Working on a Thames Sailing Barge

A.J.Lodge b.1874 

Thanks to K Lodge for permission to share this story.



My earliest recollections are of living in a small four roomed cottage in a small street known as Shepherd Street, Barrack Fields, Northfleet, Kent.  Then a small parish partly industrial and partly agricultural close to the banks of the River Thames with a main London to Dover road passing through it, called the London Road, from which owing to its close vicinity to the river banks, one could get a lovely view of the River known as Northfleet Reach, visualising Grays on the left and Tilbury on the right, both in Essex, and our means of transport to such was via the ferry which crossed the river from Gravesend to Tilbury.


Among my earliest recollections are the attending of a small private school at the bottom of our street for a few weeks till after my baby sister was born, when I was nearly three, to be accurate I believe I was two years and ten months old.  When I first went to this school it consisted of a small room seating about 20 children like myself.  Soon afterwards I was sent to a National School about ¾ of a mile away, and was there till my sister began to attend, also very young. Then we were both transferred from the Rosherville National School to the Northfleet National School belonging to the Northfleet Parish Church.


Our amenities during our school days were not many.  Our playgrounds were not big enough to ‘swing a cat in’, so we made the best use of outside facilities, our swimming baths were some running streams about a mile away or the marshes on the banks of the Thames two miles away.  And most of us to partake of the facilities were saddled with a younger brother or sister to care for but we took them with us.  At the age of eleven I started swimming in the fresh water streams of Springhead, famous for its water cress and by the time I left school I was able to swim very well.


I was about 11-12 years of age and had reached Standard VII when my mother informed me I should have to leave school and get a job.  When my mother informed my schoolmaster he was upset and pleaded with her to let me stop and be trained for a pupil teacher which my school efficiency placed me high enough to be trained for such and as my other qualifications were then better, nothing could hinder me, if I had stayed on till 16, being trained and helping among the infants. However that was not to be, I know the dire struggle my mother was having. I was the eldest of six and very often there was only a small sum to keep us all, when dad was on short time about 14/- or 16/- to keep us all, besides paying rent then about 4/- a week.


After leaving school at the age of eleven, I found my first job working for the village dairyman and farmer.  Up at 5 a.m. a mile to walk then out on to the fields to fetch the cows into the cow sheds, feed them with their grain and meal, while they were milked, after, letting them out to graze in the fields again.  Off to the home of the dairyman close by where I lived, and while they skimmed the milk of its cream I had breakfast.

 Then off with the pony and cart full of milk churns, delivering to the village in pint and ½ pint cans or jars.  Then back to the farm working among the growing vegetables till dinner time.  After dinner again fetch the cows in to be fed and milked while eating. 


Here let me say I never had anything to do with the milking, again up to the home and while milk was skimmed I had my tea, then off again on the rounds with milk for our village. 


I do not know how many months I worked at this job but I felt I could earn more at the local cement factories, so I left.  My wages had been 2/6d per week and my breakfast was at the dairy farm. I made my way down to the cement works with other old school chums at 6 a.m.  We were there and after a few days made a start.  This time handling staves here let me explain.  In order to export cement besides bags in those days most of the cement after manufacture was put into casks or barrels made of wood and every cement works had its cooperage where skilled workmen were employed in making these casks from wood that was brought to this country in sailing ships from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and these vessels came over loaded, not only were the holds filled but the decks also, every bit of space was occupied with staves. They were called stave ships and there was always a demand for boys to help unload these ships as soon as they arrived, and as there were several cement factories alongside of each other we boys were able to  transfer our labour from one to the other.  This job was always a summer job as no ships were able to get over in winter months.


Handling staves means picking up pieces of thin timber already cut to size and shape to fit into these casks to hold the cement.  Our job was to pick up as many of these staves as we could handle and pass them from boy to boy or man to man from the vessel to the shore, where, put in wagons they were taken to the cooperage and then piled up into stacks about 20 ft high and about 2 ft 6 ins square, easy to stack or unload.  Our wages were 10d per day or 1d per hour from 6 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. 10 hours work 1-1/2 hours for meals.


From this intermittent job, I got engaged permanently on the works of Messrs Robins & Co Ltd. who beside making or manufacturing Portland Cement, had a large fleet of sailing barges to bring the raw materials such as coal, coke and clay needed for the manufacture, but also carried the cement either in the casks or bags to various places for use but most of it was transhipped to the London Docks and put into ships for other lands. 


