Anecdotes of life on the river

Les Davey shares his experiences in three articles and gives us an interesting insight into life on the barges, please read on for more

A Golden Period

My name is Les Davey. I live in Nottingham. In the 1960s I worked on the River Trent for British Warerways, as a skipper of various barges. The old timer boatmen called it “The Hull Trade”. It was a golden period for me, the highlight of my life. I was skipper of dumb boats, so called because they did not have an engine, we relied on tugs or pure muscle to get us from A to B.

The Hull trade consisted of taking a cargo down to Hull from Nottingham, mainley gravel, taken from the Trent bed, a few miles north-east of Nottingham, and unloading it at Hull. The dock for the concrete works was about a mile upstream on the River Hull.

Weather-wise, summer time was great navigating, even the winters wasn’t too bad, although if there was to be a cold spell we took all the ropes that was to be used on our journey, below at night, to the warmth of our aft cabin, living quarters, as they would have been stiff as iron bars if left on deck!

Steerage – we had a tiller made of oak. It was really heavy and about 5 ins thick, although it tapers off. Length-wise it was about 9ft ans as you can imagaine, heavy. Often, we had to get our backs to it at certain locations, as it was no use just using our body or arms!

After discharging the gravel, we would either drop down on the ebb tide or get a tow down with a tug. If we had to drop down, we moored up just inside the River Hull and awaited a tug to take us to another dock for a load of whatever? Sometimes, we took cargos up into Yorkshire, Doncaster, Goole and Sheffield.

When we were light we relied of course on a tug to take us back to one of the Hull docks for another cargo, maybe timber, pig iron ingots, wire for Michelin tyres for their works via Nottingham or maybe locations in Yorkshire as I have explained above. Sometimes we took a load of Tuborg lager. Bottled and in crates, thousands of them. There was also lager in cannisters, all to take to Nottingham.

I remember one time. My younger brother as mate, we took a load of gravel to Hull. When we arrived at Hull, the tug that had brought us down from Nottingham, thaen had to take us up the River Hull to a concrete works, where he unloaded, then went off to pick a load from one of the numerous docks. That meant, when we had got rid of our cargo of gravel and were light we’d drop down the River Hull and moor up near the mouth and wait for another tug. Dropping down was no picnic but we managed it and moored up. By this time it was low water. Soon the tide would begin to flood and it eventually did. The thing was, the other craft around us rose with the flood. We stayed put. I got quite concerned. We were obviously stuck in the mud. Then, as I didn’t know how deep it was. The tide rose higher and higher as did the craft around us. My brother and I became very concerned. It must have been no more than 12 inches below our deck when she suddenly shot up. Boy, was we relieved! I found out, only last week, talking to another ex-boatman: Tony Lawson, who had worked for Gant’s, another Nottingham based barge company. He said he had once slipped overboard into the River Hull, near where my craft had stuck to the bottom. He sank up to his waist in the mud. Fortunately his mate managed to pull him out of it.

I remember, often, when I was moored up in the River Hull. At dusk I would sit behind the Carley float. Rats would run along the mooring ropes to get aboard. I had a powerful air rifle and I would shoot one, they’d drop in the quagmire and wriggling, disappear. I shot quite a number!


Article 2

On another trip we were coming up the river carrying a load of lager. There were three dumb boats and two tugs involved. Before we left Hull we had decided to stop for the night at Gainsborough, have a few beers, visit some pubs.

We got there, moored up, bearing in mind that about 11 pm. The *Aeguer, a huge wave would be coming up river. It would be a big one as it was the autumn equinox. So we all agreed to get back early in time; as one is supposed to stand by the mooring ropes as it surges up river. One crew didn’t go ashore, the skipper of the tug “Bartlett”. I think his name was Eric. He was rumoured to be a karate expert, I never saw anyone argue with him? We moored up to his tug as well as the wharf bollards. Good job we did!

