On the Beaches
I have written before about the cream of the Whitstable fleet of schooners and barquetines that brought coal and goods in and out of the harbour. If these were the sea-fairing Juggernauts of their day, then their smaller sisters, the Hoys or Thames Barges, were surely then the Transit Vans of their day that kept the local trade routes busy.
The scene pictured here is of West Beach in 1900, close to the Horsebridge, with these trading vessels moored offshore awaiting the low tide so that horses and carts could load and unload their goods.
Not for them the safe haven of the harbour. Although possible, it was much more difficult to unload a Barge in the harbour other than at high tide with the high quays and little mechanical assistances.
This was not the only reason that they used the Horsebridge though. Historically they had always done so and it was cheaper than the harbour’s fees. The Barges were flat bottomed and would sit well with no water. Their small draft also meant that they could sail in much closer to the shore.
Whereas larger boats had deep fixed keels to counteract their sail area, the Barges used pivoted keel boards on their sides which could be lowered when required and lifted when in shallow water. The mud near the Horsebridge was much more solid than at other points along our coast, no doubt helped by centuries of discarded oyster shells covering the top layer which meant that the narrow spoked-wheels of the carts could traverse it and the horses would not get stuck in it.
The Horsebridge was at the end of Whitstable Street, the roadway we now know as Oxford Street and the High Street and is probably what drove their development. The goods being transported were many and varied, the seasonal daily shipment of fresh oysters to Billingsgate Market in London, products from and for Canterbury, wool from the sheep of Seasalter Marshes, meat from the London markets and, despite the mainline train service to London, no doubt a passenger or two.
With the progressive silting of both the Faversham Creek and the River Stour, Whitstable was not only providing for itself, but for Canterbury as well.
Another reason that the Barges were a cheaper form of commodity transport was because they could be sailed with just three men, and often with only two.
We are fortunate every summer to witness some of the remaining restored barges during the various matches (races) that they take part in, alongside Whitstable and Essex sailing smacks. During the summer season Steve Norris’s ‘Greta’ is berthed in the harbour, kept busy with passenger trips to view the Wind Farm and Sea Forts. Although not a Whitstable Barge, she hails from Colchester, she is historically important as the oldest of the ‘Small Ships’ that rescued so many of our soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk during WW2.
Beyond the waiting Barges, further out in the bay, you can see some of our Oyster Dredger fleet at their moorings. These smacks do have a fixed keel and though built to withstand the odd beaching remain moored at sea. Three of their tenders are visible in the foreground of the picture and were more often referred to by the Dredgers as their smack’s ‘boat’.
Whilst you might expect to see these boats being rowed in a conventional way, the preferred method most often, particularly on calm days, was to scull them using an oar on a rowlock mounted on the transom.
Keeping the smacks off-shore meant they were always in enough water to float, whatever the tide. Equally important is the fact that wooden boats, particularly those with caulk sealing their hull planks, last longer in the water. Those kept on land and left out of the water, loose their caulk through expansion and contraction in dry heat, eventually becoming unseaworthy.
The flip-side to this is that during storms smacks could slip their moorings and smash onto the shingle beach, broadside on, which is why we have so few of the Whitstable smacks surviving today.
These smacks are such an important part of our heritage, along with the oyster industry they worked in, that made Whitstable the most prominent oyster producer. It has taken many years for us to realise that we must protect our surviving traditional craft. The newly formed Whitstable Maritime group has been set up to do this, so that we and future generations will always have a tactile and working reminder of what first made Whitstable great.