If you were to sail down the Thames on the Clacton-on-Sea paddle steamer in 1900 you would be welcomed by a diverse and picturesque array of vessels still plying their trade around the estuary. Each had its own place in the maritime ecosystem having evolved and adapted to fulfil a particular purpose.
Stumpies were the inner river Thames barges, carrying low value cargoes such as waste, lime and bricks into the creeks, tributaries and canals of London from Essex and Kent. Generally timber built with a tiller instead of a wheel they were the un-romantic donkeys of the river. They lacked a topmast making them quicker to de-rig and were generally much smaller and simpler than their over blown cousins, the Boomies.
Boomies had developed to provide more seaworthy and larger capacity Thames barges. They swapped the sprit for a boom and gaff making them more weatherly and reefable but requiring a much bigger crew. Their masts were keel stepped and they had a fixed bowsprit meaning they could not be lowered to trade above the bridges and took up more space in dock. Their range covered most of the south and east coasts of England where they competed directly with the Billy Boys sailing out of the Humber. (more on these later). As labour rates increased they became unviable and where slowly replaced by the more labour efficient Mulies.
The Mulie is as the name suggests crossed the seaworthiness of the Boomie with the the versatility of the classic Thames barge. The bigger mizzen and smaller main made the sail plan easier to handle and kept the sprit end overhang more manageable when the rig was lowered. The higher aspect main/topsail arrangement was more powerful than the squarer main of the classic barge. The Mulies trades all the way around to Gloucester docks in the west to the Tyne to the north though they were most commonly seen between the Solent and the Humber.
Snark is a mulie based on 1898 lines from J G Fay of Southampton, the precursor to Camper and Nicholson, though at 79 ft wll. a bit smaller than the originals to stay within the modern regulations. Our freeboards are also a bit lower but since we never sail with a full cargo this does not pose a problem. We generally sail her with just two crew as was anticipated.
Bawleys fished for brown shrimp around the estuary, boiling their catch on board as soon as it was caught so it was ready for consumption as soon as it was landed, by the trippers on that paddle steamer you were on. When they weren't doing that they may collect cockles off the banks or sprats in the wider channels. They carried particularly tall rigs with a loose footed gaffed main, a large topsail on an over height top mast and two head sails on a long bow sprit. The main could be brailed and reefed, to clear the decks for hauling nets or to control the speed of a trawl and like the barges they would sail well with just the topsail set when getting underway and leaving their home creeks. They evolved during the 19th c until the largest were over 40 ft wwl with deep draft and raked flat transoms.
Dodles on the other hand barely evolved from their medieval ancestors double ended with a wide beam and a stubby unstayed mast carrying a short spritsail and a self tacking jib. They fished for whitebait with a 120 ft long seine net keeping them fresh and alive in a wet-well in the centre of the boat, fed from a centre board case and draining through scuppers on the beam. When the whitebait were scarce they fished for eels by setting nets across the creeks of the Medway on the ebb and landing them alive to be boiled up to make the jellied eels so loved in the East End of London.
The smacks are still very much with us. Smack racing has a large and enthusiastic fleet in both original and newly built boats carrying on a tradition that goes back to 1783. Like the precursors of Snark, they were built by yards that also built leisure and racing yachts and were crewed by the same Brightlingsea fishermen who provided the crews for the great America's Cup boats and J class yachts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result they were the fastest and most seaworthy of the Thames fishing fleet. The largest of the smacks were over 45 ft and dredged for oysters in beds as far afield as Jersey, Wales and Scotland and even carried lobsters across the North Sea from Norway and herring from off-shore trawlers to into harbour.
Those who follow this blog will have realised that we are slowly working our way around the coast anticlockwise in preparation for our round Britain Platinum Jubilee cruise this summer. That was Leg 3 Thames, next stop to Great Yarmouth.