The following pages contain details of some of the early London tugs that did not belong to the larger companies listed separately on this site. Some were family or captain owned, whilst others were owned by consortiums of Thames pilots or local businessmen, who all held shares in the vessels. Some of the businessmen had no direct connection with shipping or the River Thames. Doctor Brownfield, for instance, was Head Surgeon at Poplar Hospital, and an early Police surgeon, whilst Alfred Tolhurst was a Gravesend Solicitor. Several of the companies came into existence in the early 1830’s and in their time operated quite large fleets but all gradually disappeared over the years or were absorbed into the larger fleets. Below is a list of some of the more prominent early operators:-
Many of the early tugs mentioned in these pages were involved in what was known as seeking, this being the practice of tugs going down the English Channel to find homeward bound sailing ships and to assist them into the Thames or continental ports.Catherine Allcott has kindly provided a document giving more explanation of this practice.


I've enclosed a transcript of a document written by my 2x great grandfather, Edward Augustus Sandford (1855 - 1938) who was William Sandford's son and who crewed some of Williams tugs along with his brothers. It makes interesting reading and I think you can assume that, when Edward refers to captains that he knew of, he is probably referring to his brothers! - Catherine Allcott

Reminiscences of Thames Tugs 1875 - 1880
By Edward Augustus Sandford

There was of course a fine fleet of powerful tugs on the Mersey and a great many on the Tyne not so powerful.
On the Thames at this date they were all paddle tugs, about 35 run by Gravesend owners and probably a greater number run by London Firms of which Messrs H Watkins were pioneers and the most powerful concern. The size of these tugs varied from 90 feet long, 20 feet beam, 10 feet depth to 110 by 22 by 11 feet. The Gravesend fleet were mostly built by Messrs Hepple and Messrs Redhead of North and South Shields respectively.
There were other smaller tugs working above Gravesend, docking and dry docking ships in the Port of London.

But my theme is about the Seekers as they were called because they had to seek their employment by meeting homeward bound wind jammers from all parts of the world in the English Channel and towing them to London.
They were splendid sea boats and could face the worst storms almost with impunity, due to having just the right amount of free board and a measure of power. The crew comprised the Captain, the engineer, 1 mate, 1 second mate, and 2 firemen and the boy usually about 16 years of age who acted as cook, did what scrubbing was done, cleaned the Captains boots and was generally Lackie. Wages roughly Captain 50 to 60 shillings per week, Engineer 40 to 50, mates 35 and 30 respectively and the fireman about 27/ to 25/ the boy 10/ to 17/. And I will say they earned and deserved every shilling they got. They were a fine type of men, keen fearless and willing. Of course there was always the hope of salvage on ?hooks as they called them when they rescued vessels that had got into difficulties. The crews portion of the compensation for salvage was 20 per cent. The food was not found by the owners. So usually the whole of the crew formed a mess and had meals at one table, the Captain being Carver, the two mates and two firemen serving alternately as Caterers unless one of them developed special facility in this line. He would then be asked to continue the good work and probably the others would pay him 1/ per week for doing so. You will realise what an unthankful office this might be with 5 hungry men to cater for. The expenditure limited to 8/ or 8/6 per head for 7 days per week and often 7 nights as well to say nothing of good food being spoiled by the amateur cook boy.
It was usual to purchase 3 or 4 days food at one time when leaving port. If they did not get back to Gravesend before the provisions ran short they would chance replenishing at Dover or some other South Coast Town as weather and circumstances might permit.

There was always the chance of excitement and uncertainty in the life of a Tuggy in those days. Some days you might leave Gravesend at high water, fall in with a vessel off Margate or in the downs and tow her to London within 24 hours. Other times you might be a fortnight or three weeks before finding a vessel that required towing to London. I have known times when very big fleets of vessels come up the Channel in a glut as it was called and one of these tugs to tow from say Margate or Deal 5 ships in one week to London Docks.

Think of the exhaustion of the crew. The Captain and Engineer would be on duty all the time as they have no one to relieve them. The two mates and two firemen would have done in three hour watches nearly 2 weeks work in one but would be ready and cheerful to commence again after one night at home.

While ships are coming up Channel in quantities the Tuggies life is all plain sailing. But when they are scarce and the winds light or blowing down the Channel the ships are difficult to find. The Tug Captain has to use all his knowledge, perseverance and cunning to get to the ships first. For then some ships may be close to the English side and some near France and if they are tacking it is more difficult to locate them. The necessity of economy in the using of his coal supply is a great anxiety. The coal capacity of these Tugs would be from 30 to 40 tonnes. When running light consumption 4 to 6 cwt per hour and 8 or 10 cwt when towing. So after leaving port in 2 or 3 days, coal becomes the bug bear as it would be futile when the ship is found if there is not sufficient coal left to tow her to London.