After some months I got promoted to the job of sticking on labels and hooking the same casks or barrels of cement to be shipped into the sailing barges, wages were 7/6d per week.  Then I got another shift up, this time I was under the control or employed by the gang of men who were responsible for filling the bags and barrels full of cement and for transporting the same via wagons and steam cranes to put on board the sailing barges for shipment either to the London Docks or wharves in most cases for re-shipment to other countries, and my job was to take the empty barrels and bags to the men who filled them.


For this I received the sum of 1d per 100 bags and 2d per hundred barrels.  Of course I didn’t take all these bags and barrels to them, as I was for the best part of the day engaged in going to and fro from the cement warehouses to the public house just outside the factory gates. On an average I fetched 10 or 12 pints of beer at a time and very often when the weather was hot and the cement very dusty, as soon as I got back with their beer, I was sent off again to fetch more. 


Now while I was at this job I became friendly with the men who sailed these barges up and down the Thames.  One young man a little older than I was about 18 I should think, Will Tremaine, who was an apprentice, became very friendly and one day he said “How would you like to go on the water as a waterman and sail up and down the Thames on a sailing barge”.  Now there was nothing I wished for more.  I had already, with a chum or two, sailed up the Thames as far as Woolwich on one Sunday and came back ready for our work on the Monday in the cement warehouse again so of course I said I should like it very much. 


Some months later my friend who was acting as Mate on the Sailing Barge W.H.F. was transferred as Mate to another barge (The William Paxton). His own father was captain so father and son were together.  A few weeks later the captain of the ( W H F ) came and asked me whether I would like to be the Mate of his vessel as the young man he had, had become addicted to drink and he discharged him so I started on my next experience that of a waterman. 


A few months later I was apprenticed to my captain.  I well remember the experience of attending the Watermans Hall close to the Monument and Tower and my mother who had to come to give her consent to my being apprenticed for five years to Mr Isaac Grey my captain and here let me say I was very lucky as my captain was a Christian a member of the Methodist Church.  His father was also a captain of another barge in the same firm.  Now I found that I was under the control of my captain to such an extent that he was responsible for my food, clothes and home and for learning me how to navigate the vessel up and down the Thames.  This meant boxing the compass and knowing the direction of the tides in the river Thames and Medway, whether flood or ebb.  This began a new experience which I thoroughly enjoyed for I loved the water having learnt to swim as a boy.  At the age of 15 when I became apprenticed I could dive and swim like a duck. 


Thus my life was one of variety and change, cargoes of cement we took to all the various docks and wharves, and it was a great thrill to be able to have a look around the various districts outside of the docks while we were waiting to be unloaded, and sometimes in the evening with my captain I would be taken to a Variety or Music Hall programme.  As he was responsible for my moral character he was careful to see that I saw those programmes which did not affect my morals and for nearly three years I was under his supervision and I thank God for him.  I then was promoted to a larger vessel under a different captain.


I was on this vessel for nearly twelve months.   During this time one incident I remember very well.  Another sailing barge came into collision one night and hit us right on the stern, driving the stern back and deck planks which partly closed the forecastle, but this was nothing compared to what happened the next day.  After sailing up to the Pool close to the entrance of London Docks we dropped anchor and proceeded to lower the masts and sails down to the decks so that we could go under the bridges to Blackfriars where our cargo of cement was destined for.  While my captain was about to lower the gear I was standing on the main hatch with a view to keeping the sails clear of the mast. As soon as he started letting the wire cable run through the blocks the weight of the mast and sails pulled the broken stern out of it’s position and the whole lot fell down with a crash.  My captain was filled with terror as he looked around expecting to see me killed under the crash, I shall never forget the look of terror on his face as I crawled out form underneath with no more dangerous injury than a torn jersey and skin ripped off where the rigging wire cable had tore across my back as it pinned me down to the deck. 


Of course I was sore for a few weeks but my captain was laid aside for about 6 weeks with shock.  As he said he thought there could be no hope for my escape from serious injury or death.  Soon after he returned I received another shift to another vessel a bit larger, but this one was mostly sailing down the Thames and up the Medway for cargoes of clay. Now and then we went up to the docks with a cargo of cement. 

During my experience on this vessel I used to go with my captain when in London to public houses and at his request I played the mandolin.  I am sorry to say though he was a splendid waterman and sailor he was fond of drink.  I was able to keep from it.  I drank lemonade or ginger beer every time I was asked to drink but my captain very often came back to our vessel intoxicated. 

