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The Clay Boats of Poole

Over the centuries, Poole Harbour has witnessed numerous commercial activities, of which the shipping of clay was at one time the most significant. Jan Seymour reveals the origins of this natural resource.

Clay boats of Poole Quay

Two barges, one full of clay, lie alongside an ocean-going vessel at Poole Quay in the early years of the 20th century

The year is 1830 and a thick fog lingers over the waters of Poole Harbour, as you tension the sail of your dinghy, then peer anxiously into the blanket of fog. From nowhere a steam tug appears, pulling a string of four flat-bottomed barges each laden with fifty tons of clay on their way from Middlebere Quay to Poole Quay. Immediately, you take evasive action to avoid the inevitable collision.
Fog was just one of the hazards facing the shipment of clay bound for waiting ocean-going vessels docked in Poole; in the shallow waters around the harbour, these fully-laden flat-bottomed barges were extremely difficult to manoeuvre and the channels had to be maintained regularly, which was a big bonus for all the users of the harbour. Over the centuries, Poole has shipped various minerals across the world, these being found primarily to the south-west of the harbour. Sand, stone and clay have been extracted from the quarries and shallow mines of Purbeck, and more recently oil has been drilled for at Wytch Farm and Furzey Island among other places.The principal clay field lies close to the north side of the Purbeck Hills on the heath near Corfe Castle between West Creech and Bushey.

Transferring the clay from a barge, Clay boats of Poole Quay

Transferring the clay from a barge

Dorset ball clay is perhaps the best-known, deriving its name from the tubal, a custom-made spade for cutting the clay into regular pieces which weighed around 36 pounds each. Ball clay is a fine-grained, highly plastic, mainly Kaolinite sedimentary clay, the higher grades of which fire to a white or near-white colour in an oxidising atmosphere. Ball clays are used mainly in the manufacture of pottery and other ceramics; in their natural state they may be brown, blue, black or light grey. Initially, when smaller quantities were extracted, the clay was sometimes referred to as ‘pipe clay’, due to the numerous smokers’ pipes that were manufactured in the surrounding area. In later years, the clay would be associated with the household names of Josiah Wedgwood and Doulton.
The movement of the heavy clay over water was still considered the most logical way to deliver the clay to the pottery industry. So, having located the deposits of clay and formulated the method of extraction, the next major hurdle facing the early pioneers was how to transport the clay from the workings to the nearest navigable water: the creeks on the southern shores of Poole Harbour. This entailed crossing rough, uninhabited heathland, which was a significant problem facing the developing companies.
Initially, the clay was carried by pack animals, or sometimes just hauled along the rough and rutted tracks by horse and cart. In 1806, a most ingenious ‘rail-road’ link was constructed linking the workings to the pier at Middlebere, known as a plateway; others followed, linking Norden to Goathorn Pier, so that the heathland to the south of Poole Harbour was laced by the plateways and rail-links to the piers and quays. The arrival of steam locomotives increased the loads and speed of transporting the clay. The race between the various workings intensified, with the Pike family laying their own 2ft 8in rail link to Ridge Wharf downstream from Wareham.
The first clay was laboriously shipped by rowing boat, but with the introduction of the plateways and rail-links, small sailing barges with a capacity of twenty tons plied across the harbour to Poole. Ultimately, steam tugs were introduced which could haul skeins of barges to ocean-going vessels at Poole Quay. In 1830, Pike Brothers purchased a Swedish iron tug named Purbeck, which regrettably soon rusted out. Its wooden-hulled replacement, named Frome, was powered by a single screw steam engine and had a remarkably long life until 1932, when it was sold. In the same year Allen, powered by two 80hp diesel engines, replaced Frome; during this period Fayle & Co operated two paddle tugs named Comet and Telegraph, which must have been an inspiring sight.
From the period 1860 to 1941, Pike operated up to fifteen barges of capacities varying between fifty and eighty tons of clay. These barges were hauled in strings of four, negotiating the shallow channels around the harbour, often in foggy conditions. Loading the ocean-going ships from the barges was initially a very laborious task, using wheelbarrows and ramps, hoists and baskets. The transhipment of the clay was normally carried out by three or four dockers, who loaded the clay into cane baskets with a capacity of around three hundredweight which were then tipped down into the hold.
Clay was also taken directly from the small piers and wharves by ocean-going spritsail barges, which had larger and more substantial hulls compared to the traditional Thames barges. Normally they were eighty to ninety feet in length and could carry 150 to 250 tons of cargo. Many of these barges were built at Rotherhithe, Rochester, Sittingbourne, Frindsbury and Whitstable. The distinctive spritsail barges were a truly magnificent sight, with their deep bulwarks and their masts filled with sail as they plied the south and east coast routes; many of their names maybe reflect a loved one, such as Beatrice Maud, Emma, Gladys, Greta and Matilda. Beatrice Maud, built in Sittingbourne in 1910, was abandoned at Dunkirk but later re-floated by British troops, who sailed her to Dover. In 1943 an 88hp diesel was fitted and she was used on the grain run between Yarmouth and London – quite an extraordinary lady!

A spritsail barge and steam tug, Clay boats of Poole Quay

A spritsail barge and steam tug alongside each other at Poole Quay

The spritsail barge became the workhorse of the Dorset clay industry; over fifty of these vessels were loaded regularly at the piers and wharves until 1939. Over the years shipments varied greatly, from around 13,000 tons in 1800 to a peak of 60,000 tons during 1890. These wooden flat-bottomed barges were perfectly adapted to the shallow waters and narrow tributaries and creeks of Poole Harbour; due to the efficiency of a barge’s gear, a crew of only two was required for most voyages, although by today’s standards the work would be considered extremely hard. In favourable conditions the barge could attain speeds of over twelve knots, and their leeboards allowed them an extremely efficient windward performance. The spritsail rig allowed many combinations of sail to be set: even with just the topsail, it could be efficient in certain conditions. Unlike many sailing craft, the barge could sail unballasted, saving time and labour.
A steady and growing trade was established with the Thames potteries and also the Staffordshire potteries, using the Mersey and Trent canals to deliver the Dorset clay. Other consignments were despatched to Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia. Pike Brothers and Benjamin Fayle amalgamated in 1949 only to be acquired by English China Clays of St Austell, who still operate workings at Furzebrook and Creech. An interesting trend in recent years is the increased shipments of Dorset ball clay to the Near and Middle East, where it is used in the making of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and paper.
The workings at Purbeck have many years to run before the clay is exhausted. Today the clay goes out by road, but for well over a hundred years, the clay boats of Poole were an essential link in this important local industry.

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