Looking at Fen lighters

THE river at March could tell a tale of two.

Regularly seen at the town many years ago, Fen lighters were heavily built vessels carrying commercial goods to many places in the Fens and beyond.

Forty-eight feet long they held a capacity of 25 tons and empty could float on a depth of two feet. For every ton added the lighters settled an inch in the water.

They formed gangs usually of four and most had a butt boat pulled along by a horse which came aboard and stood in a space when the lighters passed beneath bridges.

The vessels were built at several places including Upwell, Ely and Cambridge.

Two men and a boy worked the gang, the boy in charge of the horse. He was known as the horse knocker.

No rudder was used. The second craft known as the horse lighter had a small cabin for the men.

The craft behind it the hollip carried a smaller cabin where the horse knocker boy slept. The fourth lighter sometimes trailed a butt boat and cock boat, a small rowing boat.

When being drawn along a straight stretch of river the long steering pole linked to the second vessel was kept dead centre.

Approaching a bend the skipper eased off the steering rope to allow the fore lighter to follow the bank, the lighters behind were eased in turn.

The horse knocker boy, small bodied and unsurprisingly with a old looking face, was young and ill-attired. Work was exceptionally hard for them and the boys had to be tough, trading on muddy banks in bare feet and walking up to twenty miles a day.

They were only allowed on the lighters when goods were not being carried. With the men thay ate a lot of beef and pork preserved in brine barrels and one imagines they had need of it.

The crew loved their beer and called at favourite riverside pubs such as The Ship, The Acre and White Horse on was recorded with Ps and Qs indicated the drink would be paid for the later. Hence the saying Mind Your Ps and Qs.

Boys were allowed a pint and the men a quart. Some pubs displayed the names of regular lighter men. Good For Trade!

The men wore traditional clothes usually blue and red plush waistcoats with glass buttons, and durable corduroy trousers. Some had fur caps. The were rather like water gypsies.

The photograph taken about 1905 shows three hired gang lighters moored bear March bridge.

The vessels were being used for a Sunday outing. Steering poles are discernible.

Scenes like this were familiar to Billy Barker, a famous March man if the gold rush era who founded British Columbia.

TREVOR BEVIS

St Peter’s Road

March