Chiswick Pier’s historic houseboats

Image above: Historic houseboats at Chiswick Pier; photograph Joanna Raikes

Chiswick Pier has a number of historic houseboats moored there on long term leases. Most of them no longer have engines and they are so much a part of the local landscape that Chiswick Pier Trust, which administers the pier, has created a sign with a brief history of each of the boats.

The pontoons where the boats are moored are private, but the boat owners allowed The Chiswick Calendar’s Joanna Raikes to have a wander round the pontoons and take some photos.

Moored on the inner pontoon are the Cube, Victory, Ventana and Cecilia.

Image above: The Cube

The Cube

The nearest ‘houseboat’ to the walkway is not a boat at all, but a prefab which has been craned onto a pontoon. According to the Chiswick Pier Trust, the lower half is believed to be a buffer pontoon, built possibly around 1930, which would have been used in one of London’s docks to moor large boats. A common sight in post-war east London, buffer pontoons were placed at the bow or stern where the boat curved away from the wharf, to provide a smooth line to moor against.

‘Prefabs’ were prefabricated houses, built after World War II as a short term solution to the housing problem. They were popular, as they had running water, inside bathrooms and electric cookers and they could be put together in as little as three hours. The designers would never have imagined that there would be some still in use today.

The pontoon is of riveted steel construction. It would originally have had a rough timber deck. It arrived at Church Wharf (the wharf then behind the pier) in October 1983 and the prefab was then lowered on. Timber cladding, portholes and a steel deck have been added. There are about 35sq metres of living space upstairs with 45 sq metres on the lower deck, but with restricted headroom. The Cube is the only home at the Pier to be built on site.

Victory

Moored alongside The Cube is Victory, a fishing trawler built in Zeebrugge in the mid sixties, which used to fish the North Sea. Previously owned by boatbuilder Jake Oliver, owner of MSO Marine at Brentford, her original wheelhouse is now the post office on Eel Pie Island.

Current owners Cathy and Duncan Haynes bought her in May 2012. They keep her seaworthy, though they’ve never taken her off the mooring, despite the fact that they are both keen on sailing. Even before Hammersmith Bridge was closed to river traffic, it was almost impossible to take her down stream, as she is too tall to fit under the bridge at anything but the lowest of tides.

Her high bows, V- shaped hull and deep bulwarks protecting her decks are all designed to withstand the rigours of the North Sea weather but as a converted houseboat she boasts five bedrooms / cabins, three open decks and a hot tub.

Images above: Cathy & Duncan Haynes aboard Victory on the anniversary of VE Day, 2020; Champagne in the galley on Christmas Day

The moorings at Chiswick Pier are a great place to watch the Boat Race. The rowers come past so near, you feel you’re almost in the river with them. It tends to make the houseboat dwellers very popular with friends and family and their friends. Cathy and Duncan usually throw a party and have had 90 on deck.

“Everyone watches the race on TV, then they rush out on deck to watch the teams go by” says Duncan. “You just have to look out they don’t all go to the same side at the same time”. Just as well the boat is on a barge bed, a levelled bit of river bed which keeps the boat stable.

“It’s the police launches that come after the rowers that really rock the boat” says Duncan.

Not in 2020 or in 2021 either unfortunately, as the Boat Race was cancelled in 2020 because of the coronavirus and moved to the River Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire for 2021.

Images above: Cecilia; Victory (left) and Cecilia (right) 

Cecilia

Across the pontoon from Victory is Cecilia, a Thames lighter. Of all the boats at Chiswick Pier, she is the most representative of Thames craft. Lighter boats were cargo boats with no engine or sail, so-called because they were used to lighten the big cargo vessels – to take the cargo off downstream and bring it upstream and into the canal system.

Owners Johnny and Jan Wright, who have lived on Cecilia since 2013, know little of Cecilia’s precise history, other than that she was built in 1929 and converted to a houseboat in 1960 by a local doctor. She would have been used to haul cargo such as aggregate, grain or coal and probably worked out of Brentford. Lighters were towed either by another boat, a horse or a man and occasionally steered by a man with a long sweep, with considerable skill, considering the weight of the loaded boat and the tides.

