Thursday 23 June 2011

PIPER’S WHARF - famous racing barges on the Greenwich Riverside


Pipers Wharf is one of three main areas which cover the housing development locally known as Lovells Wharf – and is the most downriver of them.
I have been very very nervous of ever publishing anything about Pipers. Sailing barges and boat builders have been a subject covered by those who are expert in the field and there is nothing I could write which would ever be ok by them – in fact I am very intimidated. What follows are essentially a few vague and inadequate notes


James R. Piper was apprenticed to William Bromley (JP for Gravesend) a Greenwich ship owner. He later moved to work for Mowlem’s at their East Greenwich Yard. After ten years he opened a small yard next door and went on to become one of the largest barge builders on the Thames. He also producing barges for racing and worked as a marine damage surveyor. It should be stressed that Pipers specialist barges were sophisticated vessels – nothing haphazardly built up on the riverside. The design which we now think of as traditional on the River was evolving through this period – these were vessels designed to carry bulk haulage items, to go up narrow creeks, shallows and Thames mudflats, to cross the Channel and trade with Continental ports, to survive the worst the weather could do, to be crewed by a man and a boy – and to win spectacular high speed races in a flash of red sails. Barge races – which of course still take place – attracted large sums in prize money.
(Details about Piper from Yachting and Coast 17th June 1899)


Piper built many vessels – lighters and, latterly refrigerated barges, and doubtless much more. The following is a list gleaned from published sources plus notes of any information I have managed to find in such sources. It is very minimal and I stand ready to be corrected

Giralda The most famous barge ever launched – watch out for pictures of her which turn up on calendars, picture books and much else – I found myself eating off a table mat with her on it, last year! Not that those who print her picture have any idea about Giralda or that she had anything to do with Greenwich.
She was named after the tower in Seville and built for Goldsmiths of Grays for the purpose of winning the gold cup in Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee year. Jack Currell was the ‘genius of her building’ – he was Pipers foreman. Giralda cost £1,350, was 80ft long and had 3,000 ft of canvas which was all handmade at Pipers yard. It is said that everyone laughed when she was launched because she was straight and flat and ugly - but she was built to win the Gold Cup. She won the Cup under Captain Thurncard for Goldsmiths. She was then raced under Captain William Mitchell winning the Thames and Medway championships many times. She was Champion of the Thames in 1898, 1901, 1904, 1909, fifth 1902. She was Champion of the Medway 1898, 1900, 1903, 1904, etc.
After the races she was sent back to the barge yard to strengthen the boards in the bottom so she could be used for haulage. In a gale in 1901 she finished 5th only in the race and suffered a lot of damage –and there was also damage to Ramsgate harbour and so she was bought back by Piper in 1913. Pipers used her as a barge to moor other vessels from in 1928.
A half model was made and preserved by Pipers and in 1943 a piece of her timber was kept at Greenwich with an inscription on it – I would love to know what has happened to these.

Surf built for Lambert as a racing barge. She was fouled in the 1900 race by Minnehaha at Tilbury but was otherwise placed in races -3rd Medway in 1900, 2nd Thames in 1900, 7th Thames in 1901, 4th Thames in 1902, 7th Thames in 1903,

James Piper A wooden barge of 56 tons. She raced and was 3rd Champion Topsail barge on the Thames in 1894, 2nd Thames in 1895. 3rd Thames in 1896. She was broken up in the 1950s, having been used as a house boat at Cheyne Walk.

Haughty Belle. She was built for E.J.Goldsmith in wood as a Counter stern racing barge with iron leeboards. She won the 1896 race and her design is said to have been ‘astonishing’. Eventually broken up in Cubitt’s yacht basin.

Arctic. In 1978 converted by London and Rochester Trading.

Gerty Broken up at Millwall in 1933.

Ernest Piper. Owned by Goldsmiths in 1919, Metcalfe Motor Coasters in 1942, and then by S.West. Sold for conversion to a yacht in 1950 at Portsmouth. Now derelict and hulked at Shepherds Creek

Maid of Connaught . This vessel had previously been Monarch. Worked for Invicta Coal and Shipping Co. Smeed Dean, W.H.Theobald and Leigh Building Supplies. She was a motor barge by 1935 and then a yacht. She is said to be hulked on Pin Mill Hard.

Sportsman a wooden barge now hulked at Milton Creek.