The principle help the Captain has in above conditions is by studying Lloyds Gazette. If he is a capable Skipper he can ascertain the date when ships are due to arrive. Also those signalled at the various Signal Stations from the Lands End to Downs are notified in the Gazette and thus work out the probable position of the incoming ships. The following is an illustration. When the china Clippers were due great excitement would prevail among the Tug crews. There would be bets and a sweepstake on the race and also on the Tug which was lucky enough to tow the winning Clipper.
The tug I have in mind left London seeking. The Captain had news that some of the Racers had passed the Lizard and were coming up the Channel with light west wind. He steamed full speed to Dover, went on shore, interviewed Lloyds agent to get the latest news and by working out probable speed of the Clipper according to prevailing wind and allowing for tides etc, he calculated that the ship he wanted to find would be off Beachy Head at dawn the following morning.
He then steamed to Dungeness arriving just before night set in and finding there 3 other tugs at anchor, 2 of them faster boats than his own, concerned that they would follow him if he proceeded as they would guess he had the latest news, he turned back a mile or two and anchored.
Now his problem was to get past these other tugs unobserved. The first thing was to extinguish all the lights and then three hours before dawn, heave up the anchor without a sound. To effect this rags and old rope was inserted in the cogs of the windlass. Next he set a small sail called a stay sail and the tide being favourable half-drifted and half-sailed noiselessly past his watchful competitors. When out of their hearing set the engines full speed ahead and arrived off Beachy Head just before dawn.
As the morning broke, by the aid of a telescope could be seen a full rigged ship hull down to the South Westwards, for which he made all speed, specially as on looking round could be seen one of the three tugs left at Dungeness, who evidently smelt a rat and who was 'L' for leather after them. But he got there first and after the usual great amount of bargaining agreed to tow her to dock for 65.0.0. The ships name was Cutty Sark.
Dungeness was a favourite rendezvous for Thames Tugs as all homeward bound vessels tried to make it. Because the Pilot cutters were stationed there and the ships would signal for Pilots either for London or the Continental ports at night as well as day.
Dover was another favourite place on account of getting the latest shipping news and to replenish the larder. But during a prevailing south west gale, then the Downs was the place for business for in those days you would find two or three hundred sail of vessels great and small sheltering there. And very often an outward bound ship after buffeting for two or three weeks down channel would return to the Downs, would be confronted with the difficulty of bringing her to anchor. Perhaps the cable would snap and then she would foul some of the numerous craft there. Then the Tuggies harvest would be reaped.
This brings me to the salvage part of the business. Generally the recompense for salvage was settled by the Admiralty Court. So the tug Captains usually sent the report in writing.
I give her some extracts taken at random:

  Anchored off Deal     Wind SW Strong.
Deal boat and 4 hands come alongside.
Reported vessel ashore East Goodwin sands.
While getting anchor up saw another Tug with Deal boat astern, making for South Sand Light ship. Only one chance of getting there just is to cross the Sand by the Scotch way. The Deal Coxswain assures me he had been through it many times. Consult chart and state of tides I decide to risk the passage.
By careful navigation succeed in getting through. Find a Schooner ashore head on bumping heavily and leaking badly. The Captain anxious to take our assistance, also the 4 Deal boatmen. They get onboard, help at the pump and getting our tow rope fastened. We then towed her off the Sands and proceeded toward south Goodwin Lightship. The other Tug met us and offered assistance but was too late. We docked the Schooner safely in Dover Harbour. She was loaded with Cochineals and other valuable cargo.

      Anchored in Eat Bay, Dungeness.
        Gale of wind SW with rain and squalls.
A French Barque also at anchor in the outer roadstead making very heavy weather of it. So much so I decided to hold on for a time to see what happened, and just before dark saw she hoisted a signal for assistance. We got under way immediately. But the ship had parted from her anchors and while they tried to      the ship under fore and aft canvas to get her head up channel she refused to answer to her helm and headed straight for the ?Road Sand and very nearly collided with us and struck the ground before we could help. We approached her with difficulty as the great waves were breaking over her badly and pounding to such an extent that I expected the Master and tackle to go by the board. At the third attempt we managed to throw our small line on board. They hauled our hawser in and made fast (110 fathom of steel wire and ten fathom of Bass rope). By manoeuvering carefully we went ahead drew it taught without breaking it. Then under full head of steam went full speed ahead and as the tide was rising, in about one hour we pulled her off and started up channel. The Captain of the ship wished to get to London for new anchors and windlass. We had got past Dover and making toward the N.E. Buoy of Margate when the wind shifted to the north with a blizzard of hail and howling storm of wind causing the rope to part at the ships bows and she went drifting down channel again under base poles.
    We were left with 120 fathom of rope hanging behind and a heavy sea running and only three men available to get it on board which took a lot of time. It was very dark but we could just see the ships flares. We raced after her and got to her off Folkestone. She was getting near the Varne Sand. But we got one hawser made fast again and after many hours hard towing we got under the lea of the Admiralty Pier Dover and held her there the rest of the night. The next day the weather moderated somewhat and we succeeded in towing her safely to Gravesend. The Captains wife and child were on board. The Captain was very grateful for our service.
Cruising in the Downs.
Wind SW strong to a gale.
    Many ships returning for shelter here. About midday one of the China Clippers in doing so got into trouble as she came round head to wind. Her anchor dragged and when it held her stern was foul of a brig lying there, carrying away the brigs bow sprit.
We went to the ship and offered our assistance, found that her Windlass was badly damaged. Ultimately agreed to pull her clear and tow her to London. But unfortunately in manoeuvering out tug to get the tow rope aboard in the heaving sea running her jib boom caught in the stays of our funnels and ripped them overboard. We were now in trouble also. Another tug was soon on the spot, and had his hawser fast. But so soon as he pulled the Clipper to the westward we found that the brigs cable was entangled with the ships rudder. I consulted our engineer. He reported it possible for us to make steam enough for half speed without the funnels. I then hailed the brig and advised the Captain to slip his anchor and cable and let me tow him to Dover.
    He soon agreed to this and we succeeded in docking her safely in Dover Harbour. It was an uncanny job. The smoke and flare form the boilers smothering us all the time. We were all as black as niggers by when we got there.
The Captain of the tug added this typical P Script to his owners. Will you send a Tug to tow us home or shall I order new funnels at Dover. Consider it too risky to steam back. Weather still wild.
For the No1 salvage the owners were awarded 400.0.0 For the No2 salvage 2500.0.0 For No3 150.0.0
There are many details and thrilling accounts of the interesting and adventurous life of the old time Tug men who went seeking for their livelihood I have had to leave unmentioned.
But I must close with the thought Do we build such a fine type of Sailor man these days. And regrets that they and those splendid Paddle Tugs like the white winged Windjammers are but a sweet memory of the past.
Above article courtesy of Catherine Allcott and may NOT be reproduced in any form without her specific permission.



