At the end of the war we saw an advert in a magazine for 100’s of these bloomin' barges. They were on offer from the Ministry of Transport, not the Admiralty, but what attracted us was that any timber recovered could be used free of licence because at that time you couldn’t get timber at all.
Well we put in what we thought was a stupid price and ended up buying 80 of them. Luckily we sold 8, we bought 80, and we sold 8 for what we had given for the lot. But we still had to break down 72, it was a bit of a struggle to get 'em apart I’ll tell you, it was a tough job, a real man’s job, but it turned out alright in the end.
They were moored down at Ham Pits in a kind of a reservoir, a big lake, off the Thames; I think it was a quarry, which had been filled in. It was just a graveyard of barges actually, more concrete than wooden ones, there were hundreds of them.
First of all we’d empty the barges at Pimlico, my brother Eric used to look after that. There was all sorts of stuff, but especially hatches, that was the best part of them. They were all hatched over, 6 ft long hatches with only a couple of battens on each. All we had to do was to take the battens off and it was 6ft of beautiful timber that was the best part of it actually. Well Eric took all those off at Pimlico as well as the bilge pumps, there were about 12 bilge pumps on each barge that we sold for scrap.
We used to break the barges down at a drawlock off the Thames, the Fulham Corporation let us have this for nothing, they didn’t charge us they were ever so good. There was a chappy who used to own the river buses, he’d got a tug, and after Eric had finished at Pimlico he used to bring these barges up and we used to beach them at high tide, the high tide put them on the slope of the river bed and as the tide went out they beached themselves, then we used to work on them.
When we first went down there we bought an American Army ambulance, left hand drive, big thing for an ambulance, like a van, but it had got car steering, it was so easy to drive, lovely steering.
I used to take 5 blokes and myself down there on a Monday morning then work all the week and then come back Saturday morning for the weekend and return on the following Monday. This ambulance was a lovely thing to drive and when we first started we stayed in a boarding house in Hammersmith we stayed there for a while and I stayed with them and in the evenings we used to dress up and go in the ambulance up into London to take in a show or the Ice Hockey and all that.
The barges were 60ft long with a 22ft beam, they came from Canada, made in 6 sections, a bow and a stern and 4 intermediate pieces. To hold them together there was like a keel inside, about 2ft x 1ft, with two 12” x 12” on top, they hadn’t put bolts in because they couldn’t get the nuts underneath but they must have drilled a small hole then put them in under hydraulic power. They were 2ft 6” x 3/4” thick and of course to start we’ve got to get them out and we had the hell of a game with that.
Anyway some friends of ours in the trade made us a tripod with a screw, and on the end of the screw we put, like a, claw hammer head, and we chiselled all round the head of the bolts and drove it underneath and then turned this thing round and round and round, it took ages to get one out and there were hundreds of them. Eventually we bought an American surplus winch, and we took that down as we thought it might be useful.
We managed to get the winch on the road overlooking the site and we used to drag it down the slope. I don’t know how long or how far, and drove it under the head of the bolts and gave the bloke a shout and he loosed the clutch out in bottom gear, they just spun out, they were bent, they were like that and they were steaming hot. It’s a wonder we didn’t get killed, but anyway it was quick instead of having to do it the slow way.
Of course we could only bring one barge up at a time and sometimes we’d break one down and be waiting for the next one. Very often they wouldn’t be on time, we were waiting, hadn’t got a barge, so just opposite the drawlock there used to be a buoy there and they’d anchored these salvage barges, which were 10 times bigger than our barges, which were 6Oft x 2Oft beam, these dwarfed our barges these salvage barges they used to take them out to sea and open the bottom, just let them sink in the sea.
Anyway we got them to bring half a dozen barges up, didn’t ask anybody and we moored them, anchored them where these salvage barges were, and it’s tidal there, as the tide went in the barges turned round and went upstream when, the tide turned they gradually went downstream. So what we did, Stan had got a little dinghy, a motorized dinghy, so what we did once, it’s a bit dangerous, as they go very slowly with the tide as it swung round to go upstream again when a barge was opposite our drawlock we uncoupled it and brought it in with the dinghy, bit of a struggle.
To quicken things up a little bit we sent a gang of blokes out midstream to take all they could take apart without making it leak of course obviously when going across in this dinghy one day it turned turtle all these big wedges and god knows what, sledgehammers the weight of it, it turned turtle the only bloke that couldn’t swim was out first, he dog paddled out.
