Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Charles Hay and Sons, barge and lighter builders

Charles Hay and Son,
Rotherhithe Street
As you walk into Rotherhithe village from the direction of the bascule bridge (heading upriver), Charles Hay and Sons appears on the right at 135 Rotherhithe Street, SE16 4NF.  As the door says, the business was first established in 1789.  A rather fine nineteenth century building, part of it has been now been converted into apartments.

Reverend E.J. Beck provides the information that Charles Hay was the son of one Francis Theodore Hay, who died in 1838 at the age of 70 and was buried at the west of St Mary's churchyard.  Beck does not say what Francis Hay did for a living, but The Gentleman Magazine (195) of that year gives a good account of his life, which gives the background to Charles Hay and Son Ltd.  Francis Hay had started out as a waterman, worked his way up to a master-lighterman, becoming a barge owner and amassing a fortune, estimated by The Gentleman's Magazine at some £100,000.  He was a staunch conservative. During the course of his career he was a member of the Court of Assistants of the Watermen's Company and was the first Master of the company when in it was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1827.  He was one of the Queen's watermen and a King's waterman in the three preceding reigns.  His funeral was very well attended by local dignitaries, shipbuilders, businessmen, traders and "poorer classes," with local shops and businesses closing for the day as a mark of respect.  Francis Hay's estate was bequeathed to his son Charles Hay.

London Lighterman. 
Portcities website
. c.1910.
All of the roles that Francis Hay performed are part of the greater social, business and  political circle in which the lighter and barge operators and builders functioned.  Watermen were (and are) those in charge of boats that convey passengers along and across the Thames and other rivers.  Lightermen take their name from lighters, the boats used to transport goods between ships moored in the Thames and quaysides.  The Watermen's Company (later the Company of Watermen and Lightermen) was a City Guild, acting on the interests of its members.

Charles Hay was clearly a successful lighterman and barge builder in his own right, having established his own business in 1789, a long time before his father's death nearly forty years later, although it is entirely likely that he had financial assistance from his family to start out.  He was also involved in the wider world of Thames boat building, was a Queen's waterman and a Master of the Watermen's company.  He built himself a substantial house on Lower Road, which eventually became a Vicarage for the parish of Christ Church.

Thames Barges on the Thames Estuary
Photograph by James Gray

Barges and lighters do not have the same prestige or expense associated with the large sailing ships and paddle steamers posted about to date.  They were very much the workhorses rather than the thoroughbreds of their world, and they were produced to a fairly standardized formula, so tracing individual barges is rarely possible.  However, barges and lighters were the nuts and bolts of the Port of London industries, delivering construction supplies to the riverside wharves and taking over where the big sailing ships left off, redistributing their cargo to wherever it was needed next.

There are a handful of the larger nineteenth century Thames barges left today, some seagoing, with wooden hulls, attractive low lines, reddish-brown sails on two masts, shallow flat-bottomed draughts (which allowed them to rest, beached, at low tide), lee boards, sprits and spritsails.  Nineteenth century photographs of the Thames show large numbers of them, and one or two survive today.

Lighters were smaller barges, flat-bottomed and used exclusively for transferring cargo between ships moored in the Thames and the quaysides.  Astonishingly, they were unpowered, relying on the tide for propulsion up and down river, and on large oars to direct the vessels. 

Charles Hay and Son,
Rotherhithe Street
135 Rotherhithe Street, SE16 4NF, was the base for the Charles Hay and Sons lighter and barge building operations.  Although the business was established in 1789, this building dates to around 50 or 60 years later, and was certainly standing in 1857.  A photograph from 1937 shows it with an open river frontage with two barges beached immediately in front of it, clearly marked Charles Hay and Son Ltd on the Thames side, flanked by tall brick-built granaries, of which Brandram's Wharf remains, and it probably hadn't changed much over time.  It is now Grade II listed (TQ3530279943) and is, to all appearances, very well maintained.  Here's the description from the British Listed Buildings website:

Stock brick with pitched slate roof with range of clerestory lights; gabled ends to north and south, that to street coped and with kneelers, that to river plain. 2 storeys, 3 bays. Street elevation has 3 tall segmental-arched openings with hatch (now adapted) over central works entrance. Brick string between floors. River elevation has altered ground floor and openings, small hoist hatch in gable. All windows have gauged brick segmental arches. INTERIOR: not inspected. Occupied by Charles Hay and Son, barge owners, builders and repairers, established 1789. A rare survival of its kind.

The top floor was a sail loft, and this has been converted into apartments. 

A very fuzzy photograph of the
premises in 1937, with the
Charles Hay and Son Ltd. sign
 on the Thames-facing side with
two barges beached outside.
As well as his son Charles, Francis Hays's two daughters, Eleanor Russell and Elizabeth Hay, set up a fund in memory of their father the year after his death  for the benefit of impoverished Rotherhithe residents.  They donated the sum of £200, the interest from which was to provide "good dark blue great-coats and cloaks for the benefit of six or eight poor men and women belonging to the Parish of Rotherhithe, watermen and their wives and widows always having preference" (Beck, p.171).  The rector and church-wardens of the parish were entrusted with the task each Christmas.  

Charles Hay died in 1868 at the age of 78, and was buried in the family tomb in St Mary's churchyard, along with his father and mother (Eleanor Gordon Hay who died at the age of 33), amongst other family members.  His daughter married George Legg, an architect who was a surveyor to the Vestry of Rotherhithe, but I have found nothing about his son, with whom he was in business.  By the time that Beck was writing in 1907 the business had passed into the hands of Charles's grandson, another Francis Theodore, who was resident in France but left the company in the hands of two mangers: Mr John M. Plaice and Mr Grey.

The riverside face of Charles Hay and Son
today, taken from the Thames Clipper, hence
the rather wobbly focus!

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