See separate section for information on William Watkins Limited, Watkins family history and fleet lists.

Later  [Thames] United Steam Towing Co., Shadwell.
Thomas Petley was born in the City of London about 1790. He was a  Free Waterman and began  tug owning in 1833. The company capital was £20,000 in £10 shares. By 1848 he owned four tugs. In 1851 he resided at 7 Great Hermitage Street, Wapping  with wife Ann, daughter Ann and a female servant and was described in the census as a gentleman. The company was noted as having an office in Shadwell in 1854. Thomas Petley died 25th March 1856 after few days illness, aged 66. Wife Ann had been born in  Limehouse about 1806 and died a couple of years after Thomas on 3rd August  1857. Daughter Ann is believed to have married a Belgian gentleman in 1852. By 1861 the company seemed to have been renamed the United Steam Towing Company and later became the Thames United Steam Towing Company and was managed by Mr Charles Coventry Nelson, who had been  clerk  to Thomas  Petley. Nelson was born in Bermondsey in 1818 and in 1861 is shown as a ship owner and customs agent, living in the Old Kent Road with his family. It is believed Nelson eventually became entirely responsible for running the company, eventually being declared bankrupt in 29-3-1867 with debts of £8017. He was discharged from bankruptcy 23-11-1867. After this date Nelson appears to have carried out general clerical work connected with the corn trade and died in 1901 aged 83.
Vessels owned by the company included Pilot; Kingston; Thames; Industry; Wear; Thomas Petley; Perseverance;  Samson. 


