Photo by Nathalie Cohen

The TDP team are at Woolwich this week, on a site with a wide range of interesting features. Particularly notable are the substantial remains of at least four wooden barges, hulked on the foreshore and largely covered in silt. Our initial observations suggest that some of this group may be ballast lighters. Such vessels were once very common Thames craft, used to transport quantities of gravel dredged from river. This cargo would then be shovelled into the holds of larger vessels, such as the huge fleet of colliers that regularly delivered London’s insatiable demand for coal, and then returned to Newcastle empty. Without the replacement ballast in these vessels, they would be unstable and likely to keel over on a stormy North Sea passage.

The humble ballast lighter thus had an important (if unsung) role to play in the working of the 19th-century port of London. Unlike the rather more glamorous Thames Sailing Barges, no examples of wooden ballast lighters survive in working order today, and thus we have a unique opportunity at Woolwich to record them: another “first” for the Thames Discovery Programme.

We can add some social context to our findings by consulting Henry Mayhew’s writings. He was the most perceptive and most detailed of all writers on 19th-century working-class life in London. In his studies, he visited several men connected with the ballast trade, and took the time to watch them at work on the river “mostly about Woolwich: there the cleanest ballast is to be got”. He interviewed three different group: Ballast-Getters; Ballast-Lightermen and Ballast-Heavers. Mayhew records that:

the Ballast-Getters are men employed in raising ballast from the river by bodily labour. The apparatus by which this is effected consists of a long staff or pole, c.35ft ( c.11m) long. At the end is an iron spoon or ring, underneath which is a leathern bag holding about 20 cwt (2240lbs). The working lighters carry six hands: a staffsman whose duty is to attend the staff; a bagsman who empties the bag (as it comes on board); a chainsman, who hauls at the chain, a heelsman (for the winch); two trimmers who spread the ballast in the lighter as fast as it come in (to prevent the lighter over-turning)… Ballast-Getters are all very powerful men: they are mostly very tall, big-boned and muscular. Many of them are upwards of 6ft high, and have backs 2ft broad. “I lifted seven half hundred weights with one of my hands” said one…

Like the Getters, the Ballast-Lightermen are also employed by the Trinity Corporation. These men carry the ballast in the company’s barges and lighters to the ship’s side. The Ballast-Heavers duty is “heave into the holds of the ship the ballast brought alongside the vessel by the Trinity-lighters. The ships take in ballast either in the Docks or in the Pool (the open river)”. Mayhew records that he…

…visited a gang of men at work, ballasting a collier in the Pool (in dense fog at six in the evening)… The ballast heavers had established themselves alongside a collier, to be filled with 43 tons of ballast…. Their first step was to tie pieces of sail etc around their shoes, ankles and half way up there legs to prevent the gravel falling into their shoes…The men set to work with the quiet earnestness of those who are working for tomorrow’s meal, and who know they must work hard. Two men stood in the gravel in the lighter; the other two stood on a ‘stage’… a boarding placed on the partition-beams of the lighter. The men on this stage, cold as the night was, threw off their jackets and worked in their shirts, their labour being not merely hard, but rapid. As one man struck his shovel into the ballast thrown upon the stage, the other hove his shovelful through a small porthole in the vessel’s side, so that the work went on as continuously and as quickly as the circumstances could possibly admit. Rarely a word was spoken, and nothing was heard but an occasional gurgle of the water, and the plunging of the shovel into the gravel on the stage by one heaver, followed instantaneously by the rattling of the stones in the hold shot from the shovel of the other…

Please keep these images in mind while recording those vessels!

The extracts above have been taken from Peter Quennel’s edited selections of Mayhew’s writings: Mayhew’s London: being selections from ‘London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew (1851) pp 558-563