Earlier this month I enjoyed an afternoon walking round the town of Bridgwater, seeking out the history of the town, under the guidance of Amanda Godden, a Blue Badge guide. From William the Conqueror’s gift of Saxon estates around the river crossing to his supporter ‘Walter of Douai’, hence, perhaps, the origin of the name from ‘Bridge of Walter’, its Royalist Civil War castle demolished on Cromwell’s orders and on to its thriving maritime place in Victorian West Country trading out to the Bristol Channel on the heavily tidal River Parrett.
Having spent my working life around ships, both coastal and deep-sea, it was the old docks locking out onto River Parrett, connected inland by the Taunton – Bridgwater canal, that took my interest and in particular the last ship built in the town, the Trading Ketch ‘Irene’ launched onto the River Parrett on 29th May 1907. No ship could be launced from the site of FJ Carver & Sons yard where East Quay stands today given the accumulation of estauary mud in thr river.
The great joy of this recollection is that the sailing ketch ‘Irene’ is still sailing today 109 years after her launch, admittedly rather in the manner of ‘grandfather’s shovel’ having been saved by Leslie Morrish from distress and restored in its life from incidents of stranding, from fire and from sinking. Her trading life started under the ownership of the local brick and tile makers, Colthurst, taking their products to West Country and near European ports with diverse homeward cargoes, such as potatoes from the Channel Islands and other local industry and agricultural products.
‘Irene’, the last of her kind was, and is, typical of her type most often built in simple yards of a few huts and saw pits with skilled shipwrights using timber from local estates building from experience without plans or models.
Today ‘Irene’ is still West Country based undertaking cruises with her holds converted to comfortable accommodation below and rigged on deck and her upper works as a working sailing ketch with the rig of her trading days.