Working Lives

A life on the waves: barges and coasters (1960-2019)

Location: Norwich, Great Yarmouth

Robin worked on cargo-carrying coastal barges in the 1960s and 70s. Later he became a River Inspector for the Broads Authority.

Early life

I was born in Chingford but grew up in Walthamstow. Every summer my two aunts took me on holiday to Gorleston, for two weeks. That’s when I first got interested in the sea. We stayed at a boarding house and we used to walk along the footpath from Gorleston to Haven Bridge, and see barges and ships along the way. It was a public right of way then, not fenced off as it is now. We went on The Norwich Belle which went out to sea around the Scroby Sands. We also went on The Golden Galleon up to Brundall and on to the Broads.

I left school at fourteen and went to work in a bakery. When I got married we couldn’t afford to buy a house in London so we bought a Thames barge called ‘King’, registered at Colchester and based at Rochester. While we were converting her we travelled to and from London by train or bicycle. We spent some time looking for a berth, quay or jetty to tie up to, visiting King’s Lynn, Hunstanton, Yarmouth and the Suffolk ports, ending up at Maldon. Having got permission from the river bailiff, we sailed it, with a qualified bargeman from Cliffe, in the River Thames, to Maldon. Strange weather forced us to go to Burnham where we had to anchor for the week. I then took it through the Ray Sand channel to Maldon on my own.

First job as Mate on the ‘Northdown’

I had sailed on various small boats and had hoped to go to Merchant Navy College, but, because I wore glasses, I couldn’t be the deck officer of a deep sea ship. At the time I didn’t realise it would not have restricted me from a coastwise ticket. I wanted to learn how to handle a barge so I applied to Crescent Shipping or London Rochester Trading Company to get a job as crew on a barge. The companies have formal training but it’s always been the policy of barging companies for the Master to train the crew. I was taken on as Mate on The Northdown, with a very experienced skipper who taught me a great deal.

The Northdown was a 200-tonne coasting barge, built at Whitstable and, before the First World War, she was laid down as a boomy barge, a barge without a sprit but with a boom and gaff. She wasn’t finished until 1924 when she came out as a spritrig barge, a sailing barge. By the time I was in her she was a motor barge. She’d been sunk, she’d been squashed, just outside the Royal Albert Dock, her mast stuck out of the water and a lighter tied her up to the mast and broke that. The skipper, Ginger, bought her as a wreck, salvaged her, put an engine in and converted her into a little motor ship. She had, what at that time was called a ‘Yarmouth Dover Load Line’, meaning she could load a full load to her plimsoll mark, anywhere between the ports of Yarmouth and Dover and the near continent, all coastwide journeys.

At that time most barges and coasters were either bringing cargoes to London docks for export or taking them from London docks to what we call ‘out ports’. Dockers were nominally paid to load the ship. The cupboards, which is the room under the deck, are always difficult to fill and take a little bit of shovelling, so we would wait till the dockers went to tea break, dive underneath and stow as much under the cupboards as we could, to make the ship more stable at sea. It was economically advantageous to get in as much cargo as possible as we were paid by the share. We would make coastwise journeys to Rochford, Maldon, Ipswich, Colchester, Mistley, Norwich, Yarmouth, Dover, Whitstable and surrounding ports, any port outside the Port of London limits. We followed the navigational channels, using compass, boat hook and lead line for navigation. The lead line was marked with coloured pieces of leather at six-foot intervals to measure the depth. It’s a left-handed laid line, about as thick as a man’s little finger, and it has a lead weight on the end which is what they call an armed lead. You can arm the lead with wax, or tallow, drop it to the sea bed and take a sample so you can tell your position. It’s where the saying ‘swinging the lead’ comes from where the man is not really dropping it.

Mate Eric Handley (L) and skipper (Harrold Smy) loading cargo at London Docks

Ginger, the skipper, planned the trips and navigation and an agent would arrange the dockers. A journey from London to Great Yarmouth would be a sixteen hour passage unless the weather was bad, then you’d do it in stages. We’d go to Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Norwich. Lowestoft was tricky to enter if the wind was in the south, but otherwise you get protection from the Newcombe sandbank. The tide in Lowestoft only goes up and down, it doesn’t flow in and out as at Yarmouth.

