Waterford Harbour

Waterford Harbour
Cheekpoint village 1940's

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Lighters - work boats of the River Suir

Some boats are just not sexy.  Sailing ships, paddle steamers, even smokey steam boats returning from foreign shores all have their appeal. But work boats tend to get a poor press, except perhaps amongst the men that plied their trade among them.  One that surely fits this category is the Lighter, the river transporter par excellence and one that is now confined to memory. I know of nothing extant and no plans for a replica.  So today's guest blog is very special to me.  I was put on to the source of the information by David Carroll, but the writer today is Leslie Dowley and his topic; The Lighters of the River Suir.

Waterford’s unique location in the south-east corner of Ireland allowed for easy access to ports in the UK and continental Europe. It was also serviced by two of Ireland’s largest rivers, the Barrow and the Suir. The former serviced counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford and was tidal as far north as St. Mullins in Co. Carlow. The latter serviced counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford and was tidal as far west as Carrick-on-Suir in Co. Tipperary. These counties were among the top food producers in Ireland and the long tidal stretches made it easy to transport goods up and down the rivers in large boats. This resulted in Waterford becoming one of Ireland's leading ports for the import and export of goods. By the early nineteenth century, Waterford was the second largest port in Ireland (after Dublin) in terms of commercial traffic. 

Prior to the “great famine” Waterford had some £2.5 m worth of exports and £1.7 m worth of imports and was therefore a net exporter. The exports where nearly all food stuffs, as prior to the famine, Ireland was exporting sufficient food to feed 2 million people in the UK and had gained the name of being the “breadbasket of England”. In 1832 the volume of goods going down stream from Carrick-on-Suir was estimated to have been 11,527 tons of flour, 28,678 barrels of wheat, 19,445 barrels of oats, 3,878 barrels of barley, 1,028 tons of butter, 139 tons of lard and 63,751 sides of bacon. 

In the tidal areas, the main boats used to transfer goods to and from the ships in Waterford were known as a “Lighters”. These were a type of flat-bottomed wooden barge which were about 71 feet long and 16 feet wide and could carry up to 40 tons. The lighter’s had a crew of two and they used 30 foot steel-shod poles for manoeuvring at close quarters and to keep the boat in the tidal stream. While the main power was generated by the rising or ebbing tide each crew member was equipped with a 35/36 foot oar or “sweep” which swiveled on a 2 inch oak dowel. These were used to increase propulsion and each stroke meant walking six steps forward and six back. The lighter men were very skilled operators, with intimate knowledge of the river, its currents and tides. The journey from Waterford to Carrick normally took two tides while the reverse journey took at least 8 hours. While Carrick was the main destination upstream, there were wharf's at regular intervals for the unloading of coal from the lighters. This was due to the delivery radius of a coal-horse being some two miles.
Lighters being poled into position in Waterford
By 1835 there were some 88 boats operating between Carrick and Waterford. In 1836, the Suir Navigation Company was founded to control all commercial traffic on the Suir and to improve and maintain the navigation. One of its first projects was the construction of the “navigation cut” at Carrick, which allowed the lighters to avoid the weir at Carrick Castle and enter the harbour at periods other than high tide. To finance these ventures, the hauliers were empowered to charge one penny per ton on all goods transported more than one mile west of the bridge in Waterford. The main investors were Lord Bessborough, Lalor of Cregg, Richard Sausse, the Grubbs of Clonmel, William O’Donnell and the Dowleys of Carrick-on-Suir. 

In the same year there were 93 boats employing 200 men on the stretch of river between Carrick and Clonmel. The boats on this route were known as yawls and carried about 14 tons. They were initially towed upstream by a team of men, but were later replaced by horsepower. The route to Clonmel was dogged with industrial action. In 1918 there was a strike which went on until February 1919 and the route to Clonmel was finally abandoned by Dowleys, who were the sole operators at the time.

Yawls in Carrick awaiting a cargo for Clonmel
Many of the lighters and yawls were built in the Carrick-on-Suir area. Three firms of boat-builders are listed in Slater’s Directory of Ireland of 1870 and one of them, Keogh Brothers, were still active in 1919 according to Kenny’s Irish Manufacturers’ Directory of that year. 

In 1877 J. Ernest Grubb founded the Suir Steam Navigation Company and was the owner and sole shareholder. In the same year he bought the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew”. It could tow four lighters to a maximum of 160 tons and could also carry passengers to fairs in Waterford. This improved the commercial use of the river and the stores on the quayside were a hive of activity and employment. By the end of the nineteenth century the route to Waterford was dominated by J. Ernest Grubb with the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew” while the others using the route included Thomas Butler, the Healy’s, T. G. Howell & Co., Richard Walsh of New St. and Edward Dowley of New St. 

In 1912 J. Ernest Grubb retired and his grain business was sold to Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. while the Suir Steam Navigation Company was sold to Richard Walsh of New St. In the same year Dowleys bought a tug of their own, the Knocknagow I, for service between Carrick and Waterford. The Knocknagow II was added soon afterwards and both were used to tow lighters also.
The fully laden Knocknagow II making way from Carrick to Waterford
In 1923, Dowleys and Walshs attempted to reduce the rivermen’s wages. This resulted in a series of strikes and the river trade was further disrupted by a dockers strike in Waterford. All of this hastened the demise of the river trade in favour of the more dependable road transport. The civil war led to some revival in the river trade as road and rail traffic was disrupted by the blowing up of strategic railway bridges. However this revival was only temporary.

The Knocknagow I with a lighter being loaded in Carrick
In 1927 there were further strikes by the rivermen and the river trade never fully recovered from these disputes. In the same year Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. purchased the Suir Steam Navigation Company from Walsh’s which effectively ended Walsh’s involvement with the river trade. 

During the Second World War the two Knocknagows continued to ply the route between Waterford and Carrick when fuel for road transport was in short supply. The lighters also served the town well during the war. 

After the war Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd purchased another two barges in the UK called the Rocksand and the New Forge. They also bought a cement barges that was towed by the Knocknagow. The imminent arrival of a cement boat in Carrick caused a lot of debate in the local pubs and bets were being laid as to whether a cement boat could float or not. It did float and was 100 ft long by 24 ft wide and 13 ft high. However, it was very cumbersome and an ill-advised purchase and its’ use was abandoned not long after. The Knocknagows kept operating up to 1973 when they were sold and this effectively marked the end of commercial trade on the river Suir.

My thanks to Leslie for this piece of vital maritime social history. You can read more of his amazing family history on his family website. Our next guest blog is due for May 26th and at this point I may have two to choose from.  We have several others in writing I'm told and would still be open to some female contributions.  The only criteria is that the piece needs to be about our maritime heritage, about 1200 words and I can help in editing if required, source photos and add in links etc.  I'd also welcome any contributions from younger readers including students

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can connect with me to receive the blog every week.  Simply email me to request to be added to my email list at russianside@gmail.com.



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