Lighters and Lightermen

On a recent boating trip in the Suir, I spotted the rotting timbers of what appeared to be an old boat jutting out from under the low hanging branches of a sycamore tree. Further investigation revealed, what for me at least was, an amazing discovery. A once common workboat on the river, which numbered in the hundreds, but now totally extinct.

Definition of a lighter

A lighter was a workboat employed in Waterford harbour and up the rivers Barrow and Suir. The function of this craft was as the name suggests, to lighten the load of incoming vessels, thereby allowing them to float over the sand and mud bars as they journeyed to New Ross or Waterford city. They functioned in much the same way the modern truck does.

A lighter underway at New Ross

According to the Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft the lighter can be described as “any small vessel employed in lightening goods. Describing it as a “…strongly built rectangular craft, open and flat-bottomed; used for short-haul work, especially for transferring cargo to and from a ship lying at anchor.” As to the origins it “…dates at least from the late 15th Century” In an Irish context it only names them in the SW of the country….”The River Shannon in the late 17th and early 18th Century was propelled by 4 men with 2 oars. Steered by a sweep. 12-16 ft long”

Design and build

The local design seems to have been very uniform in general, but size-wise there seems to have been local distinctions. 40-ton loads are regularly referred to in newspaper accounts and elsewhere, but 20, 25, and 30 were also mentioned. I imagine local conditions and purposes may have had an important role.

Patrick C Power in an article titled “The Lower Suir – boats and boatmen long ago” for the Tipperary Historical Journal (1991) gives this description from Carrick On Suir. “The lighters were built of pitch pine with a frame of oak. They were constructed on oaken frames each set about 3ft in the boat…The lighter was 70ft long and 16ft in the beam, but with a square stern and pointed prow. The sides could be as much as 4ft high…flat bottomed…without a keel. The rudder was 16ft long. Forward there was a well-room for bailing and on deck a caboose…where a fire was kept lighting in a cast iron box-stove supplied by Graham’s of Waterford…[there was] 36ft of useful cargo room…known to carry as much as 40 tons…distributed in two parts of the hold. There was no cargo in the centre of the lighter”

I would imagine that given the design was so basic these boats were built widely and locally in much the same way that punts and prongs were built at home in Cheekpoint. A local handyman or craftsman with a good eye would be supplied with the materials and the boat would emerge. Bill Irish lists five lighters coming out of Whites shipyard in Ferrybank but only one is given her size at 35-40 tons. No name was given for the boat. According to Pat Power, the Carrick lighters were made in Carrick Beg at the graving dock of the Kehoes. There was also a man named O’Brien who despite being illiterate could gauge the materials required for a build without ever having to measure, draw, or write.

Lighters above Redmond Bridge in Waterford

As regards the cost of building a lighter, there was a discussion at the Harbour Commissioners in March 1874 of the need for four new lighters to assist with port duties. These were estimated to cost £100. The article does not make clear, but I expect that is each. The cheapest of the five built at Whites shipyard cost £126-6-5

Propulsion

The lighters were sometimes referred to as dumb boats. They had no propulsion and depended on the tides and currents to get from A-B. I’m not sure dumb gives an accurate sense of their navigation, however. Anyone who has ever had to navigate the rivers knows that the vagaries of the tide, current, wind, rain, and moon play a huge role in the task. No day, indeed no hour is often the same and to simply push away from a riverbank and presume your destination would be both foolish and dumb.

The lighters had a rudder to help keep on course. According to Power it was operated by the skipper from his space in the well, it was used sparingly. The photograph above shows the rudder being operated from the stern. There was also an anchor that could be deployed in emergencies or when awaiting a favorable tide or weather. Two deckhands were also employed(I have read accounts with three men also in newspapers). Each operated a long oar (a sweep) which could be used to row the boat at specific times. They also used a pole to push along the river bed or bank. This was driven into the riverbed from the stern and then the crewman would have to clamber forward as he pushed the boat ahead. But mostly I would imaging the crew worked with the tides, with a lifetime of river knowledge, drawing the most from each knot of an ebbing or flooding current to make their way.

Cargo

The lighters carried anything and everything that came into port. Unshipping, transhipping, and loading ships at anchor in the harbour up as far as Cheekpoint I’m sure. They delivered as far as New Ross or Carrick and delivered into the villages, between the villages and from the villages to flour mills, coal stores, and lime kilns. The lighters seem to have been loaded and unloaded by their crew which must have been a back-breaking operation, but it also ensured that tight margins and any profit were kept onboard. An interesting example of the operation is a name associated with a quay on the Wexford side above Ballyhack. Tom Poor’s quay is the local name, but another associated with it according to Tomas Sullivan is Lighterman’s Quay. The quay has an old roadway leading away from it back towards Ballyhack. A similar track can be found almost directly opposite at Lambert’s cove on the Waterford side.

