Lordmayor's Barge 1805
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 Navy Board 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 Royal occasions. 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 Handel's " 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.

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