AN HISTORIC sailing vessel celebrates a milestone anniversary this weekend.

The Thames Sailing Barge Trust is marking the 125th birthday of the iconic Centaur today.

She is one of two sailing barges owned by the trust, which continues to maintain her in sailing condition to take people sailing for weekends or longer charters.

Sailing barges were the main form of bulk cargo transport on the east coast for more than 200 years.

During 2020, she will be the mainstay of the trust’s operations, while Pudge, its second barge, which celebrates her 100th birthday in 2022, undergoes major repairs which are being part-funded by Heritage Lottery.

A member of the Historic Fleet, Centaur was launched by John and Herbert Cann at their Bathside yard in Gashouse Creek, Harwich, for Charles Stone of Mistley in 1895.

The area was in the grip of one of the coldest winters on record and the Harwich and Dovercourt Newsman reported that, due to the severe weather, the usual trial trip was cancelled because of conditions of “Arctic severity”.

Centaur was built of wood as a coasting barge – able to trade all around the British coast and the near continent.

This meant she was larger than the river barges and had a more seaworthy hull. Initially she traded to Calais from London, Portsmouth and Southampton.

She also entered barge races – winning an 1898 Harwich race, in which five barges competed, and the 1899 Medway match.

In 1898-99, her trade took Centaur to Dunkirk, Calais, Antwerp, Ostend, Alderney, Bruges and the Netherlands, from a variety of home ports including Dover, Rochester, London, Lowestoft, Goole, Shoreham, Southampton and Newport.

In October 1933, Centaur joined the Colchester fleet of Francis and Gilders Ltd and entered the grain trade between the London Docks and Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe.

In May 1940, she went to Dover to join the famous “Little Ships” preparing for the Dunkirk evacuation, but was damaged by a tug while berthed at Dover and began taking in water.

She was unable to sail for Dunkirk and had to return to Maldon for repairs.

Centaur resumed trade around the Thames and East Anglia for the rest of the war, and afterwards continued in the grain trade.

Francis and Gilders were left as the last ‘seeking’ fleet, finding cargoes wherever they could. Cargoes were secured either by the masters of the barges or by the company’s agents in the city.

Once a year, the barges went on the blocks for maintenance, either at the company’s own yard in Colchester or at Cook’s Yard in Maldon.

Among Centaur’s last cargoes in 1954-55 were timber to Colchester and Maldon, sugar beet from Ipswich to Silvertown, ballast from Fingringhoe to London, cement from Halling to London, and 40-gallon oil drums from Grain to London.

The last four remaining Colchester barges still under sail – Centaur, George Smeed, Kitty and Mirosa – were sold to Brown and Son of Chelmsford, for use as unrigged timber lighters.

In October 1955, Centaur’s registration was closed because as a lighter she was no longer required to be registered.

She joined a fleet of former sailing barges bringing timber from ships moored off Osea Island to the Heybridge Basin, where it was transferred to canal lighters for transport to Chelmsford.

In 1965, Centaur was sold to Richard Duke who converted and re-rigged her for leisure charter work from Pin Mill, near Ipswich, and Maldon.

In 1974 the barge was sold to the Thames Barge Sailing Club – now the Thames Sailing Barge Trust – which offered crewing experience, cruises and charters to both members and non-members.

Initially, she was based at Faversham, and later at Maldon.

That winter, the club began a long and extensive phased restoration of the barge, which involved replacing most of the frames and planking, and was not completed until 1995.

Trust chairman Peter Taylor said: “The Thames Sailing Barge Trust is a charity run entirely by volunteers and supported by members, volunteers and funding partners.

“The trust is particularly grateful to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund which has supported a number of significant restoration projects, enabling this wonderful vessel to continue to grace Maldon and its surrounding rivers.

“During the year, Centaur will offer a varied programme of trips including a visit to the Harwich Sea Festival on August 7-8 where she will be alongside the Ha’penny Pier and open to visitors.

“For those in Maldon, there will be open days on May 9-10 where the trusts volunteers will be happy to show the public around and explain some of the unique features of a Thames barge.”

To book a trip, or learn more, visit or call David Gibson on 07840 862685.