish their barges by sailing in atrocious weather conditions, but elderly skippers like an easy life which for most of them meant working the Thames and Medway only where they could drop the anchor when darkness came and so have a good nights sleep. Most elderly skippers carried elderly Mates who were not too interested in earning too much. Barge crews were paid by the freight and the quicker the turn round the quicker the money was in hand. Of the money earned from a freight – half the amount was taken by the barge owners and the other half was shared by the crew – two thirds for the Skipper and one third for the Mate so in effect the Mate received one sixth of the total earnings.
‘Of course we supplied our own food and bedding, and had to contribute to any expenses such as towage by a tug or horse and port dues etc. Hard times were experienced by all if there was no work. I remember endless days at anchor off Grays on the ‘Starvation Buoys’ at Woolwich where 20 barges could be seen on any day.’