This type of boat has a long and honourable history, appearing on the river in the 17th century in the days before the docks were built. At this time the Pool of London was congested with ships moored mid-stream, all desperate to unload. Lightermen, with their intimate knowledge of tidal waters, were for hundreds of years the elite of the tideway.

In the 20th century, tugs were used to pull a succession of lighters together, carrying goods to and from the docks and along the river. Lighters are still in use today; much of London’s rubbish is towed downstream to landfill in trains of lighters and they are a common sight from Chiswick Pier.

Cecilia’s distinctive shape is typical of a design that has changed little over time. She has a flat bottom that enables her to dry out at low water – essential when working on a tidal river – and a square chine at the bilge, maximising cargo space. The bow and stern are straight angles, similar to a punt’s, and are referred to as swim-headed. An evolution of the lighter is the Thames Sailing Barge, which along with the lighter, was once the main means of cargo carrying along the estuary.

Johnny and Jan have recently refurbished Cecilia, recladding the superstructure in larch, which doesn’t weather. They downsized from a six bedroom house when their daughters grew up and moved away and they have never looked back, they say. They have a car, a parking space and a storage unit on land. The boats are far more spacious inside than people imagine and contrary to popular misconception, they say their three cabin lighter is warm and snug.

Asked about benefits and pitfalls, they couldn’t think of any pitfalls, though you are much closer to the elements, so living on a boat is a lot noisier in a storm.

Image above: Ventana

Ventana

Built in Holland in 1927, Ventana is a steel flat bottomed luxe-motor barge, formally named Vertrouwen (‘Faith’ in English), which would have carried freight on inland and coastal waters. This type of boat was popular for carrying cargo. Her sharp bow, upswept stern and a gently arcing sheer line are all the marks of this type of barge, which first appeared early in the twentieth century with the introduction of the diesel engine.

The engines of the early luxe-motors were not powerful, so the pointed bows were needed to cut through the water and deliver water to the propeller. The accommodation behind the wheelhouse was considered very luxurious, with a proper kitchen and a toilet at a time when most houses didn’t have those facilities. Unsurprisingly luxe-motor barges quickly became very popular, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands, where families tended to live aboard.

These boats make hardly any stern wave and a 25 metre barge will usually do its cruising speed of 7 knots with very little power. Ventana was first converted to residential use in 1977 in Holland, and then underwent a major refit in 2004 which included changes to the superstructure. Later that year, she was brought from Holland to Chiswick Pier, where the interior refit was completed. She is still a fully functional craft with a working engine.

Images above: Radiant and Regatta

Moored on the outer pontoon are Radiant and Regatta, Libra and Reliance.

Radiant

Radiant started life as a sailing barge, built on the Humber in the 1920s. She would have been motorised at a later date, possibly during World War II, when grants were given for conversion to engine craft and would have carried a wet cargo such as coals from Newcastle.

The interior hold is pitted by the acids; so much so that the entire underwater hull had to be replaced in ~2005 after she sank (fortunately while in the boatyard !!)

Boats like Radiant, built to a Humber keel design, were strongly built to stand the heavy cross currents and short swell of the Humber, but with a shallow enough draught to work its feeder rivers and canals. Like Thames Sailing Barges, their southern equivalent, the keels’ high broad sails caught the wind on inland waters and their masts could be lowered when passing under bridges. In the 20th century, sail and steam engines gave way to diesel, then, as road haulage took over from water transport, many barges were sold for scrap.

Fortunately, some like Radiant, were adapted for residential living. Originally Radiant was probably 74’ long, but in the 1970’s, she was shortened in order for her to fit onto a mooring at Molesey. The hull was cut in two and around 20’ of her length removed; then the the two halves were welded back together again. Later in 1980’s an upper residential level was added to make up for the lost living space. Since 2000 her interior has been completely remodelled right back to the steel hull.

