Sad end for oldest Thames tug – Britannia

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I have been informed today that the oldest surviving Thames tug BRITANNIA ex T.B. HEATHORN (built 1893) is currently taking on water and sinking in Barking creek and has been sold by her owners for scrap and will be towed from Barking Creek at high water on Tuesday 3rd October to E.R.M at Erith by Plashy / General VIII.         A very sad end to one of the finest looking tugs to operate on the Thames.    A great pity that people buy these historic vessels and simply have no intention of looking after them.

I will document and photograph her journey on Tuesday


T.B. Heathorn was a steam tug built by Watsons Shipyard in 1893 and believed to be one of the oldest tugs in Britain. She was built of riveted iron construction for the South Metropolitan Gas Light & Coke Company as a coal fired steam powered lighterage tug, 68ft x 15ft 6in with 60HP. She was used by the Gas Company and its successors to tow coal and coke barges and to attend craft around the premises. In 1956 it was sold to Greenhithe Lighterage Co. who rebuilt and converted her to diesel over a period of 18 months, the new 7 cylinder diesel engine giving her 365HP

She was renamed BRITANNIA by Greenhithe lighterage in 1956 and continued to operate commercially until 1986 with her final operaters being Greenhithe Salvage Services.   In 1987 she was sold to Douglas Steven & Partners (for preservation at Butlers Wharf) and found to be in excellent condition considering her age.  She was later sold on to Mr. Tears at Rainham (GBR) for fishing trips.     normal_1010400_10152119053405186_293655279_n.jpg


During the late 1990s she was sold as a houseboat in Barking Creek and in 2001 sank on her moorings.  She was raised in 2002 and forced to move due to developers building in the area and up until 2010 stayed in her original layout unchanged since 1956.   Although the hull needing work,  being in such original condition and layout, she would of been an ideal vessel to preserve around this time.


In 2010 she was sold to a new owner who rather criminally removed the wheelhouse and bulwarks and stuck two ugly wooden living areas on the deck and that is how she remained until now



ARSLAND grounded

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The oil/chemical tanker ARSLAND grounded at Broadness this evening and was towed clear a few hours later by tugs.

According to her AIS track and PLA departures list the ARSLAND departed Jurgens Jetty at Purfleet at 17:28 and at 17:47 come to a halt.    At 19:00 tugs SVITZER LONDON , SVITZER MADELEINE and SVITZER BOOTLE pulled her clear and she is currently heading past Tilbury dock with tugs down river at 20:45 this evening



The Denny D2 ‘Hoverbus’

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The Denny D2-002 was built in 1963 by Denny Hovercraft Ltd, Dumbarton , she was powered by 800 hp diesel engines,a top speed of 25knots and carried 70 passengers.     The vessel operated by Thames Launches under the name HUMMING BIRD on a new £1 a time service from Westminster to Tower although the service was short lived and she was withdrawn and taken back to Dumbarton.      One source states that in July 1968 she went to Fleetwood Hovercraft.   In the 1970s she went to Jamaica Hovercraft and operated from Kingston to Palisados.     Her fate is unknown but one source states she ended up as a houseboat in Florida

You can watch a great (sadly silent) film about her building and trip from Dunbarton to the Thames here

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Click to view full size image

555Hovercraft on the river Humber14096758065_dba487367e_o

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Mother Thames O.B.E – The Story of Dorothea Woodward

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Dollys final words in the film “Mother Thames” below speak volumes for her love for the river, a wise woman.

“Perhaps i haven’t given my husband enough credit, he had such faith in me. Today perhaps i haven’t got the courage, youth,strength and power to fight the defeat of my wonderful River Thames….because it is being beaten up at the moment. The present is very very depressing BUT…..I believe in an apple tree, and apples will grow again someday….they may not be as juicy and ripe…but they will grow again. This river will never die and that is my opinion”

ANOTHER GREAT CLIP of Dolly and William can be seen here (14minutes in)

The Woodward Fishers (Dorothea and her husband William and family) had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs for many years, however Dorothea ran the business from Lewisham.     Dolly and William formed the company after the war, buying the first barge for 20 pounds and earning five pounds per day hiring it , by 1973 the company had over 100 barges and 9 tugs.



She also raised 66 thousand pounds to buy land and build a clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club, an East End club of which her husband was a member.
She is inordinately proud of the spanking new clubhouse – round which she was carried shoulder high at the opening. And of her “‘boys” at the club, aged between eight and 80. And of the club’s star sculler, Ken Dwan, who represented Great Britain at the Munich Olympics.
Mrs  Fisher is a regular churchgoer, every Sunday, with her dog, attending a chapel within the Tower of London. She has a ferocious sense of humour.

following interview was for the Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1973.