After a great night out, and we had a few! At about 10:30 we made our way back to the boats, in time to prepare for the Aegure. We had no sooner stepped aboard, when someone shoutes; Auger, it was early! We looked back and it seemed as if a giant was lifting the boat below us and surging to us, it lifted his boat, by the stern, then coming to us, doing the same thing. It hit us, lifting us with such a powerful force. A couple of bowlines snapped, cracking like whips. Fortunately we had fastened on to the Bartlett as well as to the bollards on the jetty and it all turned out OK. It was an amazing sight though! I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

*TheAegure, is at times, a huge wave that comes up the river with the turn of the tides. It all revolves around a full moon. The biggest ones are, as I wrote above, is when it is the Spring or Autumn equinox. It is an amazing sight. And it happens with each tide. In a matter of about 60 seconds or so the river is flowing in the opposite direction?

It can do a lot of damage if one is not prepared for it. In ancient Celtic times they thought it was the doings of the River Gods who were angry?


Article 3

I stood on the wharf at British Waterways, Meadow Lane, Nottingham, looking down river, watching a tug coming upstream. It was a red craft. I know it was something “Direct”, that indicated it was a company called D.D.S. (Direct Delivery Service) Thanks to Tony Lawson again for reminding me, what a memory he has!

My barge, the Trent 34 had, just an hour ago, had the last stack of timber lifted from her hold, loaded onto a lorry to be taken to the timber yard. We, my younger brother and I, had loaded it a few days before at Goole docks. My brother, after we’d unloaded the timber, had gone home for a change of clothes so I was on my own.

The tug I spotted got nearer, heading to where I stood. I notived he had a lighter tied alongside. He gently nudged the wharf, cut the engine and stopped. Coming out of the wheelhouse, threw me rope up, which I grabbed and hung over a bollard. He was solo and he made fast his boat, not bothering with a stern rope, leaving it to the current to keep the stern in. Clambering up the steel ladder, he nodded as he walked past me and disappeared out of the yard. I thought, I know where he is going; the pub. It is a fact, he liked his drink, sometimes goes over the top with it.

A couple of hours later I had climbed up the ladder from my boat, I noticed the skipper of the D.D.S. tug had just come back from the pub. He was well oiled and he nodded as he walked past me. A couple of minutes later I heard a feeble cry: Help–Help. I ran to where the tug was moored up and looked down. Often I had looked down at loaded craft there and estimated the distance down to 15/16ft. The skipper had fallen overboard, between his craft and the lighter, which he had just undone. He was hanging on with just his elbows. I jumped, landed with a loud crash, dashed over to him, grabbed him, pulled him up onto the deck with great effort. By this time the lighter had been gripped by the current and was starting to drift away from the tug. I jumped aboard it, intending to throw a rope to the skipper. No chance, there wasn’t an inch of rope on board, boat hook, or even an anchor, nothing at all!

I was adrift, at the mercy of the current, swept down the river. I never felt so helpless in all my life.

The craft gathered speed and approached the rail bridge that had huge steel pillarsor abutements supporting the centre span of the bridge. By this time, because I had no steerage, I was drifting crossways down towards the abutements. I hung on to whatever I could, ready for the collision. It came. Bearing in mind the boat had about 100 tons of wheat in her hold. The impct bounced us across to the nearside bank. There were several cruisers moored up there, as it was private moorings. One, a nice 24ft clinker built craft, with a freshly painted grey hull. The barge crushed it as if it were a match box, down to the bottom it went.

From there the barge feebly moved out, losing some of its momentum and drifted further down, finally brushing, almost gently, along-side a wall, out of the current, finally stopping; as if exhausted by its ordeal.

Minutes later the D.D.S, Tug came down to me. The skipper muttered a couple of words. I don’t think he even said thanks. Made fast to the lighter and took us back to Meadow Lane jetty.


Foot note – I can honestly say, in all the years I worked on the barges I never saw any of the men get angry or aggressive. They who worked on the barges were generally, a friendly bunch, always ready to give one advice or a helping hand!

Les Davey