An article reproduced from
SEA BREEZES MAGAZINE
in July 1951.
I have absolutely no idea who wrote this article, or drew the delightful
pen & ink drawings. Someone perhaps will tell me .. .. the article is reproduced faithfully,
including spellings and grammar - every last full stop.
HUMBER KEELS & SLOOPS
Fifty years ago almost the whole local traffic on the River Humber and the maze of
waterways linking the industrial North with the sea was carried by the squaresailed keels, nearly as
simple in rig and hull form as the mediŠval coasters they resembled more than casually. After 1900 the
Yorkshire keels became a rarer sight with every year, until by 1949 there was none left working
entirely under sail. One or two of the older keel skippers still like to keep their masts stepped and
sometimes sail a mile or two when their tug is not handy, but there are very few even of these.
Keels varied in size according to the area which they were built to serve. Most had a length of 61ft.,
a beam of 15.5ft. and a depth of 8ft., and they could load about 100 tons of cargo, depending on the
depth of water on their route. As they were very much shorter than a modern Grand Union Canal narrow
boat, but with twice the beam, they were more suitable for river work than for most canals.
The keels were mainly carvel built of English oak, though a few were of iron and steel. The hull form
was extremely simple and - just as in building the Mersey flats - the aim was to gain the maximum
carrying capacity with very restricted dimensions.
Bows were very bluff and very little less rounded than sterns. There was a short, planked deck at bow
and stern, with narrow footways on either side of the main hatch, which had high coamings and was
covered by cambered hatch-covers. Like the flats, the keels had a heavy, carved stern rail supported
by timber heads projecting above deck level; this rail was traditionally decorated with the name and
port of registry of the keel in bright paint, and there were simple designs in reds, greens and blues
on the bow boards and around he lettering of the name.
In rig the keel was kept as simple as possible. Her mast, stepped in a tabernacle, had two lower
shrouds and one topmast shroud on each side, with a forestay, topmast stay
and a shifting backstay. One unusual detail of the rigging was the use of pear-shaped deadeyes of very
early pattern. In contrast, modern geared hand winches were fitted, and with the help of these the
keelmen could sail their craft very close to the wind and, like the Thames bargemen, could work the
vessel in all weathers with a crew of two - skipper and mate.
The squaresail, which had two rows of reef points, was stropped to the yard and was hoisted and
trimmed with simple halyards and braces. Above the mainsail a topsail was usually set, though small
keels used the mainsail only. At least one is said to have carried two topsails in her heyday. The
keelmen used sails, leeboards, anchors and wooden quants for manoeuvring, and in very shallow waters
leeboards would be unshipped and left on the bank (to be picked up on the return trip), taking a few
inches off the beam and draft. When sailing was difficult the craft was poled along with the
metal-pointed quant called a "stower ".
With her simple squaresail, very bluff bows and stern, and her unusual pear-shaped deadeyes, the keel
has shown less change with the years than any other coastal trading craft. In fact, she might be
mistaken for her mediŠval ancestor, the buss, if her modern wire rigging and winches were overlooked.
Keels were built over a wide area of the North-East of England, but mainly in East Yorkshire, on the
waters round Leeds, York and Goole. A large number came from yards in the Doncaster area and from
Mirfield, Rotherham, Swinton, Wakefield, Beverley and Hessle, and a few from Brigg. In Lincolnshire a
number were built at West Stockwith. One or two were also built of steel at Blackwall for the Trent
Navigation Company, of Nottingham.
Among those from Yorkshire towns were the Emily, launched at Swinton (1908), the Robert
Wood from Wakefield (1866), the Otter from Beverley (1899), the Nightingale from
Rotherham, the Dove from Hull, and the Clyde, Thames and Bravo from Leeds.
Many were built at Mexborough, including the Industry, Day Star and Flake, and more
came from Knottingly, like the Mystery, of Grimsby, which was launched in 1879 and was
subsequently owned in Louth. A few keels, including the Nemo (1884), were built at
Winteringham in the yard where the billy-boy Aimwell was built.
The builders of the early 19th-century keels are now forgotten names for the most part, and their
yards in small Yorkshire towns, on river and canal banks, have disappeared. Very little special
equipment was used, and where the rivers were narrow launches were made broadside-on. Probably the
busiest keel-building yard was Richard Dunstan's at Thorne, near Doncaster. Here many wooden keels
were built 70 years ago, and steel motor coasters, tugs and special service craft are now constructed.
The firm was founded in 1858 and also built a number of Humber sloops, the last wooden craft being
completed at Thorne about 1925.
Mr. Richard Dunstan, the present managing director, says "It used to be our proud boast that not only
did we build the ship, but we made the masts and spars, rigging, sails and even a truck for the
masthead. We manufactured all the ropes that these craft required." The Sheffield keels built at
Thorne had a length of 61.Sft. and a moulded depth of 7.5ft. and could carry 115-120 tons. At this
yard, as in most others, the hull was built of English oak, with planks and ceiling of pitch pine. The
normal annual output was two keels, with three as an exception. During the Second World War the firm
turned out one complete prefabricated tug every six days. In all, 96 wooden craft were built in the
Thorne yard, most of them sloops and keels, including the Britannia, Cathleen, Daybreak, Elinor,
Mayday and Warrior.