Herring drifters 1930s at Fishwharf, Great Yarmouth

Yarmouth was a lot harder because the tide flows out for a long time. There’s a very restrictive bar on the entrance which was no problem for our barge unless there was a big swell and the wind is anywhere in the east. However much experience you’ve got of Yarmouth, one year I did 58 freights, 36 of them to Yarmouth, and I still have great respect for Yarmouth pier heads. It was quite a busy port but you could always find a berth because Yarmouth is a haven of refuge. I believe it’s the only one between Harwich and the Humber. ‘Harbour of refuge’ means you could go in through stress of weather whereas you would have to pay dues at other harbours. It’s three miles from the pier heads to the bridge so there’s usually a little bit of spare capacity.

We carried fertiliser to Bunn’s in Yarmouth and timber, grain cargoes and cattle foods to Bibby’s Wharf in Lowestoft. If the port had a sucker or an elevator the grain would be loaded loose. At Felixstowe Marriage’s Mill had an elevator so you would load the wheat loose in the hold. The cargo for Yarmouth was mainly cattle foods so it would be bagged.

We were booked in advance but if we were held up by the weather we couldn’t call ahead as we didn’t have radios.

Thames barge ‘King’ cut down from sailing barge to diesel in 1947

Most barges work on a share system, the owner would take 50%, the Master would take 50% which would be divided up roughly two-thirds, one-third. Two-thirds for the Master, one third for the Mate, according to the Mate’s experience. If you had very little experience you would be paid a small share because the Master would have to do more work. After about two years or so as a Mate, I became a Master. There was no formal training, so you learned on the job. Starting off as a Mate, if you’d sailed on yacht barges or helped out before you left school, you might get a job through recommendation. Before my time they’d take a lot of boys from training ships or from Borstal.

Skipper of ‘The Melissa’ and Master of the ‘Peter Robin’

When Robert, our first child, was born in Chelmsford I was working onshore at a fertiliser manufacturers and we were living on the barge ‘King’. I then became skipper of ‘The Melissa’. We did a regular run from Tilbury grain terminal to Rochford and occasional trips to Maldon carrying bulk wheat. When I left ‘The Melissa’ I worked at the shipyard at Maldon, with Alf Last, a famous boat-builder, building barge boats, as well as maintaining numerous barges such as the ‘Will Everard’.‘Raybel’ ‘Northdown’ and ‘Vigilant’.

I moved on to work for Sully’s, barge owners, and was there for eighteen years. I went as Relief Mate on the ‘Peter Robin’, with Captain Dick King, a man from Snape. He was quite ill so after relieving him as Mate, Mr Sully asked the shipyard if they knew anyone capable of taking the ‘Peter Robin’. Luckily, I got the job though it was on a temporary basis as we thought Dick would come back. The ‘Peter Robin’ had a Yarmouth Dover load line so it was all ports between London, Yarmouth and Dover. I was taught chart work by various skippers and I had pilot books and learnt general navigation and how to navigate in the fog since we didn’t have radar. When the ‘Peter Robin’ was fitted with VHF I took my restricted radio license with the GPO. You always relied on seamarks and landmarks. Approaching Yarmouth you would see the power station, a tall concrete building with a large chimney which could be seen from a long way from sea. We used the navigation channels and lighthouses at Southwold and Orfordness. We passed the Gunfleet old lighthouse which wasn’t lit any more but could be seen during daylight hours.

Subro Valour at Coal House, Gravesend

The loads we carried on the ‘Peter Robin’ were from London or from the continent and it was just me and the Mate onboard. Canadian wheat was exported from Canada to Tilbury and trans-shipped to us. Read’s Woodrow Mill in King Street would buy a 200-tonne load and we would transport it from Tilbury Docks or from Tilbury grain terminal to Norwich. You’d get alongside and it would be grabbed out with a crane and grab. Later on, in the Subro vessels, we would bring soya from the continent which could be loaded from any soya mill in Holland, transport it up to the Riverside and unload it into lorries with the grab, roughly opposite where the swimming pool is today. Little Dutch ships used to bring in a lot of imported timber and the scrap yard in King Street, where they owned the ‘King One’, ‘King Two’ and ‘King Three’, regularly loaded scraps away for Spain. We loaded scrap away from there for Dunkirk and Rotterdam but it was all slowing up in my time.

