Thames Barges – A short guide and some paintings

The Thames Sailing barge was a Commercial sailing boat very common in the South and East of England in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. These flat bottomed barges could navigate the shallow rivers of South Easy England and lower their last to get below bridges.

The barges also traded much further afield, to the north of England, the South Coast and even to continental European ports. Cargoes were very varied and could be : Bricks, mud, coal,or grain , for example.


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 feet (6 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.

They were usually spritsail rigged on two masts. Most had a topsail above the huge nain sail and a large fore sail. The mizzen was a much smaller rear mast on which was set a single sail whose main purpose was to aid steering when tacking.  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, and seawater). No auxiliary power was used originally but many barges were fitted with engines in later years.


In good conditions, sailing barges could attain speeds over 12 knots, and their leeboards allowed them to be highly effective windward performers. The unusual sprits’l rig allowed any combination of sails to be set: even the topsail on its own could be effective in some conditions. By the end of the 19th Century around 2000 barges were registered, but today there are still quite a lot preserved and sailing still.

Today there are still good number of preserved Thames barges and they can be charted for personal use.

Gatherings of them occur regularly and races take place as they did when they were used for commercial transport.

They make great sight either by a dock or out at sea.

If you would like to know more the following website is very good.

I have always liked painting them and here are a few examples.

Kent, The Barge Race

Barges racing in the Thames Estuary


A barge moored at Hollowshore near Faversham.


Waiting for the Tide.



A Barge passing Upnor castle in Kent

Barges at Faversham

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