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Wide Beam Working Boat

Barges, trows, flats, keels, wherries and other broad beam commercial boats.

Avon tar barge

The Avon tar barge was bluff in the bows with a rounded counter stem. The bows had a raised fore deck mounting a large windlass. There was a tall wheelhouse and a short mast directly behind the cargo space. They were part of a small fleet of barges working over the Avon section of the Kennet and Avon Navigation. They were powered by sail until the First World War but were later converted to diesel. Although mainly confined to the river Avon a number worked across the Bristol Channel to the ports of South Wales, especially Cardiff and Newport. Their use began during the late 1860s and ended in 1967, when road tankers were able to operate into Wales via the new Severn Road Bridge.


The general name for wide beam boats used for iinland commercial carrying. See separate entries for Thames Sailing Barge, Dutch Barge, Western Barge, Avon Tar Barge, Wey Barge etc. Although the narrowboats of the English Midlands are often refered to as 'barges' they are more correctly called narrowboats.

Box trow

A development from Severn trows, having covered hatches fitted and bulwarks constructed from stem to stern, changing what was known as the open mould type to the later box trow. Some trows were converted to Box trows to work in the Bristol Channel, reaching the ports of South Wales and many harbours and inlets along the Devon coast.

Chalk barge

This barge, others likely to encounter choppy water in the estuary, had triangular leeboards, which could be lowered from either side of the craft in the form of a stabiliser or keel. In form it was a typical Medway barge with swim-ends used in traffic to and from the Kentish chalk quarries and from wharves near Gravesend.

Humber keel

The Humber keel has been in use for centuries and is in direct descent from the long ships of the Viking raiders. They had the reputation of sailing close to the wind and were easy to handle, sometimes in the charge of a single man, although often family boats. During the 1890s there were at least 150 keels working on the Yorkshire Ouse and Humber from York to Hull. Numbers gradually diminished from the early part of the twentieth century, although the last sailing keel was in service until 1949. The older type of keel was distiguished by its carved and painted decorations in the form of grapevines and for a tall wooden stovepipe above a cabin at the fore end.The Humber keel was a flat-bottomed, double-ended barge and was sometimes known as a, Yorkshire keel. It had a single mast, a little forward of midships, usually carriing a square sail, often with an additional topsail. Of carvel build, it had leeboards on either side and strong, bluff bows. The mast was stepped in a deep tabernacle in which it could be lowered or raised for passing under fixed bridges. The area of the hull below the waterline was usually dressed with tar, while the upper works were painted in light colours and frequently varnished. It measured 58 feet long and was 14 feet 6 inches in the beam and 6 feet to 6 feet 9 inches in draught. It had a capacity between 90 and 100 tons. Some craft have been recorded with up to 8 foot draught.

Mersey flats

The Mersey flat changed very little from the 1730s to the 1890s being a doubled-ended barge with rounded bilges and carvel build. Stem and stern post were more or less raked, although the bow was sometimes less raked than the stern. There were usually two masts. The fore mast, stepped a quarter of the way down tie length of the craft fitted into a tabernacle. A mizzen mast was stepped on the stern deck at the rear of the cargo space. The improvement of the Mersey Navigation during the first half of the eighteenth century stimulated the use of Mersey flats which had not been widely used before. They also plied on the rivers Irwell and Weaver, especially the latter, and are sometimes known as Weaver flats, although many regard these as a distinctive type. The flat differed from most river craft of its type as it was fully decked with hatches before and behind the fore mast. The living cabin, or cuddy, for the two-man crew or master and mate was in the stern. The large elegant rudder was steered by means of a long, slightly curved tiller, not unlike that on a canal narrowboat but larger. Flats rarely carried leeboards. The Mersey flat was normally strongly built; the main timbers were of English oak with bilge planks of rock elm and planking (for midships) of oak or pitch pine. The length of a flat was from 62 to 70 feet long, with a 6 feet draught and a beam of 14 feet 9 inches to 17 feet. They could carry up to 80 tons of cargo. In later years some of the former sailing flats were turned into dumb barges for horse haulage or towing by tugs.