 Shadwell and Prestons Rd., Poplar.
The Caledonian Steam Towing Company came into existence about 1841 for 'the purpose of navigating and employing vessels 'impelled by steam in the towing of ships and vessels'. and by 1848 owned 9 tugs. The office address in 1842 is given as 11, Milk Yard, Shadwell. Among Managers/Directors of the company in 1849 were David Halket and John Drysdale. The company seems to have expanded rapidly as in the 1850's they are noted as owning 17 tugs. 1852 directories show the office address as 3, Shadwell Dock Street. The 1861 Post Office Directory gives their address as 6 Wapping Wall, Shadwell, with Thomas Forsyth Watson as manager. This was in fact the residence of Watson and his family. Watson had been born in Rotherhithe about 1823 and in 1851 was living in Paradise Street, Rotherhithe and was a sea captain. in 1861 whilst living in Wapping Wall he was shown as a shipowner. By March 24th 1865 the companies address was given as Prestons Road, Poplar, on the Isle of Dogs. In 1871 Watson was shown as living in Richmond Street, Plaistow, E. London and his occupation is given as "manager, Caledonian Steam Boat Company".  
On 15th November 1865 ground to the North of the East side of Orchard Place, Leamouth Road was being used as a repairing yard by the Caledonian Steam Towing Company.  The yard had a river frontage of 130ft, and included a small shipbuilding slip, as well as a brick-and tile machine shop, a timber built office, store and shed, and an old ship's deckhouse used as an office.
The company went into voluntary liquidation on August 26th 1873.
Watson appears at one time to have gone into partnership with Henry Retallick Gribble and they were Engineers, Boilermakers and Brassfounders, operating at Caledonian Wharf, Blackwall. This partnership was formally dissolved in July 1876. Thomas Forsyth Watson died 11-12-1872 at Walnut Tree House, Richmond St., Plaistow, London.
[Thanks to Helen Hills, Great Grandneice of Thomas Watson for his death details]
Doctor Matthew Brownfield was born about 1833, the son of a pilot, James Brownfield and his wife Jane. The family address in 1841 is recorded as Ballast Quay, Greenwich. Matthew apparently took up tug owning as a hobby whilst serving as Head Surgeon at Poplar Hospital in East India Dock Road. The Hospital opened about 1855. Whilst carrying out his medical duties at this location it was inevitable that he would come into contact with workers from the nearby shipyards at Blackwall and on the Isle of Dogs, and he was to treat workers injured whilst building the Great Eastern and the Leviathan, amongst many other ships. As he was also the District Police surgeon he was to appear in court many times, once giving evidence in  a case where Isambard Brunel was also a witness, and was also mentioned during the 'Jack the Ripper' investigations.  He had been in partnership at one time with Ronald Robertson at Newby Place, Poplar, carrying on the business of Surgeons and Apothecaries. This parnership was formally dissolved by mutual consent on 22nd August 1862. At this time Matthew Brownfield resided at 3, Eastcot Place, Poplar. Matthew Brownfield appears to have never married and his address is shown repeatedly as Poplar Hospital. After his death ownership of some of his tugs is shown as either Edith Brownfield or Matthew Brownfield of Gravesend. These were his nephew and niece, children of his brother James, who became a Gravesend pilot. Edith was living with him at 171 East India Dock Road in 1901 after he had retired. He died in September 1908, the death recorded at Poplar. How closely the Doctor was involved in the day to day running of the tugs is unclear, and it was generally acknowledged that he ran some fine vessels, but he was to enter into partnership with John Mitchell, at a date as yet unknown, but probably in the late 1860's, to carry on business as "Steam Tug proprietors and floating coal stores", the business address in 1890 being given as 49, Milton Road, Gravesend.
John Mitchell had been born in Newcastle about 1827. In 1851 he was living in Hartlepool and described as a steam Tug Master. Interestingly in 1861 there appears to be a double entry for him in the census. One return shows him at 39 Brunswick Road, Gravesend, occupation engine driver steamboat. Another entry shows him aboard the tug Ranger, as Engineer, lying in Dover Roads!!! In 1871, living at 36 Albion Road Gravesend, he is described as a steam tug owner, employing 17 men and 7 boys. Both the 1881 and 1891 census returns show him resident with family and wife Isabella at 49, Milton Road, Gravesend and in the occupation of Steam Tug owner. Again this was a partnership to be dissolved by mutual consent on 11th December 1891. All debts due and owing were to be paid by John Mitchell. It is believed John Mitchell died about 1893.
"The Ben Line"
James Foote Gibb was a shipwright who carried out his trade at Ratcliff Dry Dock, Shadwell. It would appear that Aberdeen based shipowners had an interest in the company, and the tugs hulls were painted green, as were the Aberdeen clippers. Not a lot is known about James Gibb, although it is thought he was born in Scotland. He would appear to have entered into several partnerships over the years. Trading  as W and J F Gibb, presumably with another family member, this partnership was dissolved 31st December 1867, and trading was continued at Ratcliff Dry Dock as Gibb and Hutchison. Allan Hutchison retired from the company in June 1871, this partnership being dissolved 24-6-1871, trading to continue as J F Gibb. At some stage James Glen Williamson was also a partner. He was a marine engineer, born in Scotland in 1855 and residing in Hampstead in 1881. Again this partnership was dissolved on 23rd December 1881. Gibb also had an office in City Chambers, Railway Place, Fenchurch Street, in the City of London. Gibb also owned sailing vessels including the barques Talavera Chile and Willowbank. The company finally ceased trading in May 1886.  Ratcliff Dry Dock continued in existence and the engineering workshop there was destroyed by a large fire 30-8-1888. [A busy time for the authorities in east London as there was also a warehouse fire in London Dock on this day and the next day Mary Ann Nichols body was found in Whitechapel after being murdered by Jack the Ripper]
