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When Mistley men ruled the waves!

PUBLISHED: 14:27 28 May 2009 | UPDATED: 14:48 12 March 2010

If you were competing on the water, it helped if you had a Mistley man by your side - particularly one named Horlock.

Steven Russell

If you were competing on the water, it helped if you had a Mistley man by your side - particularly one named Horlock. Steven Russell spoke to a modern-day member of the family about his ancestors' astonishing record of success off the East Coast

CHUBB Horlock was generally an easy-going bloke - too soft, perhaps. As a businessman he certainly wasn't a Rottweiler obsessed with chasing every last pound. But the River Stour coursed through his veins and, once on the water with a prize in sight, he became a terrier bent on taking the spoils. In 57 barge races he notched 33 wins, 11 seconds, seven thirds and only six non-placings. And he always completed the course. It was a fine record: one in keeping with the Horlock clan's proud heritage.

“All in all, our family were involved - as owners or crew - in 144 races, and Dad was in over 50,” says Chubb's son Bob, who's co-produced a book on the Horlocks's remarkable run of success. “I don't want to be big-headed or anything, but he was pretty much a racing genius. He had a strong influence wherever he sailed; he won in both Sara and Phoenician.”

During the 1800s and the early part of the 20th Century the estuaries of the Thames and Medway, and the rivers of Essex and Suffolk, were alive with the red sails of the Thames spritsail barge. These workhorses carried cargoes to and from London and elsewhere. In their heyday there were more than 2,000 plying their trade on the East Coast.

In about the middle of the 19th Century owners began racing their barges - one of the earliest affairs organised by the Royal Harwich Yacht Club in 1844. More structured races with rules, cups and prize money began on the Thames in 1863 and on the Medway in 1873.

The Horlock family from Mistley won the 1868 Thames race for large topsail barges, with Excelsior sailed by brothers Samuel and Richard.

Towards the end of the century the barge Giralda, built in East Greenwich for Goldsmith's of Grays, began to dominate. She was finally toppled in 1902 - in both races - by Imperial, sailed by Tony Horlock, Chubb's father.

Brothers Tony and Alf Horlock built a close relationship with Ipswich boat-builder Horace Shrubsall and probably had a hand in the design of vessels built at the turn of the century, including the Veronica. The brothers had great success sailing several of these craft in the Thames and Medway races.

Other members of the family also had their triumphs. Albert and Samuel Horlock bought the Sara, and they set a course record in 1903 for the Thames race that still stands.

In 1904 the family had the Ipswich-built Vigilant. Sailed by Chubb, she created another record by winning all the cups in the 1928 Thames race.

The First World War interrupted the Thames and Medway races, When competition resumed in 1927, Mistley crews were again in demand. Chubb sailed in Sara, owned by Everards of Greenhithe, or in Phoenician, owned by Uncle Alf. Many of the tussles were duels between craft owned by Everards and those owned by FW Horlock.

Racing was interrupted between 1938 and 1949, when the Medway staged events for yacht barges with amateur crews and a professional master. Races on the Thames began again in 1953.

In 1954 the races were open to commercial craft in two classes and the number of entries grew. As time went on the flagship Champion Bowsprit Class became a battle between London Rochester Trading Company's Sirdar and Everards's Veronica and Sara. Chubb was asked to sail in Veronica, bringing two men from Mistley as crew members. She won 13 races out of 16 starts.

Chubb finished with the Veronica in 1963, saying this was the end of “true barge racing” because the time and money that was being invested by the big boys in an attempt to win finally became too much. He planned to retire in 1964, after 50 years of sailing barges as a job and in competition, but his racing career took a fresh turn.

He was head-hunted by Silvertown Services to fit out and race the barge May, built in Harwich in 1891. She raced on the Medway, Thames, Blackwater and Orwell with considerable success. Chubb gradually withdrew from these races and sailed competitively for the last time in 1971.

The racing tradition survives on the East Coast, with annual races being the Thames, Southend, Medway Swale, Blackwater, Colne and Pin Mill (Orwell).

“As a person he was easy-going. Too soft, really - but when it came to racing he wasn't! He was truly professional. He wanted to win!” smiles Bob.

“Through this book we met, eight months ago, Chris Alston, the last surviving member of Veronica's crew. He came to me and said 'Your dad was a very nice bloke . . . If anybody wanted a hand, needed to be helped, he was there. But - he wanted to win. The same as the rest of us.”

