Down the Humber and back in time on the Amy Howson

Words by:
Alison Eades
Featured in:
November 2015

It was 101 years ago that the Amy Howson, a solid sailing barge, was launched for a lifetime of heavy labour on the tidal waters of the Humber.
She joined the hundreds of boats and thousands of men serving the masters of trade and industry on the rivers, canals and docklands of a booming industrial heartland. Built as a keel, converted to a sloop, and fitted with an engine after the war, she worked hard for more than fifty years until more modern forms of transportation saw her relegated to a quiet backwater where she was just about forgotten.

To the Humber Keel and Sloop Preservation Society the neglected old barge, by now in great need of repair, was a thing of great potential beauty. They bought her for £300 in 1975 and restored her with such care and attention that she is now, with the Society’s keel, Comrade, a valuable part of Britain’s maritime and industrial heritage, even listed in the National Historic Ships fleet.

Far from embracing retirement, Amy is now well into her second career as an educational and pleasure craft. In the summer months she is moored on the Ancholme River where it meets the Humber at South Ferriby. One fickle-weather weekend in July, she took a group of us, members and guests of the Louth Navigation Trust (LNT), on a journey down the Humber, into nature, and back in time, with her dedicated crew: Alan, Derek, Lawrie, Chris, Bill and Eddie.

The Amy Howson was built in Beverly in 1914 specifically to carry cargo up and down the Humber and deep into Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

“The Thames has its barges, Norfolk has its wherries, and we have our Humber keels and sloops, specifically designed for the tidal waters of the Humber,” explained our skipper, Alan.

When the tide goes out, Amy is cool, sitting on the bank with her flat bottom until the tide returns. And to prevent a strong cross-wind from blowing her across the water when unladen, she has a set of fin-like ‘leeboards’ to help with the steering.

Amy can, and does, travel the Lincolnshire canals but no longer into the Brayford Pool in Lincoln as she once did. Being ‘Sheffield size’ she was built to fit the forty miles of canal up to Sheffield and still does this trip on occasion, though the going is slow. “It’s a weekend just to get from home to Goole,” said Bill, “so we have to do trips like that in hops as we’re all busy during the week.”

The sun was shining, though the clouds were threatening as we cleared the lock at Ferriby Sluice, itself an ancient monument, and entered eastwards into the Humber at about 9:30 in the morning. Once in the channel, the crew hoisted the heavy red sail and we all happily gathered on the little deck to see the world from our new vantage.

Amy used to carry over 100 tons of cargo in her steel hull, be it grain to Sheffield, coal to Hull and Beverley, stone for river bank repairs, phosphate to the chemical works at Barton and Howden Dyke, or maize or oil seed to the Yarborough Oil Mills at Brigg. Most barges had a skipper and mate for crew but others, like Amy, were a family affair. Officially she could accommodate four adults and three children in her tiny cabin which was reputedly once the finest on the river.

“You can’t bring that way of life back,” Derek was saying, “because a lot of the infrastructure has gone and people don’t want to wait a week for a barge.”

Yes, the going was slow but for our group of mixed ages and professions, the pace was refreshing rather than frustrating. “Anyone can come out with us,” said Alan, “it’s a great trip for societies or family groups – they’re what keep Amy afloat.”

Once under the Humber Bridge we hit a couple of back-to-back squalls and in a flurry of activity the sail was taken down.

“In the past the crew would have just kept going with the sail up,” explained Chris, “time was money and they wouldn’t want to stop or slow down.”

I was listening to an explanation of why the tides turn and was vaguely aware that someone was measuring how far off the bottom the hull was. It all seemed so perfectly planned. At about one o’clock we beached for lunch. The outgoing tide had placed us gently on a sandbank that simply wasn’t there half an hour before. “That’s why we’ve got a flat bottom!” said Derek with a wink, as we all clambered down the ladder to experience the Humber from yet another perspective. The two-man crew of the past would have done the same, we were told, but would also have been quick to fill their baskets with sand to sell on for some extra cash. Chris pulled out his accordion and we ate our sandwiches to the sound of sea shanties and tapping feet – on a transient island, in the Humber. It was starting to feel just a little surreal when, at around four o’clock the anchor was cranked up, the engine restarted, the skipper held tight to the rudder, and we began the journey back up river.

The Humber seascape is very much alive, with a mass of sediment coming continuously from the rivers, the sea and the boulder clay coastline. Underwater, the shipping channels shift constantly and islands, sand dunes and small lagoons sometimes appear and sometimes disappear. We saw a couple of grey seals lounging on a sandbank and more than twenty swans at the water’s edge. Avocets and bitterns and a whole assemblage of birds do well here, not least because of the rich feeding grounds of the low-tide mudflats.

Below deck is a mini floating museum. Alongside the galley and engine room are historical exhibits, great hanging hurricane lamps, ship’s bell, tools and ropes as well as old photographs and newspaper cuttings reflecting a culturally rich past.

“We’ve lost a phenomenal amount of knowledge and a lot of skills,” lamented Lawrie who has spent a lifetime at sea and fascinated us with his knowledge, skills and stories. Nothing would he like better, he said, than to share some of this out-of-the-classroom learning with the local schools.

Amy is due her four-year inspection in dry dock this year. “Repairs don’t come cheap,” said Alan, “but we’re very grateful for the people and businesses that help us out. Last year the company we worked with sent down their apprentices at no cost. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them to work on a boat like ours.

“We’re happy if young people are interested,” he continued, “and I mean thirty and forty-year-olds! Most of us are already retired.”

We were out for ten hours on the Amy Howson and it all passed too quickly. Culture, ecology, history – we experienced them all from our nautical perspective. If the Society manages to get more volunteers, and more groups interested in taking a tour, Amy will be able to provide a unique window on the Humber and be a fantastic vessel for learning what we should not forget, for many years to come.

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