Meet Vic Clarke

as he reminisces about his time on the tidal Thames in the 60s

A chance meeting on social media and a shared interest in the Thames led to my discovering the early story of Vic Clarke, who trained at the Wellesley Nautical School at Blyth and who began his career on colliers delivering coal to Thames-side power stations in the 1960s.

Vic Clarke, 1960 © V. Clarke

After undergoing a rigorous training with tough, and by today’s standards, harsh discipline at Wellesley from 1958 – 1961, he tells me of his first trip to London.

“This will never leave my memory as I’d dreamt of going to sea from an early age, so it made a big impression. Steaming down the East coast from Blyth to London, being thrown about, dropping meals and cups of tea. Then I remember everything going still and peaceful. It was about three in the morning. I went up on deck: we had just turned into the Thames Estuary.

He describes life on board the HUDSON FIRTH, on which he sailed a number of times: “Accommodation was pretty basic for seamen, and for deck boys like me, even more basic. There were two of us deckies on the FIRTH. We shared a cabin directly above the steering gear, so it was pretty noisy. Our cabin was in the hull and there was no insulation in that part; just steel plate between us and the briny.”

“You first join as a deckie. If you’re a junior, you normally help in the galley, where you stay until another deckie joins the crew. In this position the nickname was “Peggy”. In the old sailing days, if you was to lose a leg, you weren’t put ashore, you were tasked to help in the galley. So for three months I was peggy: thankfully I didn’t have to cut my leg off.”

Vic sent me this image of the Blyth chain ferry, 1960. However, here the interest lies in the ship on the left the HUDSON CAPE, sister ship to the HUDSON FIRTH © Frederick W Craven – geograph.org.uk/p/1674724

“The FIRTH sailed in any weather. No high sea or high wind deterred our skipper, we’d steam out of Blyth with the prop thrashing out of the water, then back into a trough and silence. The North Sea is harsh; we rarely had a flat steam to London. If memory serves me well, it took three days to go down and two days to go up, dependant on the weather.”

“During days at sea it would be maintenance i.e. chipping paint off and repainting. On leaving Blyth, once the hold covers were down, decks were cleaned off of any coal dust, the same when leaving London; that was the first job.”

“I though the food on the FIRTH was unbelievable. The standard of the galley and cookers was basic but our cook turned out amazing food and plenty of it.”

1955, a little before Vic’s time but showing a scene in King George V Dock, illustrating the importance of the Port of London. Photo by © Ben Brooksbank (licensed for re-use)

“The loading in Blyth was done from staithes, high wooden structures that carried coal trucks. The trucks stopped right up above the vessels, then were turned over and the coal streamed down a chute into the hold. On unloading in London, large cranes with grab buckets emptied the hold, after which tractors were then lowered in to finish the job off.”

“I’m pretty sure Bankside was my first trip as memories bring Southwark up. I remember we tied off on a buoy on a Sunday morning. Being peggy I was tasked to go ashore for newspapers and cigarettes; lots of Woodbines and News of the Worlds. One of the seamen called for a lighterman who took me ashore, where I soon found a shop, got the kit and went back to the river. But no FIRTH. Gone.”

Tower Bridge with shipping in the Pool of London and at Hay’s Wharf, Southwark, London, c1945-c1965. © SW Rawlings, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s hard to express the sheer number of ships tied up. It was Sunday, and skippers tried to avoid Sundays at sea because pay was double time, meaning more expense for their employers. The lighterman took me down the lines of ships and found the FIRTH. I distinctly remember she was up alongside a ship named GLADYS BOWATER. She was carrying rolls of newspaper. When I walked across her deck it was like a 5-star hotel in comparison to our dark, dusty collier.”

Vic also remembers some of London’s great smogs known as pea-soupers. “Real pea-soupers, which I only actually experienced on the Thames, were I would think, due to the heavy industry and the coal-fired power stations. They were eerie, all sounds were muffled, really muffled. I distinctly remember one time ships’ movements being suspended. I can still remember the taste and smell of smoke and soot infesting the air, all confused with the sounds of ships’ horns, and lightermen shouting to each other….”

