Thames 'Spritsail' Barge Edith May, Kent

Built 1906 by J&H Cann of Harwich, Edith May is a Thames Spritsail Barge that was once a common sight on the River Thames & River Medway. Designed with a flat bottom and shallow draught, she was an ideal vessel to navigate the rivers and tributaries of the Thames Estuary and East Anglian coast.

86 ft (26m) in length, slightly over 20ft (6m) across her beam and weighing 64 tons, the Edith May was designed to carry a load of around 120 tons. During her career she carried grain predominantly, but Thames barges would have carried a wide variety of cargoes, including animal feed, building products or waste.

As with the majority of Thames barges, the Edith May was built from wood and comprised a large central cargo area with small living areas in the bow and stern. Her distinctive 'spritsail' rig comprised two masts, a main and mizzen, on which between 3000-5000 square feet of flax sail could be set. The main mast comprises three sails - a mainsail, topsail and foresail, whilst the much smaller mizzen was set with a single sail whose purpose was to improve handling when tacking.

The unusually large topsail, which gives Thames barges their very distinctive profile, was used to catch the wind when manoeuvring in areas where other ships and riverside buildings reduced the wind available at surface level. The traditional rust coloured sails were due to the waterproof dressing applied to them - made up of cod oil, seawater, horse urine if available, and red ochre. Today, the majority of sail dressings come ready prepared in a can.

Originally built for William Barrett and Captain Howard, she spent the bulk of her working life in the ownership of the Sully family. In 1952 she was fitted with an auxiliary diesel engine and operated as a motor barge until she was sold 'out of trade' in 1961. The last Thames barge operating under sail alone completed its final journey in 1970 as a new era of road haulage began.

Vernon Harvey became her new owner, and in 1963 the Edith May was re-rigged for racing. During the 60s, 70s & 80s she dominated sailing barge matches around the east coast and even today is revered amongst bargemen. In the mid 80s she moved from Maldon in Essex and was used for charter work in and around the River Mersey. When she returned to Essex in the late 1980s, the vessel became neglected and fell into a sad state of repair.

In 1999 she was purchased by her current owners and was moved to a new berth at Lower Halstow in Kent. 10 years of painstaking restoration have seen the Edith May returned from the brink, and she is a credit to three generations of the Gransden family who have indulged their passion on her. When we visited them, we were left in no doubt about their enthusiasm for the project, and their vision for the future was extremely positive. With inspiration, time and, of course, money it is a wonderful example of what can be achieved to preserve something special from the past.

Now, in the 21st century, the Edith May can offer members of the public a delightful experience aboard. During the winter months, it is open as a tea room, but from April to September she offers a varied programme of sailing days and mini cruises up the River Medway. What a thoroughly pleasant way to be transported to a bygone era.


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