Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Launch of the lighter "Apprentice Lighterman" built at South Dock by Bill Robinson

Built at South Dock and launched today in high winds and pouring rain, the 15 ton Apprentice Lighterman was launched at noon today surrounded by a damp but very cheerful and splendidly heartfelt crowd of supporters.

As well as the lovely builder, Bill Robinson (of the Thames Barge Driving Trust), the barge's welder Matt and countless helpers, supporters and well-wishers was the Master of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, John Salter.  

For those unfamiliar with lighters, they are unpowered flat-bottomed barges propelled by human effort.  They are anything but streamlined and are designed to carry cargo, so consist mainly of a large, hollow cargo hold.  Lighters were essential to the infrastructure of the Surrey Commercial Docks, "lightening" ships of their cargo and taking it to quaysides and other ships.  They had a long-standing history of doing this in the Thames but when the docks came, and were seen as a threat to lighterman livelihoods, new arrangements had to be made to grant them free access to the docks and carry on their tasks.  As you can see in the photograph above, where they swarm around a ship in Greenland Dock in 1958, just beyond today's underpass between Greenland Dock and Surrey Quays shopping centre.  They were in invaluable part of dock life, requiring great skill and experience to manipulate with vast oars called "sweeps."  Inevitably they were put out of business by technology, including mobile cranes, and later by containerization.

At 12 noon we all stood back as the crane lifted her gently from her blocks, swung her slowly round and lowered her in to South Dock, just short of the water.  At this point the Chaplain gave a blessing, the Mistress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen gave her a Champagne send-off and then she was lowered slowly into the water, officially launched to riotous applause and shouts of congratulation.

The original plan was to row her up and down Greenland Dock, but the Harbour Master deemed the weather too bad and this was therefore vetoed.  However, she will be taking part in the July 15th Thames Barge Driving Race, manned by a crew consisting of three - two to row and one to man the rudder, all using sweeps.  The race has been run every year since 1975.

My thanks to Bill for inviting my friend Jeanette, who invited me.  It was a super event, a classic confirmation that the British weather is never allowed to ruin a great occasion.  We all trooped back, under hoods and brollies, to the Moby Dick where Bill had arranged for drinks and a buffet lunch.  There was an excellent speech by John Salter, followed by a short one by Bill, who presented The Company of Watermen and Lightermen with a framed photo history of the building of the barge.  It was an honour to attend.  Lighters are part of the heritage of the London docks and to have a new one launched in 2017 is a marvellous event.

The photos of the event are not the best - trying to hold the brolly during a gale in one hand whilst taking photos one-handed with a thunking great camera in the other was never going to produce the most stunning results - but they are sufficient to give an idea of what it was all about.

Bill Robinson at the Moby Dick following the launch

A wet and windy day!

Apprentice Ligtherman on the blocks


Being shifted towards the dock

The lowering of the barge into the dock was paused for official
launch speeches, the blessing and Champagne

Safely launched

Master of the Company of Watermen
and Lightermen, John Salter, giving
a fine speech following the launch

One of the last lighters laden with timber entering the Surrey Canal from the Greenland Dock in June 1970,
when most of the canal and the Surrey Commercial Docks had closed. 10 June 1970
National Maritime Museum National Maritime Museum
Portcities website: http://bit.ly/2ryjvof

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