One or two keels built in Yorkshire were used in other areas. Three became towing barges for the
carriage of grain between ships at Wisbech and the mill at Peterborough. One of these was the George
& Effie, built at Hull in 1913. All were broken-up about 1945. Two other craft, the Bloodstone
and the Keystone, built at Gainsborough, were used on the River Thames and later on the
Norfolk Broads, with Yarmouth registries, but it is uncertain if they actually sailed in Norfolk
It is difficult to find out how many keels were in service at any one time. The larger craft working
to Hull were registered with the Board of Trade, and judging by the registers there were about 70
large keels working in 1912. Probably there were many more unregistered craft on inland waters. Of the
fleet listed in 1912 the oldest was the North Cape, built at Brigg in 1840.
Keels used entirely on the narrower waterways, miles from the coast, were usually smaller than those
sailing between the Humber ports. The smallest set a single squaresail on a light mast, and in
Yorkshire they were known as "ketches". These "ketches" only sailed in favourable weather and
otherwise were towed. They averaged about 65 tons cargo capacity, a little over half the ordinary
keel's tonnage. Keels were owned and sailed over a wide area of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and
Nottinghamshire; a large number were registered at Hull, but the owners were scattered up and down the
county, especially in the smaller towns inland, where there were no registries.
Several of the larger firms ran regular services from Hull carrying import cargoes to Lincoln,
Sheffield, Doncaster and many less important towns. Inland, the keelmen were well known, like the
local carriers, and whenever riverside towns held a regatta the local keels which happened to be in
the district would hoist large burgees emblazoned with their name in white lettering on a red ground
and the crews would join in the races of various kinds. Photographs of the regatta day at Stainforth
near Doncaster, 40 or so years ago, show the canal lined by 11 keels, some lying in pairs alongside,
almost blocking the channel. About 80 years ago the Hull keels had a regatta on the Humber which must
have been a unique sight. Not many details of the races are remembered, but in 1874 the Kiero won
the prize, as a painting in the local museum shows.
Like other small craft, keels were generally given homely, personal names - Annie and Ethel,
Belle of the Trent, Seven Sisters. Others were named in the vein popular with Victorian
shipowners - Economy, Emancipator, Forward, Industry, Integrity. one large firm, the Trent
Navigation Company, used names of rivers - Douro, Elbe, Rhine, Volga and many English rivers.
Another firm preferred mountain ranges for the names of its craft.
The building of keels virtually came to an end in 1914, though one or two were launched in Yorkshire
yards for eight or nine years after that. The Gar, owned by Furley and Co., Ltd., was built in
1923, but she was mainly intended for use as a towed barge. After 1945 a number of keels were
broken-up, and only a small part of the fleet is still to be seen lightering in the Humber area. Some
are now fitted with diesel engines of 20-60 h.p., but most are towed. Furley and Company, of Hull,
whose connections with the port and water transport date back to 1770, are one of the oldest keel
owning firms and they still have five keels stepping masts. Though usually towed, these five - the Dux,
Gar, Nar, Rye and Till - can sail when necessary, and are now the last link with the
sailing days, working to towns on the River Trent and the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation
The Humber sloops developed later than the keels, coming into use about 1900 in the more open waters
of the estuary, where they were handier and faster than the keels. In fact, they were said to be so
fast that, if light, and given a fair wind and a flood tide, they could beat a steamer from Hull to
Goole. The two last sloops under sail in the Humber area were owned by James
Barraclough and Co., Ltd., coal factors of Hull. These were Ivie, unrigged in August 1949, and
the Sprite. The Ivie was built of steel at Joseph Scarr's shipyard at Beverley in
1900. She had a length of 65ft. and a deadweight capacity of about 140 tons. Originally the lvy,
her name was given a change of spelling to avoid confusion with another vessel when she was registered
with the Board of Trade.
The Sprite, the last sailing sloop on the Humber, was unrigged in July 1950 and is at present
used as a dumb barge, but may be engined later. She was built of steel in 1910 and has a length of
68ft. and a beam of 17.5ft. She came from Warren's shipyard at New Holland, Lincolnshire, and was
built for Mark Scott, seed crusher, of Selby. Her dead weight of 165 tons makes her one of the largest
(if not the largest) sloops sailed in the area. Capt. John Chant, her master, has been with the owners
well over 40 years. In 1939 Messrs. Barraclough had 15 sloops in service.
Even if there are now no keels or sloops to be seen under sail these days there are some very fine
scale models in museums which give a good idea of what they were like. In the Hull Museum of Fisheries
and Shipping in Pickering Park, Hessle Road, are models of the keels Miriam and Joseph and,
Hannah and of the sloops Hero and Lily, while oil paintings show the keels Ada
and Brothers. In the Science Museum at South Kensington, London, is an excellent model
(a copy of an unnamed builder's model) of a 100-ton keel owned by the Sheffield and South Yorkshire
In collecting these notes help has been
kindly given by Capt. E. A. Woodhead,
recently harbourmaster of Goole;
and Mr. Richard Dunstan, of Thorne;
and members of some firms mentioned.
To see the drawings full-screen, click their images.
The load in a separate window.
I would credit the artist, willingly, for they are very good.
But the article gives no clue, nor to the author of the above article.
They all date from 1951, and SEA BREEZES magazine.