A voice, harsh and vibrant, crackled through the radio receiver: “Calling Duke shore, position please …”
“Barge Dog Fisher, loaded with molasses, moor up the Wash and stow ready for ten o’clock in the morning.”
Was it a man talking, newcomers to the Thames dockside invariably thought so. lt was, in fact. Mrs Dorothea Woodward Fisher, otherwise known as the Grand Old Lady of the Thames, or Lady Dorothea of the River, the only woman barge-owner actively in the business and its personality queen as well.
“People think I’ve got a gruff voice.” she said. “Well, so I have and I wouldn’t be without it. If I’d had a sweet girlish voice I wouldn’t have got anywhere.
“I’ve been called all kinds of things and done all sorts of business on the phone, when if they’d known I was a woman, they wouldn’t have talked to me.”
(One tug skipper always refers to her as “old cock.” He sends her the occasional box of cigars as well.)
For 55 years. Mrs  Fisher with, until ten years ago, her husband Billy  ran a lighterage business on the Thames. When the port of London was in its heyday as the largest and busiest in the world, she had upwards of 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs as well.
She and her husband started their business 55 years ago. with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds .
“The river then was wonderful. You’d see a powerful tug turning six well-laden barges. That was something to look at. We took loaded barges from Tilbury all the way to Reading. . .
“You’d see sailing barges, working, tacking backwards and forwards in the sea reaches, using the wind and the tides. Now the only sailing barge you ever see is a pleasure craft, weighed down with American tourists, taking a quick look at Greenwich and the Tower of London. Why don’t they take them down, right down. I’d like to know, and show them the real Thames, at Tilbury”
Sadly, though, she has watched – and struggled against – the great river’s decline to a point where pleasure boats make up most of its nautical traffic, and where, of more than 70 lighterage companies, only a handful remain.

Resplendent in her usual man-styled suit (today, it’s pinstripe), bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and elegant, high-heeled crocodile shoes, smoking the inevitable cigarette and swigging back a large brandy, Mrs. Fisher is truly an indomitable figure.
Her husband (“He was the practical one, I had the business brain”) was a lighterman from the East End of London.

Yet now, with barges more heavily laden, all the lighterman has to do is make fast a tow-rope. The tug to which his barge is attached does the rest.
Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.”
Still she acknowledges that progress must go on. ” I don’t blame containerisation. It is an efficient way of moving goods. But those huge lorries! They’ve really plumped for the beast and not the beauty, using those.”
Characteristically, Mrs Fisher blames herself for the decline of her business. “I feel like a failure. We’ve always been a relatively small firm. Maybe I didn’t mix enough. Maybe I could have done better if I’d gone out into the City and drunk more beer with certain people.”
She was closing, she said, because she could not stand the financial strain. For some time she had paid out three thousand pounds a week in salaries, while the business brought in just half that.

Reluctantly, on her 79th birthday in 1973 (and by now long a widow), Dolly wound up her lighterage business. She should have done so four years previously, according to her businessman son Ken. But she didn’t have the heart. She paid off the lightermen who ran her barges – “Grand chaps all. though they do ask for too much money these days.” She took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. She kept, though, her last nine tugs and she surrendered none of her extensive property interests, which included three wharves on the Thames.
Mrs Fisher is appalled and saddened by this. “I still like going out on the river, but each time now it breaks my heart a little bit. I come away with a lump in my throat.  It breaks my heart to see the river now”

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owns a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her own house, which incorporates her office, is a mammoth Victorian mansion, south of the river and completely hemmed in by dreary housing developments. It is topped by a king-size radio mast and populated by a random assortment of animals and friends.      The house was sold in 1975 to Janet Street Porter for £25,000


New arrival – ARMADOR II

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A new bunkering vessel has joined the Thames Marine Services fleet.   Armador II arrived this morning after leaving Holland yesterday at 7am and will join fleet mates CONQUESTOR and HEIKO at Hermitage.

Photo: A.Christy

The vessel was built as BP 47 for BP Bunker in Hamburg in 1972,   in 2009 she passed to Armador Marine Services in Antwerp,Belguim.    The vessel is powered by a 450hp Volvo Penta engine with dimensions of 38.70m x 6.85 x 2.17


I look forward to seeing the new arrival out and working on the tideway shortly

Names for new Woolwich Ferries revealed

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The ferries will be named Ben Woollacott and Dame Vera Lynn and are due to be launched next year in Poland.

Ben was the sixth generation of Thames waterman in his family but tragically drowned after he was dragged into the water after a mooring rope accident in 2011. The former ferry operator Serco was fined £200,000 over failings that led to the tragedy.       A petition was created to have one of the vessels named after Ben and reached over 2,470 signatures

Bens family said ““Along with his crew mates and friends of the river, we thank Transport for London for naming one of the new Woolwich ferries after Ben.It’s a beautiful way to remember a son who loved this river heart and soul, a son dearly missed but now certainly never forgotten”

Dame Vera was born in East Ham in 1917 and went on to become the “force’s sweetheart” in the Second World War

Dame Vera Lynn said: “It is wonderful to hear that one of the new boats for the Woolwich Ferry service is to be named in my honour. I am truly humbled to have been chosen.”