After leaving the Merchant Navy, Vic carried on with an active and varied career, with work including diving, abseiling and steeple jacking, where on one occasion he had to inspect the damage done to the Kuwait water towers during the Occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqis in 1990-91. But he looks back with fondness to his early career and work on the Thames: “In those days there were no camera phones and very few ordinary cameras around.” He adds wistfully, “Oh to have the chance to go back and have those sights, sounds and feelings actually on record; though hopefully they will live with me forever.” And from the memories he has shared with us here, they surely will.

Vic and his friend Bon Clowe from Wellesley College days standing in front of a nautically themed sign on the old base which was sold for redevelopment. Vic fought hard to have the names of officers and divisions remembered in the streets and closes of the new estate. And he won. © Vic Clarke

Unsung Heroes

The small workboats of the tidal Thames

Dwarfed by other vessels, construction sites and piers along the river, there is a fleet of small workboats, open topped or with a wheel house, navigating the river in all conditions. Unless you’re looking out for them, they can pass by un-noticed but their work is vital to smooth operations along the river.

EDDIE C making her way along a rough stretch of the Thames

They fetch and carry people and goods; act as safety boats; serve as platforms for filming, PR work, surveys, structural inspections both above and below the waterline, and numerous other activities associated with the maintenance of buildings, embankments and structures along the river.

Safety boat FELLUCA at the Tideway Chelsea Embankment Foreshore

Some belong to particular pleasure boat cruise companies, working solely for them, ferrying skippers, mates and crew from a nearby pier to where their vessels are moored, and others are available for hire for long or short term.

DUTCH MASTER with small boat CYGNET just visible by the stern
Thames Cruises’ GUVNOR moored at Lambeth

There are many active civil engineering projects along the tidal Thames but by far the largest is the Tideway Super Sewer for London, now 40 percent complete, which has twenty-four construction sites, all using small workboats along with the other vessels they need onsite or for deliveries.

Wal Daly-Smith, now Mate with Bateaux London Cruises, worked earlier this year as a safety boat skipper at the Blackfriars site. His boat, Diveco 1, assisted with diver operations and played a big part in the building of the cofferdam.

Diveco 1 inside the Tideway cofferdam at Blackfriars earlier this year.
© Wal Daly-Smith See his Thames images @RiverLens

It was a complex job and as Wal explains, one of the main tasks he had was “to act as safety boat. The divers would be lowered into the water by crane and I would be on standby, a good distance away with my engine shut down. The divers also worked off a pontoon, which I would push around with the boat.” Their work involved welding and burning, all of this in extremely murky, dangerous underwater conditions.

Sunset from inside the Thames Tideway cofferdam at Blackfriars.
© Wal Daly-Smith See his Thames images @RiverLens

Wal also told me how the Diveco boat was used to help with rescuing fish trapped in the cofferdam as the water was drained out. “A zoologist from London Zoo took part ensuring the fish were netted in the correct way and freed back into the river on the other side”. Over 1,200 fish, of several different species were rescued. Here is yet further proof that there has been a spectacular renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Thames was described as “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum.

After the fish were moved to safety, the boat assisted in the removal of thousands of tons of sludge. “I could feel the prop dragging through the thick silt once the cofferdam was drained,” he added.

DANCHA from Eel Pie Island racing through a sparkling Thames

These are just a few of the many small workboats to be seen along the river but there are many more hidden within structures or tucked in alongside or behind bigger boats. With names like ROSIE, ALFIE, LOVELY BOUY and REBEL, they all have their own characteristics and are fun to watch. But make no mistake, their skippers need a lot of skill to handle them in the often turbulent waters of the Thames.

