Ipswich Icons: Early ‘white van men’ took to the river

Victor on Common Quay

Victor on Common Quay - Credit: Archant

The Thames barge was the ‘white van’ of its day, broadly speaking between 1850 and 1950, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

It was a large, basically rectangular box afloat, wooden and flat bottomed thus able to negotiate the creeks and backwaters of Suffolk and Essex, the Thames Estuary and the north Kent coast. Remarkably capacious, some were able to carry up to 100 tons of grain, hay or horse muck (the hay went to London, the horse muck came back to be spread on the fields of Suffolk as a natural fertilizer).

The flat bottom enabled the barge to sit on the mud when the tide went out, thus unloading and loading could take place on the ebb and flow of the tide, she’d be ready to sail as soon as there was enough water to refloat her. They were usually operated by a crew of two, a skipper and a boy (the boy in this case was usually the younger of the two, but not necessarily a teenager). Oh, and a dog – inevitably there was always a dog on board.

Barges were built at the water’s edge, predominately in Kent, Essex and Suffolk as well as along the banks of the Thames. Of those built in Suffolk well over 100 were ‘laid down’ in Ipswich. Among the last of the barges built on the banks of the Orwell was R&W Paul’s ‘Jock’ launched from Dock End Yard in 1908, and ‘Ardwina’ built by W H Orvis at their St Clement’s Yard in 1909.

In Ipswich the two big grain companies, R&W Paul and Cranfield’s were major owners and operators of Thames barges. Paul’s was founded in the early 1840s by George Paul and the company carried on by his descendants becoming R&W Paul in 1893. Predominately malt and grain merchants, they operated cattle feed mills and maltings across Britain. At one stage R&W Paul were operating some 45 sailing barges including the Thalatta, now owned by the East Coast Sail Trust and an occasional visitor to Ipswich.


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Cranfield Brothers started milling wheat in Ipswich in 1884 and made extensive use of other people’s barges until 1912 when they began to operate their own. Starting with nine they eventually owned 14. Their smallest barge, Excelsior, was used as their training vessel, operated by new skippers on their promotion from mate. Unfortunately she was hit by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War while lying at Three Cranes Wharf in the Wet Dock, and was damaged beyond repair.

Sailing barges were at their most prolific between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War, with some 2,000 plying their trade along the east coast.

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A final note about Ipswich’s very own sailing barge, Victor – she was built in the Dock End Yard, Ipswich, in 1895 by Horace Shrubsall for Owen Parry of Colchester. At 82 tons and 82ft long and 20ft wide she was used to carry linseed to Owen Parry’s mill and then cart the barrels of oil to London. It is thought the spilt linseed oil helped preserve the barge in a reasonable condition throughout the 20th Century.

The Victor was, in 1947, the last sailing barge to be decommissioned. Fitted with an engine in the 1950s and refurbished in 2007, Victor was the official Suffolk representative for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012.

Victor lies alongside Common Quay, outside the Customs House on the Waterfront and the Tourist Information Office has details of her frequent sailings.

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