Images above: Radiant and Regatta, seen from the inner pontoon

Regatta

Regatta was built in 1909 in Boom, a small Belgian town on a tributary south of Antwerp and is what the Dutch call a steilsteven or “slope-bowed ship”. For over seventy years, she was a familiar sight on the canals and rivers of northern Belgium, delivering passengers, parcels and other light cargoes. Regatta came to Britain and Chiswick in 1985.

Continental working boats, particularly from Belgium, France and the Netherlands, have traded on the Thames for hundreds of years. Until the early 1970’s, Dutch coasters passed Chiswick to deliver goods to Isleworth. Evidence of this can be seen on the pub sign at the Waterman’s Arms in Isleworth. Older people who grew up around the river in west London still remember the days when places like Chiswick, Isleworth and Brentford were busy river ports for both national and international trade.

Like many barges, Regatta’s hull is riveted steel on L-section frames. She has a gross registered tonnage of 66 and a net tonnage of 20 tons. (The former measures the overall size of the vessel, the latter indicates the space available for carrying and is used to assess harbour and canal dues for merchant ships.) She is powered by a 6 cylinder 2 stroke 175 hp General Motor diesel engine, which is believed to have come from an American army tank.

Image above: Reliance and Radiant

Reliance

Reliance is a Humber motor barge, built in 1933 by Harkers of Knottingley. This type of barge is still a familiar sight in the north east and there are quite a few Yorkshire barges to be spotted on the Thames. She and her sister ship, Venture, were built to carry coal from the Yorkshire collieries down to York. She was then sold off and spent the 1960’s doing general cargo delivery on the Humber.

Rapid industrial growth in the 19th century brought a massive demand for coal from the Yorkshire collieries. The roomy holds of these craft provided a cheap, efficient and, at that time, speedy method of transport.

Reliance is divided into three watertight compartments. The fo’c’sle originally had bunks and a stove, though it is unlikely the crew lived aboard permanently. The cargo hold was 50’ long and covered by curved wooden hatches and tarpaulins when laden. The modern steel roof follows the lines of the old hatch covers.

The engine room originally housed a Widdop, but was later fitted with a 4 cylinder Perkins diesel engine generating 58hp. The rear portion of the engine room is now divided off to provide a back cabin. Since coming down south, Reliance has cruised upriver as far as Oxford and downriver to Bow Creek and up the River Lee.

Image above: Outer pontoon

Libra

Libra is a tjalk, built at Foxhol near Groningen in Holland in around 1910. Originally, she was a sailing barge, built to navigate the Dutch canals and rivers. The unpitted nature of her riveted iron and steel hull inside the hold suggests a dry cargo such as grain was carried.

Pronounced challuk, this clog-shaped boat was a very common Dutch design. They were flat bottomed, enabling them to navigate shallow waters and to take the ground to load and unload in tidal areas. Instead of a keel, sailing barges have 2 leeboards, one on either side of the boat, to stop them drifting sideways. The leeboard is lowered into the water on the lee side, i.e. on the opposite side to where the wind is coming from.

Libra still has her original leeboards and mast tabernacle, which indicates a much larger mast was carried than the current one. A slot in the steel on the bows shows she once carried a bowsprit – a boom sticking out forward to carry a sail. The original crew’s cabin at the stern still has the old sliding steel shutters. Forward of this cabin was the hold: covered when working by wooden hatch covers, it now has a steel roof over a large saloon and 2 sleeping cabins.

The barge was first converted to residential use in 1950 when her current engine, a Gardner 6LW 6 cylinder 112hp diesel, was fitted. Further work was done in 1990. She came over from Holland to the Thames in 1994.

With thanks to Johnny and Jan Wright, Duncan and Cathy Haynes and Chiswick Pier Trust for the historical information about the boats.

chiswickpier.org.uk

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Boat Race 2021 moved away from the River Thames

See also: Party on the Pier – annual party organised by the Chiswick Pier Trust

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