Lord Mayor's Ceremonial Barge, 1805
Until the middle of the 19th century the River Thames
was a main thoroughfare of London. The nobility
travelled the River in their own craft manned by their own liveried crew. A shallop
is a fast oar-powered craft rowed
by up to eight men that was popular on the Thames in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. These Barges were the
fastest means of water transport between business
centres and residences and were the limousines of the lower Thames in the 17th and 18th century. An eight-oared Shallop could
cover the 35 miles from Hampton Court to
Greenwich in approximately four hours. During the
Golden Age of oared craft, from the thirteenth century to the late nineteenth century, all rich families
and official organisations, such as the
and the City merchants, possesed a Shallop.
Somerset House from the Thames with St. Paul's at right, watercolor, circa 1790, by Edward Dayes
Until the roads and carriages improved, most residences and major businesses were built alongside the Thames because
of the safety and ease of transportation by boat.
Evidence can still be seen today of the importance of travel by water in the magnificence of the stonework around the arched
river entrance for Shallops to the Barge-Houses. At
Somerset House in London
the arched river entrance for Shallops to enter the Barge-House of the building can still be seen.
Shallops were sometimes called Tilt-boats, a tilt being a covered section or primitive cabin for sheltering passengers.
The canopy of the Lord Mayor's State Barge is covered with blue cloth. Two different types of cloth were used for the awnings
of ceremonial barges: blue cloth which was called "Plunkett", indicating a civic event; and "Murrey", a red cloth used on
One way to display wealth was to drape an expensive carpet over the vessel's Tilt. Rich and powerful men displayed their wealth
and status by decorating their Shallop with gilded carvings. They also dressed their crew in splendid livery.
The Sovereign, too, travelled on the Thames on ceremonial journeys or just mundane travel on an elaborately decorated state barge.
The earliest mention of a Royal Shallop was in 1214 when King John travelled to the signing of Magna Carta, near Runnymede
on the Thames. Shallops were built in various sizes. The largest of the private shallops were eight oared, with six
and four-oared versions being the smaller and slower vessels. In 1717 the Daily Courant reports that
King George I was
entertained during a progress on the Royal Barge from Whitehall to Chelsea by musicians playing
Water Music" from a
City Company Barge that followed the Royal Barge. "His Majesty liked" the music "so well, that he caused it to be plaid
over three times in going and returning." The post of Royal Bargemaster survives today, attending the Sovereign in
ceremonial processions such as the State Opening of Parliament. Barges belonging to the City Companies always accompanied
the Royal procession.
There are historic state barges still in existence at the
National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
They are the survivors of the Golden Age of Thames river travel.
Some of the museum exhibits are:
(1) the Queen's Shallop built in 1689 by
William III for his wife Mary II.
It is about 41 ft long and 6 ft in beam with beautifully carved and decorated adornments. It is the oldest
barge in the collection. The shallop is simpler in design than other State barges because it was used
as a harbour launch to carry the royal family to the royal yacht.
(2) William III's barge from 1691.
(3) Queen Anne's
barge from 1710.
(4) Prince Frederick's barge, built in 1732 for
Frederick, Prince of Wales,
son of George II. William Kent Designed the
exquisitely gilded royal barge.
Prince Frederick's barge, built in 1732
The book Hornblower and the Atropos by C.S. Forester has a scene set on a barge on the Thames.
The romance Something Wicked by Jo Beverley has a scene set on a private barge on the Thames.
©S.W. 2002, 2004 This site last updated February 2004 by