Humber Sloop – Origins

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 sailing rig known as being sloop rigged.   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, sloops carried a gaff rigged main sail and triangular fore sail and were equipped with leeboards. This fore-and-aft rig worked well 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 , they have been described as cutter rigged sloops, which is strictly speaking a contradiction of terms. Although more locally used as a colloquial term for the regions ketch rigged vessels, away from the Humber the sloops were often called “Billy boys” reflecting the connection between Hull (usually their registered port) and King William of Orange, “King Billy”.   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 ” It appears from records that there was a deliberate distinction between “river” & “coasting” sloops, largely depending on their use. A “river” sloop would usually carry just a basic sail arrangement of main and foresail.

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 were 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 masts was stepped in a lutchet and lowered by a roller set against the head ledge, set forward to suit the hull. 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 a single hold, the sails were raised and lowered by halyard or ‘crab’ rollers on the port and starboard coamings. The sails were tanned with preservatives, which coloured them ochre. The jib and topsail of the sea going sloops were usually left white, being stowed in the cabin 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 to be practical in the confines of the Humber shoals and for the passage through locks).

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 1900’s sloop 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 transshipped 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.

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 was SPRITE, unrigged in 1950.

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

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