Norfolk keel

The Norfolk keel predates the more familiar Norfolk wherry as a trading barge seen on East Anglian waterways, although it did not cover such a wide area. The earliest type was transom, or flat-ended, with D-shaped stern, but many later types were double-ended or pointed at both ends. It was popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but was reported as 'very rare' by the middle of the nineteenth century and there were few left by the late 1870s, being replaced by the wherry. The last Norfolk keel in regular trade from Norwich survived until the 1890s . Then derelict she was sunk in the river Yare, between Brundall Gardens and Whitlingham, to mark the channel. She was rescued In 1912, for a short period by staff of the Science Museum, South Kensington, who recorded details and dimensions for the construction of an accurate display model. This sole survivor appears to have had a small transom stern although most later types were double-ended. The cabin was in the fore part of the craft rather than the stern, while the cargo space was without covered hatches. The single mast, carrying a large sail, was amidships, stepped in a tabernacle but also secured by crosswise deck beams. Most Norfolk keels were much stronger but far less elegant than the Norfolk wherries and were likely to have been much slower under sail. The hull was of clinker build and had an average length of 54 feet with a 14 foot beam. The depth was 4 feet, drawing slightly less than 4 feet of water. Cargo capacity was between 30 and 40 tons.

Norfolk wherry

Mainly working inland from the ports of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, through the rivers Bure, Ant, Waveney and Yare often seen on the Norfolk Broads, these were the flat-bottomed sailing barges of East Anglia, The term Norfolk wherry covered craft of several different sizes and with loadings between 20 and 83 tons. The hull was clinker-built, pointed at bow and stern; the gunwales were close to the waterline giving little freeboard even when empty. The bows were painted with a characteristic decoration in the form of an 'eye' or patch of white, which gave the illusion of a transom stern when seen from a certain angle. The Norfolk wherry was a single-masted craft and carried a single sail, the prototype of the una rig which was characteristic of broad-beamed sailing vessels along the east coast for many years. The peak of the sail could be set very heigh so that it collected as much wind as possible when sailing through sheltered places or by tall trees. It had no topsail and depended on a single gaffsail (a sail supported by a diagonal spar similar to the sprit of a Thames sailing barge) catching as much wind and displaying as great a spread of canvas as many larger vessels. Unlike the Thames barge the wherry was not considered seaworthy, except in estuaries in very calm weather. The mast was stepped in a tabernacle in which it could be lowered and raised for passing under bridges and other obstructions. There were no shrouds or items of standing rigging, the only support being a forestay, which also served as a fall for lowering the mast. In East Anglia wherries worked as a popular form of general carrier for at least three centuries. Their form may evolved from an even earlier flat-bottomed ferry boats, perhaps similar to the Thames wherry which was a large rowing boat used for ferrying. In later years many Norfolk wherries were fitted with auxiliary diesel engines. During the 1880s and 1890s steam Wherries used. One of the last wherries in regular commercial use, employed in seasonal sugar-beet traffic in the 1960s, was the Lord Roberts. Small wherries had a length of about 30 feet, a 9 foot beam, and a draught of 3 feet 3 inches when fully rigged and loaded. The largest known vessel of this type was the Wonder of Norwich, with a size of 65 feet by 19 feet and 7 foot draught. The mast, weighted at the bottom or heel with several hundredweights of lead, was 45 feet high, while the gaff was 30 feet, carrying about 500 square feet of canvas. The hold was protected by up to twelve wooden hatches or hatch covers and was situated between mast and cabin, which was placed well forward. On either side of the tiny aft cabin was a narrow area of decking used for punting or poling or the wherry with the aid of a barge pole or quant. This was often done to bring the craft up to her moorings in harbours. Many assert that the only authentic Norfolk wherry still in existence is the 40 ton Albion, constructed in 1898 and now preserved by the Norfolk Wherry Trust. Norfolk: Horning Norfolk Wherry - 13 June 1994
Norfolk: Horning Norfolk Wherry - 13 June 1994


These were Scottish steamers, were immortalised in the tales of Neil Monro with his adventures of Para Handy in the fictional puffer the Vital Spark. They were sometimes known as coal gabbarts and operated mainly on the river Clyde and on many of the firths and sea lochs round the west coast of Scotland, making extensive use of the Crinan Canal. Their flat-bottomed design allowed them to unload on any beach or mud flat at low water. Those puffers navigating through to the east coast along the narrow waters of the Forth and Clyde Canal were limited to dimensions of 66 feet long, 18 feet beam and 8 feet deep. They had a small foredeck with winches and a single mast with derrick or jib crane. The mast fitted into a tabernacle. Under the deck were forecastle quarters known as the den which was normally occupied by the crew of two or three men and a boy. Between the den and the engine room was a deep oblong hold able to take 120 tons of cargo. The boiler worked to a pressure of 120 pounds per square inch. There was a collar on top of the funnel known as a lum hat or chimney hat rather than a fan. The engines were two-cylinder compounds. The early types exhausted steam directly up the funnel into the atmosphere, making the characteristic puffing noise. This was later improved by the addition of a condenser, which cut out the 'puff', although not before the name was widely accepted.