An interesting anecdote from the newspapers of 1908 tells of “…two little boys named Patrick Kirby and James Grant who was charged with the larceny of a quantity of coal, the property of Messrs Wallace and McCullagh…Constable Thomas Ryan deposed that on the evening of the 21st November he found the defendants taking a quantity of coal from the lighter…” Having admitted to the constable that they were going to sell it, they were discharged under the First Offender’s Act.

They were also employed in providing ballast to sailing vessels. In 1842 I came across a tender presented to the Harbour Commissioners from R and W. Hayes for shipping ballast for five years. They agreed to deliver the ballast via their lighters to vessels in port at 8s per ton, and discharge ballast from vessels at 6s per ton.

Advert from Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 27th December 1831; page3

Lighters were also employed in river works such as dredging and I will share most of this interesting report from 1869 as there are some very telling details in it.

“ A report was read from Mr. Stephens, stating that little progress had been made at the ford works during the past month and that only 11 tons of rock had been raised since the last report. He further reported that he had taken up the four lighters belonging to the board from the contractors; that they were damaged state, and he repaired them. The board now had five lighters and eight punts capable of taking daily 350 tons of mud from the dredge…He further reported, in reference to the application from the sanitary committee of the corporation to clear John’s Pill…The nuisance arose from loading lighters of manure from dung yards adjacent to the pill, and the obstruction was caused stones and shingle…being dropped by these lighters in the vicinity…” Waterford Chronicle – Friday 15 October 1869; page 3

The Lightermen

But who were these Lightermen and how did they operate. Well, it appears that many companies and businesses had their own lighters and crews employed to act on their behalf. We have also seen that they were employed by the Harbour Commissioners on various duties though dredging seems to have been a major task. An interesting court case suggests however that even these men employed by the harbour board had certain freedom.

The case arose at a special jury hearing in the County Court by James O’Neill, of Arthurstown, against the Waterford Harbour Commissioners to recover £99, the value of a quantity of 105 barrels of oats and I07 sacks of barley containing 20 stone each lost by the stranding of a lighter on the Kilmanock Embankment in October the previous year, 1898.
The lighter, skippered by a man named Connolly, had arrived at Arthurstown on Monday evening 17th October 1898. They were obviously on the lookout for work and Connolly approached O’Neill and e asked him for the cargo at a price for transport at 2d. per barrel. This was stated to be the ordinary freight for corn. The deal was struck and the lighter was loaded on Friday 21st departing that evening as darkness settled. Later she was caught in a gale and grounded, causing the cargo to be damaged by water.

In evidence, Mr. John Ailingham, Secretary of the Harbour Board, explained that the Commissioners crew could take on other work when available to do so. This dated to a resolution passed in March. 1894. Two-fifths of the profits were generally paid into the Harbour Commissioners office. Since the accident happened a new rule was passed restraining their movements to not go below Cromwell’s Rock, or further up the river than Kilmacow Pill.

As regards the wages, one mention from a newspaper report in 1891 gave this insight: “THE LIGHTER SKIPPERS. The Quay Committee a recommendation to allow the lighter skippers 2s 6d a week, provided there were no complaints.” Whether there were complaints or not, I don’t know, but it gave no information as to the crew.

Many merchants probably had their own vessels employing their own crew as suggested by this advert in the Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 01 May 1841; page 3

It’s also likely that individuals or indeed families or crew invested in the trade. For example, there was a report in the Munster Express from December 1863 about a Carrick lighter which was lost in a gale in Waterford carrying freight for a man named Walsh. The crew survived but the paper concluded: “…It is hoped a subscription will be opened for the relief of the unfortunate men whose all may be said to have been invested in the lighter.”

Some of the characters of these men will be evident from what we have already learned, hard-working, resilient, impervious to the weather, and determined. Some other pieces from the newspapers of the time might put more meat on the bones.

In 1838 Morgan Doyle and William Nash were in court after a bare-knuckle fight aboard a lighter on Waterford Quays. A large crowd had gathered to watch the match and when the constabulary arrived, the men forgot their quarrel and working together let go the lighter, and shoved away from the quay to avoid the lawmen. They were subsequently apprehended, however, and found guilty of a breach of the peace.

In another situation, they were law-abiding. In February 1829 the crew of a Clonmel lighter observed bags being removed from a newly arrived schooner from St John’s, Newfoundland in suspicious circumstances. They raised the alarm with a Quay watchman, who instantly aroused the Tidewaiter (a member of the customs) from his bed. The bags were discovered to contain tobacco. A follow-up search discovered that the contraband had been hidden among a cargo of oil, and was that morning taken and put into bags, for transport. The mate and three of the crew were committed to gaol, but the Master was not with the ship at the time of the arrest.

