Piper Boat Owners' Club

A club open to anyone who owns a Piper-built boat

The Tide Run - My Life On The River

By John Major (Pride of Holderness)


In 1934 my father, the mate on the dumb barge Bertha - H, a tanker owned by John Harkers, survived when it struck Gainsborough bridge and caught fire. The motor tug, Direct, assisted at the scene and although I don't remember the event I have seen photo's of the accident. With the outbreak of war Dad left Hull to work the Severn Estuary with Harkers Tankers, returning in early 1943 to work for D.D.S. (Direct Delivery Service). He worked their dumb barges mainly between Hull and Nottingham with odd trips up the river Ouse.


In 1943 there was a shortage of adult workers and I was getting very little schooling because of the air raids, bombing, and general wartime disruption. Dad, at every opportunity, would take me as mate on the barge "Ossington", whilst Mam had to keep taking the train to drag me back home. Dad was very reluctant to let me go because he was paid an extra man's wage for having me on board.


One late afternoon we sailed from King George Dock, three barges behind the tug "Barlock" bound for Nottingham. We stopped overnight in Felixborough in order to get an early morning start and run up to Newark. Leaving next day it was still dark, so when the ropes were being sorted out I had to stand in the cabin hatch, as the tow rope became tight on turning with the tide the tiller swung over and Knocked Dad overboard. I immediately shouted to the next in tow "Man Overboard" which was passed on until the tug got the message. The tug had to turn around and tow three boats nearly a mile back to where Dad was sat on a Whaling flashing his torch.


He was a very lucky man again that day. I continued to work with Dad until 1945 when I started work officially and received my Dock Pass and very valuable Seaman's ration book. From that time until Nationalisation the barge companies on the Trent were Trent Navigation Company, Direct Delivery Service, Trent Carriers and Oldbridges. All four companies worked as a pool, first boat receiving first cargo, second boat the second cargo and so on, no matter which firm you worked for. For towing, Trent Navigation had five tugs, Frank Raynor, Tees, Barlock, Barlett and Yare. D.D.S. had two, Direct and Eagre. Trent Carriers had one, The Greendale, and Oldridges had two, Stort and Tyne. At least one of these tugs left Hull everyday for Newark and Nottingham and the same system operated from Nottingham and Newark to Hull.


After leaving Dad in 1946 I went as mate on the Yare, this tug had been shortened by 10 feet so she would pass through Torksey Lock and work ice breaking and towing the wooden barges to Lincoln and back in the winter months. The Yare had a 90h.p. Elwi engine and would normally tow two l00 ton barges but she struggled towing three in the river.


I later went, in turn, as mate on The Barlock 120h.p. Kromont, The Frank Raynor 250h.p. Petter and The Tees 420h.p. Petter. The reason for changing was because we were paid so much per ton towed and The Raynor and Tees could each tow up to six 100 ton barges. I eventually left the Tees to do my National Service.


One of our cargoes at this time was Canadian Manitoba wheat either bagged or loose which was usually loaded at the silo in King George Dock, Hull. It took approximately one hour to load 500 quarters "112 tons" loose, and eight hours for the same amount in bags. We called loading bags "backing in" which entailed a 16 stone bag coming down into the boat in a counter balanced box. When you got the bag on your shoulder the box sprang back up so you had to be quick or the bag went over your head, but the hard bit was putting the bags flat. Men would stand on the dock side and if one of the crew could not manage they would be available for 1 per day. My Dad would not pay, so he made sure I could handle bags from a very early age. When we loaded loose wheat for Nottingham we could discharge half of it into the D.D.S. Nottingham lighter at Trent Lane and then be horse towed to Meadow Lane Canal and on up to Gylliots Mill or Wilford Street. Once the cargo was out we had to strip all top gear off the boat to get under the bridges, then the mate pulled the boat back to Meadow or Trent Lane whilst the Skipper launched with a boat hook "Stour" and steered.


When I returned from National Service, in the Navy, I rejoined the company, which by then had become part of British Waterways, as captain of a Dumb Barge. At this time BW had some new motor boats built. The Dee and Stour were normal Nottingham boats, 82ft long by 14ft 8 inch beam. Next came the Thames to await the opening of the new Newark Town Lock. This boat only went to Newark because it was oversize for the Old Town Lock, later boats were Beta, Delta, Gamma, Theta and Lambda and then Lillian and Lady Kerr.


Barges up to 82 It by 15ft 6' could only go up river to Colwick because once through Holme Lock there was a swing bridge and lock giving only l4ft 8" beam. Both bridge and lock were removed when the present new flood sluices were built. At about the same time the large Newark Town Lock was being built and shortly after Gunthorp, Newark Nether and Cromwell Locks were powered. Cromwell lock before being powered was the same dimensions as other Trent Locks, allowing four Nottingham size boats to pen together, however Cromwell Lock had a larger low ebb flood lock with gates 4ft above water which gave enough water to get over the middle cill and when the lock was powered these gates were built up to make a very large lock.


