Barges and the Port            

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The Wivenhoe Encyclopedia

 Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

Barges and the Port

For centuries the Hythe, up river from Wivenhoe, was Colchester’s cargo port, th4 destiny for many Thames barges, and downstream Brighlingsea was a fishing port and yachting centre. Both were larger than Wivenhoe’s port. But there had been several small quays and warehouses in Wivenhoe in the past, and some fish is still being landed. From 1966, however, Gliksten’s – later Meredith’s - operated a much larger scale timber port on the site of the former Wivenhoe Shipyard. This was succeeded in 1981 by the general purpose Wivenhoe Port Ltd., which was to close after considerable friction in 1988: a story to which we return in our section on `Narratives of Change’. Colchester’s Hythe port also closed in 2005.  

Barges - Freda Annis 

The barges used to come up. Oh, they were beautiful! The stackies, with the straw. It used to be stacked up so high! And there was only just that little bit of the boat above the waterline, and I used to think, ‘How on earth do they get them all up there like that?’ But wonderful old boats. They were taking the straw to the Hythe. I’ve kicked myself sometimes! I had a notebook I used to put the names of all the barges in. Of course, I don’t know what happened to it. I suppose I chucked them out. But, oh, I have kicked myself about that, because I loved the barges. But they used to bring up cattle cake and stuff, used to go up to Pertwee’s at the Hythe. Because the Hythe was a fascinating place in those days, there were great big granaries and that up there. It really was very interesting. But we used to sit on the Quay, ‘Oh, here come the barges.’ And, I mean, there were three or four would come up at a time. And it’s lovely to see them still out.

Of course there were several men from the Hythe who used to go down - there was one man, in particular, used to cycle down to what we called the ‘Third Stile,’ and then the barge would come up that far, just past the iron bridge, and one of the men would come over in a boat and he would pilot it up the river. It was difficult to know the landmarks. Well, there was so much silt. They used to have a boat at the Hythe, the mud dredger, and it had sort of a circle, like a bucket, and they used to go up and down the river and take it up and then dump it on the marshes. So I’ve often wondered what’s happened because I wouldn’t think, if the barrier was shut, they’d ever get it open if it’s silted up like that.

Bill Webb

Then, in those days, Thames barges used to sail up to Colchester and they would quite often tack up here past Wivenhoe, and a number of times I’d be out in the yard, and stand on the rail there and just watch them tack, and they were brilliant, those skippers. They could come across that river, and they could tack, and the stern would come round like that and miss us by a hair’s breadth! Brilliant! At one time, they used to bring horse manure from the horse buses in London, for fertiliser on the farms, and take hay back for the horses. They used to call them ‘stackies.’ There was a lot of those barges around, even during the War. 

The demise of the harbour - Peter Hill

There was more than one occasion when the people who operated the barrier were either late in bringing the gates together, particularly at night – because it’s not a manned barrier, so they would have to call people out. And eventually, they worked out that they should be in touch with some monitoring station in Peterborough, that could give a more accurate estimation of what’s likely to happen with wind and tide, and so there was more notice given to the EA people, and they would get a team of people then to go and close the gates. And they were leaving it closer to the last minute - I can’t remember the exact figures now but when the tide had risen so high, then it was only then that it was too late to close the barrier and they got caught out. So we took the issue up with them and they agreed to revise their practices. But I guess that was a regular feature for people living on the Quay, during the Seventies and Eighties, all the frontages had sandbags in the front of their houses, and the water would regularly come two or three feet over the Quay. And it was very eerie in those days, as well. You could be standing in the Rose and Crown, having a drink, and then suddenly this grey shadow of a big vessel would go past the window. It was fun, in its own way.  

And when the harbour was closed, actually by Act of Parliament in the 1990s there would have been something like three to four hundred shipping movements on the Colne – that would be vessels up to about 1,200 tonnes, coastal vessels – so that was a regular part of the feature of Wivenhoe. There’s some wonderful pictures that the Nottage have still got - photographs taken of the ship launches and things, sometimes the vessel being stuck on the river bank on the other side, there are one or two stories like that kicking around from those days. Yes, so that’s a sad change. Colchester had been losing money on the harbour operations for years. Costs around the harbour were greater than the revenues it was able to charge, so I’m not sure whether it was just the Borough Council, I think it was some bigger legislation that it shouldn’t have been the responsibility of the Borough Council ratepayer to subsidise the harbour. And then the number of vessels started to dwindle with the loss of Wivenhoe Port here. There were probably one or two ships a week, at least, coming into the harbour because of the Wivenhoe Port, so the days were numbered, so it took an Act of Parliament to extinguish an historic right, I guess, of vessels to come up the river. And the Borough Council had to provide pilotage and manage the river, and provide all the buoyage down the river, and dredging – the cost of dredging was enormous – so it was a river that was slowly silting up.

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Last updated:
05 January 2015

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