CENTAUR was a sprit-sail barge launched on 15 February 1895 by John and Herbert Cann at their Bathside yard in Gashouse Creek, Harwich, for Charles Stone of Mistley. Her early trade took CENTAUR to Dunkirk, Calais, Antwerp, Ostend, Alderney, Bruges and the Netherlands, from a variety of home ports including Dover, Rochester, London, Lowestoft, Goole, Shoreham, Southampton and Newport.
The barges played an important part during the First World War, carrying supplies from England to the Continent. Bargemen were exempt from all other forms of war service. With their shallow draught barges could sail over anchored mines, and were too small a target for submarines to justify a torpedo. Up to 180 English barges could be seen in the French port of Le Treport at any one time; others visited Calais, Dunkirk and other continental ports.
The cargoes carried by the barges during the war consisted mainly of foodstuffs and large quantities of coal, coke and pitch. Wartime work across to the Continent was highly profitable. Later in the war the freight charge for a full cargo of 200 tons of coal was £6 per ton, enabling some bargemen to retire with small fortunes. In 1918 nearly £2 a ton was being paid for coke in Calais and Boulogne.
CENTAUR had an unusual encounter during the First World War. The barge was sailing in the English Channel in a light air and thickish fog when the skipper heard the roar of a coastal motor boat’s (CMB) engine drawing uncomfortably near. It was impossible to do anything about it, and a few moments later the sleek hull of the CMB –an early form of motor torpedo boat – travelling at speed shot out of the mist and, striking the barge at right angles amidships, leapt on deck and settled down on top of Centaur’s main hatch. This came as quite a shock for both skippers, but neither vessel sustained serious damage. The barge made port without problem and unloaded her unusual cargo.
After the First World War the continuing trade in coke and pitch to the near continent provided profitable business for CENTAUR. Whilst the ownership of shares in the barges changed regularly one skipper, Ephrain “Chick” Cripps, was associated with her for over 20 years. His records for 1928 and 1930 show that all of the barge’s passages were between London and the Essex and Suffolk coasts, with Colchester still the principal port.
Where is she now?
CENTAUR is in use for commercial trade and is currently located at Maldon in Essex. She is available for hire.
CENTAUR: Commemoration of a Centenary (1995) The Thames Barge Sailing Club.
Carr, Frank (1971) Sailing Barges, Conway Maritime Press.
Perks, Richard Hugh (1975) Sprts'l: A Portrait of Sailing Barges and Sailormen.
Sullivan, Dick (1978) Old Ships, Boats and Maritime Museums.
Anon (1987) The Last Berth of the Sailorman.
Wood, D.G. (1995) Barges Sailing Today: Sailing Barge Information Pamphlet No: 1.