The local wages were more than we could afford, about twice as much as we could pay an hour, but eventually some fellers came down, hanging round and they said
‘Can we have a job ?“
“How much do you want an hour?“ I replied.
“1/8d !“ said one of them.
Well firms round about were paying 4 bob so I said, “When do you want to start?“
We started the blokes, and eventually built a gang up, then I got our foreman to look after it and I came back then. I stayed with them oh it must be 6 months and we turned one of the barges into a houseboat, we put 5 cabins, a corridor and 5 cabins each side for 10 blokes and we lived on there for quite a bit.
This drawlock, Fulham Corporation lock, loaned to us for nowt, on the one side the Hurlingham Polo Grounds, the other side was Whiffens, good name isn’t it, Whiffens the chemical factory, and they allowed us to put a hole in their fence and put a shed there to keep our tools and stuff in, they were ever so good.
When we came back, after a night out, we couldn’t get on the barge because the tide was in, so we had to go through Whiffen’s property, and we did that no trouble, used to come back about 12 o’clock at night and walk through. As we walked through there was a big pile of grey stuff, and although there was a path through it, it used to get on our feet and we’d take it on the barge.
One night I asked the caretaker “What is that stuff?“ “It’s human excreta” he replied.
Blow me there was no smell, no smell at all, it was all dried out a kind of a greyey colour. I used to joke that they made facepowder with it but I’m certain it was used for fertiliser. Nevertheless it put us off a bit; I didn’t fancy the idea of walking through it to the barge.
So with our tongue in our cheek we applied to the Hurlingham Polo Ground on the other side. I said it would be nice if we could move that side because there was a lOft high brick wall all round it, there was a polo ground, tennis courts and god knows what else. We went there and saw the Chairman who was a Brigadier General or something and a secretary who was a Lady somebody or other. On their land they’d got like a pier because the ground went up and down again so they’d put a pier across on which there was a wooden seat all round. The members used to come and walk down there in the evenings and watch the river traffic going up and down but it was broken, it was broken and they couldn’t get wood. If we repaired their pier they would allow us to put a fence across a corner of their polo ground, and that was the agreement we came to.
So instead of parking outside Whiffens we moved to the other side, parked outside the polo ground, but there was a bit more of a slope there and as the tide went out when you got up in the morning you were nearly falling over, walking as if you were drunk.
The Hurlingham Club used to hold dances and god knows what else there, one night, after they’d all gone to bed, I was in the galley, which had a steep ladder to get down, almost vertical. I looked up and there were two fellers in evening dress and two girls all dressed up. One of the fellers said
“What have yew got down thair - coal ?“ in an upper class accent.
“No - blokes !‘ I said.
“Blokes?“ he said as if he’d never heard the word.
Yes - men blokes you know!“ I replied.
Anyway they asked if they could come down and these girls came down with evening dress on, and the blokes they were alright at the finish they had a mow round, had a look round.
It was a very very slow process breaking a barge down into bits, or wedges. Once we’d undone the bolts that held the wedges together we pulled them apart and brought them back to Birmingham in sections. We broke them down at Titford; we broke them down, sawed them up into feather boards and made garages and sheds from them. Anyway I stuck it for about 6 months down there then I left, put a chap in charge who looked after it I used to go down once or twice a week.
One day the Birmingham Post rang up and said, “You’ve got quite a story Mr. Smith!“
Apparently the local paper, at Fulham, had got a story about these barges being broken down at Fulham drawlock together with pictures of the various stages of them being demolished. They’d got a story which was absolutely false, they said these very men, they called them invasion barges which they weren’t they were store barges, these very men who were breaking them down at Fulham drawlock, they’d invaded the Normandy beaches with these very same barges no truth in it at all. The Birmingham Post had seen that story and hence “You’ve got quite a story Mr.Smith"
Marvellous for us, on the front page of the Post they’ve got a picture of a barge and the garage we made from it. They’ve got THE barge and THE building and whereas the Fulham papers had said a Birmingham firm the Post said ‘Smith Brothers Quinton’ and the phone never stopped ringing. Sheds and garages, you couldn’t get timber at all and it did us a lot of good we made a stack of garages and sheds out of the stuff.
Ed’s comment – Yet another passage from the lovely memories of the Smith Family-the article is a transcript of a recording taken many years ago, so it’s, as they say “warts and all”.
Many thanks to Brian for giving me a copy of the transcript and allowing me to use passages from it.
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.