One night we were due to sail down the Thames at midnight. We started but as soon as we did my captain, very intoxicated, called me to take the wheel and he went down to the cabin.  We left Greenwich about midnight and arrived off Northfleet Creek about 5.30 a.m. during that time I was kept busy as the wind was easterly this meant tacking all the way down and at every opportunity I slipped down into the cabin to see how my captain was faring. 

The first time I went down I found him asleep and his legs had got up on top of the kitchen range, fortunately he had his knee boots on.  I was able to shift them to a safe place.  He slept on till we dropped anchor and he was grateful for my services.  Let me say this part of my experiences was a very helpful one. 

I came in contact with people of all countries in the docks of London in fact we bargemen always enjoyed our fellowship with those we met especially of the European countries. Germans, Belgians, French, Dutch, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Russians, Italians, Greeks Portuguese & Spanish.  Most of these came over in sailing vessels, with cargoes various, but for the majority brought timber.  The larger liners and transport ships that came from the States and Colonies, viz Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada, Africa, Egypt, Asia, China, Japan and South America; this experience was of great value to us as we realised what a vast place the world was, not by looking at maps but by personal contact. 


I had spent six years on the water and was qualified to take charge of a barge, having passed exams and received my licence from the Watermans Hal,l London to do so.


Thus I commenced work at various factories of the cement industry.  At this time I was very friendly with a young lady who afterwards became my wife.  We had corresponded for some months and she was pleased at the fact I could now see her every week when she had her evening off.  She was 2 years my junior and one of the finest young women I ever met.  When I became established at the works where I was employed, I was then about 22 and she was 20, we decided to get married, while our love for each other was great. 

The chief factor which caused us to marry so young was the fact I was in lodgings (due to the fact there was no room to take me at home) small cottages, small wages and big families were the chief characteristics of those days.  My wife also had to keep at service. 


So we took each other for better or worse on a Sunday morning 9 a.m. June 6th 1897 (Whitsunday) Diamond Jubilee year of the late Queen Victoria.  Here again another incident happened.  I worked with a gang of men on the washmills at a cement works at Greenhithe, Kent and the week I was getting married we all came out on strike over the wage questions.  I was but a boy compared with my chums who were all old enough to be my father, but I had to come out with them, though I was satisfied with my wages, so on the Whit Saturday preceding my wedding day I was out of work.  We decided to carry on however and next morning (Sunday) I with a friend went to the Church and was married.  My wife’s sister being her bridesmaid and my friend my best man.  It was a good thing for us my wife’s grandmother was at the Church as she was under legal age, but the Vicar received the grandmother’s assurance that her mother was willing.  Her father was dead.  We walked to and from the Church about 2 miles and our Wedding Breakfast was usual Sunday dinner, and after dinner I fulfilled an engagement with the band of which I was cornet player.  We went to our new home together at Greenhithe, Kent about 6 miles from my wife’s mothers home where we had spent the day.  We had taken a little cottage, four small rooms and a scullery if I remember right.  Rent was 4/- weekly.  We spent our honeymoon in the Rosherville Gardens, Gravesend on Whit Monday.  These gardens were the famous rendezvous for Londoners, as many as ten thousand people from London sometimes come there on bank holidays and weekends. Well we had the first day of our new life together and next morning I set out from home to look for a new job.  I went to another cement works about 2 miles from home and made a start, and worked for 36 hours right off apart from meal times.  So I was kept on at this works for nearly 6 months. 


And let me say I found that God had given to me one of the best partners a man could have.  Wages were not very large, on an average I earned about 30/- weekly and we were buying our home during that period. 


At the end of November a big tidal wave came up the Thames and broke through the sea walls and flooded the fields and marshes right close to our little back garden and I left my job to help repair the sea walls right close to our home.  For about 6 weeks up to Christmas I was thus at work. 

The first week of the New Year I had to get a new Job.  I did so at the cement works right close to my little cottage and for nearly 12 years I worked at all sorts of work in connection with cement making in fact I can say that every aspect and phase of cement making, I had something to do with from the digging of chalk in the quarry and unloading coal, coke and clay form barges such as I had at one time sailed up and down the River Thames and Medway on.


At the washmills, cement kilns, cement mills and then at times filling bags and barrels with the cement thus manufactured at the Works of Messrs J.C Johnson & Co Ltd Greenhithe.  In 1898 our first daughter came along and soon afterwards we moved about 2 miles away to another village called Galley Hill, Swanscombe. 


