Back to 2019…

The 46th annual Thames Historic Barge Driving Race has been cancelled this year due to safety concerns. For those unfamiliar with this Thames tradition – a seven mile barge race under oars from Greenwich to Westminster – these photos, taken from the finish at Westminster Bridge in 2019, will give a flavour of this festive trial of strength along the river.
It all began in 1975 with Watermen and Lightermen Jack Faram, John McSweeny, Ron Livett and others, as part of a wider initiative to “promote the river as a transport mode”, to cut polluting lorry journeys through the centre of town and to increase the profile and commercial potential of the river. Jack Faram tells me that the idea behind the race, “was to give apprentices experience in handling their barges on the fast-moving tidal currents of the Thames. Collecting pennants during the race was a natural extension of their work, which often involved jumping across barges.” He adds that “barges were much bigger and heavier at the time.”

Jack’s words are echoed by Waterman and Lighterman Eric Carpenter who says he was “in the crew of a heavy barge, rowing in 1980 and 1981”, and he has the medals to prove it. He confesses that “We had no chance of winning as there were much smaller and lighter barges but we went for collecting the pennants from different buoys, and to compete for the fancy dress prize. We were Beefeaters in 1980 and Wizards in 1981.”

The Contestants approaching the finish at Westminster Bridge
The barges have no other power than that of the oarsmen themselves, who must know how to harness the force of the river and to steer using the strong tidal currents to their advantage. The Thames Barge Driving Trust * runs a number of events during the year to “commemorate the skills of lightermen who moved freight this way along the Thames.” Jack Faram remembers that, “Apprenticed in 1951, by 1952 I was rowing barges in the middle of the night lit only by an oil lamp.That was our job.”

GPS Marine barge Shell Bay, followed by barges Benjamin, and Navy
GPS Marine team rowing barge Shell Bay with all their might
City Cruises and Thames Jet team rowing Balfour towards Westminster Bridge
Thames Marine Services with barge Navy
Thames Marine Services’ barge Navy close to Westminster Bridge
London Party Boats team rowing barge Benjamin
Apprentice Lightermen rowing towards the finish at Westminster Bridge
Last effort for the Apprentice Lightermen as they approach the Finish
Trinity Buoy Wharf team with barge Diana

Tugs, families and supporters

GPS tugs INDIA and IBERIA with an accompanying launch and M.V. VALULLA
PLA tug IMPULSE and Harbour Patrol vessel BARNES
Crews, barges, supporters and tugs on Lambeth Reach after the race
Tugs INDIA and IBERIA, with M.V. VALULLA between them, about to tow barges home
M.V. VISCOUNT with supporters
M.V. VALULLA, GPS tug IBERIA, M.V. MERCIA and Rib EURO II in the distance
City Cruises’ M.V. ELEANOR
Ben of Liquid Highway driving EURO II
Apprentice Watermen relaxing
Tug PLASHY ready to tow
GPS tug IBERIA homeward bound with the Trinity Buoy Wharf barge

Eric Carpenter says: “The implementation of the Barge race was hugely popular amongst us Watermen and the fight for a place in a crew was fierce!”

Eric’s medals for having taken part in the 1980 and 1981 races. They are part of the Thames cultural heritage.

Let’s hope that the problems which cropped up this year will be resolved and the hugely popular race, so important to the culture and heritage of the Thames, will be back on next year’s calendar.

With thanks to:
Eric Carpenter
See articles where Eric talks of his work on the Thames:

Jack (Len) Faham
Who kindly talked to me about his involvement in setting up the Thames Historic Barge Driving Race, and his work on the river.

Ben of Liquid Highway
A Thames Waterman and Lighterman, always there to help with info. He runs the worlds largest Thames vessel photo gallery The Liquid Highway. You can follow him on Twitter @liquid_highway1

For further information
A great resource with interviews of their lives and work by Lightermen: Tales from the Thames, An oral History of the Lightermen They include interviews with Jack Faram and Alan Lee Williams,

* The Thames Barge Driving Trust was originally called The Transport on Water Association and came into being during the 1970’s energy crisis when not only were alternatives being sought to reduce dependency on oil but also to keep the lighterage industry alive after the opening of Tilbury docks, and the subsequent loss of trade further upstream.

For more pictures of the Thames Historic Barge Driving Race 2019, see Gallery