Humber Keel – Origins

Viking Longship Drawing by Ningyou

Viking Longship
Drawing by Ningyou

As a sailing craft, the Humber keel is probably descended from the Saxon long ship of the 5th or 6th century despite the more publicised notion that they are descendants of the much later Viking ships: the word keel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon kiol, and in Old English ceol, which directly translates to keel; Relating to the longitudinal stiffener used in their construction. The important historical point is that these Saxon vessels are the first examples of any vessel built with a keel for longitudinal support and employing a square sail on a single mast.  Essentially through time it became the square sail on a single mast that denoted the keel that could be found between Teignmouth in the south to Newcastle in the North. Only the Humber keel has been recorded as undertaking regular coastal passages.  Thirteenth century keels have been excavated, and keels appear as a distinct class of ship in York Corporation’s Tudor records.

From the end of the seventeenth century, the industrial revolution’s rapid expansion of the canal and canalised river systems of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, gave the keel a natural home. Bluff-bowed to allow a greater hold space and strongly built to stand the demands of the North Sea coast and short swell of the Humber but with a shallow enough draught to work the Humber’s feeder rivers and canals, keels’ roomy holds were a cheap, efficient way of meeting new demands for rapid transport of bulk produce and goods.

Early timber hulls were ‘clinker-built’ meaning the planks overlapped, by the nineteenth century almost all were ‘carvel-built’ meaning the planks were set edge to edge, on oak frames and oak stem and stern posts, with pine decks. Later, iron & steel keels like COMRADE, simply followed the same design. The high coamings over the hold were covered by wooden hatches, in turn covered by tarpaulins. Narrow side decks connected the short fore and afterdecks The skipper’s cabin was under the afterdeck and the mate’s under the fore.

Keels were tiller steered, and their dimensions, typically between 57ft (17.37m) and 74ft (22.56m) long and 12ft-6ins (3.81m) to 16ft-6ins (5.03m) wide, keel working solely inland waterways were determined by the lock size on the waterway they were intended to trade; for example Sheffield size, Manvers size and Driffield size.

The single mast was stepped in a lutchet, braced to the main beam at deck level by shrouds, and secured at the keelson. It carried a square white mainsail, hoist to the main yard, a topsail hoist to the topsail yard and very occasionally a top gallant (t’gallent) as well. The two-man crew of skipper and mate needed all the mechanical assistance that could be provided, sails were raised and lowered with halyard winches and controlled by rollers, braces, sheets and tacks.

Oak or pitch pine lee boards, about 13ft (3.96m) long were hung by chain forward of amidships. When sailing across the wind the board to the lee side of the vessel would be lowered to help to turn the vessel and reduce sideways drift, then raised by winch to a horizontal position when no longer required.

Square rigged keels were the waterways’ workhorse for over five hundred years, also making passages seaward well before the advent of the sloop rig in the early 17th century. Their trading route was well to the south of England and reached London and the south coast. There is record of a Humber keel being lost off Dungeness and they were regularly seen in the ports of the Wash and to the north in Scarborough and Whitby. But as the early twentieth century brought opportunities for faster, cheaper transport. first by steam then by motor powered ships; sail trading began to decline. There was a steady fall in the number of sailing keels over the next three decades, and the outbreak of the Second World War caused grants to be available through the Transport Assistance Act for converting the remaining keels and other vessels under sail to motor, the final one believed to be a vessel called NAR in the early 1940’s.

Fred Schofield was one of the keelmen whose working life saw the changes from sail-power to diesel engine and the gradual decline in trade available to these vessels. In 1974 he sold his ship COMRADE to the Humber Keel and Sloop Preservation Society who, with Fred’s knowledge and assistance, restored and re-rigged her. In 1976, the Society’s ship became the first keel to return to sail in over thirty years.

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