When we were towing up through Newark Old Lock it was a long hard job lifting tow ropes over rollers, letting ropes out and hauling them in. Ropes used for towing were 10" Bassy of 10 fathom length and 30 fathom of wire. Going down river the tug threw your ropes off at White House and left you to find your own way down the dyke to the wall below Nether Lock. It didn't matter where you were going, to the Dreger, Gainsborough or Hull, the tug just threw your ropes off and you made your own way to a mooring. Many is the time I have jumped into the cog boat to run a line out to a point then winched our way alongside a mooring.


Some of the cargos carried included gravel to Gunnus, Keadby Power Station (our boats were too long for Keadby Lock so we had to winch in and out on the tide level), Hull and Grimsby. Wheat from Immington and Hull to Newark and Nottingham. Flour from Hull Co-op and Ranks Mills to Nottingham, flour from Timms Mill in Goole to Nottingham and flour from Kirby's Mill in Selby to Nottingham. Linseed from Hull and Gainsborough to B.O.C.M. Selby. Ground Nut Scheme Peanuts to Newark, Nottingham and back to Selby. Fondant, dates, tomatoes, sardines, cheeses, lead and cement from Humber Port mainly to Nottingham. Cattle feed from Chambers and Fargus in Hull and B.O.C.M. Selby to Newark and Nottingham. Timber, box wood and strawberrys from Goole and Hull to Fiskerton and Nottingham. Tobacco leaf from Hull to Nottingham. Cigarettes and cycles from Nottingham to Hull.


Eventually I left British Waterways and joined Hargreaves Coal and Shipping working mainly coal and cement for British Gas and Earls. I worked from most coal pits on the Sheffield and South Yorks Canal and also on the Aire and Calder and Wakefield and Leeds Waterways. After about 6 years on this work I left and joined John Harkers Tankers working all the Rivers and Canals carrying petrol, derv, gas oil, paraffin, light fuel bunkering oils and naptha gas. I remained with Harkers until they closed down, then my wife suggested I tried a job ashore and have some time at home.


I took a job as a Field Fitter for a plant hire company. It was O.K. but I was working just as many hours as on the boats and laying underneath plant on wet floors and building sites was not my cup of tea and I could not abide people standing over me in the yard, so at the first opportunity I returned to British Waterways as Lock Keeper at Newark Nether Lock, there I stayed until deafness and the use of V.H.F. radio forced early retirement. Whilst at Nether I built my Narrow boat Pride of Holderness on which I still live at West Stockwith Basin. When I was on the boats we didn't have any of the modern gear such as radar or radio, some boats didn't even have a compass. There were other carriers on the Trent too.


One was Hooky Joe (one arm and one hook) from Gunthorpe. Hooky had two dumb boats Demo and Agenda. Agenda was later powered for the Lincoln run when B.W. took them over. Hooky also bought a lot of old ship's life boats after the war which he sold on for some of the first cruiser conversions of the time. He kept one, The Skylark, which he used to run half hour trips from the Unicorn Pub. Until the 1950's the river could be very shallow in the summer and have very bad floods in the winter. New flood sluices were built at Holme Lock and ironstone placed on the banks all the way down river to train the ebb and make a more consistent channel. Up until this work was completed there were sand and gravel banks which washed into the river at each flood. Floods could last for weeks during the winter and come summer you could be aground for a couple of weeks if the tide was not right. Many was the time when the river was in flood that we could leave Nottingham and miss the locks at Stoke, Gunthorpe, Hazelford and Cromwell, we simply went over the weirs.


I was a mate with my dad with a tow of three boats behind the Tees. We left Holme Lock, cut end, the tow rope broke and the D.D.S. No 5 barge went over Colwich weir fully loaded. We were taken to Trent Lane then the Tees had to pen back down Holme Lock to get this barge and tow it to Nottingham. The lad who was mate on this barge had a similar experience some years later while employed by Harkers on the black oiler Cordale. He was passing Averham weir above Newark when part of the weir collapsed and the tanker was washed through. Flood gates at Newark were only closed at the last minute, even then water could back up from the old river and cover the lock wall, I have skulled a cog boat over the town lock wall.


Top side of Dunham Bridge was well noted for barges grounding in the field due to the force of the ebb pushing them down into the bight. Twice I have gone up river with Harkers with full deck loads, and I have with other boats had to moor on the Shell Mex Jetty below Torksey Railway Bridge until the water fell (normal head room at normal high water springs 18ft) in order to carry on to Nottingham. In these conditions there would be very few flood banks showing which is why lollipops were erected to mark the banks. The gravel barge Ichabod went down over the potteries in flood when his steering chain broke. The boat sheared off and made a large hole in the flood bank causing Cotthiam and surrounding villages to flood. Further down river below Morton Corner in the 1947 floods the river bank gave way flooding quite a lot of Lincolnshire. To repair this bank the Dutchmen were brought in with three floating cranes and several barges loaded with stone, these had to be sunk in the hole.


