Local History


boats-1The Boathouse is nestled on the banks of Barking Creek, part of the River Roding and has a rich history. The river was a source of livelihood for the inhabitants of Barking through its fishing industry from as early at 1320 when salt water fishing was introduced. It was the largest fishing port in the UK in its heyday in the mid 19th century.

From about 1775 welled and dry smacks were used, mostly as cod boats, and rigged as gaff cutters. Fishermen sailed as far as Iceland in the summer. They served Billingsgate Fish Market in the City of London and moored in Barking Pool. Samuel Hewett, born on 7 December 1797, founded the Short Blue Fleet (England's biggest fishing fleet) based in Barking, and using smacks out of Barking and east coast ports.

Around 1870 this fleet changed to gaff ketches that stayed out at sea for months, using ice for preservation of fish produced by flooding local fields in winter. By 1850 there were over 220 fishing smacks moored on the creek, which went to fish in the North Sea.  A majority of the men folk of Barking were fishers and often away for anywhere between 3-6 months, leaving their women folk to look after things at home. Barking’s long history of powerful and independent women likely has its roots in these early times.

The Great storm of 1863 saw 60 lives perish and those returning to the port at 6 gates Mill (Barking mill pond) were injured and battered by the cruelty of the storm. Many of those who perished were orphan boys typically from 12 -16 , indentured from the workhouses to become apprentice fishermen. They were seen as dispensable and were by far in the majority of those who did not return. The women of Barking gathered to welcome their menfolk’s return, with only four hours from their arrival to reclaim clothes from pawn brokers and get their house in order. Many poignant and rich stories are recorded in the archives at Valence House.

The slow decline of the fishing industry began with the opening of Grimsby Fish docks in 1856 , and later at Gorleston - seeing a large migration of fishing families and which was seriously affected by the move of the whole of the Hewitt family fishing fleet by 1870.

By 1900 Barking had ceased to be a fishing port, leaving only street and pub names (Abbey Road was formerly called Fisher Road) and a large modern steel sculpture entitled "The Catch" as a reminder of its former importance.The sculpture is on the roundabout at the end of Fanshawe Avenue.The local fishing heritage is recorded at Valence House Museum.

The history is still culturally remembered by many local people, who still lament the decline of the hitherto vibrant fishing industry and its identity on Fisher Road, (now Abbey Road) and the the submergence of the area into dereliction over the past fifty years. The jewel of the river has been dormant and hidden away dominated by junk yards and years of abandonment, all but inaccessible until very recent times. The empty Mill pond still echoes its secret past.

We named our new venue The Boathouse”, to reflect its unique identity and historic links back to boat building activity on the Ice House Quarter site. Mr Joseph Honey (boat builder 1908) operated from a building formerly located on the site of the current Granary extension building and utilised a slipway into Barking Creek (The River Roding), at what became known as Honey`s Wharf.

Recent archaeological survey work has revealed that the original ice houses, established by the Hewitt family linked to the fishing history of Town Quay, were located in the area of the building identified as “timber store” on this plan and also just to the south of this building. The ice houses were above ground brick built structures and were used by the Hewitt`s sailing and later steam powered fleet.

boats-2The business ventures of Robert Hewitt included an ice plant at the Shadwell Market site and an engineering, boiler making and shipbuilding works at Fisher Street. On Friday 6 January 1899 at 3.00pm there was a massive explosion at the Fisher Street works which killed 11 people and wounded many more.

A boiler in the works had been over pressurised according to a later Board of Trade enquiry and had exploded hurling iron plating and pipes for hundreds of yards, bringing down a tall chimney down onto the workshops and wrecking the whole factory. The injuries were horrendous; “Those of the dead whose bodies were taken to the Barking Town Hall Mortuary had been so frightfully maimed as to be in several instances scarcely recognisable. One poor fellow had lost an arm and a leg, another had both legs torn away, and a third was found with the upper part of the head blown off.”

The enquiry into the cause of the accident blamed the factory owners and as a result their insurers refused to pay out leaving the Hewett’s responsible for the compensation claims of the dead and injured. The damages added to the losses at Shadwell left the family no option but to sell off almost everything including the ships that made up the Short Blue Fleet.