Why was he so good? His son cites a couple of reasons.

First, Chubb was born in 1899. His father Tony, might not have been a ruthless businessman - he was more interested in reading Shakespeare, apparently, and playing the violin - but he did like his racing. Brother Alf was also an enthusiast, and racing was in the family's psyche.

The family friendship with Ipswich boat-builder Horace Shrubsall was also important. “Undoubtedly they talked about improving the design of barges,” says Bob. “Those three had a hand in the design of some of the fastest, including Veronica. So Dad was brought up in an atmosphere of racing and that must have rubbed off.

“The Sara won in 1903. OK, he was only a young child then, but they would have carried on talking about it for years afterwards.” Indeed, matches and matchboxes would be positioned on the table after a competition to replay the race and mull over the key moments.

Then there was the Horlock company principle of “sailing for turn”. If there were three Horlock barges in Mistley, and a cargo to be loaded in London, they all raced off and the vessel first to a particular marker point got the job - a kind of internal competitive tendering system!

Bob says other companies' vessels took work on a rota basis. So, for the Horlocks, every job was effectively a competition. Chubb didn't start his first race until 1928. “He went on board at 14, so for this first race he'd had 14 years of practice! The race in 1928 was just a slight step up from normal trading. I'm certain that's why Mistley men were in demand as crews, because racing was part of their ordinary working life.”

Not that Chubb wasn't averse to using “professionalism” to advantage . . . If you had a slower barge, you either had to hope for a miracle or get up earlier if you were sailing for turn. Once, says Bob, Chubb agreed to give another man a call in the morning as they competed for a cargo. “As Dad sailed by, he shouted out to wake him up! Well, he kept his word!”

Chubb Horlock was sensitive and loyal, though. Take the 1953 Thames match. He won his class, as master of the Harwich-built Edith May, but could so easily have taken the overall victory as first home had he not been so kind to others. At the finish, his barge was only six minutes behind Sara, which was in the flagship bowsprit class and had started 15 minutes earlier than Edith May. But he helped relative Theo Horlock, who was in Xylonite, racing against Sara.

Talking to his dad years later, Bob couldn't believe the sacrifice. “I said 'You could have been first overall! It would have been amazing!' Dad said 'I wanted to give way to Theo, so he could get second behind Sara. . .' His crew got on to him in the end and said 'Don't you give way any more!'”

IT'S been a long time coming, but Bob Horlock is sure his father would approve of the new book on his family's barge-racing heritage.

He and Chubb collaborated on Mistleyman's Log, which was published in 1977 and detailed the family history up to 1928, when Chubb was master of the Vigilant in the Thames race and won five cups - a feat never equalled. They planned another book, and wrote notes about the racing, but it was hard going, Bob admits, and the projected floundered “down to my lethargy”.

Chubb died in 1992 and it seemed that was that. But then historian Ron Weyda approached Bob a few years ago, looking for material he could write about, and the notes were dusted off. Mike Fryer also came on board - no pun intended - to take care of design.

The finished article, The Racing Horlocks 1868-1971 - A tribute to Chubb Horlock and his family's Thames Barge racing endeavours, weaves Ron's research into barge racing history with Chubb's ideas on boat design, gear and tactics, as well as memories of the events in which he competed. There are more than 150 illustrations - most of them previously unpublished.

Way back, explains Bob, the family was at Hammersmith, as owners of wharves and possibly as builders of barges. It moved to Rettendon, near Chelmsford, in the middle of 18th Century. Samuel Horlock is buried there; he owned several barges, taking cargoes to London from the east coast.

In the 1800s his son Robert, and grandsons Richard and John, were established in Mistley. They bought the barge Thomas & Mary to start their fleet, and also bought shares from Samuel in two Maldon-registered barges: Hand of Providence and Wellington.

The Horlocks transported all kinds of coastal cargo, says Bob: wheat and barley, coal and so on.

Over the next 100 years branches of the Mistley-based clan owned and operated more than 50 barges, says Ron Weyda, “and this extended family produced many fine mariners and racing skippers”.

