Brightlingsea, on the river Colne in Essex, is another boat-building town famous for its barges. Greta was built there in 1891, at Stone's yard, for a barge sailmaker called Hibbs. John Leather in his book "Barges" (Adlard Coles, l984) records how Hibbs perfected the process which gave a fifteen-year life to the sails of the working boats. Apparently he devised a dressing including horse fat which gave them their shine, resistance to hard wear and traditional colour. Later, oil and red ochre were also used.
Hibbs sold the Greta to Owen Parry, a barge owner with a fine fleet of working boats which had a high reputation for their smart turnout and racing success. After a hundred years it is their quality as fine sailing boats that has kept the barges alive and still highly prized today.
Felix Mallett was the first skipper of Greta appointed by Owen Parry to sail under his yellow and black house flag. She carried the usual cargoes of grain, malt and building products and some unusual ones like the spars for the German Kaiser's racing schooner, destined for Kiel. The Greta was sold to the Rochester Barge Company in 1918 but Mallet remained as her skipper until 1926 when he returned to Owen Parry.
Early in World War II Greta was chartered by the Ministry of Supply to carry ammunition from the army depot at Upnor near Rochester in Kent to naval vessels anchored in the Thames estuary. At that time seagoing ships picked up all other loads at London docks but the danger of a large explosion, especially in an air raid, made it far safer to trans-ship dangerous cargo outside the dock area, further down the river. Greta would come alongside ships where they lay at anchor allowing them to transfer her explosives down river.
She certainly took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk and then continued her work as a lighter. The Admiralty discharged her from war service in 1946. After a thorough overhaul and refit she returned to normal trading; carrying grain, timber, animal feed and miscellaneous cargo and taking cargo from ships in the port of London for distribution to smaller ports. Greta mostly served the Medway wharves, but also sailed as far as Colchester in Essex.
John Tooke of Crescent Shipping Limited, recalls a particular cargo for which she was favoured. Towards the end of 1947 she started carrying beer from Chatham to Nine Elms, Battersea in London. This developed into a continuous trade for a very special reason. Both her master and his mate were teetotalers and the brewery requested that Greta be kept permanently on this run. The goods were shipped under bond, there was never any pilfering or "accidental breakage" and H.M. Customs could always be sure that the exact number of bottles and kegs loaded at Chatham were discharged at Nine Elms. Following the decline in work at the London docks throughout the early 1960's, Greta was sold off and laid up at Whitewall Creek pending restoration.
Despite extensive alterations when she was turned into a houseboat Greta still manages to take part in the half-dozen or so East coast barge matches each year, and in 1987 was the outright champion barge at Southend. It has been said that if Greta had only been given an extra couple of feet more run fore and aft she would have been a real racer. For a very old lady, she's still pretty fast!
In 1989 Greta was re-skinned inside and out on the Starboard side. She is the only barge sailing which is used as a home as well competing in Barge Matches. Based at Faversham, Steve Norris lives aboard, skippers her during Barge Racing Matches and will take the occasional charter to provide funds for maintenance and further restoration.
Source: 2, 3, 4, 5, 11 & 19