Severn tanker

These carried cargos of fuel oil and other bulk liquids, running a frequent service on the Severn from 1928 until the mid 1960s when the barges were eventually replaced by pipelines and improved road and rail delivery. The oil was taken mainly to storage depots at Stourport, Worcester and Gloucester from the estuary ports of the Bristol Channel. They were all steel barges, powered by diesel engines, but their maximum sizes varied according to the destination served. Up to Worcester the limit was a length of 137 feet, a beam of 22 feet and draught of 8 feet. Those working above Worcester to Stourport the limit was a length of 89 feet, a beam of 18 feet 11 inches and a draught of 5 feet 9 inches. The average length of craft between Worcester and Gloucester was about 100 feet with a beam of 18 feet, loading to a capacity of 500 tons.

Severn trow

This ancient type of craft is now extinct, once operated in the Severn estuary, often working as far inland as Stourport, Bewdley, Shrewsbury and the Welsh Marches. Trows were of clinker build and exsisted in both large and small types. The large type had a length of 70 feet and beam of 17 feet, and drew between 3 and 4 feet when empty. They would carry about 120 tons with a draught between 8 feet 6 inches and 9 feet 6 inches. Most of the larger types confined to the Severn, Bristol Channel and the Avon to Bristol. The smaller type, found their way on to the Stroudwater Navigation by way of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and on to the Droitwich Canal. The smaller type were mainly engaged in the salt trade and known as Wich barges . The earliest ancestors of the Severn trow in Anglo-Saxon times and during the middle ages they were double-ended and resembled keels. By the seventeenth century they had acquired a distinctive D-shaped transom, sometimes sloping slightly inwards. The original mast was stepped slightly forward of the centre or midships and carried a large square sail. A mizzen mast began to appear during the early nineteenth century, sometimes with a triangular or lateen sail having the mast in the centre, but more frequently with a standing gaff or spar. Most types were converted to fore and aft rig during the 1850s. The forecastle quarters under the tiny fore deck usually accommodated a crew of three. The captain had a cabin aft, under the stem deck. Between the fore and aft cabins was the open cargo hold, rarely covered by hatches, as there were no side decks. The mast was supported by crosswise or thwartship beams. There were fairly high bulwarks protecting stem and stern. Protective side cloths on rails and stanchions helped to shield the cargo when out in the Bristol Channel, or in rough weather. The genuine trow was flat-bottomed with no external keel but had rounded bilges rather than chine build. Leeboards were not used but many trows had a removable false keel, which thet used when sailing to windward. This was lowered over the side by means of chains and floated into position when necessary. As the inland trade declined a few trows were converted to work almost exclusively in the Bristol Channel, sailing to South Wales and the harbours and inlets of Devon. For this purpose covered hatches were fitted and bulwarks constructed from stem to stern, changing what was known as the open mould type to the later box trow. Iron and steel hulls were introduced during the middle and late nineteenth century. Although the first trow with an iron hull was built for Danks and Sons of Stourport in 1843, wooden hulls were constructed until the twentieth century and noted for their strength and longevity. The wooden-hulled William, built in 1809, was the oldest trading vessel in or around the British Isles in 1939, when she was wrecked and destoryed. Many of the old trows were either fitted with diesel engines or used as dumb barges, without rigging, towed by tugs and other vessels. Although Severn trows frequently used the barge basin at Stourport until the First World War, few survived the after the Second World War.