It was the descendants of Richard Horlock who primarily carried forward the barging enterprises. Sons Robert Richard and Samuel Horatio made the first foray into racing, sailing their father's vessel, the Excelsior, in the 1868 Thames match and winning the class for large topsail barges.

Robert Richard's sons Robert Anthony (Chubb's father) and Edmond Alfred (Alf) followed in the family tradition. Tony gained first place as designated master in the 1902 Thames match. Brother Alf's first victory came in the Medway in 1906.

Alf actually had an outstanding racing career: 19 first places in 21 championship starts between 1899 and the Second World War.

He was a fantastic oarsman, too - barred from Henley, apparently, for being too good! “Mistley had a good rowing club - dad was the cox, occasionally - and they used to sweep the board,” says Bob. “At Ipswich, people used to throw bricks through the boat! There was huge rivalry.”

On Samuel Horatio's side it was son Frederick William who proved an astute businessman. He started building up a fleet of barges and small coastal steamers in the 1900s, says Bob. Then, after the Second World War, he began building craft at Mistley - small coasters, steel barges - “which was a good move because steel lasted a lot longer than wood.

“He then expanded in a big way: had three ocean-going craft. One was called the Coralie Horlock [after his daughter], which was one of the first ships interned in Germany in the first war. So he was the first on the list to be paid reparation. My father saw the cheque for £300,000-odd!”

FW also had a horse that ran at Ascot in a big race. The winner's cup was presented by the king. “He thought this horse didn't have a cat's chance in hell and he didn't go to the race. And, of course, it won! So it was the trainer who had to go and shake hands with the king.”

Chubb, meanwhile, was eyeing a naval college when he was 14, but war broke out and he had to go into the family business to replace men off to fight. Years later, Chubb and London barge owner and broker Alfred Sully together bought the Oxygen in 1934 and the Hambrook in 1935.

Chubb went on to own shares in five barges, including the Dorothea and Marjorie with Alfred Sully, for whom he raced in several matches during his career. “It was in the Everard-owned barges Sara and Veronica that Chubb enjoyed his greatest successes in the Thames and Medway matches,” says Ron.

During their working days, barges would transport cargoes between the east coast, London and Yarmouth - sometimes a bit further afield; to Kent, for instance.

Business slowed as the Mistley-based trade declined in the 1950s. “Our side faded away, really,” says Bob. “My father was no businessman, really. The trade was so bad he sold his half-shares.”

Chubb was going to retire but was headhunted by Silvertown Services, part of Tate & Lyle, to take on the May and conduct what his son calls some token trading. Then, when he did retire at 65, he was brought back by the company for the racing. He said he'd be happy with a salary of £1,000 but, says Bob, could have got £2,000 if only he'd asked! “It was a nice wind-down, and he carried on racing until his last match in 1971.”

SO, officially named Alfred Horatio, how did his dad come to be known as Chubb? Bob thinks it's because of his visage as a baby! “I've got pictures of him with chubby cheeks. I can't think of anything else. He certainly wasn't named after a lock!”

Not surprisingly, water featured in the childhood of Bob and older brother Richard. “From an early age our holidays were either on the farm - because my mother's side had farming connections - or we went on the barge. To London or Yarmouth, it was good fun.”

Bob also followed his dad's progress in matches. “I'm reasonably competitive, so I was dead keen to find out how he did in races for Everards. Then, when Dad started going in May, I would go to a few races with him.”

How was it when Chubb had his master's cap on? “I sailed with Dad . . . if you didn't do something immediately” - he clicks his fingers and grins - “it was 'Come on; out the way!'”

Bob was never tempted to pursue a career on the rivers and seas, though, like most of his ancestors. In fact, sailing barely featured until about five years ago, when he got a little motor-fishing boat.

After a chemistry degree in London he'd opted for complete change and spent six months working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in a Canadian nickel mine for £1 an hour - a lot of money then. He also went to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup, followed by South America, Cape Town and Cairo.

Back in England, he taught high school pupils for a couple of years at Chantry in Ipswich, spent five years in Australia and then returned to Chantry in 1980 as a maths teacher, working there until early retirement at 52, in 1998.

The Racing Horlocks can be bought by post for £24.50 (including postage) from RJ Horlock, Calm Waters, Shrubland Road, Mistley, CO11 1HS. Cheques payable to R J Horlock (Queries - phone 01206 393 708; email bobhorlock@onetel.com)

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