Oli puts sculling skills to use

Day two proved much busier than day one and as the Allen keys of fate secured the quayside barriers of Excel shortly after 1900 the 121st visitor of the day alighted the gangway. The brickmaking clay from Collier’s of Marks Tey in Essex was handed over to the Newham Brickmaking Project, an amazing partnership between the University of East London, the Victoria and Albert Museum and a fantastic group of female artisan brickmakers from St Austell near where Blue Mermaid was built at Polruan in 2016. Collier’s dug the clay from their own quarry. When Oli visited he learnt how the firm has produced handmade bricks since 1863. They had a brief episode with machinery to supply demand after the war but reverted to manual processes where nowadays three makers produce 2500 bricks each per week and have clay for a good number of years yet.


While receiving the clay, the Newham brickies told of their research into female brickmakers and bricklayers. The former had been present as dextrous and economical labour for many years with many children employed in brick fields too, and the bricklayers replaced men fighting during the war. Once peace returned so did the men and the women were displaced. Apparently there is some Pathe newsreel of the women liberally sprinkled with the usual interest in their clothing and hairstyles and their pluck in supporting their nation etc etc, and no doubt little about the skill and hard labour involved.
It reminded me of the women I met running the rolling mills at British Steel’s Cargo Fleet Works in 1978. They had replaced men in the war like the bricklayers but the company retained them afterwards into nationalisation. No one batted an eyelid.
As we sit in the lock awaiting high water it is time for some thanks. Chris Livett picked us up bright and early this morning and joined us for a thank you breakfast with his crew and his first look over the barge. A big thank you to the Maritime Heritage Trust, especially Maddie Phillips, Newham Council and Rosie Murdoch’s Newham Heritage Month team, supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the Excel and Royal Docks teams for their help in giving maritime heritage a place in the Heritage Month. There is a growing Heritage Harbour movement spearheaded by Brian Corbet of the Maritime Heritage Trust and supported by the National Historic Ships Unit. Brian could not be with us at the event but he is working towards a Heritage Harbour London to join others well underway in the Medway, at Faversham, Maldon and Brightlingsea. Looking at our spars reflected in the windows of Excel it was not as hard as once it may have seemed to imagine the dock full of tall ships. There is probably room for all the world’s significant sailing vessels to visit this amazing stretch of water at the same time. Many of them, like Blue Mermaid, would be sail training vessels bringing young people and offering the same for Newham’s own, as we would have done but for Covid. Now that would be a spectacle to gladden the eye.
By the time high water came the fair westerly wind had been replaced by a calm and the faintest of suggestions of an easterly breeze to come. We shifted down to the quarter lock and the gate closed astern. Then as the last of the flood slowed outside, Shiner was helped by two of the lock team to get the barge moving and she shot out into the tideway, so much so that the gap quickly widened and Oli had to pick him up in the boat! A slow board across towards the Royal Arsenal Pier took us into the slack and there were a couple of very slow tacks before the promised easterly appeared over Margaretness and gave better progress. It is one of the great mysteries of life afloat how often the wind comes or goes at tide time. By half ebb we were pushing on well in Long Reach and there was enough wind to prompt dropping the staysail for the rest of the passage to the Lower Hope. It has been heartening to see so much commercial, especially tug traffic. Tomorrow the plan is to head for the Medway and be joined by two more crew working towards Barge Master for a five day course of instruction supported by Trinity House, ending back in Maldon at the end of next week.
Richard Titchener