Yarmouth to Norwich – not always plain sailing

Going from Yarmouth to Norwich it was the Master’s job to order the bridge. I would try to order the bridge two hours before high water Yarmouth, then I’d have the full flood to get to Norwich, a six hour journey. Otherwise it would be more awkward coming away and it’d be ebb tide before you got to Breydon Water so quite awkward coming down towards the bridge. The channel is well marked on Breydon Water with red posts on the port side and green on the starboard side, inward bound. You’d go up to the NRA jetty or the River Board’s jetty, at the top of Breydon Water. It takes a slight port hand turn there, and you come down to where the two rivers split at ‘Turn-tide jetty’. The Waveney goes off to the port hand and the Yare is on the starboard side. There was no need to signal anyone ashore. You had a flag locker full of flags which would only be used if you were loaded with explosives when you put the ‘Ease Down’ flags up. You would put ‘RY’ up which signals to other ships to ease down when passing because you were handling explosives.

Robin securing topsail on sailing barge ‘Betula’

The railway bridge at Reedham was controlled by flags. If you got two red flags you knew the bridge wouldn’t open. One red flag meant it would open and they would slide out a board with the opening time. Occasionally, if the Bridge Master wasn’t keeping a swift eye out, you would be approaching the bridge, it would say ‘the bridge will open’ and they would slide a board out, much to your annoyance, with ‘the bridge will open in ten minutes’ and it was quite difficult to stop the barge with a flood tide under you and only one screw and one anchor. The Reedham Ferry was always pretty good. When he saw you coming up the river he would pull to one side and drop his chains to the bottom. I never had a problem with Reedham Ferry.

One of the hazards of coming up to Norwich would be passenger boats. The New Cut, where you go behind Thorpe Island, was cut to accommodate the railway and avoid having two extra swing bridges. Approaching it there wasn’t much water and you had to navigate with great care. If a passenger boat came past you hard, he would draw the water away which would sit you on the bottom for a minute or two. No-one had priority, it was just care and courtesy. Sometimes the River Inspector would ask you to hurry along because the Bridge Master at Carrow Bridge wanted to get the bridge shut for the evening traffic.

Once, we loaded at Norwich, then swung and came under Carrow Bridge with no problem at all but approaching Trowse Bridge, a new bridge which has always been more trouble than the old ones, it was obviously not going to swing. We had VHF by then so we could talk to the bridge. He said ‘Oh, we can’t swing, we’ve got a train from London coming so you’ll have to hang on’. I asked Joe, the Mate, to take a turn on the dolphins, the wooden posts leading to the bridge. He swung the ropes onto the dolphins, tied up, clear of the bridge. When the bridge swung I asked Joe to let go of the rope but when he’d flicked it on it had gone under the piece of wood and locked onto the top. He couldn’t get it off so he stepped onto the woodwork, lifted it off and it came back aboard, but the wood he was standing on was so rotten it collapsed into the river. Poor old Joe had to swim for the bridge and wait for it to open before he could re-join me. Later I had a phone call to say that British Rail had said we’d damaged the bridge and they were going to claim on their insurance for new woodwork. I wrote a report explaining that a 12-stone man standing on a 14×14 piece of pitch pine was not sufficient for it to break and that they should inspect their dolphins which were rotten as a pear and I thought it was their responsibility trying to drown my Mate. Luckily we heard no more about it.

When the ‘Peter Robin’ failed a four-yearly survey she was sold for scrap. In the summer of 1976 I did relieving work at Mitchells’ Craft, sub-contractors to the War Department, on the ‘Harry Mitchell’ which carried commercial and military explosives to Belgium and Holland as well as the West Country, round to the Bristol Channel. Later I rejoined Sully’s as Master of the ‘Subro Venture’ doing similar work. When I first started, you could make a living in a 130-tonne barge. By the time I finished I had a 2,000-tonne ship, the ‘Hawkeswater’ nominally for a crew of twenty yet we were running her with five, and it was still difficult to make a living.

Subro Venture moored at Great Yarmouth

Working for the Broads Authority as a River Inspector

When I left Sully’s, I worked on coastal tankers for some years until the company, ESL, made me redundant. They’d gradually been selling off their ships as the contracts ended.

