Goldsmith's of Grays

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Entry started 25 February 2008 by Benjidog - Work in Progress

History of the company[edit]

This is a précis of the information about this company provided in External resource #1 which provides a very nicely written and prosaic account.

A number of the terms used will be unfamiliar to most readers so these have been added to the Nautical Terms pages in the Directory.


Goldsmith’s of Grays had the biggest of all the Essex barge fleets and could boast 147 craft whereas its only rival, the London and Rochester Trading Company in Kent could only muster 120. The fortunes of the company, which ultimately had every type of sailing barge from the Vaux-built boomie Esmeralda through tops'l coaster to stumpie and lug-rigged craft, started with a single old swimmie, the fifty-ton Richard, built at Chiswick in 1833. They gained a reputation as the "Pickford's of the North Sea,"

The Goldsmith fleet was unique in that, although there were differences between individual vessels, the fleet was laid down as classes with interchangeable gear including the sails. Other companies had made-to-measure sails for each vessel.

The Ironpots[edit]

The biggest of the classes were vessels whose names ended in "ic". They were built at Krimpen and Papendrecht in Holland and, although of 120 tons register, they could load cargos of 250 to 300 tons. The class proved very profitable during the boom years of WW1 and included Runic, Norvic and Cymric. The last two were boomsail ketch-rigged to make them capable of undertaking what were almost certainly the longest voyages ever accomplished by flat bottoms in sailing to the river Plate with half-cargoes of coal for ballast, and carrying certificated master mariners as well as their regular crew. Some were later converted to motor-barges; Gothic capsized off Dover after being converted into a power-craft.

Goldsmith’s also had eight 180-tonners, built at Southampton in 1898. Some of them inherited their sisters' gear when the 250-tonners turned over to power, Trojan taking the Britannic's and Briton the Oceanic's. Saxon and Spartan became motor-barges, and only Scot and Briton survived under sail. Gloria was a barge of this size built specially for racing but was not successful as she was designed to race with iron leeboards and, owing to a last-minute change of rules, had to fit wooden ones. Goldsmith’s also laid down a fleet of twenty-two 160-tonners. Some were built at Deptford by Braby's and some at Southampton by Fay and Co.

Although the ironpots were built to a standard pattern they were far from identical; all were subject to 'sweating' so the crew had to keep the cabin fire going to keep bedding and clothes aired. They did have an advantage over wooden vessels in that they could be driven harder.

Wooden Vessels[edit]

The vessels described so far were the main Goldsmith 'ironpot' classes but the company also had many wooden-built vessels. Vulture, Vampire, Viper, and [[Thetis] (now a yacht) were 180-tonners, built at Sittingbourne in 1898-99. Cetus, Perseus, and Dominion, of 150 tons, were built at Goldsmith’s yard at Grays in 1902, followed a year later by Atom, which was the last swimmie working on London River right up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Henry, referred to later, was another product of the yard in 1904. Other Goldsmith swimmies, some of them built as lighters and later rigged to sail, were Snail, Tortoise, Mite, Midget, Romeo, and Juliet, the last of which was also working into the 1930's.

Next there were the stumpies, including Bee and Fly which were built at Appledore, Devon, and Panama, Suez, and Kiel built at Grays for the Regent's and Surrey canals.

Another class of lug-rigged swimmies of 100 to 160 tons, were built at Blackwall just before the turn of the 20th century. They were rigged with brailing lug, small mizzen, and foresail, seldom ventured below Gravesend. These included Nansen and Pram.

Life at Goldsmith’s[edit]

Life in a firm of this sort was less carefree and casual than in running some farmer's stack barge with hardly a pretence at keeping accounts. In Goldsmith's if you wanted a new deck-scrubber you had to show the store-keeper the old one as evidence. Work was normally fixed by the office, but sometimes a skipper would do his own 'seeking' in slack times. In one slump Frank Mummery obtained permission to take Corsair off on his own to the Humber, and was rewarded with a freight to Maidstone at the then princely rate of 12s. 6d. a ton, plus two guineas gratuity. During the First World War he led a deputation to the office to protest at the rate of 3s. 6d. a ton to Lowestoft and Yarmouth, for which ports eight craft were loaded. The merchant, Mr Barber, offered another 6d. a ton and a gold sovereign to the first barge off Lowestoft. During that race Mummery had as passenger his Union lawyer, who wanted to learn more of the life of the men he had to represent. He was particularly intrigued about the meaning of a gybe. "Now, you see that bit of wood up there?" explained the skipper, indicating the sprit. "Well, in a moment it is going to be over there. Now stand clear of the main horse!" Whether or not he was enlightened, the lawyer was sufficiently impressed to add another sovereign to the stakes, which the Madcap succeeded in collecting.

Decline of the sailing barges[edit]

In latter years Goldsmith’s became involved in the sand trade at Colne and the Fingringhoe workings. The “ironpots” ending up being treated rather roughly in this line of business. By 1949, only Briton and [[Scot] remained, in 1949, under the Goldsmith bob. Thetis, Virocca, and Viper were sold that year, Asphodel, Siesta, and Esterel sank during the winter of 1948—the two latter wheat-laden, Siesta run down off Grays, Esterel abandoned off Clacton. Raised five months later, she unloaded at Rowhedge, and her cargo was washed, dried, and sent for use as cattle-food.

External resources[edit]

  1. Book published approx 1949 - details requested from Stan Mayes



  1. Research and structure by Benjidog
  2. Background information and most source material from Stan Mayes [[Category: Sailing Barges