Centaur was launched by John and Herbert Cann on 15 February 1895 at their Bathside yard in Gashouse Creek, Harwich, for Charles Stone of Mistley who, with his wife, held 56 of the 64 ownership shares in the vessel. The area was in the grip of one of the coldest winters on record and the 'Harwich & Dovercourt Newsman' reported that ‘owing to the severe weather the usual trial trip was disposed with’, noting that conditions were ‘of Arctic severity’ with as much as ‘25 to 30 degrees of frost’ in the previous week. At this time Cann’s yard was turning out one or two sailing barges each year.
Centaur, built of wood, was a coasting barge – able to trade all around the British coast and to the near continent. This meant she was larger than the river barges and had a more seaworthy hull form – the generous sheer and shapely transom contributed to her handsome appearance. James Stone, then aged 41, was her master. For crew he enlisted W. Smith, aged 37, as mate and James Smith, aged 18, as boy. Initially the barge traded to Calais from London, Portsmouth and Southampton. She also entered barge races - winning the 1898 Harwich race, in which five barges participated. In 1898-99 her trade took Centaur to Dunkirk, Calais, Antwerp, Ostend, Alderney, Bruges and the Netherlands, from a variety of home ports including Dover, Rochester, London, Lowestoft, Goole, Shoreham, Southampton and Newport. In August 1899, during a passage from Mistley to Hull to load wheat she lost a leeboard and her bowsprit off Sheringham and was towed into Great Yarmouth for repairs. In April 1902 Centaur’s steering gear was totally disabled after sailing from Shoreham for Burght in Belgium with a cargo of spirits of salts, and she had to be towed into Newhaven.
In 1903 George Langley became the managing owner, with his partner William Rogers in command of the barge, which continued in the cross-Channel trade. Accidents at sea were not unusual for coasting barges. Centaur was towed into Portland in January 1905 with a broken sprit and other damage when bound for Exeter from London with sugar. In December 1906 she lost both anchors off Terneuzen, in the Netherlands, and had to put back. In the same year William Rogers became the managing owner. However cargoes became more difficult to find and in August 1911 Rogers sold Centaur to Edward Hibbs of Brightlingsea to work for the oil mills at Colchester. She traded between there and Millwall, taking linseed oil in drums to the London River and returning with raw linseed and cottonseed. Reportedly the oil mill barges were always very smartly turned out, and none more so than Centaur.
An incident during the First World War involving Centaur is related by Frank Carr in ‘Sailing Barges’. The barge was sailing in the Channel in a light air and fog when the skipper heard the roar of a coastal motor boat’s engine nearby. A few moments later the sleek hull of the CMB – an early form of motor torpedo boat – travelling at speed shot out of the mist and, striking the barge amidships, leapt on deck and settled down on top of Centaur’s main hatch. This came as quite a shock for both skippers but the barge made port without problem and unloaded her unusual cargo.
After the First World War a trade in coke and pitch to the near continent provided profitable business. Whilst the ownership of shares in the barges changed regularly one skipper, Ephrain “Chick” Cripps, was associated with her for over 20 years. His records for 1928 and 1930 show that all of the barge’s passages were between London and the Essex and Suffolk coasts, with Colchester still the principal port.
In October 1933 Centaur joined the Colchester fleet of Francis and Gilders Ltd and entered the grain trade between the London Docks and Ipswich, Yarmouth and Felixstowe.
In May 1940 she was requisitioned for the evacuation and towed to Dover with S/B Lady Roseberry and sb Duchess. Arthur Keeble was skipper with Jimmy Polly as mate. The book ‘Centaur - Commemoration of a Centenary’, recalls the story told by skipper Arthur Keeble of when Centaur was lying in The Prince of Wales Dock alongside the yacht barge James Piper, who had been on her way to the Thames from the south coast, when a tug came in at excessive speed.
“Some of our chaps started a-singing out. ‘Don’t you worry, I said, he won’t hit us. He can stop her’ But he didn’t. He came into us head first.
James Piper being outside, got her coamings sliced through.
But for a good ol’ bumping, it didn’t seem we’d taken any harm, though we had a good look round. Presently soldiers came aboard’.