Short boat

These Leeds and Liverpool Canal were broad and squat, designed to fit the canal's short, wide beam locks. Leeds and Liverpool locks east of Wigan junction are 62 feet long so they can not be used by the narrowboats of the Midlands canals. The short boat was originally of wooden construction, horse-drawn or bow-hauled from the towing path. Its length was 62 feet, beam 14 feet 3 inches, and draught 3 feet 9 inches fully loaded. Cargo capacity was 50 tons. A stern cabin was constructed below deck level, while many also had a fore cabin. During the 1880s power replaced most horse towing, although many former horse boats continued to be hauled by steam tugs and were otherwise known as dumb barges. Some horse towing remained until the mid 1950s The craft had bluff bows and transom stem. Both stem and stern were frequently decorated with scrollwork and ornamental lettering in a nautical style, quite different from the roses and castles of the narrowboat. The early steamers proved their worth as they could work longer shifts, both day and night. The first steamers were merely adapted from horse boats but later ones were purpose-built. These new steamers had living quarters in the fore cabin, while the stern cabin was occupied by engine and boiler. The steam boats usually worked in pairs, drawing a dumb barge or former horse boat. Both horse boats and steamers were family boats. There were steamers on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at least until the late 1950s; the last of this type was constructed in the 1930s. They mainly had wooden hulls until the 1920s, when they were replaced by steel-hulled craft. In the late 1920s diesel power began to be introduced. The smaller engine-room space of the diesel craft and the reduced amount of fuel space enabled new boats to carry an extra 15 tons of cargo. During the early 1950s a number of steel diesel-powered short boats were constructed for British Waterways, although most of this traffic ceased by 1970. The last short boat in regular commercial use traded over the Leigh branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal up to 1972. The few remaining types are either maintenance craft or preserved by amateur boaters for leisure purposes.

Stackie barge

These swim-headed barges carried hay or straw on the Thames. They had a rather shallow draught so they could navigate the backwaters leading to the hay fields, where they loaded their cargoes. As the light cargo of hay rose as much as 13 feet above deck level, the mate or crewman of the barge had to stand on top of the cargo to shout directions to the helmsman. In London the demand for hay was especially great during the days of horse traffic but the stackie barges disappeared with the decline of horse traffic in the 1920s.

Stroudwater barge

These barges were used on the Stroudwater Canal and travelled into the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, via Saul Junction. These boats, mainly towed from the bank, changed very little in over a 100 years. Like most barges on the English waterways they were of carvel build. They were about 70 feet long, with a beam of 15 feet 6 inches, and a capacity of between 70 and 75 tons. They were fairly high at the stem post with bluff bows and rounded bilges. There was a small decked area at both stem and stern with a large windlass mounted on the bows and a living cabin under the stern deck. Stroudwater barges were last used during the 1940s, some being used on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal as dumb barges.

Stumpy barge

A popular Thames barge which was swim-headed and only 45 to 55 feet long, used during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Teignmouth keel

A sailing keel mainly used on the river Teign in South Devon and on the short canals of Devon and Cornwall, connecting with quarries and open-cast workings for china clay. These keels had rounded bows and flat, transom sterns. They were rigged with a square sail on a single mast, about 50 to 56 feet long with a 13 to 14 foot beam and a draught of about 5 feet, loading to upwards of 30 tons, They were often towed from the bank. Many fell into disuse towards the end of the nineteenth century due to increasing railway competion. There were sixteen still in service until 1931 but mainly without masts and towed in trains by diesel tugs.

Thames sailing barge

This well known and much loved type of craft sailed the Thames and the Medway, often calling at east-coast ports and able to cross the North Sea. It was greatly admired for the beauty of its reddish-brown sails, the mast and tackle of which could be lowered for passing under bridges. The Thames sailing barge had much in common with the lighter, at least until the end of the eighteenth century. The first designs were swim-ended or swim-headed, similar to the lighter and much smaller punt, often known as a swimmie. This meant that the flat square ends of the barge or lighter were raked outwards to overhang water level, while the sides were fairly flat and straight. At the stem end, under the projection or swim, was an upright fin of metal or wood known as the budget. This kept the vessel on course and it was to this projection on a sailing barge that the rudder was fixed. The modern barge is steered by a wheel rather than a tiller. The sailing barge, had a windless for hauling up the anchor and raising the mast and a living cabin or cuddy in the after part. The crew usually consisted of two or three men, although barges were frequently worked by a man and a boy, and was occasionally a family boat. From the 1850s a few iron barges were constructed, although the first of these were sheathed in wood. Later types were made of steel and even fitted with diesel engines. Two of the largest sailing barges ever used on the Thames were built at Brightlingsea in 1924; known as the Aidie and the Barbara Jean, each carried a cargo of about 260 tons and was of 119 tons net weight. Both were lost at Dunkirk in 1940, attempting to rescue British forces from the beaches. The last Thames barge in commercial service retired in 1971.

