By Elizabeth Wood
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 2 (1981)
There are very few surviving prints, sketches or old photographs of the Thames at Chiswick, Kew Bridge or Brentford which do not include sailing barges or other craft, testimony to the river’s role as a major route in the past. Careful research has been able to identify many of the builders and owners of the barges which appear in them.
The Mercantile Register lists boats annually together with their owners and the places where they were built, but few Brentford owned or built barges have been traced in the lists. The records of the Watermen’s Company at the Guildhall Library in the City include registers of watermen and lightermen, and there are many entries referring to Brentford and Chiswick. The majority of the vessels were flat- bottomed barges which were particularly suitable for tidal waters since they were sufficiently stable to sit on the riverbed at low tide. A few spritsail barges survive today and are to be seen at St. Katherine’s Dock near the Tower, but none of these barges has connections with Brentford.
The prints and photos do not necessarily show boats made or owned by Brentford men. Photograph No 38 in Brentford & Chiswick As It Was shows the Jane Mead, registered at Rochester, which was owned by a Sittingbourne cement and brick maker. It carried ‘rough stuff’ – household refuse and stable sweepings which could be used in brick-making – down river and finished bricks in the opposite direction. The bricks could be unloaded easily as carts were backed down onto the foreshore at low tide.
The earliest records of the Watermen’s Company, manuscript registers compiled at the end of the 18th century, include several local names – Saunders, Winter, Dale – which continued to appear into the 20th century. In 1830, in the same volume, Joshua and William Trimmer, brickmakers of Brentford, also appear. Later volumes give not only the barge-owners’ names and their registration number but also record the types of boats they owned as well. The Trimmers’ boats listed there were the Unity, Hawk, Dart, Hero, Alfred, Ganges, Defiance, Marlow, Nautilus and Elephant.
Early in the 18th century barge-building was carried on as far up-river as the Kennet and Avon Canal. It was not until the later 19th century that there was much barge-building locally at Brentford, Kew Bridge and Strand on the Green. These barges had a highly complex form of rigging which enabled them to be operated by and man and a boy alone. This was the type of barge the Trimmers would have owned. The Swift* was built for them, in 1807 and later sold to Anthony Lyon of Lambeth. Barges were also built for the Trimmers by Piper of Hammersmith. The Ganges was built originally for a group of owners, Dr Robert Wallace Johnson and Blisset and Burrell, starch manufacturers at Brentford. In 1792 Dr Johnson had a laboratory and starch house in Catherine Wheel Yard and the tide lock at Brentford is still known today as Dr Johnson’s Lock.
Various barge-builders and barge-owners are listed in the 1841 Census for Strand on the Green – the Blundell family, Harrowden, Saunders, Richardson and Talbot. Saunders owned a malt-house at Strand on the Green as well as his own barges and was connected with the City Barge public house. In the terrible Brentford Flood of 1841 Charles Saunders was one of those who lost barges.
Lighters and steam tugs were to be found at Strand on the Green in the 19th century, too. Oliver’s Island was used by the Thames Conservancy as a base for the collecting of tolls from trading barges and nearby there was a grid for the repair of boats. Also near Strand on the Green the Maria Wood, the State Barge of the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London, was kept in the late 19th century, giving the City Barge its name. The Maria Wood ended her days as a rotting hulk at Isleworth Eyot.
A number of Brentford firms were heavily dependant on barges for transporting raw materials to their works and finished goods to their customers. The Jupps, who had malt-houses at Brentford, owned their own barges, as did the Royal Brewery and the Gas Company. The latter converted barges into lighters by removing their sails and used them to remove the gas-lime which was a by-product in the manufacture of gas.
Samuel Kidd & Co also owned barges and had a Brentford wharf as did the Great Western Railway whose dock on the river which could be entered at high tide. Thomas Layton and Henry Thomas, Brentford coal merchants, also had their own barges one of which was the Mary Ann (master, Richard Pearce) built at Greenham, Berks, in 1852. It was common for widows to take on barges after the death of their husbands, so we find that Mrs Henry Thomas took over the Mary Ann. Later this barge passed to George Clifford Pearce whose widow inherited it in her turn along with two others. Eventually the Mary Ann became the property of James Clements and George Knowling of Goat Wharf, Brentford.
Early in the 19th century there were numerous small-scale barge owners. By the end of the 19th century there were fewer owners but they were more substantial firms (like Clements, Knowling) owning more boats than their predecessors.
One particularly interesting commodity carried on the Thames was gunpowder. A photograph of the river at Isleworth, showing it frozen during the very cold winters of the 1890s, includes two boats belonging to Bury and Edwards, the firm which carried gunpowder from the Hounslow factories of Curtis and Harvey, and brought in the saltpetre needed for the manufacturing process. The gunpowder was brought down to Isleworth in covered wagons by road to be loaded onto barges. In 1874 there was a serious explosion of a gunpowder barge on the Regent’s Canal. In the 1870s between 300 and 600 barrels of gunpowder were moved from Isleworth each week. Gunpowder was one of the last commodities to be carried by barge – the boats were marked with a broad red band and a red flag as a warning.
Another set of records provides a connection with the Grand Junction (now Grand Union) Canal. These are the Canal Boat Registers which now form part of the local collection at Chiswick Library. They deal with boats on which there was living accommodation, and cover the years between 1887 and 1936. Some sailing barges are recorded in these registers if they operated on the Thames as well as the Grand Union Canal.
Towards the end of the 19th century Emanuel Smith bought up a great many sailing barges which he converted into lighters to be towed on the Canal. These were in use until the 1930s, when they were sold off. Among the barges Smith bought were some which had belonged to the Jupps. Their small fleet was typical of many which were bought out by bigger companies. They had served their malt-houses at Kew Bridge and Strand on the Green as well as carrying coal and straw. The malt business declined rapidly at the turn of the century, apparently as a result of large-scale imports of cheap American grain, but they carried on with their coal and straw business. The last of their boats were the George and the Jane.
Today commercial traffic on the river and Canal is a tiny fraction of what it was in the 19th century. The British Waterways Board runs commercial lighterage from their local depot and there is a small firm which carries lime juice by narrowboat to the Midlands. Emanuel Smith’s yard is used for the restoration of narrowboats and two barges have ended their lives as housebarges – the Brian Boru and the Normanhurst – at The Hollows.
*Wendy Batchlor has written (June 2011) to tell us that ‘the Trimmers did not commission the Swift. It was owned in 1803, together with the John and Mary by Ann Kirby, formerly Eling, who was the widow of Swift Kirby. He was a waterman and coal merchant of Twickenham, though the early family came from Brentford. Ann subsequently married Samuel Haselhurst, another waterman’.