A company which existed for 27 years and seems never to have owned or operated a tug!  A prospectus was published in March 1856 inviting applications for shares. The company was formed to "meet the demand for steam towing vessels between London and the Downs" and proposed to have on station three tugs as speedily as possible. A capital of £32,000 was quoted and manager was Charles James Bastard, with temporary office at 3, Royal Exchange Buildings, London. In December 1865 a revised prospectus was published, quoting a captal of £200,000, a huge sum then. The directors here stated that a provisional agreement had been made to purchase the sixteen tug fleet of William Watkins for £55,000. Included was the entire goodwill of the business, with William Watkins to become a Director following purchase and remain Manager for at least five years. None of this ever appears to have happened and the company was struck off the register in 1883.  
The Shipowners Towing Company was one of the earlier towing companies on the River Thames. It commenced operations in 1837, the tug Dragon being launched newly built for them  on May 24 of that year. Originally, however, the company was named The Symington Patent Paddle Towing Company. A prospectus for this company appeared in the newspapers about 18th March 1836, advising a capital of £50,000 and naming the chairman as the Lord Mayor of London, William Taylor Copeland, MP. Directors were John Pirie, Captain Nathaniel Domett, Joseph Somes, Thomas Ward, Nathaniel Gould, Walter Urquhart, William Gunston, Robert Bowie. Company secretary was William Neely and Engineer William Symington. The office address is given as 1, King William Street, London. Other tugs originally owned  included William Symington built 1835, Jane (1826), Sir Robert Hawkes (1835), Newcastle (1824), Copeland (1836), and William Gunston (1837). The tugs all employed a patented paddle wheel designed by Scottish engineer William Symington. This was to prove not very successful in operation and all tugs were gradually re-fitted with standard paddle wheels.  The company was renamed The Shipowners Towing Co Ltd about 1839. Directors listed in 1840 included Alderman Sir John Pirie Bt. Shipowner, Director of the South Australia Company and Lord Mayor of London in 1842, and also Alderman William Taylor Copeland MP.,  son of a partner of Josiah Spode of pottery fame, one time Master of the Goldsmiths Company and Lord Mayor of London in 1835. The company also owned a coal hulk moored to the east of Gravesend at this time. In 1847 a bill was proposed in Parliament to enable the company to sue and also be sued, the second reading taking place on March 22nd. In 1848 the companies office address was given as 162 Leadenhall Street, company secretary being Alexander Willis. In 1849 the company chairman was Edwin Oswin. In November 1852 a new share issue was proposed, to enable the company to expand. Whatever the result of this proposal the company seems to have soon gone into decline and was in voluntary liquidation by 1858, many of its vessels being sold on to other Thames owners. A notice in the Bristol Mercury newspaper in April 1857 advised that the steam tugs Cock of the North, Copeland, Ajax and Commodore, all lying in East India Dock, London, were for sale by auction, which would take place in the Captains Room at Lloyds on April 16th 1857.
Although a few records exist showing the company tugs towing small ships in the early years it was essentially a lighterage company. A prospectus was issued on July 9th 1856 showing a capital of £200,000  and advertising an issue of twenty thousand £10 shares. The Directors were Thomas Brassey, John Blake, Horatio Day, Sir S Morton Peto, William Swann and W H Tyler. Managers were Messrs Keen and Blake of Northumberland Wharf, Brentford. Company secretary Charles Eley Jnr. was also secretary of the Great Western and Brentford Railway Company. The stated aim of the company was to provide a fleet of lighters and steam tugs to take advantage of the ever increasing lighterage traffic on the Thames, and in particular to capitalize on traffic from the newly opened Victoria Dock, possible traffic from a proposed new dock at Dagenham, and that from a dock at Brentford, operated in collaboration with the GWR to take advantage of the Welsh coal trade. It is also evident from the prospectus that this was a re-financing and expansion of an existing lighterage business, presumably that of Keen and Blake of Brentford and Isleworth.
The company commenced operation on the first day of December 1856 with offices at Northumberland Wharf, Brentford, and Corn Exchange, London. In 1857 it announced it had reached an agreement with the Victoria Dock Company  to service all its lighterage requirements. In December 1857 the Head office moved to 148 Fenchurch Street, London. Growth seems to have been fairly rapid and by 1881 the company employed over 300 men. By 1889 the offices had moved to 65 Fenchurch Street and company secretary was T. W. Jacob. T W Jacob was with the company many years, being both secretary and manager in 1889 and managing director by 1902.
The workforce went on strike in November 1881 over pay and conditions and similar disputes were to arise in 1889 and from October 1900 to January 1901.
In 1904 the company was in conference with various bodies, including Thames Conservancy regarding plans to build a barge repair yard on Lot’s Eyot near Brentford, a small islet which they owned. In December 1904 the company owned 340 barges and five tugs. Trading continued through various ups and downs including the two World wars and on 16th March 1959 a large notice appeared in the Times celebrating the companies centenary. By 1961 however there was a downturn in business beginning, and although employing over 400 lightermen a take-over bid of £780,000 from the Transport Development Group, announced on the 3rd October, was recommended and accepted.
[Lloyds Steam Tug Co., Blackwall]
 Horselydown, Southwark.
Daniel Barker was born in Southwark about 1803. In 1841 he was living in Gainsford Street, Horselydown, an area just east of where Tower Bridge would be built years later, and his occupation is given as a Pilot. By 1851 he had married Charlotte Killick of Thelnetham, near Diss, Norfolk and was still iving at 21 Gainsford Street with Charlotte and daughters Sarah, Sophia and Susannah. By now he was described as a steam tug owner, employing 16 men. Daughter Sarah married Margate surgeon W B Atkinson on 8th June 1854. The family address was given in the wedding report as Gainsford Street and Hyde Vale, Blackheath. A move must soon have followed as in 1861 Daniel and Charlotte were living at 8 Gloucester Place, Greenwich. They were still resident here in 1881, Daniel now described as a retired shipowner. A trade journal entry for 1884 gives Daniel Barker and Company's addresses as 3 Sampson's Gardens, Wapping and 4, New London St., London EC3. Daniel Barker died in September 1887 aged about 84. Charlotte was to survive until March 1893 her age on death given as 79. Barker had an interest in at least 17 tugs over the years, and appeared  to have had a close working relationship with the Spicer family.