Thames wherry

The Thames wherry was a large rowing boat used for ferrying purposes, the larger types resembling pontoons. It was fairly long and wide with a high-pointed stem or nose, often sheathed in iron (an iron-nose). Some were pointed at both ends and could be rowed in either direction, usually manned by professional watermen. A craft with a long history but which dramatically declined after the First World War.

Trent barge

Between River Trent: Besthorpe Wharf and :  Gravel Barge - 20 July 2000
Between River Trent: Besthorpe Wharf and : Gravel Barge - 20 July 2000

Tyne keel

The original Tyne keel was clinker-built but Later types were of carvel build. In plan the keel was almost oval, but pointed at both ends. Length was 42 feet and beam 19 feet and the load was 21 tons. Fully loaded and rigged the keel drew 4 feet 6 inches of water. The single mast, rigged with a large square sail, was fitted into a tabernacle, slightly forward of the cargo space. There were small covered or decked areas fore and aft and a cabin in the stern, known locally as a hudduck. Although some of the later types had a rudder, the majority were steered with a long oar known as a swape or sweep. The cabin could only be reached through a deck hatch and was of very limited headroom. Similar to the Yorkshire or Humber keel but usually to be much smaller, the Tyne keel was used mainly in the Tyne coal trade running a shuttle service from the staithes or collieries inland to the sea-going colliers in the estuary. They depended not only on sails and oars but also on tide and current, often coming down with the ebb tide and upstream on the flood tide or flow. From the mid nineteenth century many Tyne keels were replaced by larger clinker-built craft towed in trains by tugs and known as Tyne wherries. Very few keels were built after the 1860s although a some survived until the period of the First World War. The last was on active duties in 1924 but it seems to have been an isolated example.

Tyne wherries

Tyne wherries were clinker-built craft towed in trains by tugs.They were used mainly in the Tyne coal trade to bring cargoes from the staithes or collieries to the sea-going colliers in the estuary. Tyne wherries replaced the smaller Tyne keels in this work.

Weaver flat

A variation of the Mersey flat that were used on the River Weaver. Although having the same basic design a few early types on the Weaver flat appear to have been square and flat at the stern rther than having the raked stern of the Mersey flat.

Weaver steam flat

Originally built of wood and steered from deck level, a number of these flats were used on the river Weaver from the late 1880s, especially in the salt and chemical industries. Later types were all steel and had a raised wheelhouse. The length was 90 feet and beam 21 feet, with a loading of 250 tons. Some steam flats were still at work on the Weaver and Mersey until the early 1960s.

West country vessel

Working mainly on the Calder and Hebble Navigation, and even farther inland, this wooden craft was a slightly smaller version of the Humber, or Yorkshire, keel. They were often horse barges, although they were sometimes towed by steam tugs down the estuary from Goole to Hull. Once there was a considerable traffic in paving stones between Brighouse and Hull. Many of the stone slabs were transhipped to coasters in Hull docks and sent to London. Return loads included grain, animal feeding-stuffs and raw materials. Later types were steel-hulled and fitted with diesel engines, although some were towed, above Goole, by tugs of the Calder Carrying Company. At one time bow hauling was more used than horse hauling and where horses were required they were hired by the master of the keel from people specailising in the trade. The last fleet of at least seventy steel-hulled power-driven keels were owned by E. V. Waddington and Company of Swinton and worked on the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Canal and connecting waterways.

Wey barge

This was a bluff-bowed, flat-bottomed barge operating mainly on the Wey Navigation and appearing in the London docks. They were built for over a century in the yards of Messrs Stevens of Guildford, owners of the Wey Navigation. It was a strongly built wooden craft in carvel style, having a D-shaped stern or transom. It was mainly towed by horses (two horses to a single barge), but in later years by tugs. Maximum beam was 13 feet 10 inches and capacity 80 tons. The last Wey barge was launched in 1940, during the Second World War. An inovative feature was the large rudder which could fold back against the stern, to save space in locks and basins. The last working barge was used between London docks and a wharf at Coxes Lock Mill in 1969. Horse towing continued on the Wey until 1960. Several Wey barges have been preserved as pleasure craft and houseboats. Similar craft were also used on the Basingstoke canal, between a junction with the river Wey and Basingstoke.


This large open boat, originally used on broad rivers as a passenger ferry, varied considerablely in size and shape depending on locality. It developed in East Anglian as a general-purpose carrier; the Norfolk wherry being the most typical form.

Wich barges

A smaller version of the Severn trow, that were used on the Droitwich Canal in the salt trade.

Yorkshire keel

See Humber keel -alternative name.


Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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