Lady Daphne

While the Civic City goes into recess for the month of August not everyone goes on vacation so I decided to hold two of our social events at this time. The first, a walk round Hampstead and on to the Heath which is owned by the City of London Corporation, I blogged about two weeks ago. For our second I chose to explore the River Thames aboard one of the most famous of London’s classic wooden vessels still sailing.

Lady Daphne is one of 40 wooden sailing barges still left in Great Britain of which only ten are available to take passengers. Thames sailing barges (“barge” meaning without a deep keel) were among the fastest and most versatile trading ships ever built. Famous for their ochre sails, able to point well into the wind, suitable for waters as shallow as five feet, capable of lowering both masts to pass under bridges and fit with two large cargo holds, these remarkable craft dominated coastal shipping through a combination of economic efficiency and sailing prowess. Even more remarkably, they were sailed by a crew of “a man, a boy and a dog”, which contrasts with the large crews needed on some of today’s modern yachts. The trading waters for Thames sailing barges included England, Ireland and the Continent, with rumours of longer trips for a rare few to the Americas. Thames sailing barges also served honourably in war, evacuating many of the men from Dunkirk and sweeping mines.

Sailing barge Lady Daphne was commissioned in 1921 to be built by Short Bros on behalf of David and Stanley Watson of Thomas Watson (Shipping). When the barge was launched in 1923, David named it after his newly born first child, Daphne. In the 1920s she acquired a reputation as “the fastest barge in the three channels”. She was known as the “lucky Lady Daphne” for an extraordinary incident. On Boxing Day 1927 the skipper was washed overboard and two crew abandoned her off the Cornish coast., but Lady Daphne, guided by the ship’s canary, sailed herself through the rocks of the Scilly Isles onto a few tens of yards of safe sand. The barge stayed in service with the maltsters until her sale to Taylor Woodrow and St Katharine’s Yacht Haven in1975. She was then converted to a promotional and charter barge.

She became associated with the redevelopment of St Katharine’s by the Tower and became a famous London feature. The Queen Mother visited her; numerous articles covered her sailing ability; and she appeared in plenty of films and television shows. Lady Daphne was sold to Elisabeth and Michael Mainelli in 1996 and they started to raise funds through charter to maintain and restore her to her original condition. Professor Mainelli became the Alderman for Broad Street Ward in 2013 and through his love of the Livery movement offers generous terms to the Livery Companies.

We boarded the barge at London Bridge City Pier by HMS Belfast and opposite the Tower of London. This year is the 400th anniversary of the release of Sir Walter Raleigh from his second term of imprisonment n the Tower. He had previously been interned there with his wife by Elizabeth I and the second time by her successor James I. On his release in 1616 he led an unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado. When he returned the King invoked a previous death sentence and Raleigh was beheaded in 1618.

The sun came out for our departure. The masts could not be lowered with a full complement of passengers so the Tower Bridge was obliged to open for our passage downstream and we had the marvellous experience of sailing through the open bridge. We continued downstream at a steady rate of knots through the Lower Pool past Bermondsey and Wapping, past Limehouse and by Canary Wharf, round the Isle of Dogs, past the Cutty Sark and the marvellous views of Greenwich, and on to the O₂ Millennium Dome. From there we sailed up to and through the Thames Flood Barrier. There we turned back, taking our time to admire all the views in reverse.

So much of this part of London has been reinvented. The docks and wharves have all been refurbished or replaced with modern apartment blocks and the whole of Canary Wharf acts as a second commercial square mile. The Lady Daphne still races and plaques commemorating her exploits are on display in the Heads.

We of course enjoyed Chilean wines and some excellent home-made food and when we finally kept our rendez-vous with Tower Bridge it once more opened its arms to welcome us.

On a romantic note my wife and I got married in Chile and held our first wedding reception there. We then took a honeymoon via the Bahamas to England where we held a second reception for my family and friends on The Jock, another of the sailing barges that was moored at St Katharine’s Dock. The Jock was broken up some years ago but a piece of it was bought as part of the restoration of the Lady Daphne.

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