Cecilia is a Thames lighter or dumb barge (meaning she has no engine). Of all the boats at Chiswick Pier, she is the most representative of Thames craft. Though little is known about Cecilia herself, this type of boat has a long and honourable history.
Lighters appeared on the river in the 17th century in the days before the docks were built. At this time the Pool of London was congested with ships moored mid-stream, all desperate to unload. The lighters are so-called, because they were used to unload or “lighten” the waiting ships. With no rudder and no engine, lighters were steered with a sweep (a long oar) and used the tides to move around. Lightermen, with their intimate knowledge of tidal waters, were for hundreds of years the elite of the tideway. In the docks, they often manoeuvred their craft with muscle power and ropes, as this picture of Cecilia in her working days shows. In the 20th century, tugs were used to pull trains of lighters, carrying goods to and from the docks and along the river. Lighters are still in use today: for example, much of London’s rubbish is towed downstream to landfill in trains of lighters and they are a common sight from Chiswick Pier.
Cecilia’s distinctive shape is typical of a design that has changed little over time. She has a flat bottom that enables her to dry out at low water – essential when working on a tidal river – and a square chine at the bilge, maximising cargo space. The bow and stern are straight angles, similar to a punt’s, and are referred to as swim-headed. An evolution of the lighter is the Thames Sailing Barge, which along with the lighter, was once the main means of cargo carrying along the estuary.