The Ouse Washes Website

an independent research and information project

River Freight around the Ouse Washes

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Fuel deliveries to the pumping stations

Coal for the boilers of the steam driven drainage pumping stations was usually delivered via the rivers and drains of the Great Ouse and Middle Level systems because roads were either non-existant or inadequate for heavy traffic. Barges known as fen lighters were used, originally horse-drawn, later towed or pushed by steam-tugs. According to a Wikipedia article, the traditional fen lighter was 46 ft long and 11 ft wide (14 by 3.4 m), and locks on the various navigations were sized accordingly.

Tony Lewery at says trains of smaller lighters working together as a gang were often used, steered from the first boat of the chain by a massive pole projecting from the bows of the second one. up to five wooden boats, each about 42 feet long, were coupled together by chains and poles, a train being hauled by horses or steam tug. This 'bowsprit" was therefore something like a tiller, with the whole of the second boat acting as a huge rudder, whilst the remaining boats in the gang trailed along behind. It sounds like hard work and rather clumsy, but it worked well in narrow channels, through a variety of lock sizes and around sharp junction corners. Gangs of wooden fenland lighters were in traffic until 1945, whilst longer gangs of steel lighters working behind motor tugs were still employed in the sugar beet trade in the 1960s. (see source)

When coal and steam gave way to oil in the 1920s, that too came by river.

In the 1930s Shellmex-BP Ltd, a major oil supplier, acquired a 43 ft long Dutch-built motor barge that had plied the fen waters since 1912, and commenced delivery of diesel in barrels. As the coal to oil conversion gatherered pace the barge was converted just before WW2 into a tanker of approx 20 tons/4,000 gallons capacity (about the same as a modern articulated road-tanker), and renamed "Shellfen". It was based at Ely and at one time supplied up to 100 pumping stations in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire including those on the Old and New Bedford Rivers, and the 16, 20 and 40 Foot Drains. The service finished in 1973 as by then nearly all the pumping stations had become electrically powered, and any diesel required for back-up engines or generators could be delivered by the much improved roads.

Do read the full fascinating illustrated story of this barge before, during and since it's life as a tanker, at Shellfen.

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Text and photos except where noted © Eddy Edwards, 2010-12

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Fenland Lighter Project