Residential Boats


Formerly a North Sea trawler, Victory was built in Heist aan Zee near Zeebrugge, Belgium in 1964 by Van Rijekeghem & Amys. Maintained to British Department of Trade standard until decommissioned in 1986, she is a fine example of a working sea-going boat remaining seaworthy and doubling as a houseboat. The picture below illustrates well her high bows, V- shaped hull and deep bulwarks protecting her decks, all designed to withstand the rigours of the North Sea weather.

Trawlers of this size were able to travel large distances to the fishing grounds, so the bunkers needed to carry significant amounts of fuel and water. The fuel capacity is 15,500 litres and the water tank holds 4,500 litres. Victory’s British registered tonnage is 49 gross, and her displacement tonnage is around 140 tonnes. The engine on this fully working vessel is a 5 cylinder 2 stroke 1964 Bolnes from Holland. The unique feature of this type of engine is that the scavenging air is provided by a large diameter 10” piston. Another oddity is the engine is not made of cast iron like most other small ship engines, but from fabricated and welded steel. The shaft turns a four bladed propeller of 6’ in diameter. The engine speed and gearbox control is by compressed air and steering is hydraulic via a helm pump in the wheelhouse.

Bilge keels have been added to Victory, which combined with her V-shaped hull make her well suited to a drying- out mooring. The original deckhouse and wheelhouse were replaced in 1997 and now can be seen ashore on Eel Pie Island in use as a boatyard office! A fine example of recycling! The conversion work was done at MSO Marine in Brentford (pictured above), one of a diminishing number of working boatyards on the upper tideway. The protection of such yards is vital – they too are part of the river’s history and play an essential part in repairing and maintaining the craft that form part of our Thames heritage.


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.

The Cube

The more observant passer-by may spot the origins of the top half of The Cube: it is a prefab (short for prefabricated house) that has been craned onto a pontoon. Both of these gems of past British history would have been common sights in post-war east London. The lower half is believed to be a buffer pontoon, built possibly around 1930, and used in one of London’s docks to moor large boats. Placed at the bow or stern where the boat curved away from the wharf, it provided a smooth line to moor against. This suggestion comes from a Thames historian, who used to play in the old docks as a lad! Another clue is the robustly braced internal construction designed to withstand heavy forces such as large ships. Prefabs, like the ones pictured below in Deptford, were built after World War II, as a short term solution to the housing problem. Like the luxe-motor, they were popular, as they had running water, inside bathrooms and electric cookers. Some are obviously still in use today!

The pontoon is of riveted steel construction, with originally a rough timber deck. It arrived at Church Wharf (the wharf then behind the pier) in October 1983 towed by the white boat seen in the photo above. The prefab was then lowered on. Prefabs can be put together in as little as 3 hours, so this was an instant home! Subsequently the timber cladding, portholes and steel deck were added. There are about 35sq metres of living space upstairs with 45 sq metres on the lower deck, but with restricted headroom! The Cube is the only home here to be built on site! A great example of recycling!


Libra is a tjalk, built at Foxhol near Groningen in Holland in around 1910. Originally, she was a sailing barge, built to navigate the Dutch canals and rivers: the unpitted nature of her riveted iron and steel hull inside the hold suggests a dry cargo such as grain was carried. A typical tjalk is pictured below.

Pronounced challuk, this clog-shaped boat was a very common Dutch design. They were flat bottomed, enabling them to navigate shallow waters and to take the ground to load and unload in tidal areas. Instead of a keel, sailing barges have 2 leeboards, one on either side of the boat, to stop them drifting sideways. The leeboard is lowered into the water on the lee side, i.e. on the opposite side to where the wind is coming from.

Libra still has her original leeboards and mast tabernacle, which indicates a much larger mast was carried than the current one. A slot in the steel on the bows shows she once carried a bowsprit – a boom sticking out forward to carry a sail. The original crew’s cabin at the stern still has the old sliding steel shutters. Forward of this cabin was the hold: covered when working by wooden hatch covers, it now has a steel roof over a large saloon and 2 sleeping cabins. The barge was first converted to residential use in 1950 when her current engine, a Gardner 6LW 6 cylinder 112hp diesel, was fitted. Further work was done in 1990. She came over from Holland to the Thames in 1994.


Though not a lot is known about Radiant’s history (sometimes called Radient), she is of the Humber keel design, which means she was originally a sailing barge. She would have been motorised at a later date, possibly during World War II, when grants were given for conversion to engine. She was built in the late 1920’s and carried a wet cargo such as coals from Newcastle, as the interior hold is pitted by the acids; so much so that the entire underwater hull had to be replaced in ~2005 after she sank (fortunately while in the boatyard !!) Clues that she was once under sail are that her engine room (now a kitchen) was small and appeared “added on” at a later date, and her rudder was designed to carry a tiller. Radiant can therefore claim Viking ancestry! The Humber keel is probably directly descended from the Viking longship: the word keel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for a single-masted, square rigged ship (ceol).

