Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from, London light, Jim Lawrence’s tales of life aboard Thames barges a forgotten world rich in seamanship skills and camaraderie.

Anybody who has successfully worked an 85ft, 120-ton Thames sailing barge up and down the estuary and East Coast waters, under 4,000 square feet of canvas with only a mate and perhaps a dog as crew, has to be something special, and Jim Lawrence is one of the last of the line still alive.

As a young man in the 1950s, Lawrence skippered barges carrying cargo in the old-fashioned way. Few now can make such a claim.

Luckily for the rest of us, Chaffcutter Books have had the vision to publish Jim’s autobiography under the title of London Light, referring of course to a barge coming up to ‘The Smoke’ with an empty hold to load cargo for the creeks and rivers downstream.

The language of the book is uniquely from another age, rich with the inherent humour of the true sailor.

In this extract, Jim, Mick his mate, and the 100-odd ton barge Memory are moored at Woolwich. Their London broker has found them 155 tons of maize for Mistley up-river from Harwich. The weight is too much for Memory, but being the only freight on offer Jim decides to accept the responsibility, knowing the barge will lie so deep in the water she’ll sail ‘like a pig’. It is mid-winter, and Memory sets off to load after breakfast.

London light extract

We get underway immediately with the wind straight down, which means tacking up the river to the Surrey Commercial Dock.

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The river is full of craft, tugs towing six lighters at a time, blowing four-and-two or four-and-one blasts when turning head to tide either to port or starboard, to release their charges or to pick up additional craft. Tankers, ‘flat iron’ colliers, Baltic timber ships, all are rushing up river to save this precious flood tide.

Workboats and police launches are scurrying this way and that to add to the excitement. Then there are coasters getting off their berths, and through this maze of craft we have to tack our barge.

There is no question of power giving way to sail; all they can do is hold their course, and we will have to duck and dive. We will make a short one here, under the stern of that one there; trusting that everyone knows their job and trusts us as we trust them; it is only rarely that things go wrong.

Memory’s cosy cabin, with hot tea and good grub, preferable to a night in the open. Photo: Jim Lawrence Collection

It is all hell at the Surrey Dock. Once there, you live with a fender in each hand as lighters shoot off tugs and bang alongside. The only way you can get any peace is to moor a drifting lighter alongside and use that as a fender.

Inside the dock is complete chaos with all the ‘drifters’ piled up along the lock gates. Everything we run our dolly (hauling) line to wants to heave to us, rather than allow us to heave to it.

Eventually we fight through and up to our berth; still just as much of a jungle, but at least the grain elevator is alongside, so we can hope for a quick shoot tomorrow.

At 5pm the dock goes quiet, and on Friday, at 8am, I am ready to see the ship worker. “Ang on where y’are, sailorman. We’ll give you a shout just after mobile,” which means after their tea break.

It takes about 40 minutes to load 155 tons of grain. As soon as we are called, we heave alongside the floating elevator having previously taken off all the hatches.

Memory is in the dock, threatened by a drifting lighter. Photo: John Fairbrother

When the golden grain runs into the hold the mate and I are in there with shovels trimming. The dust rises as thick as fog, dry choking dust that gets in the eyes and up your nose. We really should have worn masks; but we did not even think of it.

With a “That’s yer lot, sailorman!” we are shoved out, as an empty lighter is shoved in to take our place. We find the quietest spot nearby to catch a turn, and go up and get our pass, losing a further half-hour for the Customs to stamp it. We hurry back on board before the barge gets broken up in the dockland melee.

Right, let’s get out of this. Shove her clear. There is a little draught down the dock, so we set the topsail to save heaving. The skipper of a PLA tug calls through his hailer, “Oi, sailorman, you are not allowed to ****ing sail in the ****ing dock.”

I shout back, “I’m not ****ing sailing, I am ****ing drifting!” “What’s that ****ing sail doing then?”

I reply, “I’m ****ing drying it!”

These Cockneys really can swear; I think it was them that taught us bargemen.

Just then the wind drops, and a few minutes later the flag lazily lifts, but straight up the dock. ‘Oh, no – not easterly.’ Now it is my turn to swear. In a miserable mood, we drop the topsail and heave the rest of the way down the dock. We find a comparatively quiet place and cover the hatches.

Out of the hell-hole

There is a lock-out soon after 4pm and we hang onto a tug and lighter and get a snatch out. The sooner we are out of this hell-hole the better.

High water at London Bridge is at 4.17pm, so the tide is well away by the time we get clear of the lock. As we tack down the river there is hardly enough wind to keep her sailing as the ebb roars down.

It is an exacting job making sure that you use the full width of the river, yet tacking in good time so as not to get caught. It then starts to rain to complete our ecstasy.

Grain – 155 tons of it – pours into Memory’s hold from the silo. Photo: John Fairbrother

We ship our nav’ lights in Gallions Reach, but we’ve had enough of it at Erith and go in and anchor, taking the oil side lights out and putting the riding light up before going below. We hope the wind will go southerly tomorrow.

