Humber Sloop – Origins

Picture from Holmes of the Humber, by permission of Tony Watts.


Developed with influence from the 17th century Dutch gaff rigged trading vessels which had been prolific in the port of Hull, the Humber sloop as a type of vessel dates from the early eighteenth century c1725. The Humber sloop was designed to sail efficiently with their fore and aft gaff rig known as being sloop rigged, the Humber sloop took over the coasting trade from the keel.   These coasting sloops were large vessels built up to 74 ft in length with a width of 17 ft and over, their twin hold arrangement allowed the winding gear for the sails to be mounted on the “sparring” deck next to the mast between the fore and aft holds. Cargo capacity was around 200 tons.   With heavily built hulls constructed first in timber, later in iron and steel. This fore-and-aft rig worked well at sea and in the Humber tideway where much work was beating to windward and close hauled sailing.  Making regular trade passages to the Wash ports, to Bridlington and to the Thames the sloops also carried a topsail and was rigged with a bowsprit to carry a jib and flying jib with also the ability to haul a square sail yard below the forestay hounds, The jib and topsail of the sea going sloops were usually left white, being stowed  when not being used they would have smelt awful had they been through the preserving process. The topsail and bowsprit would have been too cumbersome for the passage through more inland waterways through which they also traded being an exceptionally versatile vessel.  Allowance’s in tonnage was made for the provision of sail storage on their survey.  The sloops and other small East coast vessels such as schooners and ketches were referred to as “Billy boys”. This is a colloquial term as a Billy boy is not a distinct type of vessel and is said to be reflecting the connection between Yorkshire or seemingly in particular Hull and King William of Orange, “King Billy”, with reference to his protestant supporters “Billy boys”, or perhaps the later connection with William Pitt the Younger. William Pitt who is known to have been referred to as “Billy boy” and had strong political connections with Hull. He was also a colleague of William Wilberforce. Either way both had reference to “Billy boy” in their history.

It appears from records that there was a deliberate distinction between “river” & “coasting” sloops, largely depending on their use but river sloops appear generally not to have bulwarks, probably for ease of cargo handling, although Stamp’s Barton market sloops Bee and Ever Ready did have them and Rosalea Stamp had forward bulwarks only.

Tiller steered, early sloops had a unique deck layout with fore and aft holds separated by the sparring deck where the heavy 3 roller deck winches used to haul the huge sails positioned port and starboard of the mast. The Humber sloop was known for it’s fine run aft which enabled them to be more efficient sailing vessels, the hold was built deeper to compensate depending on the owner’s requirements.  The bow of the sloop was well rounded much like a collier brig of the day and the mast was stepped in a lutchet and lowered by the fore roller set against the forward head ledge. The thirteen foot pitch pine and oak lee boards were hung well forward of amidships to balance the ship under sail, and worked by vertical rollers mounted aft on the rails.

We see on the much later Sheffield size of sloop for instance a single hold, the sails were raised and lowered by halyard or ‘crab’ rollers fixed on the port and starboard coamings. The sails were tanned with preservatives, which coloured them ochre.

The high coamings over the hold were covered by wooden hatches, weatherproofed by tarpaulins. Accommodation was in a skipper’s cabin under the afterdeck and a crew cabin under the fore deck.

Primarily working in open waters, the dimensions of the Humber sloops were not constrained by inland waterways and so tended to be large. A typical sloop by 1900 measured 68ft long by 17ft-6ins wide and carried 160 tons or more. Although records show that some were larger. The most common sloops after the canal system had been redesigned in 19th century were the Sheffield size ships as ours are, at 61ft-6ins long by 15ft-6ins wide to negotiate the inland locks and carried about 100 tons.

Early Humber sloops mainly handled bulk cargoes between the Humber ports being loaded directly from large cargo ships entering the Humber from around the world and distributing produce and raw industrial materials for industry around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Coal became one of the main cargos of the 19th century to feed the steam ships and the home fires along with the gas works, farm produce from Lincolnshire, bricks and tiles from local yards both sides of the Humber, cement and chalk stone from Barton, South Ferriby and Hessel to Hull and transhipped phosphates back to the fertiliser works and farms. In a summer the sea going trade would be to Louth, Saltfleet, the ports of the Wash and on south to the Thames, to the north trade would be to Bridlington, the Tyne and all ports between.              According to author and local maritime historian George Holmes; “these big sloops were well known for their speed and could beat a steamer to Goole when the steamer could do 9knts ”

The coasting trade for the Humber sloops dwindled with the onset of steam powered vessels and it seems by looking at the register that after 1880 not many if any newly built sloops were allocated a signal code, essential for coastal passages at the time. The last coasting sloop was “Brilliant Star”.

With the advent of motorised vessels, trade under sail declined steadily through the middle of the twentieth century. Most sloops (and keels) were converted to motor barges prior to 1939 using a grant from the MOD, others were used as lighters or dumb barges. The last sailing sloop is unclear but was either IVY or SPRITE, unrigged in 1950.

In 1981, the restored HKSPS sloop Amy Howson became the first sloop to sail the Humber in over thirty years.

One Response to Humber Sloop – Origins

  1. Karl Newell September 11, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

    Hi I’m looking into my family tree, my GG James Temple was a mate on a Sloop we think. Doing a search he looks to be on the Endeavour, Sloop 40tonne, Hull on the 1871 census. The witness is shown as W Hinchliff. Do you hold any records about the Sloop and or crew?

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