For some weeks I had been discussed by the members of the Methodist Church and its Minister Rev James Brace Evans, as a probable convert, though I did not know it, so a week’s special mission was arranged, conducted by the minister and a Mr Fuller an ex Lieutenant of the Salvation Army, but now a Methodist lay preacher. The week for the special mission had been arranged from Sunday Oct 23rd to Oct 30th the following Sunday and the main object of it was the conversion of myself.  On Sunday Oct 23rd I went with my wife and our baby daughter to the evening service and at the close after appealing for support for the weeks mission I was asked personally of course you will be coming Mr Lodge. “ I’m afraid I wont” I said. 


Their consternation at my reply was reduced a bit when I said “I start night work tonight at 12 p.m. and every night during this week from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. so I cannot come”.  They were no doubt disappointed. 

The job I was working at was one in which six of us in a gang had to work one week night work every six weeks and this was my turn.  So I went to work Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and each day I heard all about the special services and numbers who attended.  On Thursday evening I left home about 5 p.m. and arrived at the cement works about 5.30 p.m. and while walking to my allotted place of labour the night foreman met me and said, I’m afraid you will have to go back home tonight Lodge your job is not ready for you, now we had this sort of thing happen now and then but very rare. So I said very well I’ll go back, and home I went. 

My wife was surprised to see me and said perhaps you’ll come to the mission service tonight as you have a night off from work.  I fell in with her suggestion, changed into my best clothes and went with her to the little chapel and what a surprise when the minister, stewards and others saw me come in, yet they had been praying for me.  Well that night Oct 27th 1898 I went out and knelt down in penitence and was gloriously saved, that night Esther 5 1/ so their prayers were answered.


Well I was soon roped in as a Sunday School Teacher.  Then elected vice president of the C.E. Society my training ground for Christian service and a year later I was appointed a probationer for lay preaching and on June 4th 1901 I was ordained and admitted to full plan as a Lay Preacher and by the Grace of God I was used also in Special Missions to be a blessing to others.  I filled the office of secretary of the Church and superintendent of the S. School and for a time choir leader and was able to go into many country villages as well as towns preaching the Gospel with great acceptance.  Also my workmates found I could be of use to them in speaking, I became a Labour Councillor and Trade Union Sec. of the local branch of the Navvies and General Labourers Union and I was their spokesman in all labour disputes and in 1906 there came a General Election in which Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman became Prime Minister, and I took a prominent part in the local election meetings for we adopted a Mr Rylands a Liberal-Labour candidate and I was the leader of the community singing at all the local meetings in the various villages and for the first time we turned out Sir William Hunt Dyke the Tory candidate for 40 years. He had been our M.P.

The result of this was my being discharged from the cement works where I had been for 10 years with never a black mark for being late or absent.  Of course all my chums knew, as I did, my politics did not suit my Tory masters and here is where I first felt bitter against my fellow workers not one of them stood by me, but let me be discharged without a protest for my political convictions only.


But I found a friend liberal in politics who got me a fresh start as a foreman over a gang of labourers at a new paper works that was being built at Greenhithe belonging to press, People, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph etc.


Now during the past few years in spite of my varied political and labour activities I had been pursuing my theological studies with the hopes one day of entering the Ministry.  I passed in 1907 and 1908 and obtained two certificates but as I was not only married but we had three children, I found this was a bar to my entering college.  At this time I came into contact with two London City Missionaries who had come to our village as delegates for the Annual Gatherings of the Independent Order of Rachabites and I was the local secretary of this branch.  I was host to the two friends who occupied the pulpits of our local Meth & Baptist Churches and it was through their help, I applied to the London City Mission to enter its ranks as a Missioner. 

The General Secretary had sent me the forms to fill up in October 1908 and after a personal interview with the General Secretary in November I was accepted as a candidate to be sent for when a vacancy occurred and in April 1909 I passed all my entrance examinations & physical and commenced to work for the London City Mission on May 10th officially but a week earlier unofficially. 


At this time as I look back over the past years I cannot help but feel that my past experiences were all going to be a help in my new ministry viz commencing work at the age of 11 all manner of work at cement factories till 16 then for 6 years a waterman up and down the Thames and Medway on a sailing barge then again on cement works working amongst coal, coke, chalk, clay, cement, bricks and then loading ships from a jetty over the Thames of which we loaded one ship with a 1,000 tons of chalk at one spell 1 a.m. Sat morning till 10 p.m. Sat night.


What an education, everything practical in every sphere of human labour and activity including politics and trade unionism.  Now all that is ended and I begin a new sphere of human activity among human beings.  My first sphere of active service was in the notorious district of Notting Dale or Kensington Potteries.  An area made famous by the notorious criminals that lived there, and what a district,  furnished rooms, tenements, lodging houses and laundries.









(Document origin:-