The River Thames has been a crucial part of the trade to London throughout its history. As the city grew, so did its trade, and it was necessary construct larger docks to handle cargoes from all over the world. The Royal Docks in Newham were the last and largest to be built in London, making the borough one of the busiest ports in the world.
As well as global trading vessels, they also took barges and smaller ships which carried much more prosaic and local cargo as varied as bricks, hay, grain or even rubbish.
For Newham Heritage Month in 2021 to celebrate the theme of “Shops, Docks and Factories – Newham’s urban heritage” we are celebrating the role of the river Thames by hosting three heritage vessels in the Royal Docks for visitors to enjoy.
SB Will was built in 1925 and is one of the largest Thames barges ever built. She was built as a coaster to trade as far north as the Humber. She traded until 1966, having carried 38,345 tons of cargo using nothing but wind and tide. During her latter career she had an engine fitted to compete equally for trade in the Thames.
SB Blue Mermaid is a new built replica of a barge of the same name that was lost to a mine in World War II, and has been built to carry out the barges’ trade as traditionally as possible, with no engine or powered winches. She will be carrying a small cargo of clay from W H Collier’s famous clay pit in Essex and sand from the Thames estuary to be made into bricks by the Brickfield Newham project.
SS Robin is the only remaining Victorian steam coaster, the last left of thousands that were built around the world. She now lives in the Royal Docks as a vessel for public display, less than a mile from where she was built.
Organised by Heritage Maritime Trust, SS Robin Trust, SB Will and SB Blue Mermaid for the Sea Change Sailing Trust, a charity providing opportunities for disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded young people.
With special thanks to ExCel, Royal Docks Management Authority and Royal Docks Team.
Both barges and the steam coaster will be available for the public to visit on 25th and 26th May outside ExCel in the Royal Docks. The crew will be on board to show you the vessels and tell their unique stories connected to the Royal Docks.