[This article courtesy of Kevin Haydon.]
Daniel Barker of Wapping (c1803-1881) and the Spicer family of Old Ford, Wapping and Gravesend.
Daniel Barker, a pilot, was associated for some years with Thomas Petley (c 1790-1856), a waterman and lighterman who was one of the early tug owners on the Thames.  The involvement with tugs included United Steam, or Thames United Steam, run by Charles Nelson, who had managed business for Petley and also the Caledonian Towing Company.  Barker also worked for many years with the Spicer family (George, George's brother, John I and John's son, John W, or, Jack.  A third brother, Fred, a pilot, was at one time owner and master of the Prince) who ran tugs for a few years after the death of Barker.  Barker boats could be recognised by the three red bands on the funnels.  Barker and the Spicers seem to have kept out of financial trouble themselves when Nelson was declared bankrupt in 1867 and in 1873 when the Caledonian ceased trading and indeed took over some of their vessels.  They also kept going when big syndicates like the Black Ball went under, but presumably the decline in sailing ship work left too small a market for all to thrive and within a few years of the Spicers withdrawal from towage the Gamecock and Ring Tugs were the only old style syndicates still operating on the London River.  Many of the members will have had close connections and tugs and finance seem to have moved around fairly frequently as indeed did many of the skippers and crews.
William Collins, Henry Collins (or Collings), a West countryman engaged in the fruit trade, and George Butchard of Gravesend were three business partners for whom Barker managed tugs after Petley's death.  Others formed syndicates with Barker and the Spicers and some of the tug captains who worked in the business made enough money to take an interest in the tugs themselves.  Arthur Owen was one of those skippers and probably became master of the Nelson in 1880 to look after his financial interest in the tug.  Richard Holland, having started as a mate with Barker in the Dreadnought, went on to be a master in 1870 on thirty-five shillings a week plus 5% of towage earnings and 6% of salvage money: he returned in 1886, when in a more substantial position, to buy the Dreadnought, which he ran for a short time (He also acquired the Haslip tug Sussex in 1887 which he ran until 1891 when she was sold to Thomas Gray, the Hull tug owner).  When Watkins first acquired the screw tug Bristol in 1877 and were not quite sure what to do with her they too made an arrangement with the skipper, Russell Smith, letting him find work in return for 5% of gross earnings, rather than the usual two and a half, so this may have been the customary arrangement among Thames tug owners.
Much of the work was seeking around the mouth of the Thames and in the Channel, picking up sailing ships, which included regular customers in the form of fruit schooners,  Costa Rican coffee ships, some of the China clippers and the sailing ships of Jenkins and Bates, who started in the China trade in the 1860’s.  (William Le Lacheur Lyon a Guernsey ship's captain and owner trading in fruit between the Azores and London is generally credited with starting the Costa Rica to London coffee trade with his ship The Monarch in 1843 and is remembered now for the part he played in the development of Costa Rica, rather than his business activities in London.  The names of many others similarly engaged, like the Tatham fruit schooners trading to the Mediterranean, have largely faded into history.)  There was some excursion work taking passengers across the Channel to Boulogne although the Barker/Spicer tugs were not ideally suited to this.  On the river, older and smaller tugs, such as the Paul Jones, handled some of the dry-docking work that was considerable in the early days and also took sailing ships in and out of St Katharine's dock.
Among the better known masters were Jack Spicer himself, Richard Holland and his brother Tom, from the family well known in tugboat and Trinity House circles, Stephen Hubbard who also went into the pilotage, W H Mason (father of W A Mason) and his brother Harry, Arthur Owen, who had a number of jobs on the river and was later superintendent of the LCC passenger ships, George Brown, Charles Fox, Edward Luck, James Moakes Senior, James Twist and William Wheeler.