By then my wife felt I’d spent enough time at sea so I got a job as a maintenance engineer at a factory at Rackheath. However, a job came up as a River Inspector with the Broads Authority and, at the age of 56, I started working with them on Breydon Water. River Inspectors patrol the rivers, uphold and enforce the bye-laws, speed limits, littering, unsocial behaviour and assist people in trouble.

Robin River Inspector 2000

One time I had a tax problem. I went to the tax office at Havenbridge House in Yarmouth, still in uniform, having tied the launch up at Burgh Castle. As I was talking to the tax people I glanced out of the window and saw a pleasure cruiser heading towards Haven Bridge. There was a big sign saying ‘No pleasure cruisers beyond this point’. It proceeded to impale itself on some scaffolding below the bridge. I immediately ran out of the office, across to the bridge, to the far side of the butment and onto the cruiser. All the hirers were German, only one could read English and he hadn’t seen the sign. Too late, they’d tried to turn as it was ebb tide, and impaled themselves on the scaffolding. I could see the boat was going to get hung up so I phoned Mike Gouldby at Bure Marine and he got his tug down and towed them off. We passed a line across, got all the hirers into the after cockpit and the tug pulled her and taxied her from the scaffold pole, and then up to Bure Marine for repairs. The Germans were very grateful.

On another occasion, near the Berney Arms, we had to deal with a three boat collision. A cruiser had been dodging in and out of the port side red posts instead of keeping to the line of the river, and he ran aground. We stayed there to warn other craft to keep away but another boat came down and promptly ploughed into it, holing it. And then a third boat did the same thing, hitting the second. We had a lot of paperwork to fill in.

During the winter, from October to February, we did tree work so I went on a chainsaw course and grass cutter course at Easton College. The water table is very high on the Broads so trees grow very fast but don’t have much root system as they don’t have to search for water making them prone to blowing over in winter gales, particularly alders.

We also did maintenance work on quays, staithes, bollards and ladders.

Throughout my time with the Broads Authority I was the pilot up to Cantley, taking heavy machinery there, including one of the biggest loads ever seen on the river, not by weight but by length and size. It was a long pontoon lighter, more or less the width of the river, with a tug on the bow and a tug on the stern. Radio Norfolk announced that ‘If you want a good view of it, go to Reedham Bridge and see it going through’ which was just what we didn’t want. The last thing you want when you’re manoeuvring a heavy load like that is 200 people flashing their cameras just at the point of no return, when you’re entering the thing into the bridge with only a foot clearance either side. Luckily there was no damage.

Navigation hazard when piloting ships at Cantley

‘The Cambria’ was the last sailing barge trading and was chartered to come to Norwich to mark 25 years of the Broads Authority. She sailed to Yarmouth and they arranged a pilot boat to tow her up. However, on the day, that particular pilot was on leave and no other pilot would take on the job. Luckily the wind was south-east so the skipper decided to sail in, right up to Town Hall Quay in Yarmouth with the masts and spars laying flat to the deck. Then most of it was taken off and pulled inboard, and the mizzen was lowered so she could get under the new viaduct at the Southern Bypass. The Broads Authority tug towed her from Yarmouth to the ‘bus stop’ at Whitlingham Park, where the jetty was built for passenger boats to run to. She was tied there overnight and towed the rest of the way, at two o’clock in the morning, when the railway bridge could be opened. Sixteen people lifted it but the turning motor wouldn’t work so it had to be done by hand, with a winch. She was eventually tied up at the Riverside berth, having gone through Carrow Bridge, the Julian Bridge and the Novi Sad Bridge. She was re-rigged and ready for visitors the next day. Numerous people came throughout the day. It was a big point of interest for Norwich.

Robin’s ‘Mystic’ (Lincoln Keel built 1926) moored on River Waveney 1990s
‘Mystic’ moored at Burgh Castle late 1990s

I had to retire from the Broads Authority at 65. I belong to the Thorpe Hamlet History Group, and I sail with a friend on his Pegasus yacht. My two children have both been to sea with me. My eldest actually went to sea when he left school but he’s come ashore now.

Robin Bowling 2019

Robin Bowling (b. 1943) talking to  WISEArchive on 11th December 2019 in Thorpe Hamlet.

© 2019 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.