SB Centaur

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SB Centaur 3862.jpg
Centaur at the Hythe Quay in Maldon
United Kingdom
Name: Centaur
Owner: William Barrett
Builder: J & H Cann (Harwich)[1]
Commissioned: 1895
Status: Private use and private charter ship
Notes: 99460
General characteristics
Tonnage: 61
Length: 85.6 ft (26.1 m)
Beam: 19.55 ft (5.96 m)
Height: 0 ft (0 m) to top of mainmast
Draught: 6.2 ft (1.9 m) distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull (keel)
Propulsion: Sails and auxiliary diesel engine
Notes: Wood

SB Centaur is a wooden Thames sailing barge, built in Harwich, Essex, England in 1895. She was used to carry various cargoes (mainly grain) for the next 60 years. During the First World War she carried food and coal to the French Channel ports. During the Second World War Centaur was damaged when sailing to assist with the Dunkirk Evacuation. She did war work for the duration of the conflict.

In 1945 she returned to the grain trade until 1955, when she was derigged. Between 1955 and 1966, she was used as a lighter until bought in 1966 by Richard Duke to re-rig as a charter barge. She was sold in 1973 to the Thames Barge Sailing Club (now the Thames Sailing Barge Trust) for members' sailing. Restored between 1984 and 1993, she now berths at Hythe Quay, Maldon.


The vast majority of barges were wooden hulled (although a significant number were also built in steel), between 80–90 ft (24–27 m) long with a beam of around 20 ft (6.1 m). The hull form was as distinctive as their rig, being flat-bottomed with a degree of flare to the sides and plumb ends. The stern was a transom, shaped like a section through a champagne glass, on which was hung a large rudder. The hull was mainly a hold with two small living areas in the bow and stern, and access was through two large hatchways, the smaller before the main mast and a much larger aperture behind.

Sails on a Thames barge

They were usually spritsail rigged on two masts. Most had a topsail above the huge mainsail and a large foresail. The mizzen was a much smaller mast on which was set a single sail whose main purpose was to aid steering when tacking. The rig also allowed a relatively large sail area on the upper part of the mast, to catch wind when moored ships, buildings or trees blocked wind on the water's surface. Sail areas varied from 3,000–5,000 square feet (280–460 m2) depending on the size of the barge. The typical, rusty-red colour of the flax sails was due to the dressing used to waterproof them (traditionally made from red ochre, cod oil, urine and seawater). These barges required no ballast. No auxiliary power was used originally but many barges were fitted with engines in later years. The mast was mounted in a tabernacle at deck level and could be lowered and raised while under way, enabled the barge to "shoot bridges"-pass under bridges, on the Thames and Medway without losing headway. When no wharf was available, the barge could use the ebbing tide to stand on the mud, close to shore and offload its goods onto carts.[2] A barge with no topsail – or top mast sailing stumpy-rigged required a smaller crew. With a shallow draught, they could penetrate deep into the back waters. Not needing ballast reduced their turn-round time. Where fitted, the bowsprit could also be "topped up" – raised, to allow it to use a shorter wharf.[3] In good conditions, sailing barges could attain speeds of over 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph), and their leeboards allowed them to be highly effective windward performers. The unusual spritsail rig allowed any combination of sails to be set: even the topsail on its own could be effective in some conditions.

The spritsail rig has many advantages on rivers and in confined waters: manoeuvring under topsail and mizzen catching the steadier wind clear of the wharf side buildings. Their flat-bottomed hulls allow them to ride over the shallow waters of the estuary and penetrate the creeks and higher reaches of the rivers of the south east.[4] They could be berthed on a flat mud bank, against a camp-shed, on a barge bed or a held tide dock.


