At the height of their popularity in Edwardian times the Thames sailing barge numbered over 2000. By the end of world war 2 the number had fallen to 300 and in 2012 there were just 37 active barges.
Straw and hay for the vast London horse population and the return cargo of horse manure for agricultural use were the early casualties of the switch from horse to mechanised power. The days when a fully loaded barge would set off from Benfleet and deliver enough bricks to build 2 semi-detached houses in East London also came to an end.
Cargoes varied greatly, but hay, straw, coal, wheat, potatoes, chemicals, stone for sea walls, bricks, timber, beans, pig iron, cement sand even explosives certainly featured.
Information on Benfleet barge owners comes to us from a number of sources. John Polley (also listed as Polly), of South Benfleet, can be found on the Mercantile Navy Lists for 1934 and 1938 as owner of the 33 ton spritsail barge Millie. Similarly the 43 ton barge Thomas is on the1893 and 1907 lists with Joseph and Charles Gladwin of South Benfleet the owners. By the later lists of 1916 and 1919 Thomas is owned by James Gibben, also of South Benfleet.
Another source are the Kelly’s directories, which shows Edward Wood and Co. as a going concern for 40 years (1874 – 1914), trading as “corn and coal merchants, forage factors and barge owner”. William Howard is another name associated with barge ownership.