Others were unfortunate, and there are many accounts of the crew falling over the side of their vessels and being drowned. For example on a cold wet Saturday night in November of 1864 a lighterman named Michael Meyler, was lost at Strangman’s Wharf. He was about 70 years of age and was in the habit of sleeping onboard lighter belonging to his brother. He slipped when boarding via the gangplank and despite efforts to save him, he was lost.

And then again others were just tough out. In May 1875 a case that was taken against James Doherty, a lighterman who cut a tow rope of the barque Constant that was being winched off the graving bank in Ferrybank. In court, the Captain of the barque was claiming damages of £20 against Doherty. It transpired that Doherty was coming up the quays just as the tide was starting to turn. In a hurry to make his berth he found the way blocked by the tow rope. Words were exchanged and tempers flared. As the barque would not release the tow rope, Doherty grabbed an axe and cut the hawser that blocked his path, before proceeding upriver. In a lengthy proceeding, it was found that the lighter had reacted hastily and the court found against Doherty for a much-reduced sum of £1. Doherty let it be known that he disagreed and would appeal.

End of the era

When the lighter’s reign in the harbour ended is not very clear. But the improvements in navigation including the opening of the Ford and the deepening of the river after the Harbour Commissioners came into existence must have been a crucial factor. The arrival of steam-driven vessels must have also played a part. Further upriver, the coming of the railways and improvements in road transport would have contributed to the undermining of transport by water.

Triton, the marine correspondant with the Munster Express had a lovely article in 1973 which drew on the memories of a previous marine correspondant Jimmy Hartery. It highlights that lighters were still in use in the first world war.

Munster Express. Friday 28th December 1973; Page 12
a lone lighter above Redmond Bridge circa 1950s via Brendan Grogan. Might this be the last of a proud tradition? It would appear that it is being used by workmen, perhaps on some maintenance duties with the harbour commissioners.

The wreck that I found that afternoon on the river, is to the best of my knowledge the only remains of a lighter that worked the river for centuries. In a way, it’s a shame that such a vessel would be left to rot away into the mud. And yet ironically, if it had not been abandoned where it was, it must certainly have rotted completely away. If anyone knows anyone in maritime archaeological circles that might have an interest in taking measurements and recording the vessel, tell them to get in touch. As such it might be the only such measurements to exist? I would also appreciate any further written details on the Lighter, particularly on the build or the propulsion.

For more detail on the trade of the lighters between Waterford, Carrick On Suir and Clonmel, here’s a previous guest blog Leslie Dowley
For more on the New Ross and River Barrow trade, a story of mine from 2018

9 Replies to “Lighters and Lightermen”

  1. Another great tale, very descriptive.
    And than name Doherty in the thick of it all again.
    Some clan.
    Thanks Andrew for the knowledge.

  2. This has to be one of the best articles I have ever read in relation to the history of transporting goods by river.It’s even better knowing that it’s about our home place. I would have heard little bits as a child and your article has stitched it all into a really interesting piece for me. The little knowledge that I have is being added to all the time and I am enjoying it immensely. Great stuff Andrew!!!

    1. Thanks Bernard, I never heard much about them growing up, but I was delighted to finally get a few years of reading and research onto paper for my own story.

  3. Great tales and very enlightening. I had heard of Lighters, but never had such a good description and even photos! Shame to have it rotting away though.

  4. Great article, great recharch, it is part of local navigation history that , unfortunately, I dont know much about, there used to be a boat in the Castle pill up past Ballinlaw ferry, a man by the name of Thom O Shea told me it was a liter that was owned by Henneberry’s they used it to draw stone around the river Barrow in it.

    1. Hi Nicholas, that boat was known as a gabbard – a name very prevalent on the Slaney and in Wexford town, but apparently there was a few in the Barrow too, although I heard nothing of them in the Suir. Unlike the lighter they could rig a sail. I don’t know that they were flat bottomed either, I think not. I don’t know if anything of the Heneberrys craft remains at this stage

  5. Very nice article Andrew, it definitely filled a few gaps in my scant knowledge of ‘Lighters’ – I dipped my toe in the history of these boats as they relate to the lower Blackwater a few years back but never dug into it any further, thanks!

    1. Thanks Liam, I think Niall O’Brien covered some aspect of the lighters in his book on the Blackwater and the Bride too. I meant to dig it out to check, but couldn’t find it on the shelves, I probably lent it out

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