JOANNIE B making her way downstream past the Palace of Westminster

For more information see: https://www.tideway.london @TidewayLondon and follow @RiverLens for pictures of life on the river by an aspiring Waterman ⚓️

Port of Call

With the tide in full flow…

…the swift running currents of the central London Thames divide and stream through the constricted spaces between the embankments and beneath the bridges.

Swift running tide beneath the Blackfriars bridges

For those working along the river, they can be a useful energy-saving way of getting around and you will see all types of boats from tugs and tourist boats to kayaks skilfully taking advantage of this when they can.

Further downstream, if you’re walking by Tower Bridge, or taking a river trip to Greenwich, the Thames Barrier or beyond, you’ll not only see the usual traffic but also the occasional impressive-looking ship on a visit to London. Some come right into the heart of the City to moor alongside the permanently berthed historic HMS Belfast, which took part in the bombardment supporting the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.

HMS Belfast permanently moored near Tower Bridge

Last September I was lucky enough to have been close to Tower Bridge when the bridge lifted and the sail training ship STS Lord Nelson came through. And later in the month I spotted her sister ship, sailing vessel SV Tenacious further downstream, making her way seawards past the ever-changing skyline to the east of the City.

Tower Bridge lifts for STS Lord Nelson

These two elegant ships are owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, in existence for over thirty years, and their mission is “to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea.”

SV Tenacious heads seawards past the ever-changing City skyline

No-one is disadvantaged as the ships were specially designed to be wheelchair accessible throughout. Trips have been variously described as adventurous, challenging, confidence-building and inspiring but perhaps the most revealing is a comment from one voyager “that sailing for me on these ships is the only time I feel free”, expressing a liberation from the fears and restrictions that can curtail everyday life.

Moored next to HMS Belfast, former RMS St Helena on a visit to London, January 2019

In January 2019, the former Royal Mail Ship, cargo liner RMS St Helena, sailed beneath Tower Bridge, mooring next to HMS Belfast, in her new role as an ambassador for the launch of the Extreme E electric car racing series. There was something majestic and romantic seeing her among us in London after she had served the islanders of St Helena with all their needs for nearly thirty years.

She was much loved by the population and they gave her a memorable send-off in February 2018, including a last propeller inspection by the St Helena Dive Club, whose members posed underwater for a photo with the island flag. After leaving London, she sailed westwards round the coast to undergo refitting and refurbishment so as to be able to act as a movable base for each of the Extreme E races when events begin in 2021.

As I was turning to leave, a pool of reflected light unexpectedly and magically shone onto part of her starboard side and I further understood why this ship had been held in much affection.

In April 2019, the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza came to London to launch a year long Pole to Pole expedition ‘Protect the Oceans’ from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to highlight the many threats facing our oceans and to campaign for a Global Oceans treaty at the UN. It was a timely visit as climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and deep sea mining have been making the news with television programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ and the recent demonstrations in central London by the pressure group ‘Extinction Rebellion’.

MV Motor Vessel Esperanza alongside HMS Belfast

Find out more and see when ships are due into central London: www.towerbridge.org.uk

And for detailed information on shipping movements see The Port of London Authority: www.pla.uk


HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge in an early evening light

The Rising Tide

The Thames has inspired countless creative works of art but Jason deCaires Taylor went further and actually harnessed the tides to complete his sculpture.

Known particularly for the ever-evolving sculptures of his beautiful, mysterious underwater museums, deCaires Taylor’s work has appeared all over the world. His strong emphasis on the environment and our duty to preserve it for the future struck a chord when his installation The Rising Tide came to London in September 2015.

Crowds gather at low tide on Vauxhall Beach

The Rising Tide, was commissioned by Totally Thames as part of their “Festival of the Thames”. Four life-sized horses each ridden bareback, two by young people facing forward, and two by suited older men, their body language reflecting indifference and their eyes averted from, or seemingly closed to the world. The horses were modelled on sturdy, traditional working horses but their heads were depicted as oil well pumps, known as horse-head pumps.

