Thames Sailing Barge “British Empire”

About 15 years ago I got involved with a group of people intent on restoring the Thames Sailing Barge “British Empire”. For various reasons the endeavour didn’t work and the idea folded. At the time I distinctly remember visiting the barge at Battlesbridge and being able to walk on the deck, albeit treading carefully around the rotting wood.

I was greatly saddened today to return to Battlesbridge and to find the British Empire rotting and completely forgotten behind the main car park for the antiques centre. There is now no noticeable deck left and the hull is so rotten it would take a complete re-build to make anything of the craft. It looks as though it is now used as a skip for rubbish, mainly car tyres it seems, from the antiques and craft centre. Looking down into the hull of the boat was heartbreaking; the rotting deck completely broken by the rubbish hurled indiscriminately into her. She is now a rubbish tip rather then the hard-working vessel she once was.

An excerpt from the pages of the Mersea Museum website reads:

“BRITISH EMPIRE was built 1899 by Stone Bros., Brightlingsea Bros at Brightlingsea for Henry Howe of Colchester and in her earlier years was employed in taking hay to London. Official No. 109616. She was Colchester based throughout her working life and an engine was installed in 1951. She continued in trade until about 1955 when she sank loaded off Brightlingsea, her skipper at the time was Ray Green. She was raised and sold to Brown the Chelmsford timber merchant for use as a lighter in Heybridge Basin when the register was closed 3 Feb 1955. She was sold and rerigged 1978, but has finished up as a hulk at Battlesbridge.”

With the article there is a photograph of her as a Stackie being towed downstream at Colchester.

And now she lies forgotten and rotting beside a busy car park in Battlesbridge. I would guess the majority of visitors to Battlesbridge Antiques Centre have no idea of her existence just out of sight beyond the car park wall.

On the Thames Sailing Barges website, she is the only vessel listed without a photograph. That’s not to say she is the only barge that has rotted out of existence, but I had kind of hoped that one day someone would come along and rescue her for her name alone. A pipe dream perhaps; she would take more than extensive work to restore her now, she would almost have to be built again from scratch.

It was my involvement with the people who wanted to see her restored that got me more and more interested in the Thames Barges. I live near Maldon and they are an intrinsic part of the locale. They can be seen sailing up and down the Blackwater almost every day, apart from the spectacular sight of them moored at the Hythe in Maldon – something the majority of visitors to Maldon will be familiar with.

The British Empire was registered in Colchester and no doubt worked out of there most of the time, but she would have visited Maldon and surrounding farms and villages because that’s what they did.

For anyone who will have sailed on one of these marvellous vessels it is an unforgettable experience. With a draft of 6 feet and the ability to be sailed by ‘one man, a boy and his dog’ they were marvels of their time indeed.

There is another photo of her moored at Battlesbridge in better days here