With high water in London at 4.38am, we muster at 0500 with the wind in the south-east, a nice sailing breeze about Force 4, and fetch away. We make two tacks in Long Reach, run down Halfway Reach, and harden up to turn down Northfleet Hope, making the East Blyth by low water where we bring up.

The afternoon high water is about 4.30pm with a flat calm, oily swell and drizzly rain. Visibility is poor and so it will be bad after dark. I decide not to go, and lay that ebb at anchor. We give the coaming wedges an extra knock in, lash down spars and ropes on the hatches and pull the boat up in the davits.

Before going below I see a skein of black-bellied geese fly in. They have flown all the way from Russia, a sure sign of bad weather and without a doubt from the north-east. The Force 5-6 north-easterly forecast on the radio does not offer much hope either. Well, we can but try.

By Sunday morning, 4am, the wind is south-sou-east about Force 4, and the lights ashore are twinkling and very bright. Not a good sign. I think the wind will come easterly. Well, the glass is beginning to rise; shall we have a go? Yes, come on, we might make the Colne, or if it lays on we can run back to Sheerness. Getting underway, it’s bloody cold; we can only just fetch our course.

We have not been underway for long when the wind falls light and, sure enough, begins to back, with drizzly rain which then turns to sleet.

This isn’t much of a look on, because loaded deep as the Memory is, we only make low water at the Maplin Spit. We anchor for the flood tide when a lumpy swell begins to roll in. I know what this means. Sure enough, a little draught of air picks up from the east, and as soon as there is enough wind to make way over the tide I get under weigh.

The Memory’s decks get full and fuller as the swell picks up with more wind. We could still run back for Sheerness, but let’s try and get through the Spitway; we will then have Colne under our lee. It is dark again by the Whitaker so we ship the lights once more.

As we bear away for the Spitway, it is an hour and a half to low water. We can’t get down the Wallet in that time… but come on, let’s have a go. Once through, luff up hard; we don’t have to haul the sheets in as we have not slacked off for the Spitway, so perhaps I knew in my mind that we were going to keep trying for Harwich.

The trouble is, once you take shelter, you will be holed up for a week or longer. The wind is heading us; it is nearly a dead punch. Ah well, plug on while we can. By Hollands Low we can see that the tide is flooding; tack off towards the Gunfleet again.

Memory, photographed 50 years later, a hulk in Tollesbury saltings. Photo: Richard Walsh

With Mick on the lead I shout, ‘Soon as you get a bottom, Mick, then “bout-oh”; we don’t want to risk breaking a leeboard.’

Soon, back on the starboard tack, I said, ‘Try the pump Mick.’ I have great faith in the Memory, she’s a strong barge, but with the amount of sea and wind, she might be straining. Mick ships the pump, and normally would have to prime it with a bucket of water, but not tonight – all he has to do is wait for a big wave to come along the deck which fills the pump hole and away he goes. The pump is bringing up solid water, and I am a bit concerned about how much might be in the bilge. I don’t want to wet the cargo.

Just then a rogue wave came over the weather quarterboard and washed down through the steerage, knocking Mick off his feet and leaving him lying in the scuppers. He simply picked himself up and started pumping again.

I take no notice, as I am more concerned with the water coming out of the pump. I say, ‘Here Mick, catch hold of her and let me have a go,’ but after a few minutes, air comes hissing up with the water and I know that the bilge is dry. I am relieved. A deep-loaded barge can be a wet ship in a breeze of wind.

I unship the pump and stow it under the steering box aft, and before putting the heavy cast iron tomkin back on the pump hole, I roll a malt sack, which we normally use as a mat under the wheel, and shove it tightly down the pump shaft. Barges have been lost by ingress of water through the pump hole before.

London Light A Sailorman’s Story, by Jim Lawrence, Chaffcutter Books, £16.50

Once on the new tack with the weather leeboard up, I say, ‘Right, Mick, go and get yourself changed.’ Mick says, ‘I’ve got nothing else to change into, Jim, everything else is soaking wet.’ ‘Right,’ says I, ‘raid my lockers and take what you want from them.’

Soon, I hear the comforting sound of the fire being made up; at least it’s warm down there. Mick hands me up a steaming hot mug of Oxo, just the thing for washing the tannin out of your mouth after so many cups of tea.

Time for a kip

Time to tack again. Taking bearings, I think that next time on the starboard tack we will fetch round the Naze, but each time the Naze remains stubbornly off the starboard bow. It is a long night, but eventually the tide eases. At last we clear the Naze and I tell Mick to have a lie-down on the locker.

With the coming of daylight we roar into Harwich, and I nip down to give Mick a shake. I can’t help smiling to myself, as laying there in his wet clothes steam is rising off him with the heat from the cabin.

With the wind free we run into the Stour and anchor off Wrabness. It will be another six hours before we can sail up to Mistley, and it is going to be a fair wind anyway. The weather can do what it likes now.

We go below; the kettle is singing on the hob.

Right! Let’s have that frying pan on, double eggs and bacon, and shove four of those sausages in for good measure. Ah, that’s better; now for a kip on the locker.

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