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Type:  Barge
Length:  84 ft
Beam:  20 ft
Draft:  6 ft
Displacement:  57 tons approx.
Engine:  Ruston & Hornsby 80hp Diesel
Construction:  Pitch pine on oak
Builder:  H. Felton, Sandwich
Year:  1901

Around 1850 the age of stage-coaches was at an end and transport by rail had only just begun. At that time, there was a thriving trade between the East Coast of England and the Pool of London below London Bridge. At first, grain was shipped from the farms of East Anglia to the Metropolis and a variety of merchandise from coal to manufactured goods was loaded for the return journey. The breweries of London had an insatiable need for malt and there was a good market in straw and oats.

Later, when cheaper wheat in greater loads was imported into London Docks from Canada, the Continent, the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports, it had to be trans-shipped into 100-ton loads for the millers on the rivers Stour and Orwell. For this a very special kind of craft was required, which could come alongside cargo ships and liners in the Pool of London, negotiate the shallow waters of East Anglia and handle small cargoes economically. The age of the spritsail barges created a whole new industry, a special kind of ship and a tough new breed of sailors. The sailing barges were adaptable, fast, economical vessels typically manned by only three men: a skipper, a mate and a boy, with small wages and their keep while sailing and extra pay for loading and unloading their ships. Often, the three of them manhandled 200-tons unloading and loading their barges in a single day. It was dusty and back-breaking labour dealing with coal, grain, straw and manure alike. They would take on any load to avoid returning under ballast to keep their ships stable in heavy weather.

Their large hatches gave easy access for lightering and quick turnarounds. The spritsail barge was fast even in light airs and the barge-men sharpened their skills by racing their boats. They were in great demand as crews in the age of the J-class yachts. The flat-bottomed barges had lee-boards which enabled them to sail close to the wind and close to the shore in shallow waters. Although they were mainly coasters, they were quite able to cross the Channel when required and it is easy to see why they were pressed into service for the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Tollesbury is a fishing village in Essex, on a tributary of the river Blackwater, which was a loading port for the stack barges. They could lie alongside for horse drawn wagons to unload them. It was after this village that the barge Tollesbury was named by Mr. Fisher, her owner in 1901. She was built at Feltham's Yard at Sandwich on the Kentish Stour. It was this as much as her squat profile that earned her the name Sandwich Box. In 1912 she joined the fleet of R & W Paul Ltd., the most famous wharfingers in East Anglia, who traded in grain, malt and animal feeds and, to perfect their fleet, became barge builders themselves. The skipper of the Tollesbury was Lemon Webb who earned his keep - and the Tollesbury by carrying stone from the West Country, as well as coal, coke and pitch from both sides of the Channel during the First World War.

Once, in 1932, Paul's contacted Webb at Colchester and ordered him to pick up 130 tons of Canadian feed oats at Antwerp. His crew had just left the barge, but he was told to find another crew and get under way. In due course Lemon arrived back at Ipswich and reported the completion of his job. When asked whether he found a crew alright, he explained laconically that he had not found anyone worth having and so he sailed by himself - some measure of his skill as a sailor in a ship without an engine and of his craft's ideal design for sailing short-handed.

At the end of May 1940, Lemon was sailing his ship up the Thames near Erith when a naval launch came alongside and instructed him to proceed to Cory's jetty for orders. There, Lem and his young lad of nineteen, were given a choice to leave the ship or to volunteer to help evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk. Neither of them hesitated and by two o'clock in the afternoon, the Tollesbury, with the larger Ethel Everard of London, towed by the tug Sun XI took their place in a motley armada of pleasure boats, fireboats, tugs and barges. It was planned to sacrifice the barges by beaching them to be used as embarkation platforms for the troops waiting patiently ashore. From there they could be transferred to small boats and launches and eventually to larger transports lying in deep water.

The wooden hulls of the barges made them relatively safe from magnetic mines. Their flat bottoms would enable them to come in closer to the beaches than other craft.

At midnight they arrived and were abandoned by their tug. Their orders were to beach their craft. There was little wind and they used their 'sweeps' (24ft long oars) to close the shore. As they approached, they heard the shouts of soldiers warning them of the shallows. So, they let go their anchor and tried to provide access for the troops with their wooden ladder, but the surge soon broke it. They then provided a makeshift gangway by lowering their tender. Then 273 wet, sunburnt and exhausted soldiers came aboard desperate for food and water. Lem Webb had sufficient water and a supply of biscuits together with a few loaves of bread which he gave them gladly.

They tried to re-launch the barge, but it had grounded on the falling tide. Two hours later, the tide re-floated them and they pushed off into deep water setting their sails, but in the light winds they made little headway. So, they dropped anchor again and the mate, who had seen naval service in the First World War, signalled a Destroyer to ask for their troops to be transferred. Another air raid delayed the operation, but the bombs and shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells again left the Tollesbury unscathed. Later, a barge tried to tow them off too quickly and the towline snapped. Finally, they got under way and set sail for Ramsgate.

Again, an air raid seemed to be directed specifically at them with dive-bombers dropping their lethal loads within feet of the barge. However, she was spared and a Destroyer together with an MTB drove off the attackers. They saw two Destroyers sink during their voyage. Near the North Goodwin’s a mine exploded in their way, but without sinking them.

At Ramsgate Roads they transferred their passengers to motorboats to be taken ashore and one soldier looked at them in wonder saying, "she is a lucky ship, skipper!" She certainly turned out to be so and she is still afloat today.

Not yet updated.

Further Information.

Wed, 09/02/2011 - 23:22

Ethel Everard

So pleased to see mention of the Ethel Everard included in Tollesbury’s history of Operation Dynamo. Like Tollesbury, the Ethel Everard was loaded with supplies for the B.E.F. troops. Unfortunately, Ethel Everard never returned. However, there is photographic evidence that she arrived at what is believed to be Malo Terminus, where she was left high and dry on the beach. This is the link to the forum strand on which the photograph appears (if this is acceptable to this site):

Jo Walpole

Kentish Sail Association


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