The boats cost around £20 million each and will be fitted with “hybrid” engines allowing them to run on electricity generated.

Thames Passenger Boats – Operation Dynamo (Dunkirk) 1940

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A number of Thames passenger boats took part in Operation Dynamo but there is often some confusion as to which went and which did not. The truth of the matter is that although salt sea water did not agree with all of the passenger vessels, they were in someway or another involved and called upon for the evacuation so deserve to be credited as such.

With the 77th anniversary of Operation Dynamo upon us , below are listed details on which passenger vessels took part and how they were involved.

Many thanks to Steve Hastings for gathering and putting together this superb list  – Steve has written a great book on Dunkirk and Tigris One titled “The Turn” and can be bought from Amazon HERE



At 11:50 [am] on Thursday 30th May 1940 the Admiralty (Dynamo Command, Dover), the Thames freshwater steamers were creating more of a hindrance than a help issued the following radio communiqué to;


“Thames river steamers have no condensers and cannot run on seawater. Request no more be sent.“

Mears’ vessels His Majesty, Royal Thames, Viscountess, Connaught, Kingwood, The King, Abercorn, Hurlingham and Marchioness were all left at Sheerness to be towed back upriver unscathed during the first few days of June 1940. Jack Sturgeon was involved in their preparation to return them upriver. These vessels returned to their wartime role as mobile floating hospitals on the Thames in addition to any tripping duties available for the rest of the war. It must have seemed at this time to those remaining at Westminster that Mears’ fleet had returned from Dunkirk itself. These vessels can all claim to have been involved in Operation Dynamo, but never left British waters.

Somehow J. Mears’ Viscount slipped the net and left Sheerness at 18:00 on Thursday 30th May commanded by S.Lt. D.L. Satterford R.N. following the motor yacht Prince of Wales. Viscount’s freshwater steam engine gave up due to the salt water conditions somewhere off Herne Bay and she was anchored overnight. The crew effected enough repairs for her to proceed at 04:00 and limp round to Ramsgate by mid–morning on Friday 31st May where her boiler pump packed up. Viscount was moored inside the harbour at Ramsgate for the rest of Operation Dynamo while her crew transferred to the motor boat Ryegate II.

Royalty was up at Eel Pie Island for a refit to diesel for most of the war.

Mears’ Kingstonian, Marian, Princess Beatrice, Princess Maud, Queen Elizabeth, Richmond Belle and Sovereign all remained at Eel Pie Island, presumably because those crews returning from delivering Mears’ larger steamers from Westminister to Sheerness returned to the news they’d be unsuitable. However, J. Mears’ His Majesty and Royal Thames were taken down in convoy with Georgie Edwards aboard His Majesty as the mate. They left Kingston in the early hours of Wednesday 29th May to arrive at Sheerness by dusk. Due to an oversight the Mears’ crews arriving in the first run from Westminster were allowed to return home leaving their vessels moored up at Sheerness. It could also be they were dispatched for the aborted second run from Eel Pie Island. The crews from the Empress and Queen Boadicea II remained to volunteer to accompany their vessels. Naval crews for the Mears’ fleet were now scarce and it was decided to take each vessel independently round to muster off Margate and Ramsgate as crews became available. The next vessels to leave were Caversham, already converted to diesel commanded by S.Lt. A.J. Weaver R.N.V.R. and soon after Queen Boadicea II, commanded by Lt. J.S. Seal R.N.R. bound for mustering off Margate.

Caversham didn’t get far from Sheerness before her engine caught fire during the night of 29/30th May and she was returned to Sheerness to act as tender to arriving Dutch skoots in the mouth of the Medway. She tried again to leave for Dunkirk on Friday 31st May, but sprang a leak entering the rough waters around the North Foreland and with her pumps not working she was dumped in Pegwell Bay. Her crew continued on to Dunkirk aboard the motor boat Quisisana.


Princess Freda was commanded by S.Lt. E.S. Foreman R.N.V.R. and ferried troops from the beaches to an unknown destroyer and the Dutch trawler Betje which finally towed her back to Ramsgate.


Princess Lily, commanded by Prob.T/S.Lt. K.E.A. Bayley R.N.V.R. left Sheerness on Thursday 30th May with 19 other small boats escorted by a trawler, almost certainly Strathelliott. She arrived off the beaches at Dunkirk in the morning of Friday 31st May and continued to work between Malo–les–Bains and La Panne until she fouled her propeller and could only go astern. She finally succumbed to engine trouble forcing her crew to abandon her at 22:00 off La Panne on Friday 31st May. Her crew transferred to the gunboat Mosquito and were delivered back to Dover at 05:00 the following morning.

