Barges, Sales Point, Essex, (c) Ian Hay

Britain from the Air - Barges

Barges capture the spirit of the era before motor vehicles, when wind and horse power prevailed

The heyday of sailing barges was in the early 20th century, in the era before diesel ships and articulated lorries. They were cargo vessels, workhorses that transported and traded goods along coastal seas and estuaries around Britain, especially the Thames estuary and Essex coast. Powered only by the wind, their flat bottoms allowed them to travel in shallow estuary water to load and unload bulk materials for building and farming. At their peak some 2,000 barges were in use.

Today, they are mostly kept for leisure and nostalgic value. Every year in Maldon, Essex a sailing barge race is held from one of the historic building yards. This unusual photo shows the steel shells of barges moored across the Blackwater estuary in Essex.

The canal revolution

Until the 18th century, most heavy goods were moved across Britain on long trains of pack horses. With the growing demands of the Industrial Revolution, more capacity was needed. Rivers were of limited use, being mostly small and not connected together. So, a programme of canal building was begun that eventually created a network across Britain. 

Early canal barges, unlike the sail barges of the seas, were pulled by men using ropes. Later, towpaths were added so that horses could do the work. On the road, a horse could pull a cart weighing 2 tonnes. The same horse could pull a river barge carrying 90 tonnes.

A cosy home?

Canal boats and barges have become popular alternatives to houses in these times of high property prices. Demand for moorings for canal boats is increasing rapidly and the Canal and River Trust, who operate most of the country’s canals, has announced that it will create 11,000 new berths by 2020. Around 15,000 people live on boats in Britain and with boats available for as little as £20,000, they are an affordable option.

Of course, there are some disadvantages associated with living on a boat, like cleaning the chemical toilet and refilling water tanks, not to mention the cosy space. 

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Location: Barges, Sales Point, Essex
Grid reference: TM 02577 09772

Britain from the Air - Barges credits

Thank you to -

Ian Hay for aerial photography

Text researched and written by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Some sailing barges were part of the fleet of 'Little Ships' that took soldiers back to England from Dunkirk in World War ll.