Businessman or politician indifferent to the effects of his decisions

Installed for one month on Vauxhall beach, the sculptures were yet another manifestation of the growing concern with the effects of climate change attributed, among other reasons, to our dependence on fossil fuels. A concern which has continued to grow and intensify with more direct action around the world in recent weeks. Curiously, as they were made four years ago, the young girl seems to bear a slight resemblance to the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. And, as if prophetically, deCaires Taylor said of the two young riders when the sculptures were installed, that “There is a sign of optimism in the children, who are able to inflict change.”

Young girl riding bareback, facing the future

There may have been other considerations but their setting within the sight of the Houses of Parliament, added weight to the message that deCaires Taylor was trying to bring home to those in power: that their decisions affect the future of our planet.

The four riders. The businessmen’s horses still drinking resources while the young riders look outwards

After design and artistic considerations, the sculptures had to be strong enough to withstand the force of the tides, so they were made of stainless steel, pH neutral high-density marine cement, basalt and aggregates. They were transported along to river to Vauxhall by barge. Just as there is something new to discover on every visit to the river, so no two views of the sculptures were the same. Reflections, light, shadows and the ebb and flow of the tides meant that the sculptures themselves were in a constant and beguiling state of flux.

Young boy rides out, slowly submerging into the turbulent waters of the Thames

For more information about Jason deCaires Taylor see:

www.underwatersculpture.com

The Rising Tide sculptures with Lambeth and Westminster Bridges and the London Eye in the background.

Notes on the London Eye

A giant bicycle wheel on the banks of the Thames.
This is London’s  Eiffel Tower or Brussels’ Atomium. I love it.  Though not everyone did when it was first built in 1999.

Now an integral part of London’s modern skyline and an accepted symbol of our city, the London Eye, originally known as the Millennium  Wheel, was first seen by many as  a ‘white elephant’ and an oversized fairground attraction, devaluing the surrounding buildings. Having never had much time for the grandiosity of the old County Hall,  I would disagree.

One of its fiercest critics was Lord St John of Fawsley, Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1985 to 1999. Clearly not a fan, he said it “would ruin London” and that he hoped it would “be moved to a more suitable site at the earliest possible moment”. Nearly twenty years later, it is still looking out over London. And London is looking back at it as it turns by day, gleaming in the light with cameras flashing from the capsules, often messaging us with coded night-time illuminations including: red and gold to mark Chinese New Year; rainbow colours for Gay Pride; pink for Valentine’s  Day; and red, white and blue to mark the birth of Prince George. But perhaps its most famous image is at the centre of London’s spectacular annual New Year’s firework display.

Architect David Marks designed the Eye in 1993 with his wife and partner, Julia Barfield, for a competition in the Sunday Times to mark the millennium. But no winner emerged. After all their work, and with great faith in the project, they set about developing it themselves; found the site on the Southbank; mortgaged their home to pay for the initial costs and found financial support from Bob Ayling, head of British Airways.  It took about six years to build. And in recognition of their original sponsors, though since then changed, the rides around the wheel are still called flights. There are thirty-two pods representing all London’s boroughs from Barking to Westminster. However allowance has been made for the widely held superstition that the number thirteen is unlucky, so that the pods are numbered 1 – 33.

Six European countries were involved in the construction. The steel was British but sent to Holland for manufacture; the cables were Italian; the bearings German; the spindle and hub were cast in the Czech Republic, the pods made in France with Italian glass; and the electrical parts came from the UK. When ready, everything was floated up the Thames by barge and assembled at the site. No easy feat as the sections were large, and careful attention had to be paid to the tides so that there was enough clearance to pass beneath the bridges.

The Eye has added interest and variety to London’s skyline, enhancing views  from all over the city and specially along the Thames, where its  ever changing reflection adds a magical glow to the river.

For further information:

See: A. P. Mann,N. Thompson, and M. Smits

Building the British Airways London Eye

https://www.londoneye.com