For centuries ballast was essential for sailing craft which had just offloaded their diverse cargos from every port in the world.
Gravel ballast was the easiest to obtain and store where needed – however stones of all shapes and sizes came in as part of a cargo – down alongside of Blackheath in Hyde Vale a diverse collection can be seen holding the boundaries of the heath from washing away especially into the conduits which abound here.
Adjacent to Dead Dog Bay alongside Granite Wharf lies a boundary wall composed of the most diverse collection of stones, more than likely from Mowlem’s yard.
Ballast was not only moved around in lighters, as it still is today, but also in spritsail barges which are peculiar to the Thames and its estuaries. These barges use leeboards for direction of steerage being essential for such a shallow draft. These were the ideal craft to move up to the heads of the estuarial creeks to off load London rubbish – which was used by farmers as manure.
Such craft were built at Piper’s Wharf where, back in 1870 Maudslay, Sons and Field even built two iron sailing clippers similar in size to the Cutty Sark. (Both Halloween and Blackadder competed in the China and Australia trade routes.)
As a lad up in Colchester, I used to cycle down to The Hythe, an ancient wharf used by the Romans. Trade, in my cycling days, included the import of special clay from Holland used in the manufacture of specialist fire bricks. Coal and coke from Newcastle came in by Everards coasters – a two-way grain and fertiliser trade and, of course, aggregates from nearby Fingringhoe (opposite Wivenhoe on the River Colne). The Priors still use revitalised craft to bring building grains from their extensive sand pits way up the Thames and into Deptford Creek.
I wonder how much of the neighbouring giant building schemes were reliant on concrete from nearby Brewery Wharf. Those who visited Stratford in the pre-Olympic days might have noted how much of the material arrived at the nearby rail sidings. However, the anticipated barge traffic somehow never really materialised.
Europe’s biggest civil engineering projects such as Cross Rail and the proposed sewage tunnel will be heavily dependent on a two-way transport system Both new and old traditional companies are girding their loins for such a competitive trade. I have spotted new vessels on my riverwatch surveys, including tugs and barges.
Greenwich is London’s busiest aggregate transit centre – just by the O2 or down in Charlton, which has its own rail sidings at Angerstein Wharf where sea aggregates are imported on a regular basis. The material is sorted and washed for use. I was once presented with a mammoth’s molar tooth but not one of the many bombs and shells which have been dredged up. While studying Rich Sylvester’s excellent East Greenwich History map, I found I am overlooking a V2 bombsite which landed just off shore near the Trafalgar Tavern.
Harping back to barges and lighters – traces of ship builders’ pillings can be seen on our Highbridge foreshore. Bob, our old river friend, had to clear these every day after the tide had tried to obscure them with the ever-changing sand and mud coverings – clear enough to allow welders and the like to maintain the hundreds of lighters which were essential to the Port of London’s once extensive trade – ah me!