 John may have had more than four sons. The four who went into the business were Mark, a shipwright who ran things ashore, Tom, an engineer who looked after the coal hulk Wolf's Cove, Dan, a tug engineer, and John, a tug captain. I suppose the sons would have been of an age to think about putting their feet up when the Mitchell business finished (the Brownfield tugs seem to have gone at about the same time). If they did work on other boats I have not come across any references. Other Mitchells worked on tugs. I am not aware of any connection. In particular in your travels you might come across a John Mitchell of Liverpool. He and his family worked on tugs there and delivered and worked on tugs at Brisbane. "Mike" Gill (a Hockley-Gill connection) was skipper of the Ben More for some years. - Kevin Haydon.
Courtesy Kevin Haydon

[Kindly compiled by Kevin Haydon]
Sandford was a familiar name on the Thames for many years.  The Gravesend branch of the family were first known as fishermen and prospered when the small town became something of a resort for Londoners, running both peter boats, used for fishing, especially shrimps, and a number of fish shops.  Other activities probably included supplying water to the many ships passing Gravesend and salvaging lost anchors.  A big step forward came when William Sandford (c 1819-1895) establishes himself as a Trinity House pilot.  He could then afford to run a small fleet of schooners and colliers – useful for would be pilots wishing to get in some sea-time.  The family also invested in engineering and tugs.  Tom, William and George, the three elder sons of William, worked on his boats and followed him into the pilotage.  Other Sandfords of a later generation also joined Trinity House.  The two younger sons, Edward and Horatio, found that they were not entirely cut out for life afloat and became engineers, Horatio starting up on the site of his former employer, next to Butchards by the Canal Basin.  I think that Horatio learnt his trade at the works of John Stewart and both he and Edward worked on some of the family owned tugs. 
A great deal of the early work of the engineering business was connected with the river, such as tug maintenance and repair.  The lack of water around the slip from the works into the Thames not proving much of a problem for the shallow draft paddle tugs.  The Sandfords naturally repaired their own tugs.  They also converted the passenger steamer Alert (1855-1929) and ran it in the coal trade between 1899 and 1914 and converted the Artemis to a coal hulk for their own use.  Later work included the refurbishment of Terrace Pier, heavy engineering for local cement companies, man-hole covers and other foundry products for the local authority (still to be seen around Gravesend) and work for gas companies.  Charles Douglas Etheredge, who was I think the son of George Etheredge and grand-son of the founder of the pump-makers, took over the business and was a director for many years.    Under different ownership, the business occupying the site more recently did some heavy engineering work in connection with the High Speed Channel Tunnel rail link. The Sandford name plate by the Canal Basin and vehicles bearing the legend “Sandford Heavy Lifting” can still be seen.
William’s daughter, Susan Sarah, married J R Starbuck.  Starbuck was head of the long established ship’s chandlers at Gravesend, whose business ventures included the sailing collier Glenroy and fishing boats.  Both William and his son-in-law would have known other Gravesend businessmen, such as the store owner Mr. Rackstraw, who also put money in a collier.  Starbuck was the local agent for the Distressed Sailor’s Society, an important organisation when life afloat was dangerous and little help could be expected from the state.
Sandford ran the coal hulk Dart with another tug owner, Dan Mitchell.  When Mitchell died at a young age I think Sandford assisted his widow in running the Mitchell tug business for a time.  Elliott/Dick & Page also shared the running of a coal hulk with Sandford and I think that this led to the shared interest in the running of the three Conqueror tugs/excursion boats.
It is possible that William Sandford invested money in tugs as a member of a syndicate to test the water before making a larger commitment, but Frank Bowen starts the record with the True Briton, a wooden paddler of 80 grt, built at Poplar in 1852 for C C Nelson’s United Steam Company that was purchased by William in the 1860’s after United Steam went bust.    The tug was sold on to James of Plymouth in the 1870’s and later went to Hull where it was still working in the 1890’s.  Another early tug was the Restless, (94’ x 17’ and about 80 grt) built for Sandford in 1869.  The Lightning of 1866 was acquired from a syndicate that included T W Elliott among its members in 1875.  The Challenger of 1873 was acquired from Elliott in 1882 and was sold to John Page in the 1890’s after he had taken over the running of Elliott’s business.  The later tugs, intended for seeking in the Channel or to double as passenger steamers in the summer season, were larger vessels.  All were well founded and were kept busy while owned by Sandford.  The strength of the Daring of 1876 survived the test of being rammed by the Belgian mail packet Parlement Belge while anchored at Dover in fog.  The Flying Falcon (originally the Lord Bandon) was acquired from Clyde Shipping with the excursion business in mind and was successful enough for Sandford to order the Conquerors of 1884, 1890 and 1897, the last two having the fore and aft funnel arrangement of the Flying Falcon.  The Conqueror of 1897 that passed to Dick & Page in 1903 was the last paddle-tug built for Thames owners.  George Sandford and William Ives had command of the Restless before joining the pilotage.  Horatio was her engineer for a time.  The Restless was used extensively to handle small sailing ships carrying fruit or timber (the latter known as Onkers) and for berthing ships in the upper docks.  The men Sandford appointed to command the later and  larger vessels had reputations as men who could make money and in view of the Sandford connections it is perhaps no surprise that so many of them went into the pilotage themselves.  Among them were the first captain of the Daring, John Simmons, one of his successors, Charles Haill, (whose many exploits are recorded elsewhere0, Walter Hayward, (who like Captain Haill had been with the Black Ball tugs, but had not I think lost money when that firm foundered), Robert Andrews (from the Woodcock) and Harry Smith.  W R Couves went on to captain some of the Campbell passenger steamers.  Walter Curtis, a Dick & Page man had followed Robert Andrews and Harry Smith into the Conqueror of 1897.  Captain Pascoe commanded the tug for a short time at the beginning of World War One.  Captain Washer then took over and under his command the tug was involved in numerous rescues and salvages.
The Ville de Calais was one of the few failures in the Sandford record.  The bow of this Clarke & Stansfield vessel had been damaged by an explosion and the ship lay at Calais for some months before the owners decided to fit a temporary bow and prepare the ship for a tow back to the Thames.  The Challenger, under Captain Hayward was engaged for the job, a number of other Gravesend men acting as crew of the tugs or in the case of Messrs Lukes and Mee, runners on the tow.  The tow proved slow and awkward, but proceeded without great incident until off Dungeness when the Ville de Calais began to drag towards the shore.  Captain Hayward was attempting to manoeuvre the tow into deeper water when the tow-rope parted and the ship ran aground before any re-connection could be made.  Captain Hayward rendered what assistance he could and a life-boat brought off some of the runners, but sadly five men died.  Captain Hayward went to the newly formed Ring Tugs the same year, but stayed only a short time before receiving his exempt pilot’s licence and joining Trinity House.  The Challenger also left Sandfords, being sold to new owners in the North East
The small screw tug or “Tosher” Pilot of 1876 was acquired and used for miscellaneous work until sold in the 1890’s.  Apart from the Pilot the only tugs owned by and run by the Sandfords were paddle tugs, so the disposal of the Conqueror of 1897 brought this particular episode to an end.           