At the other end of the scale was low summer water. From Cromwell to Nottingham had many problems, but continuous dredging kept traffic moving within reason. Even so we still had times when we grounded and other boats were brought to lighten us depending on the cargo. Bulk wheat was a good load for this operation, you simply put hatches on covers between boats and shovelled wheat from one to the other. From Winthorpe Hole gravel pit, Lincoln and Hull had an assortment of steam and motor barges, tugs and dumb barges taking gravel down river. If you got behind this lot at Cromwell Lock you were in for a long wait. When they had cleared the lock they could take anything up to five ebbs to get to Hull. They went until they grounded then went ashore for a pint or pumped out gravel water, got an hours sleep and then floated off at the next tide. They would continue until they hit the next shallow and then repeat the process until they eventually reached Hull.


When we loaded gravel we could not afford to fall out with the dredger skipper or he would make sure that you got more than your fair share of water in your load. This meant that after your spell at steering you got your hand to the pump. No motor pumps! I found this out the hard way whilst I was a mate on the Yare. The captain lived in Newark and he would catch the first bus to Carlton each morning. We would travel up to Elm Tree Shallows, load and return to Carlton where the captain caught the bus home. I was left to discharge the gravel and pump out the water by hand. This was a regular daily trip for three weeks at a time then a weekend at home, fare paid to Hull!




When we towed up the Humber with more than two boats we towed them in two lines, Port and Starboard. This distance between the boats was a 10 fathom tow and a couple of fathoms of wire. This system enabled you to tow well clear of buoys due to tide runs. If the weather was good, once past Apex light at Trent End we threw off the rope of the port hand tow. The mate of this boat had to pull in this 10" bassy rope quickly and have it ready to give to the last boat in the starboard line. When the weather was bad this operation took place in Keadby rack. The reason for forming the long tow up the Trent was to allow for a boat getting too low in the bights around Gainsborough, the following boat had a chance to hold up a bit to the Ness knowing that he too would fall down into the bight with the pressure from the tide.


Towing down river from Nottingham to Cromwell and Hull empty boats were towed two abreast with others tight behind on cross ropes which held them up at corners and saved trailing round the bights. Loaded boats would be towed at spring and wire lengths. We really enjoyed going down stream like this because the tug looked after you. You could stay in the cabin in winter, lay on the deck in summer and just tend your boat on corners. You might also climb over the tow rope to the tug for a laugh and a joke or a spell at the wheel.


Before the locks were power operated we would travel all hours. Once the first locks were powered the lock keeper started at 6.a.m. and was on duty until 10p.m. These long days continued until the oil boats stopped and other commercial traffic eased off. When I was in the oil boats even these long hours were not enough and we ordered locks after hours for which the Lock Keepers got all of 9 pence per boat. If I was doing the Nottingham run on a regular basis I tried to work to the following pattern. Leave Saltend, Hull on Mondays early morning tide and going right through to Colwich, Nottingham, the same day. Discharge on Tuesday and straight back to Saltend. Trip two would load on Wednesday and leave Saltend on Thursday's breakfast tide travelling up to Gunthorpe or Colwich, discharge Friday and back to Saltend. Trip three would load up Saturday and leave Saltend on the lunchtime tide on Sunday travelling to Newark or Gunthorpe, Monday discharge and back to Gains-borough or Keadby and Tuesday back to Saltend. Trip four would load Tuesday or Wednesday and depart on the teatime tide up to Gainsborough then on Thursday onto Colwich. Discharge Friday and return to Saltend were we would load on Saturday ready once more for Monday's early morning tide. These trips were only possible in the later years when the training walls had been put in place and even then we would occasionally suffer from grounding problems. We could not always maintain this kind of timetable because you might be given a trip to Leeds, Wakefield, Stanley, Torksey, Hull fish dock, Grimsby or Immingham.


When I started on the river, tugs had one cabin for three men, Skipper, Mate and Engineer. Dumb boats had a skippers cabin aft and fo'c'sle for the mate. As the dumb boats had engines fitted the aft cabin went and all crew had to share the fo'c'sle. in the Oil boats and early Dumb boats two men shared the aft cabin. In motor boats three men would share the fore cabin. Black oil boats were lengthened and had raised after decks with a mess room on the port side, engine and steam boiler in the centre and a bedroom for three men on the starboard side. Long Trent Oil boats had a cabin for three men under the wheelhouse, between engine and cargo, but a few had a three men fore cabin. Some known as prefabs, had a raised rear deck with the engine under the wheelhouse, aft of which was a mess deck for three men with electric lighting, cooker and fridge, plus seperate private sleeping berths. BLISS!!


A typical day for a young mate on a tug would be. Get up and brew tea, wake the crew and then get their breakfast. Steer the boat whilst the crew ate their breakfast and then wash up, clean the cabin, blacklead the stove, polish the brasses, then make the crews dinner. Steer again whilst the crew ate, then clean and refill the paraffin lamps, clean the brass work on deck and if on the Trent, wash the boat down. The crew made sure you were tired and slept well.


To be continued


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page created 5th April 2004, last updated 21 October 2012