Keeping historic Thames sailing barges afloat creates ‘heritage tensions’ for owners

Owners of historic Thames sailing barges based in Faversham, Kent, face competing demands of keeping vessels operational and appealing to visitors, while also maintaining their heritage and traditions.

Dr David Nettleingham, a lecturer in cultural sociology in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR), interviewed several owners of Thames barges based in Faversham to understand the tensions that exist when trying to maintain an historic object and way of life in a modern setting and operating as a viable business.

In the past the barges plied their trade by carrying cargo along the Kent coast and into London. However, this way of life is now over so they must find new ways to remain profitable.

This is usually done by hosting paying guests for day trips or taking part in races on the Thames estuary during the summer and hosting corporate events, parties and even providing unique cinema environments during the rest of the year.

The guests paying to be on the barges in these settings are doing so in a large part to tap into the sense of the historic working past of these barges and their place in Kent and London’s history.

For the owners this requires maintaining the barges to match this vision, even having to use historic methods of upkeep such as horse manure and boiling tar to stick planks, despite the barges now being used for events that are far removed from their historic use.

This issue extends even further when the barges are moored in central London. There they are given half-priced rent to encourage their visit and create a vision of London from the past. However, all work on the barges in the dock is banned due to the noise and smells that are given off and that would otherwise impact the nearby offices, restaurants and residences.

This all comes on top of the fact that for several barge owners the barge is also their home and they are bringing up children on board.

Given these competing demands – for the barges to be suitable to host parties and day-trippers but also remain in keeping with their historic legacy – owners are required to enter into a ‘performance’ as barge master that encourages commerce and adapts to modern demands but provides the sense of an authentic vessel from the past.

This even extends as far as engaging in conversation with onlookers keen to chat about the restoration work being done to the barges when moored, despite the fact it uses up valuable time when the barge can be worked on and concentration is required.

The findings complement similar research done by Dr Nettleingham earlier in the year, published in The British Journal of Sociology, which examined the difficulties of trying to preserve the industrial past of Faversham and its shipyard where old Thames barges were often built or moored within its now rural setting.

The research could help provide a better understanding of the pressures faced by the barge owners in trying to maintain these historic barges and identify ways in which they, and the wider community in which they are based, can overcome these challenges.

The paper, Heritage Work: the Preservations and Performances of Thames Sailing Barges, has been published in the journal Cultural Sociology.