Electric 1861
Telegraph 1859 74 tons
Most of the Thames owners of the Electric had Gravesend connections. Daines and Henry Williams in the 1860’s, Doctor Brownfield in the early 1870’s and Charles Stratford and Thomas James Williams before the tug was sold to Cardiff buyers.
 The Tyne tugs and Thames tugs websites record that a T G Sandford and others were owners of the Telegraph from new until1870.  Frank Bowen does not mention a Sandford among the owners, but says that the principal Thames owners were George Halsey, James Hobson and Thomas Williams.  James Mason, Tom Starkey (who joined from the tug Bluejacket and was the brother of Bill) and Jesse Reader (who worked for the Black Ball tugs among others – not the man who worked for Watkins) were among her masters.
Thomas James Williams (c1815-1905) was a pilot for many years, from about 1841, and as senior river pilot in 1886 was given the honour (and inscribed gold watch) of performing the official opening ceremony taking the tug into the new Tilbury Docks.  In view of his long service there may have been other tugs in which he had an interest, but so far I have found no record. The first ship to enter the docks was  piloted by Richard Holland and he was somewhat agrieved not to get the watch.


 Richard Holland was a successful tug captain before becoming a pilot and had a particularly heady period in the Rescue. He was a prominent member of the Gamecock syndicate.
William Charles Couves (c1833-1915) was the master when crew-members of the Margate surf/life-boat (Friend to All Nations? I don't have the file with me) were rescued in 1866. He later became a pilot. His son and grand-son are the AF and AW Couves on the Syndicate list of names. Gamecock people. His great grand-son AWF Couves was the master of the Watercock in 1946. AJ Couves was a sailing master in the New Zealand trade before becoming a pilot and AWF worked for Shaw Savill for some years before joining the tugs. The W Couves who was master of the Warrior and the W Couves who was master of the Columbia are two different W's.
by Kevin Haydon
Syndicates of tug-owners, usually consisting of pilots, tug-masters and businessmen having some family or shipping connection, operated on the Thames throughout much of the nineteenth century. Most of the riverside community were connected in some way and when the Lloyd's Steam Tug Company run by pilot Richard Ross got Into difficulties in the 1850's William Roxberry was one of the Gravesend men involved when Lloyd's tugs passed to other syndicates. He was also involved with the Rambler and Wanderer run by  Mitchell and had a financial interest in the tug Alexandra before she was sold to work in the Suez Canal In the late 1860's. Among those known to Roxberry were two pilots, Mark Martin, Channel pilot for the City Line, and river pilot Joseph Martin (born 1826 whose family came from Wivenhoe), Joseph Martin had a share In the Success of 1863 along with John Mitchell, owned the John Smart and the Lord Warden of 1868 and then spread his net, becoming interested in other tug-owning syndicates. The Black Ball concern might be said to date from the time he became managing owner in the earfy 1870's which was followed by a flurry of activity, with tugs being transferred and orders for new tugs placed. Several orders went to the Gravesend firm Butchard, which offered long term credit on advantageous terms. Three syndicates ordered almost identical tugs from Butchard in 1875, the Marie, Oscar and Triumph. Credit was important as few syndicate members had deep pockets and tugs were expected to provide instant returns. Failure to do so explains some of the frequent changes of ownership,
For a time things went well and a good deal of sailing ship work was picked up In the estuary and the Downs, the usual hunting ground for the syndicate tugs, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon.  The Charles Dickens did not bring in much money and even Charles Haill,  one of the concern's crack tug-masters (and an investor), could not turn Her Majesty into a success, either as a tug or an excursion steamer. When the concern refused to accept the Wellington from Butchard's, the financial strains that followed from litigation brought the syndicate to a halt and Martin's business and his career as a pilot had ended when he was in his mid-fifties. Martin was not completely ruined and he and other family members lived quietly at his mother's house. Captain Haill lost his investment, but his fortunes eventually recovered and he went on to become a Trinity House pilot himself.
 The collapse of the business caused quite a to-do, but when the dust had settled life went on and Mr Butchard for one ran tugs, including the Wellington, quite happily for some years after. One wonders if the failure could have been avoided.
Few syndicates seem to have left any business records and it is difficult to know when some syndicates end and others begin and how to catagorise particular businesses. Ship Towage, for example, was a management company that did not own any tugs. The tug masters had a dual personality. Usually they were employees of ST, the company that entered into commercial contracts for berthing etc. However, if a salvage job came up they offered their service as master of, let us say the Contest, on behalf of the tug owner Dick & Page. A nicety that not all of the tug masters appreciated. Richard Holland and Charles Haill were, if not legendary, at the least very well known and I have found their memoirs a useful source.
When Frank Bowen was writing in the 1930's he had the opportunity of speaking to people who had lived through the great days of seeking. I regret that I let too many such opportunities pass by.

Tugs usually regarded as part of the Blackball fleet Include:

Charles Dickens                 
George Peabody                
Her Majesty                      
Lord Warden                       
Prince Consort