Hadleigh's old spritsail barge

The Diligent

The banks of Hadleigh Ray, or Benfleet Creek as it is more commonly known, are virtually clear of rotting debris from earlier eras. That is, apart from General Booth’s Wharf where the jetty’s gnarled posts remain and brick stumps of a warehouse poke, evocatively, from the saltings and creek bank. For those that are unaware, the wharf sits a little to the west of Two Tree Island. (Ian Hawks – Hadleigh Salvation Army Jetty – placed an evocative picture of a spritsail barge on this Website: she is seen passing the jetty, some years after it had fallen into disuse – probably dates to 1930s). 

Two Tree Island has always made me chuckle – not only for its name, but for the fact that our brothers and sisters in our neighbouring Borough of Southend seem to assume, mightily, that it belongs entirely to them when, in fact, casual scrutiny of an OS map clearly shows that half of it lies in Hadleigh’s realm! That aside, the island has another interest to me: in the records of the Society for Sailing Barge Research, a barge (well, its rotting remains) are stated to lie within Leigh, in Leigh Creek, however, by my reckoning, the spot where she sits is clearly within Hadleigh: the border runs along the Island’s shore and not along the middle of the Creek, or its landward side.

The border actually crosses the Creek in the general proximity of an old hard crossing point, a little west of the current bridge. It then runs westwards along the bank before it darts across the Island in a line that follows an old rill that used to cut the Island into two parts – shown on the early OS map of 1805. The rill through the Island was opposite the delta of Mill Creek which ran generally south-west to the underside of the Castle. It is possible that the whole area was a marshland delta for Mill Creek: it drained a vast expanse of saltings beneath the downs and Castle before sea walling started. Interesting as all of that is, let me get back to the barge…

Hadleigh has a long ‘coast’ but no coastal community and that is unusual in Essex – and it is the probable reason why barges never featured in our past, other than those owned by the Salvation Army carrying cargoes to and from the old wharf. But, as said, we do have one of their number resting within our marshland bossom.

The vessel can be seen from the Two Tree Island shore if you walk along the northern pathway. She lies on the Hadleigh side of the gutway and looks, at first sight, to be an island of marsh sitting oddly in the creek. Some years ago in 2002 her mast case still stood proud above the tangles of sea purslane covering her decks. By 2006, faster flows in the Creek had scoured mud away along her starboard chine and that side fell into the Creek. I visited a little after that event and took photographs. The fallen side can be seen clearly. Hull planking has completely disappeared. Her deck structure can be seen furthest away from the ‘hull’ with her coaming still attached. The shaped wrought iron straps (sticking up at an angle to mud surface) that ran down the inside of the inner planking and over the inner face of her chine timber can be seen. Her chine lay close to the surface along the line of the reflective ‘puddle’ which I walked along, carefully…

The first view is from the Hadleigh shore, looking along the barge’s port side, from her stern to the bow. Her stem band, which took the stayfall tackle that held the mast up, can be seen rising up from her wasted stem. The second view, in black & white, has appeared in one of my books (‘Mudlarking’) where the vessel is mentioned. I was extremely interested in the scouring too: this shows a greater flow through the Creek and can only be due to the rising tide levels – sea level – that is taking place. I shall watch the situation: more of the barge will re-appear in time. Most of the barge’s port side still stood in 2006.

(Note: Please be aware of unseen rills in marsh tangle if walking out to take a look)

The barge is the Diligent of Faversham, official No. 108175, 36 net tons, built 1880, at Sittingbourne in Kent. She is thought to have been abandoned in the Creek down towards Leigh during the 1930s and drifted to her final berth at an unknown moment in time before WW2.


The Last Berth of The Sailorman, published by Society for Sailing Barge Reseach, 1996.

Mudlarking Thames Estuary Cruising Yarns, published by Amberley Publishing, 2010, by Nick Ardley.

Pictures: Nick Ardley

Nick Ardley

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  • There are no further known barge remains in the Hadleigh district that I am aware of; however, within Castle Point there are a number extant. There is the Scone, dumped or abandoned a number of years ago now, just above Benfleet Bridge. There is also the Henry (of Rochester) whose rudder can be seen standing to attention opposite the rail station. On the island, up Smallgains Creek, there was a wooden lighter just above the concrete hard of the Island YC but this was buried when ‘Halcon’ reclaimed the saltings outside the new sea wall in the 1980s. I know her position, or thereabouts. A barge’s rudder used to ‘float’ around the rills towards the top end of the creek (some twenty-five years ago) on the Canvey Heights side … it might still be there. At the top end of the creek the sea-wall people drove some piles through the elm bottom of a barge and wondered why they bent… I know where she is, more or less. She’s thought to be the barge mentioned in my book, ‘Mudlarking – Thames Estuary Cruising Yarns’ and was owned by an IYC member’s family. I have located another ‘bottom’ which is being investigated… Off Leigh-on-Sea is the stem of the Eva Annie out on the flats east of the saltings edge. Within the saltings, a little north of her, rests the remains of the Conquerer, a barge my father measured, he said, in a letter to Frank Carr at the National Maritime Museum, when he was fitting out May Flower off Leigh Station in 1951. The Society for Sailing Barge Research is a worthy organisation to join (Google their web site) to learn more of these evocative tan-sailed vessels that still give us a proper parade of sail, year by year.

    By Nick Ardley (11/06/2012)
  • Fascinating stuff. Wish I’d known about it and photographed it years ago. Are there any other boats or barges dying here or in the wider area, Nick? Any maps?

    By Robert Hallmann (30/05/2012)
  • I wonder if it was the “Diligent” wreck that I use to play on in the 1930s. My school mates and I used to clamber over her pretending that we were pirates.

    By Ian Hawks (18/05/2012)

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