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Thames Barge History

The precursor to the square spritsail barge was the London lighter or dumb-barge. they fltted up and down the river delivering cargo, using the incoming tide to send them up river, and the ebbing tide for the return journey. They were maneouvered by a pair of bargemen using long sweeps (oars). These barges had a flat box like bow (swim-headed) and a near flat stern, or a square sloping stern (budgett stern). There is a print in the Guildhall Library dating from 1764, showing a 1697 built, round bowed barge with a spritsail rig- but with no mizzen.

Mizzenless barges, known as luff barges, were smaller and more streamlined: they principally worked the upper reaches of the Thames. In a 1752 engraving of the Chelsea Waterworks there is a stumpie with a transom stern. From 1809 -1930 EW Cooke made a series of engravings barges on the river, leaving a record of all the possible rigs.

1863, 1864 and 1865 saw the first Thames Barge Races. These continued unbroken until 1938. The aim of the founder William Henry Dodd, “The Golden Dustman” was to raise the status of the bargemen, and to improve the performance of the barges. There were two classes, one for stumpies (under 80 tons) and one for heavier (under 100 tons) topsail barges. These were fiercely competitive-and soon new barges were being built, using the improved techniques learnt, to win the the next years race. The Medway races started in 1880.

Their heyday came at the turn of the 20th century when over 2000 were on the registry. That century saw a steady decline in their numbers. The last Thames barge to trade entirely under sail was the Everard-built Cambria in 1970, owned by Captain A. W. (Bob) Roberts. Roberts sailed the Cambria for more than twenty years, and gained a reputation for hard sailing and fast passages in other Everard barges.

The matches have ceased and been reinstituted several times, and are now considered the world’s second oldest sailing race (after the America’s Cup). The course was originally from Erith upriver, but as of the early 20th century the start was moved to the Lower Hope downriver from Gravesend into the Estuary and back to Gravesend

2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Thames Match – and to celebrate the finish line was at Erith, there is a full programme of races in 2017, on the Medway, and Thames.

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Thanks to the Edith May for letting me hire out the Barge as a venue for my 21st birthday. It managed to add something different to my party and my friends really enjoyed being on the boat... thanks Geoff for a great party venue.


Me and my family had a wonderful time on the Edith May Thames Barge, sailing up and down the River Medway. They day was very sunny and the crew were very informative and helpful. Thanks for the experience, will have to do again soon...

TimKingswood, Kent

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Based in South England