Surrey, worked until 1957 when she was laid up when owned by Horlock of Mistley. Later hulked and broken up Whitewall Creek.

Edgar Scholey. Broken up after being in use at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the 1950s as a house boat.

Surge. Surge means "Sure you are Giralda's Equal". She was 1st in Staysail races in 1937, when owned by Augustus Hills of Annandale House, Greenwich.

Brian Boru, Built of wood and owned by Piper in the 1950s. She was sunk in February 1950 off Southend and laid up. Broken up in 1988 at Brentford.

Arthur Relf. Now infilled at Whitewall Creek.

Gwynronald. Had previously been called Charles Allison. In 1957 she was owned by West of Gravesend, and used for ballast. Became a House Barge in Oare Creek. I do not think she is still there

Miranda barge yacht

Leonard Piper Owned by Piper and then Wilkes. Sold to Samuel West in 1930. Auxiliary 1934. She became house barge at Chiswick Mall. I visited this vessel when in the 1990s and have no reason to believe she is not still in Chiswick. My main memory is of the vast spaces used as living accommodation below decks – in what would have been her cargo areas. Grand pianos and double beds were dwarfed!

W.Mary. broken up Greenwich.1937. .

M.Piper, Sunk in March 1951 off Grain Spit and raised but not refitted. Eventually she was broken up for scrap at Bloors Wharf in 1954, used for ballast.

Squeak. A Hoy barge originally called Dorcas running from Sandwich and Dover with general cargoes. She had originally been built in 1898 in Rochester and called Hokey Pokey because of her painted hull. She was burnt out after a petrol drum cargo caught light off Woolwich and killed the skipper. She was sold to Pipers for £60 and had good enough timber to justify rebuilding. She was then rebuilt by and renamed Squeak as a staysail barge. She was dismantled in 1948 after nearly sinking in Sea Reach – she was by then notorious for fires. In November 1943 she arrived at Sheppey Gas Works wharf, Sheerness, with 160 tons coal and made fast in 9ft of water. In the morning the cabin floor had been pushed up of mound of earth 56ft high. The Gas Company denied responsibility but judgement went against them. She was then hulked and burnt out at Bedlam's Bottom.

Pip. Built for London and Rochester Trading and in 1954 her name was changed to Pine. She was run down at Purfleet by a steam boat and her crew drowned. She was dismantled but lay as a hulk at Greenwich and was owned by T.Scholey. She eventually became a motor barge for London and Rochester Trading who changed her name to MV Pinup

Q craft, resident barges for ballast, shallow draught, cabin with bunks and things.

Canada. A motor vessel

J.R.Piper. motor barge

Peter Piper motor barge

Piper II motor barge

Wilfred sold to London and Rochester Trading in 1954. She is now at the Embankment – and has had a number of names there as restaurants of various sorts. When built she was the last word in modern sail barges. She was used as a motor barge for ballast work and sand from Brightlingsea. Owned by T.Scholey & Co. (Thames) Ltd. Was sold in 1954 to R.Deards at Hoo.

Kiora. Built for Westray in four months. Cabins, smoking room, saloon, seven state rooms bathroom and captain’s cabin

- And many many more.
- Please correct the many items displaying sheer ignorance~


Unknown said...

Giralda.......the name of the succesful captain who won the Queen Victoria Jublilee cup was Arthur Coward......not Thurncard.

Unknown said...

I own an early '60s Piper. Can anyone point me to any more James Piper history? I think it's one of the last craft they built.

M said...

No - sorry - wish I could. family always refused to speak to me! someone else with closer links might see this though - hope so

Unknown said...

Thanks for reply, M. It is a small steel motor boat about 35ft called Sally B. I understand it was the "apprentice boat" built for the boss, it's first owner. I know it attended the 1964 IWA show as I have a brass plack that says so. I think I am it's 5th owner but almost everything else I know is hearsay. If anyone knows anywhere I could look for research that would be great!
Thanks again.

Unknown said...


If Sally B is the boat that has been or still is on the hard at Southwold I can help you. My uncle had her built and I can give you some history. I have seen her at Southwold and taken pictures for the family. Very distinctive mast and side exhaust.

Unknown said...

Stu. I'm not sure whether my first post has got published. If this is the Sally B that is or has been on the hard at Southwold I can help you. My uncle had her built and I went to the shipyard when I was a mere lad. Have cruised on her many a time. Very distinctive mast and side exhaust.
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