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A life at sea - Memories from a special, simpler time

By KentOnline reporter

Before the Second World War, up to 40 traditional fishing boats might crowd onto the tiny beach by St Andrew’s Church known as Bawley Bay.

In 1970 there was just one. Her name was Thistle and she was built in 1887.

After being sunk, restored, sailed as a yacht and sunk again, Thistle’s future looked bleak. A year ago she was lying abandoned and derelict at Hollowshore, near Faversham. Plans had been made to demolish her with a chain saw.

Bill's mother Olive working aboard the Thistle
Bill's mother Olive working aboard the Thistle

But a group of enthusiasts from the Iron Wharf Boatyard at Faversham decided she was too important to die. She was, after all, on the National Historic Ships list.

They raised some money and then raised the boat, towing her on a midnight tide to where she now lies at Faversham. Today she faces the restorer’s tools, rather than the chain saw.

Bill Sutherland, who comes from an old riverside family, knew Thistle well. Now 85, he remembers going with his father, a deep sea pilot, and grandfather, a fisherman, to sail her round from Strood.

Thistle, the last bawley boat on Bawley Bay, next to St Andrew's Church on the waterfront at Gravesend
Thistle, the last bawley boat on Bawley Bay, next to St Andrew's Church on the waterfront at Gravesend

She was built by the Rochester firm of Gill and Sons as a Medway bawley. The term bawley boat is a corruption of boiler boat, because the vessels were equipped to cook their catch of shrimps on board, to be ready for the market as soon as they tied up after a trip.

As a Medway bawley, Thistle only differed from the Thames version in that her mast was stepped on deck instead of on the keel, so that it could be lowered to pass under Rochester Bridge.

Her working life began as a fish runner, ferrying home the catch of other boats, so they could continue to work their nets.

“It was in 1944 that my grandfather bought the Thistle from the Pococks, a well-known fishing family on the Medway,” said Bill. “I remember seeing her for the first time at Strood Pier and sailing her round.

Mending nets. Bill's Grandfather, also Bill, carries out repairs watched by one of his brothers
Mending nets. Bill's Grandfather, also Bill, carries out repairs watched by one of his brothers

“In those days the family had a number of shrimp shops in Gravesend. There was one at the top of Stuart Road, one along The Terrace and one along the front as well.” This may have been on West Street, where Bill’s grandfather and his wife lived for many years.

Once on the Thames, Thistle was re-registered, and transferred fromthe Rochester number RR2 to the London number LO406. She has now reverted to her Medway registration.

“What I remember about sailing aboard the Thistle was that her cabin was very small and claustrophobic,” said Bill.

“We mostly fished under power. My uncle Arthur was the only one who could start up the engine. He reckoned he had one arm longer than the other from swinging the handle.

“Arthur, a lighterman, was a real character. I can remember him diving off the top of the Town Pier into the River.

“We fished down off the Bligh and across to Hole Haven, mostly shrimps but we caught a few fish with the beam trawl. Thistle had a nice flat stern on her which is ideal for shrimping.”

She was very much a family boat. This is Bill's grandmother Eileen on board
She was very much a family boat. This is Bill's grandmother Eileen on board

The Sutherland family could hardly be anything but fishermen and seafarers. Four brothers, who fished in Scottish waters, moved southwards in the 1700s finishing up in London where they bought two houses on London Bridge and worked two fishing boats.

However they were great gamblers and lost everything in a single night of card playing. They moved further down river, settling for a while at Greenwich before moving on again. In 1830 they moved to Tea Pot Row in Rosherville.

From there they moved to Gravesend riverside addresses with names such as Stony Alley, Rowlings Alley, and eventually their shrimp shop at 9a West Street, where Bill’s father, also Bill, was born.

Bill’s father, Captain Sutherland, was one of the last of the Cape Horners. After completing an apprenticeship in the Merchant Navy he decided to become a deep sea pilot. In those days the training involved sailing before the mast.

Bill Sutherland with his model of the barge Revival which he sails on local lakes
Bill Sutherland with his model of the barge Revival which he sails on local lakes

He joined the four mastedbarque Archibald Russel, and set sail just a month after marrying his wife Olive. It was 14 months before he returned home, during which the ship rounded the Cape Horn twice during her voyage to Australia and back.

During the Second World War he piloted food and ammunition ships into and out of the Thames, dodging mines and bombs. After the D-Day landings he guided ships in to the beaches at Arromanches on the Normandy coast.

The sea and the River have played a defining role in Bill’s own life and career. On leaving Gordon School he became the last ever apprentice to be taken on by Woods’s of Denton, which in its day built handsome sailing barges for the explosives trade.

“The barges we had were carrying gelignite, dynamite and gunpowder,” he said. “Boats came down from Ardeer in Scotland where ICI had a gunpowder works. At Chapman’s Anchorage, off Canvey Island, the explosives would be transhipped into our sailing barges.

“The barges would carry their cargo up to the magazine, which was a huge hulk laying in the Lower Hope. The men who handled the explosives were known as ‘powder monkeys’.

“On one occasion a barge called the Anglia sank with a cargo of gelignite. They had to send a special team down from Ardeer to decant the gelignite from boxes into sacks, which were to be taken out to sea and dumped.

“Our barges included Revival, Gipping, Asphodel and Dreadnought. Anything iron on them, like a nail or a bolt head had to be covered with a lead patch in case of sparks.”

A save haven for Thistle at Faversham where she is being restored by (clockwise from top left) Ian Reekie, Morgan Lewis, Kerry McSwain, Andy Reeve, Bob Berk, Victoria Shorland and Lena Reekie
A save haven for Thistle at Faversham where she is being restored by (clockwise from top left) Ian Reekie, Morgan Lewis, Kerry McSwain, Andy Reeve, Bob Berk, Victoria Shorland and Lena Reekie

After completing his apprenticeship Bill signed on with the Shaw Savill line, at one time carrying passengers to Australia on the £10 assisted passage scheme. He was ship’s carpenter.

Later he joined the crew of what must have been one of the first roll-on roll-off ferry services, using a government owned tank landing ship operating between Tilbury and the Antwerp. She carried scrap cars for Germany and returned with restored vehicles.

The deal was that the vessel was leased from the Ministry of Defence, which could claim it back in the event of war. “When Anthony Eden decided to invade Suez we had to go to Portishead to load tanks, scout cars, trucks and troops, and take them to Famagusta in Cyprus,” he said.

After a period as ship repair manager at Denton Slipways, Bill joined the tug firm of Alexander Towage, based at the Terrace Pier, Gravesend.

For much of this time, Thistle remained part of the family. But when Bill’s grandfather died in 1969 at the age of 87, she was sold and moved to Kingston upon Thames, where she was not looked after well. There is a dramatic picture of her sunk.

Enthusiast Phil Wilkinson saw her and fell in love with her. He brought her back to the Medway with a plastic sheet wrapped round the hull to keep the water out. She was towed by John Oliver and his tug Hobbit.

Her shrimping days were over but Bill did get another opportunity to sail in her once more, in the 1989 Smack Race from Gravesend to London.

Until his hands became unsteady in recent years he built beautifully crafted model boats, including one of the Thistle. He has also made models of sailing barges, including one built by Woods, which he sails on nearby lakes.

Now he looks forward to the day when from the window of his Regent’s Court flat he will once again gaze out onto the Thames to see Thistle breasting the tide with her sails billowing, possibly to rest once again for a while on the little beach that is Bawley Bay.

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