Jim Lawrence obituary


There have been greater than 2,000 crusing barges carrying cargo on the River Thames firstly of the twentieth century. By the point Jim Lawrence received his first command in 1951, that quantity was right down to round 160. Jim was then 18 and the youngest crusing barge skipper on the Thames. It was a dying commerce, nonetheless, and when he carried his final cargo in 1963 there have been solely six barges nonetheless working underneath sail alone. The final crusing cargo-carrier on the Thames, the mighty Cambria, lastly packed up in 1970.

A passionate believer within the magnificence and significance of conventional sail, Jim, who has died aged 90, switched to constitution work, taking punters out on Thames barges and different British working boats across the east coast of England.

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The 150-ton barge George Smeed was Jim Lawrence’s first command, on the age of 18. {Photograph}: Ray Rush Assortment

Then, in 1971, he opened his personal sail loft, making bespoke conventional sails out of flax and later combining trendy supplies with conventional sailmaking strategies. It was each a retrograde and revolutionary method, and Jim was quickly being sought out by homeowners of conventional boats around the globe. His sails featured in TV programmes comparable to The Onedin Line, Shackleton and Scott of the Antarctic – and a long-running Beck’s lager advert marketing campaign.

On this approach, Jim served his ardour for sail in 3 ways: retaining crusing barges working and economically viable for so long as potential, then introducing landlubbers to the pleasures of crusing on these magnificent vessels, and eventually by bodily making a whole bunch, if not hundreds, of sails for boats of all sizes. He additionally sang about crusing, whereas enjoying his banjo or accordion.

Born in Colchester, Essex, the son of Beatrice and Walter, Jim realized to sail at a younger age. His first “boat” was the backyard gate, which he unscrewed and carried a mile to drift on a close-by stream. It sank as quickly as he stepped on it, which taught him an vital lesson in type stability.

His first “barge” was made in 1944 from a pair of plane gasoline tanks lashed collectively to make a easy catamaran. In a positive signal of the occasions, Jim made the boat’s sails from outdated barrage balloons and parachute material acquired from the native dump. He and his buddies picked blackberries, which they transported on their makeshift vessel two miles down the River Colne to Rowhedge, the place Mrs Maudesley paid 4½d per pound for them and turned them into jam to promote in her grocery retailer. Aged 11, Jim had discovered his vocation.

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Jim Lawrence pushing a marlin spike into the bolt rope of a sail on the working boat Thistle. {Photograph}: Jim Lawrence Assortment

As he wrote in his 2018 memoir London Gentle, Jim and his buddies at Wilson Marriage college in Colchester had been decided “to not let college intrude with our training” and spent all their spare time serving to out on the crusing barges that moored in town quay, generally known as the Hythe.

He received his first job on a barge referred to as Gladys at 15, and the second he stepped on board was given a check: to climb the mast and connect a brand new flag to the topmast, some 100ft within the air. If he failed or refused to do it, he could be deemed unsuitable for the job and despatched residence. Jim succeeded, after all, and was quickly swinging across the rigging like a barge monkey.

Gladys was the primary of no less than 9 barges Jim would serve on throughout his 15-year profession in working sail. The Thames barges had been distinctive vessels: between 80ft and 95ft lengthy, 20ft huge, able to setting a spectacular 3,000sqft of sail (larger than a tennis court docket) and carrying as much as 170 tons of cargo (the equal of 4 articulated lorries). Flat out on a beam attain, they may fly alongside at 12 knots (about the identical velocity as an America’s Cup yacht of the period). Not solely that, however they could possibly be sailed, famously, by “one man, a boy and a canine” – although, as Jim mentioned, it must be “a bloody good canine”. It was a phenomenally environment friendly technique of transport, and all with out expending a drop of gasoline.

Like all working boats, the barges’ revenue associated carefully not simply to quantity however to hurry. For Jim, this concern with efficiency translated into an curiosity in sail design. Even whereas he was working as skipper, he would use the winter months to restore and enhance his and different boats’ sails. When the marketplace for sail cargo ultimately died within the Nineteen Sixties, Jim already had a popularity as a superb sailmaker who made sails in a conventional approach that additionally carried out effectively. Nobody needs to sail a sluggish boat.

Jim opened his first sail loft in a former child garments store in Brightlingsea. When he outgrew these premises, he moved to the previous Foresters’ Corridor. In addition to making sails for the remaining sail barges – now all owned by massive firms and used for constitution work – Jim turned the sailmaker of alternative for all method of conventional craft, from small dinghies to sq. riggers. His greatest fee, the four-masted cruise ship Sea Cloud, set 30 sails totalling 32,000sqft of canvas.

His traditionally correct sails for TV sequence and movies included the 140ft brigantine Søren Larsen, which featured in The Onedin Line. Even the bottle-green swimsuit of sails he made for the German sail coaching ship Alexander von Humboldt, which featured within the Beck’s beer advertisements from 1984 till 2007, had been made within the conventional method.

In addition to operating a profitable enterprise, Jim was a massively widespread character on the east coast boating scene. By no means seen with out his trademark pink neckerchief, he had a bosun’s locker stuffed with crusing tales and amusing anecdotes. He was, because the native paper put it, the type of particular person “with whom an opportunity assembly by no means didn’t brighten your day”. I met him solely a few occasions, however I can vouch for his sunny manner.

Jim retired in 1997, handing over the enterprise to his son-in-law Mark Butler, who himself retired in 2021, and the James Lawrence sail loft is now closed.

Jim married Pauline (nee Rouse) in 1961. She died in 2018. He’s survived by their three daughters, Sara, Diana and Rachel.


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