Local History - Concrete Barges and The Diver
Thames History at Rainham: Concrete Barges and The Diver
21 August 2018
Did someone say “concrete” barges? Whatever next!
And yet, in a quiet corner of the Thames, on the Riverfront at Rainham Marshes you will find 16 of these haunting, abandoned slabs.
They are the remains of concrete, iron rod-enforced ships from World War II. Despite appearances, they are lighter than the water they displace, and so can float.
There is still some discussion about the origin and use of these barges and no account seems to be accepted as definitive. Research suggests these may have been constructed as part of the preparations for D-Day, although evidence is scarce and disputed. Apparently, the UK and US Governments ordered the construction of these barges made of reinforced concrete because steel was in short supply. They were towed across the channel as part of the immense project to create artificial harbours for the Normandy landings, helping to move men and equipment to the shore and to transport fuel to other ships engaged in the invasion.
200 were commissioned in 1940, initially to serve as petrol carrying barges (the so-called PB200s). They were engineered by Mouchel, and constructed by Wates. These same companies, along with others, performed similar roles for the Mulberry harbours, hence the connection with D-Day.
The barges weigh 160 tons and were constructed on the London dockside before being craned into the water by the giant PLA Goliath crane.
But why are they here in Rainham today?
So it goes that in 1953 they came to the rescue a second time when they were used to shore up the flood defences of the estuary, which were damaged by a huge storm and surge tide. They were towed back here to Coldharbour Point and sunk to protect against the worst flooding the Thames had seen in years, remaining here ever since.
According to the RSPB, they now support another invasion: the annual wintering of rock and water pipits, as well as providing a roost site for other birds.
To see the concrete ships, tackle the five-mile section 24 of the London LOOP between Rainham and Purfleet. The Stone Barges car park, RM13 is also nearby if you'd rather drive. They can seem deceptively high so you can climb on to them, but of course when the tide comes in you need your wits about you!
Emerging and disappearing under the Thames’ tide, a solitary diver keeps watch over the barges and the surrounding area.
The Diver (full name:The Diver:Regeneration) is a sculpture by John Kaufman, made of galvanised steel bands on a steel frame. It measures 15 feet (4.6m) tall and approximately 6 feet (1.8m) wide and is partly submerged every high tide and totally submerged by spring and neap tides.
The Diver is constructed from (approx.) 300m of galvanised steel banding and 3000 nuts and bolts and weighs 3 tons. It is secured 26 feet (7.9m) into the Thames mud.
You can find more information on the sculpture here http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/placestovisit/rainhammarshes/b/rainhammarshes-blog/archive/2015/12/02/the-diver.aspx