Above: View of St Paul’s Cathedral with a hay barge in the foreground.
At one time in London (when we were younger than we are now) there were many small petrol stations to be found, making filling up the car much easier than today when only the larger petrol stations remain. Over a century ago the equivalent of the car was the horse and they were to found in their thousands on the streets of London. They did not run on petrol but on hay. Today we have little idea how much hay was brought into London to keep all those animals fed.
Most of the hay was brought up the Thames using sailing barges. They were generally called ‘hay barges’ but to the men who operated them they were known as ‘stackies’. Like so many commonplace objects and occurrences, very few prints or photos of these hay barges were ever made. That is sad because they were a way of life for the men who operated them and a very common sight for those looked across the Thames.
Thames sailing barges carried hay and other goods to London and around the south-east coast of England. The barges had a shallow draught and were particularly suitable to enter farm creeks around the coast of England. They brought hay from as far as Suffolk and Kent – particularly Margate on the Kentish shore. A load of hay on some barges was so large that, to a casual observer, it appeared that the vessel would tip over at any moment. However, they were stable enough. They brought the hay to feed the thousands of horses in London, returning with loads of manure to spread on the fields and thus complete the ‘cycle of nature’. Below the hay, they often carried a heavier cargo such as bricks, for London’s rapid urban expansion.
The view at the top of this article was typical of any time up until the 1930s. By that time they had gone into decline and by the end of the Second World War scenes of hay barges on the Thames were to be no more.
Above: On board two hay barges near Westminster. Copyright Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
Scenes like the one at the top appeared on many postcards of the time. They can also be seen on a few paintings in London art collections. One of the most unusual views relating to hay barges is the second picture. It must have been taken aboard a sailing barge – either by an enthusiastic farmer or a press photographer who had an eye for preserving the past. We shall never know why the photo was taken but it is of great interest. There are two barges in the middle of the Thames near Big Ben. The time on the clock shows 2.20 so, presumably, the barges had probably come up the river on the morning tide.
The photograph was taken during 1938 and in this particular case the barges are not carrying hay but esparto grass – which is quite unusual. The men are working on two barges moored together in the river. They are either unloading the contents of one barge onto another or carrying out some preparatory work. The barge on the left has the grass just lose on the vessel while the other barge has the grass in bales. What is taking place is not known but the captioning is quite clear.
It should be explained that esparto grass is found growing in southern parts of Spain and in North Africa. The fibre is produced from two species of perennial grasses and it is used for crafts (such as cords), basketry, and espadrilles (shoes made from esparto). Other uses for esparto grass is in the manufacture of high-quality paper (like bank notes) and also in making stockings.
Bearing in mind that sailing barges had masts, it is worth pointing out that working a barge above London Bridge was very hard work. To reach Westminster the mast had to be lowered as the vessel passed under each bridge and then raised again to use the wind in the sails to move slowly up-river. If there was no wind at all, the crew – which was usually only one man and a ‘boy’ – had to use enormous oars – taking one each – to steer the barge on the moving tide to where they wanted the barge to go. It was known as ‘barge steering’. A sailing barge was too heavy to be rowed (like a rowing boat) and, using their skill and knowledge of the Thames, the two men would pull on the oars to manoeuvre the barge into a water current and therefore take advantage of the tide as a slow source of power.