A life on the water with the lost world of barges

Laurie at the Yorkshire Waterways Museum in Goole. He has turned his memories of life on the river into a book.    Picture: Terry Carrott
Laurie at the Yorkshire Waterways Museum in Goole. He has turned his memories of life on the river into a book. Picture: Terry Carrott
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Bargeman Laurie Dews was part of a way of life that was central to Selby’s economy for centuries. Sheena Hastings met the 88-year-old.

LAURIE Dews retired from the wheel of his barge Selby Margaret on the River Ouse on his 65th birthday in 1987. He was one of the last vestiges of the river’s history that will never be resuscitated. He had watched it die over 20 years, and while sad to say farewell to a life of hard graft and fresh air with the comradeship of the folk on the waterway and their easy, familiar banter, the industry was long past its heyday and all but dead. So Laurie packed up his memories and the many log books from five decades plying those waters and set off to enjoy retirement at home in Selby.

Today the Ouse flows past the town largely unnoticed, stirring interest only in times of flood or drought. Whatever goods are needed locally arrive by lorry or van, but only a generation ago the river was the vital artery along which Laurie and his colleagues brought the materials to the town that provided employment in the mills, works, wharves and transport systems that clustered along the riverbank. Now, two decades after the last bargeman left the river, his skills superceded by new ways of doing things – the march of progress – Laurie’s first-hand accounts of 50 years on the Ouse have found their way into print, thanks to his great memory, those vital log books and the help of David Lewis, who has a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to discover and record Selby’s Hidden Heritage.

To meet Laurie Dews – the most sprightly 88-year-old I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter – is to come away feeling more cheerful and optimistic about the world, with the sensation of having imbibed something important about the past. “Never let a day go by without learning something” is one of his chirpy maxims. A natural storyteller, who regularly and unconsciously taps you on the arm as he holds forth, he paints pictures in words of a busy, industrious waterway and its community. It’s a story of strength, fortitude, joys and dangers that the health and safety police would blanch at today. Laurie is, above all, a reminder of why we should stop, listen and cherish the stories told by our elders, and acknowledge their wisdom. Laurie’s great-grandfather George was a Humber keelman and his son Bill was the youngest of 13 children, becoming a barge captain and owner sailing his vessel Ada Dews up and down the rivers Humber and Ouse and navigating canals to Leeds and Sheffield.

Laurie remembers various great aunts and uncles telling stories of river life, such as great-aunt Edith’s tale of how, when times were hard, a horse could not be hired to pull the barge. Instead person power was used and Edith, then only perhaps seven or eight, would take it in turns with her father to put on a leather harness and pull the barge along stretches of the canal.

The there was Uncle Tommy, skipper of the Leeds Neptune, who always wore a bowler hat. At night, by the light of the oil lamp in the cabin below, he would tell sailor stories that would be punctuated by spitting at the fire. Laurie’s father Sam went aboard to learn his trade at 13-years-old from his father Bill. Their barge would run back and forth to “Soapy Joe’s” – Joe Watson’s soap mill on the River Aire in Leeds. They would unload palm oil and load up with finished products such as Matchless Cleanser and Venus Soap. In 1910, Watson had built a new oil mill at Selby that became the Olympia Oil and Cake Mills (OCO), and the magnate’s plan was to get his own supply of vegetable oil for his products, removing dependence on seed crushers in Hull. Bill Dews was asked to work for Watson, with the company building him an iron boat that would carry 200 tonnes.

The arrangement was that the skipper earned a third of what was paid and the businessman would take two-thirds but also maintain the boat, the Leeds Comet. Some of Laurie’s earliest memories are of holidays spent on board his dad’s barge. During school terms Sam could be away for up to nine days at a time, but in the school holidays the house in Selby was closed up, Laurie’s mum Elisabeth filled a case with clothes and a basket with freshly-baked bread and scones, and weeks would be spent afloat on the 97ft long Selby Taurus, which would join three other barges all towed along the river by the same tug, the Robie.

The children slept on “flock” beds in a space like a cupboard, but the fittings of the cabin below were polished mahogany and more stylish than observers on the riverbank might guess.

When the rain pelted down outside and the hold was empty they would play games and kick a ball about in the handy (but rather murky) space. A dolled-up version of this sort of barge can be bought as a house boat today for around £180,000, says Laurie.

Other childhood memories include the smell of stew bubbling on the coal-fired cooker, swimming in Hull docks on balmy summer evenings and loading cargo. Some families lived full-time on their barge, and the working children had to dodge the “kid catcher” – or truancy officer.

Laurie left school at 14 and in 1937 bought sea boots and a gansey then went as mate with his dad, learning to be a bargeman on the Taurus. The next few years were spent splicing ropes and wires, making ships’ fenders, painting and graining the boat, and the skills required to navigate and load and unload cargo safely. He also made many friends in the river community up and down the 50 nautical miles from Hull to Selby. One night in 1940, his father had headed home and the young man and a friend stayed aboard the barge.

“Just after 11pm they (German bombers) bombed the dock with incendiary bombs and set warehouses and several barges alight, including the Taurus”, says Laurie. “Johnny and I tried all night to put the fires out but we couldn’t, so we had to abandon her and get ashore.” Many of the wooden barges began to sink as the fires began to burn their dry timbers. Even a rail loco was on fire after a bomb landed in her coal bunker. When the two men went back to the Taurus a few hours later, the barge was a smouldering wreck.

One wartime memory involves fishing a mysterious foreigner out of the freezing water and turning him over to the police. In 1942 Laurie joined the Navy and took part in the D-Day Landings. He returned four years later to skipper his own barge, the Selby Castor, taking responsibility for complex manoevres, particularly in Hull Docks. Sailing folk could not afford to be sentimental, says Laurie, even when (as once happened) your pet dog falls overboard while the convoy of barges is in full flow behind the tug. He had to be left to fend for himself.

Laurie married and had children of his own who, in the family tradition, also spent some of their holidays on the river. They too enjoyed the joy of open water and the treat of a “half a crown fry up” bought at the butcher ‘s shop or fishmonger’s at the docks. David Lewis, who first met Laurie in Selby Museum and heard many a sailor’s tale from the older man, helped him to order his writings and photographs into book form. “Laurie’s tale of how bargees, dockhands and mill workers used brute force allied with a high degree of skill to move cargo between Selby and Hull made me realise what a huge range of skills and raw experience have been lost with increasing mechanisation and containerisation. Selby’s river may well be quiet now that the river no longer hosts working barges, but Laurie’s story will remain as testimony.”

Meeting Laurie at Goole’s Yorkshire Waterways Museum, he shakes his head at the absence of shipping, replaced by a few pleasure craft or “heritage” vessels. “The river was a natural roadway. A lot of politicians don’t want to look again at the value of our waterways for transporting goods, because if you took a lot of traffic off the roads the Government would miss the revenue from tax on lorries. But they should think again. The same petrol that pushes a 40-tonne lorry along the motorway would push a boat from Leeds to Hull carrying 750 tonnes of goods. But it’ll never happen now.”


The Story of a River Bargeman – 50 Years On The River Ouse is available for £4.50, including p&p from The Selebians c/o 32 Church End, Cawood, Selby YO8 3SN. Cheques payable to The Selebians.