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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born James Lawrence in Colchester, he was always known as ‘Jim’. His parents were Beatrice and Walter Lawrence.

Jim learned to sail at a young age. He unscrewed the garden gate, carried it for a mile to a stream and launched it. He then stood on the gate – and it sank like a stone. This taught him the importance of stability.

Aged eleven, Jim made his first ‘barge’. It was created out of two aircraft fuel tanks lashed together, making a simple catamaran. The sails were made from parachute silk and old barrage balloons that Jim had found in the local dump.

He picked blackberries with his friends and then sailed two miles down the River Colne to the village of Rowhedge, where he sold the fruit to Mrs Maudsley, the owner of the local shop. She paid four and a half pence for each pound and turned the blackberries into jam.

Jim was educated at Wilson Marriage School, but later claimed, “I was determined not to let school interfere with my education.”

Every spare minute was spent helping out on sailing barges on Colchester quay – known as the ‘Hythe’.

When he left school, Jim got his first job on a barge called, ‘Gladys’. He was just fifteen. As soon as he got on board, he was tested. He was told to climb up the rigging and put a flag on the top. If he failed, he would be sent home – unsuitable for the job.

Jim did not fail. He went up the rigging just like a ‘barge monkey’. After that, the job was his. He was paid £1 a week.

The ‘Gladys’ was a Thames Barge and sailed up and down London’s main river and also up the east coast. There were 2,000 such craft in operation. They were unusual boats.

Thames Barges were all between 85 to 90 feet long and 20 feet wide. They each had 3,000 square feet of sails (larger than a tennis court) and could carry 170 tons of goods (that is more than four large articulated lorries). They used absolutely no fuel.

Thames Barges (courtesy Thames Sailing Barge Trust)

They were supposed to be easy to sail – a local saying said they could be operated by, “One man, a boy and a dog.”

 Jim commented, “It would have to be a bloody good dog.”

From Gladys, Jim became mate on the ‘Falconette’, which was part of the 40-strong Colchester Barge Fleet which operated to and from London. He learned everything from his skipper, including the art of sail making and repair.

Jim got his first command aged 18, in 1951, replacing a skipper who had broken his arm. Jim became the youngest bargeman on the Thames. The boat was called ‘Mirosa’ (and it is still going today).

Jim skippering a barge in 1956

Jim realised that a bargeman’s income depended not just upon the volume they carried, but on the speed they travelled. He became increasingly interested in sail design. He would spend the winter repairing and designing his own sails and found himself doing increasing amounts of sail work for other barge owners. He built up his reputation. He said, “No one wants to sail a slow boat.”

In 1961, Jim married Pauline Rouse. They had three daughters; Sara, Diana and Rachel.

On one occasion, Jim was sailing the boat ‘Milly’ up the River Colne, when it got jammed under a bridge. Unable to move it, the local fire brigade had to sink the craft because if the flood tide came in it would raise the boat and subsequently destroy the bridge.

Another time, Jim had to raise the sails in the middle of the night when it was pitch-black. When he woke up in the morning, he realised his bike had got caught up in the rigging and was now resting at the top of the sails.

Jim spent fifteen years working on nine different boats captaining ‘Portlight’ and ‘Memory’. However, the Thames Barge trade was declining due to motorization.

Jim sailed his last cargo in 1963. He was just 29. At this time, there were only six working barges left.

The last working Thames Barge, the ‘Cambria’, stopped operating in 1970.

Jim’s barge, ‘Memory’, was bought by the Thames Barge Preservation Society and became used as a charter vessel (hiring to the public), with him still captaining it.

Memory in dock (courtesy Yachting World)

He spent much of his time entering sailing races and learned both the banjo and accordion, singing sea shanties to entertain people.

Around 1966, Jim and a friend liked to take another boat, ‘Marjorie’, out into the North Sea. There, they would find the ship where the pirate station Radio Caroline was broadcast from.

Radio Caroline (courtesy Beyond the Point)

They would write a request, put it in a tin can and lob it onto the deck.

They were thrilled when both Tony Blackburn and Johnnie Walker played their requests.

In 1971, Jim founded the Colne Smack Preservation Society. The aim was to rescue boats that had been abandoned or were about to be broken up.

Jim would captain a boat every year at their annual festival. He enjoyed competitions, often against bargemen and sailors from Kent.

That same year, Jim set up his own sail loft, in a former baby clothes shop in James Street in Brightlingsea, Essex. To afford it he needed a government grant as well as raising £700 by selling his sailing smack, ‘Rosea’.

Jim made bespoke, traditional style sails out of flax (and later more modern materials).

He made sails for all kinds of ships and boats, “From small dinghies to square riggers.” His biggest commission was for the four-masted cruise ship, ‘Sea Cloud’, which was 32,000 square feet of canvas.

The James Lawrence Sail Loft quickly outgrew its premises, moving to the Forester’s Hall in Tower Street, Brightlingsea. He employed nine people.

Forester’s Hall, Brightingsea (courtesy Brightlingsea Foresters History Project)

Then, television came calling. Jim made the sails for the 140-feet Soren Larsen, the ship used in The Onedin Line (as the ‘Charlotte Rhodes’). He also did sails for the programmes ‘Shackleton’ and ‘Scott of the Antartic’.

In 1984, he designed the bottle-green sails fot the German ship ‘Alexander von Hombolt’, which was used in Beck’s Beer adverts for 23 years.

In 1990, Jim bought a 14-foot yacht called the ‘Saxonia’. He stripped out all its modern fittings and returned it to its original state. He was to sail this boat out of Brightlingsea for the rest of his life.

His assistant was usually his wife, Pauline. Jim called her, “The best mate in the world.”

Jim also loved to teach young people to sail – ‘learning the ropes.’

He retired in 1977, handing the reins of the sail loft over to his son-in-law, Mark Butler.

After that, Jim entertained people, playing music, singing songs and telling stories and anecdotes about the sea. He was a popular local character, always recognizable by the red neckerchief he wore.

By now, he had added the ukelele to his collection of musical instruments. On warm days, he would sit in his front garden, right in the centre of town, playing songs for hours. He did this throughout lockdown during the Covid pandemic.

Jim was also the main driving force behind a plan to turn two abandoned wharfs into a new waterfront for Brightlingsea. This involved raising £1.5 million.

Brightlingsea (courtesy Visit Brightlingsea)

In 2018, his wife Pauline died. She was 82 and had moved into a hospice. She died in Jim’s arms. He was unable to attend the funeral as he was in hospital, having had a stroke.

That same year, Jim published his autobiography, ‘London Light’. In it, he said, “I’ve been bloody lucky in life, doing just what I wanted to do.”

London Light (courtesy Chaffcutter Books)

In 2021, his son-in-law, Mark Butler, retired. There was no one else to take on the sail loft so the James Lawrence company closed down.

Jim was still sailing at the age of 90.

Jim died in hospital in 2024 after a short illness.

After his death, the local paper said, “He was the sort of person with whom a chance meeting never failed to brighten your day.”

It added, “Brightlingsea is a smaller place without him.”

Four hundred people attended Jim’s funeral. It started with a recording of him singing ‘Shoals of Herring’ and ended with his rendition of ‘Cool Water’.

During the service, the vicar said, “Jim wasn’t a jack of all trades and a master of none – he became a master of a lot of things he tackled.”

He added, “He left behind a score of bargemen, sailors and sailmakers.”

RIP – Rigging Improves Performance



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