‘Daybreak’ is currently the only surviving keel regularly sailing and is an occasional visitor to Chiswick Pier. Like Radiant, keels were bluff-bowed and strongly built to stand the heavy cross currents and short swell of the Humber, but with a shallow enough draught to work its feeder rivers and canals. Like Thames Sailing Barges, their southern equivalent, the keels’ high broad sails caught the wind on inland waters and their masts could be lowered when passing under bridges. In the 20th century, sail and steam engines gave way to diesel, then, as road haulage took over from water transport, many barges were sold for scrap.

Fortunately, some like Radiant, were adapted for residential living. Originally Radiant was probably 74’ long, but in the 1970’s, she was shortened in order for her to fit onto a mooring at Molesey. The hull was cut in two and around 20’ of her length removed; then the the two halves were welded back together again. Later in 1980’s an upper residential level was added to make up for the lost living space. Since 2000 her interior has been completely remodelled right back to the steel hull, which illustrates what flexible residences boats are. One generalisation that can be made about these boats is that they are all different!


Regatta was built in 1909 in Boom, a small Belgian town on a tributary south of Antwerp and is what the Dutch call a steilsteven or “slope-bowed ship”. For over seventy years, she was a familiar sight on the canals and rivers of northern Belgium, delivering passengers, parcels and other light cargoes. Regatta came to Britain and Chiswick in 1985. It is unlikely that sheever crossed the Channel commercially, but in 1995 she made a return journey to mainland Europe to attend a barge rally in Paris: the photo below shows her setting off from Chiswick. She has also cruised many times upriver on the non-tidal waters of the Thames.

Continental working boats, particularly from Belgium, France and the Netherlands, have traded on the Thames for hundreds of years. For example, until the early 1970’s, Dutch coasters passed Chiswick to deliver goods to Isleworth. Evidence of this can be seen on the pub sign at the Waterman’s Arms in Isleworth. Many older people still remember the days when places like Chiswick, Isleworth and Brentford were busy river ports for both national and international trade.

Like many barges, Regatta’s hull is riveted steel on L-section frames. She has a gross registered tonnage of 66 and a net tonnage of 20 tons. (The former measures the overall size of the vessel, the latter indicates the space available for carrying and is used to assess harbour and canal dues for merchant ships.) She is powered by a 6 cylinder 2 stroke 175 hp General Motor diesel engine, which is believed to have come from an American army tank!


Reliance is a Humber motor barge, built in 1933 by Harkers of Knottingley. This type of barge is still a familiar sight in the north east and there are quite a few Yorkshire barges to be spotted on the Thames. She and her sister ship, Venture, were built to carry coal from the Yorkshire collieries down to York. She was then sold off and spent the 1960’s doing general cargo delivery on the Humber.

Rapid industrial growth in the 19th century brought a massive demand for coal from the Yorkshire collieries. The roomy holds of these craft provided a cheap, efficient and, at that time, speedy method of transport. Reliance was launched 10 days after Venture (pictured below). The skipper has taken down the upper part of the small wheelhouse, possibly to navigate a low bridge. Reliance’s wheelhouse has been replaced, but the top half can still be taken down, which extends her cruising range.

Reliance is divided into 3 watertight compartments. The fo’c’sle originally had bunks and a stove, though it is unlikely the crew lived aboard permanently. The cargo hold was 50’ long and covered by curved wooden hatches and tarpaulins when laden. The modern steel roof follows the lines of the old hatch covers. The engine room originally housed a Widdop, but was later fitted with a 4 cylinder Perkins diesel engine generating 58hp. The rear portion of the engine room is now divided off to provide a back cabin. Since coming down south, Reliance has cruised upriver as far as Oxford and downriver to Bow Creek and up the River Lee.


Built in Holland in 1927, Ventana is a steel flat bottomed luxe-motor barge, formally known as Vertrouwen (Faith in English), which would have carried freight on inland and coastal waters. Her sharp bow, an upswept stern and a gently arcing sheer line are all the marks of this type of boat, which first appeared early last century with the introduction of the diesel engine and which became a popular cargo carrying boat, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. The boat pictured here is a larger version, but shows the original position of the wheelhouse and hold.

The engines of the early luxe-motors were not powerful, hence the need for pointed bows to cut through the water and deliver water to the propeller. The accomodation behind the wheelhouse was very luxurious and had a proper kitchen and a toilet. At this time most houses did not have running water nor indoor toilets, so this type of vessel became immediately very popular, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands, where families tended to live aboad.

These boats make hardly any stern wave and a 25 metre barge will usually do its cruising speed of 7 knots with very little power. Ventana was first converted to residential use in 1977 in Holland, and then underwent a major refit in 2004 that included changes to the superstructure. Later that year, she was brought from Holland to Chiswick Pier, where the interior refit was completed. She is still a fully functional craft with a working engine: a Volvo Penta water cooled 6 cylinder diesel. It has an electronic engine management system and hydraulic steering. You just turn the key, start her up and drive away!