Mears’ Margherita was sunk in the Passe de l’ouest off Mardyck by the wash from a British destroyer before reaching Dunkirk. Her coxswain Harry ‘Peddler’ Palmer was picked up and survived.

Queen Boadicea returned to operate for Jacksons of Hammersmith. She was eventually employed as the Kingswear ferry on the River Dart and was scrapped in 1984.



Skylark X, one of many Skylark’s at Dunkirk came back into the Jackson Brothers’ fleet until being sold to Thompsons in 1957. She was moored at Hampton Wick in 1980 converted as a houseboat and finally sank in 1984.



The Tamar Belle survived to return to Thames Motor Boats until 1974, then operated bearing her original name tripping on the River Trent in Nottingham.

normal_ThamesBritannia-01_bb.jpg(Tamar Belle right)

Murrell’s motor passenger vessels Dreadnought II and Dreadnought III were both lost off the beaches. (Dreadnought II should not be confused with Redknapp’s Dreadnaught II, which did not go to Dunkirk).


Whatford & Sons’ Court Belle II departed Sheerness at 14:10 on Thursday 30th May. At 15:50 her engine broke down off Herne Bay and she was taken in tow by Strathelliott arriving off Ramsgate at 22:00. She departed for Dunkirk at 02:05 the following morning in tow of another vessel. At Dunkirk she suffered from a two and a half inch grass–line around her propeller after her second run to a Dutch skoot. The line wrapped solidly around the blades, pulling the shaft and causing a major leak into the bilge. Repeated attempts by her coxswain to remove the line failed and her crew comprising Jack Sturgeon and a naval rating were evacuated to a naval motor torpedo boat and she was machine–gunned along her waterline so she’d sink and not fall into enemy hands. Jack last remembered seeing Court Belle II on the evening of Friday 31st May, her gunnels just visible above the surf as the M.T.B. turned and deliver him back to Ramsgate. He was sent home for two days rest and recuperation before being dispatched back to Sheerness to organise the returning survivors for towing upriver for repairs.


Lamont’s Malden Annie IV, commanded by S.Lt. T. Lawrie R.N.V.R. became much of a hindrance to operations. She departed Sheerness on Thursday 30th May, but her freshwater steam engine broke down before reaching Ramsgate and at 20:45 she was also taken in tow by Strathelliott (the Dynamo Report states 08:45, but this is impossible). Still in tow bound for Dunkirk on Friday 31st her bollards and cleats ripped out and by 12:15 the Strathelliott had begun to tow her again stern first with a strop around the boat. Off the beaches at Dunkirk she was left to drift abandoned after her engines failed to start. Her pumps were choked, her bilge full of rubbish and she was reportedly taking water fast. She later fulfilled some useful purpose used as part of a pier hastily constructed along with army trucks and other debris by The Royal Engineers. S.Lt. Lawrie transferred to a motor barge and returned to Ramsgate subsequently taking command of the motor boat Wings of The Morning on Sunday 2nd June.


Mutt returned to Mears’ fleet until their demise in 1946. She was sold on to Thames Launches and subsequently to J. Watson in 1953, then operated for Turks Launches.

(Jeff pictured – sister to Mutt – photo by Ian Boyle)

Barrell turned his motor launch Shamrock back from the flotilla to rescue the crew of Queen of England after she was rammed and cut in two by the Dutch skoot Tilly at 23:00 on Wednesday 29th May somewhere near the South Falls. Shamrock proceeded on to Dunkirk taking in tow another of Barrell’s boats, Canvey Queen after her engines had stopped. Once at Dunkirk Shamrock and Canvey Queen together with E. Crouch’s Princess Maud ferried troops off the beaches to a group of destroyers including H.M.S. Anthony. During the late morning of Thursday 30th May Princess Maud ran aground and had to be abandoned. Shamrock suffered a fouled propeller less than two hours later and full of rescued troops was towed by the Canvey Queen to unload to H.M.S. Anthony. After disembarking the men and her crew, she was abandoned. This left just Canvey Queen to tow boats for the drifter Fairbreeze until she too fouled her propeller and was abandoned off Dunkirk on the evening of Thursday 30th May.



(Pictured : Queen of England (astern of Britannia) and Henry,Harry and Warren Hastings with Queen of England in 1937) 

Good Hope was apparently lost whilst working off the beaches.


Further to the previous technical corroborations regarding Thames vessels that did or didn’t see action at Dunkirk it must be obvious that of those listed and detailed confirmed crossing the channel, just over a third returned. Most of the vessels that returned were damaged in one way or another, yet all the Mears’ large freshwater steam powered vessels survived without a single scratch