‘We’re going to start a-loading you skipper.’ That’s all right I say, for we’d already uncovered. Presently though, one of the soldiers came down aft, ‘There’s water a-coming into your barge’ he says ‘I knew that for they started making a bulkhead of cans of drinking water under the mastcase’
‘No, no’, he says, ‘she’s leaking skipper.’
“Dear O dear! So she was too, Water all over the ceiling (floor of a barge) in the hold, and we had a rare ol’ job a pumping. Me and the poor ol’ mate was at it all night long. A naval officer came along a took a look at us. ‘The soldiers worn’t to put no more aboard’, he said. That stuff was too valuable to chance losing it, so they loaded it into sb Lark instead.
SB Lark was abandoned on the beaches, and discovered by a group of soldiers and sailed back towards England. When the navy took off the survivors, sb Lark was sunk by gunfire”.
Centaur left Dover on the 4th June to return to Cooks Yard at Maldon for repairs. Centaur resumed trade around the Thames and East Anglia for the rest of the war, and afterwards continued in the grain trade. Francis and Gilders were left as the last ‘seeking’ fleet, finding cargoes wherever they could: these cargoes were secured either by the masters of the barges or by the company’s agents in the city. Once a year the barges went on the blocks for maintenance, either at the company’s own yard in Colchester or at Cook’s yard in Maldon.
In January 1952 Centaur was on passage from the Surrey Docks to Felixstowe with wheat when her steering gear broke and, in winds of force 6 – 7, the sea was breaking right across the hatches (which was not that difficult considering the low freeboard of a loaded barge). A tow was needed and distress rockets were fired. Before the Walton lifeboat could arrive Centaur was taken in tow by the sb Saxon and taken into the Colne.
In March 1951 Francis and Gilders merged with the London and Rochester Trading Company Ltd but their barges continued to fly their purple and gold bob. However, the new owners were soon intent on selling the acquired barges. Amongst Centaur’s last cargoes in 1954 – 55 were timber to Colchester and Maldon, sugar beet from Ipswich to Silvertown, ballast from Fingringhoe to London, cement from Halling to London and 40 gallon oil drums from Grain to London. The last four remaining Colchester barges still under sail – Centaur, George Smeed, Kitty and Mirosa – were sold to Brown and Son of Chelmsford, for use as unrigged timber lighters. In October 1955 Centaur’s registration was closed since as a lighter she was no longer required to be registered. She joined a fleet of former sailing barges bringing timber from ships moored off Osea Island to the Heybridge Basin, where it was transhipped to canal lighters for transport to Chelmsford.
Centaur continued in this work for nine years before being sold in 1965 to Richard Duke who converted and re-rigged her for leisure charter work from Pin Mill and Maldon. In 1974 the barge was sold to the Thames Barge Sailing Club, now Thames Sailing Barge Trust**. Initially she was based at Faversham, and later at Maldon. In the winter the club began a long and extensive phased restoration of the barge and was not completed until 1995. In the winter of 1988/89 the Ruston auxiliary engine and gearbox, which had become unreliable, was replaced with a Bedford 500 six-cylinder diesel truck engine and a marine gearbox, together with a new propeller. During the winter of 2012/13, Centaur underwent repairs at Faversham to her bottom timbers and doubling with the work partly being funded through a grant from the National Lottery.
Centaur is on the register of National Historic Ships and is a member of the Historic Fleet. Centaur still provides weekend sailing trips and charters to members and the public.
** About the Thames Sailing Barge Trust (TSBT)
The Thames Sailing Barge Trust (originally the Thames Barge Sailing Club formed in 1948), is a registered charity that exists to preserve two Thames barges in sailing.
The Trust aims to improve the understanding of the public as to the historic and cultural role of Thames Sailing Barges in the heritage of Great Britain and to promote and teach the practice and the traditions and skills of seamanship involved in the handling and maintaining of these craft by taking people sailing in the waters traditionally sailed by these craft.
TSBT is a volunteer run, non-profit company and all sailing fees and membership subscriptions are used to maintain and restore the barges and meet their operating expenses. The trust is particularly grateful to funding from Heritage Lottery Fund which has supported a number of significant restoration projects enabling this wonderful vessel to continue to grace Maldon and its surrounding rivers.