Thames sailing barges were the heavy goods vehicles of their time, moving 150  tons of loose cargo at a time from outside the capital to the city. They brought in coal for the furnaces, bricks to construct mills and houses, and hay for the horses. Barges were used to transport rubbish from various cities out to the brickfields where it was used as fuel; it was only for the last mile of the trip to the brickfields that road transport had to be used.[5]


Thames sailing barges, with typical red-brown sails, in the East Swin[6]

Early life[edit]

By the 1880s, there were three types of sailing barges: stumpies, river barges and coasters.[citation needed] SB Centaur, built for Charles Stone of Mistley,[7] was to be used for coastal trade. She was launched on the 15 February 1895 by John and Herbert Cann at the Bathside yard, Gashouse Creek, Harwich.[8] March relates that she was built specifically for the 1899 Medway Barge Race and that construction took six weeks.[9] [10] She won the race, passing over the finishing line at Upnor ​2 12 minutes ahead of SB Giralda.[11] The Mistley barges worked Dunkirk, Calais, Antwerp, Ostend, Alderney, Bruges and the Netherlands, from ports including Dover, Rochester, London, Lowestoft, Goole, Shoreham, Southampton and Newport.[8]

World War I[edit]

In the First World War, SB Centaur joined her sister barges taking foodstuffs and large quantities of coal, coke, and pitch to the French ports of Le Treport, Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. Commonly there were 180 barges discharging at Le Treport. They sailed over enemy mines due to their shallow draught, and were too small to attract enemy U-boots. These were profitable runs as carriage was charged at £6 a ton.[8] In fog, the Centaur was struck amidships by a CMB (coastal motor boat)[when?] which mounted her deck and settled on her main hatch. Both boats were undamaged and the Centaur returned home and safely unloaded her cargo.[8][10]

Inter-war years[edit]

After the war, she resumed coastal trade. Ephraim Cripps was her skipper for twenty years and kept records of each voyage. Colchester was her main port from 1928 to 1930, and she worked the Essex and Suffolk coasts.[8] In 1933 she joined the Colchester fleet of Francis and Gilders Ltd transporting grain between Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, into London.

World War II[edit]

The first major civilian maritime event of the Second World War was the Dunkirk evacuation where hundreds of small ships rescued allied soldiers from the beaches. Like many of the sailing barge fleet Centaur sailed down to the assembly point at Dover, where she was damaged by a tug and so was unable to make the crossing. The rest of the conflict was spent doing 'war work', and afterwards she resumed working the grain trade. [1]


In January 1952, in force 6–7 winds with seas breaking across her hatches, her steering gear broke and distress rockets were fired. She was given a tow into Colne by the SB Saxon. Francis and Gilders Ltd were the last 'seeker barges', barges that sought any cargo; they merged with the London and Rochester Trading Company in 1951. The new owners were intent on selling on these barges, and Centaur took her last cargo in 1955. Centaur, George Smeed, Kitty and Mirosa were sold to Brown & Son of Chelmsford, de-masted, de-registered and used as timber lighters.[1]


  • 1895 Charles Stone.
  • c. 1900 Dolly Rogers.
  • 1911 Ted Hibbs.
  • 1915, John Sawyer.
  • 1933, Francis & Gilders
  • 1951, L.R.T.C. (London and Rochester Trading Company)
  • 1955, Brown & Co. Where she was derigged for use as a timber lighter.
  • 2017, Marcus Oliver Andersen

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Barge Trust 2013.
  2. ^ March 1948, p. 15.
  3. ^ March 1948, p. 11.
  4. ^ March 1948, p. 3.
  5. ^ March 1948, p. 1.
  6. ^ East Swin is a deep channel to the east of Foulness Point, Essex: Admiralty Chart SC5606, April 2004)
  7. ^ Benham 1986, p. 97.
  8. ^ a b c d e WW1 Survivor 2017.
  9. ^ March 1948, p. 97.
  10. ^ a b Carr 1951, p. 245.
  11. ^ March 1948, p. 153.


  • "Centaur -delivering the goods". First World War: Britain’s surviving vessels. Retrieved 13 May 2017. 
  • Carr, Frank (1951). Sailing Barges. London: Peter Davies. 
  • March, Edgar (1948). Spritsail barges of Thames and Medway. London: Percival Marshall. 
  • "Centaur". Thames Sailing Barge Trust. 11 December 2013. Retrieved 13 May 2017. 
  • Benham, Hervey; Kershaw, Philip; Finch, Roger (1986). Down tops'l : the story of the East Coast sailing-barges (3rd ed.). London: Harrap. ISBN 0-245-54487-9. 

External links[edit]