One hundred or so years ago the sailing barge was a common sight around Mersea Island, tucked into various creeks and quays around the island collecting corn, hay, straw etc and delivering manure to the farms. Many an old photograph of The Strood shows a stackie barge. In those days most boys leaving school took a job on the land , or fishing if they were from the Western end of the island.
To the farm boys a visit by a barge was about the only connection with the outside world, they spent some time aboard yarning with the crews about the bright lights of London and many took jobs on them. As well as
seeing a bit of the outside world they also had a bit more money in their pockets. Most of them left and came back ashore after a time but a few stayed on and made it their career.
One of these was Bill Green of West Mersea. Fortunately in his retirement he wrote a brief record of his life on sailing barges. He first shipped aboard the barge ISABEL, a stackie barge taking hay and straw to London to feed and bed the many horses working there at the time.
ISABEL - courtesy of SSBR Archive.
A fine photograph held by the Society for Sailing Barge Research Archive shows ISABEL coming alongside a quay in London. She is carrying a stack of trussed hay, the sailing gear has been lowered to allow her to pass under bridges. A temporary short mast with a sail which was set up an top of the stack to help with a fair wind has been lowered, but the mizzen, the small sail at the back, remains set.
The crew have been rowing with large oars (sweeps) which are still shipped in the rowlocks.
After a spell on a steamship and other coasting barges he became mate on the coasting sailing barge UNA trading way up the river Rhine to Remagen to collect the Apollinaris mineral water, a vital part of the popular drink of that time 'Gin and polly'. He got promoted to master and was
loaded shortly before the out break of the first world war. The records for the dutch port of Zierikzee show UNA cleared there on July 29th 1914 with mineral water from Remagen for London. He was safely back in the Thames on August 4th when war was declared. The next barge in turn
TINTARA ? which was crewed by the Nortons of Brightlingsea was not so fortunate and was interned for the duration of the war.
On return to London UNA was sold, Bill took the ketch barge ZENOBIA and was involved in the lucrative trade supplying coke to the troops serving in France. After the war he had a contract bringing barley from Hull to various ports around the Wash and North Norfolk coast. He left ZENOBIA
after seven years and built Mersea's first fried fish shop in Mill Road frying the fish himself.
Another Mersea barge boy who became a coasting barge skipper trading to the continent was John Russell with the barge THE FRANCIS which he lost on July 22nd 1909 coming from Antwerp to Lewes with 113tons of steel girders. The crew took to the boat and rowed to the nearby Longsand
light vessel and were saved.
He then took the big Harwich barge YULAN and is recorded locking into Heybridge Basin on May 13th 1910 with granite chippings for road making. Tradgety struck in January 1911 when YULAN sailed from Dunkirk for England in worsening weather and the barge got on to the Goodwin Sands. Distress signals were sent up and a lifeboat towed by a tug
searched in vain. In the fading light and poor visibility the search was called off and Capt. Russell with his two sons as crew took to the rigging as the barge foundered. He lashed his two sons to the rigging to prevent them from being washed overboard but during the night the mast
came down and the sons were drowned. Captain Russell survived.
A notice in the local paper read - Russell - In loving memory of our dear sons and brothers Walter John Daniel Russell and Arthur George Russell who lost their lives at sea January 31st 1911.
From Father, Mother and Sisters, Barfield Road, West Mersea.
On a happier note Jimmy Mole, son of Horatio Mole the East Mersea - Brightlingsea ferryman, was one of the later generation coasting barge skippers and for many years had command of one of the biggest spritsail barges ALF EVERARD. He was regarded by other masters as one of the finest of his day. He finished his career in command of one of the motor ships bringing coal up the river Colne to Colchester gas works. He spent his retirement in Rochester, Kent.
Article published in Mersea Life, September 2012, page 42.
See also TXA02010 .