Post Memories: On board Barking barge that has a place in history

Euan Maybank, Rachael Smith and Margaret Simmons on the barge

Euan Maybank, Rachael Smith and Margaret Simmons on the barge - Credit: Archant

On a drizzly afternoon last Thursday, Margaret Simmons stepped on board the Tollesbury barge for the first time.

Rachel and Euan on the stern

Rachel and Euan on the stern - Credit: Archant

It was an exciting moment for the 74-year-old, for not only had this 84ft vessel rescued almost 300 weary troops from the shores of Dunkirk during the Second World War and survived an IRA bomb some decades later, she was built by Margaret’s great-grandfather 112 years ago.

Tollesbury barge during her heyday

Tollesbury barge during her heyday - Credit: Archant

Today the sailing barge, moored at Barking’s Fresh Wharf, is owned by Euan Maybank and his partner Rachael Smith who live on board and are slowly restoring the boat in the hope she will be fit to sail within a couple of years.

An illustration of the Tollesbury at Dunkirk

An illustration of the Tollesbury at Dunkirk - Credit: Archant

Margaret’s great-grandfather, a shipwright called William M. H. Felton, built 14 barges between 1891 and 1901 at his shipyard in Sandwich, Kent, the town where Margaret lives with her husband, Roy.

The inside of the barge where Euan and Rachael live

The inside of the barge where Euan and Rachael live - Credit: Archant

“I knew of Felton and that he built barges, but I decided to find out more after being put in touch with The Society for Sailing Barge Research, who were very helpful,” she explained.

Last year, using information from the society, together with her own research, Margaret wrote a small book about her great-grandfather’s boats, of which one, she was told, had survived.

“To my delight I heard that the Tollesbury, Felton’s only remaining barge and built in 1901, was still afloat and owned by Euan and Rachael,” she added. “So I got in touch and they kindly invited me to see her for the first time.”

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Margaret said stepping on board the vessel, which would once have carried a variety of goods from grain to coal, “was absolutely lovely”.

“To know my great-grandfather built this is exciting. I’m so thrilled to be here.”

The Tollesbury has certainly enjoyed a colourful history. In May 1940 she joined a fleet of various vessels, from fishing boats to pleasure steamers, on a mission to rescue Allied soldiers at Dunkirk, who had been cut off by the Germans.

The barge picked up around 270 men and survived the 100 mile stretch back to England despite numerous bomb attacks from enemy planes above.

By the 1970s she was being used as a house boat and in the early 1990s transformed into a pub on Millwall Docks, where she was bombed and damaged by the IRA in 1996.

The craft was repaired but sunk in 2005, possibly due to a failed automatic pump, before being raised and moved to a mooring in Barking.

Euan and Rachael had been looking for a boat to live on when they spotted the Tollesbury for sale in 2011.

“I wasn’t convinced when we first saw her,” admitted Rachael, 28, “as she needed a lot of work and was all black inside. But Euan got it into his head that we should buy her and after a while I came around. It felt right.”

The couple, who both work in theatre, do a bit of work on the boat most days, sometimes bringing in experts to carry out the more skilled aspects of the renovations.

“We hope to sail her, maybe within a couple of years, if we can get all the necessary work done,” said Euan, 35.

“We have motored her which was fantastic, but having the sails up would be a very different experience. I can’t wait for that day.”

To read Euan and Rachael’s blog on the Tollesbury click here.