Certificate no 225
Status Registered


Function Cargo Vessel
Subfunction Barge
Location Heybridge Basin
Vessel type Spritsail Barge
Current use Ongoing conservation
Available to hire No
Available for excursions No
Info required No


Builder Wills & Packham, Milton Creek, Sittingboune
Built in 1920
Hull material Wood
Rig Unknown
Number of decks 1
Number of masts 2
Propulsion Sail
Number of engines 1
Primary engine type Diesel
Boiler type None
Boilermaker None


Breadth: Beam
21.38 feet (6.52 m)
4.00 feet (1.22 m)
Length: Overall
86.62 feet (26.42 m)
Tonnage: Gross
Air Draft
To be confirmed



Construction and Originality

Built in 1920 of composite construction.  The hull of double planked carvel design - pitch pine on oak frames.  The keelson is iron with floor timbers being oak, bottom planking of elm and with pitch pine sealing.   Beams and knees both forward and aft’ in crew accommodation are of oak while all beams in the fore hold, main hold and under the sailing deck are of iron.  Additional ironwork in the holds consist of knees, straps over inner chines and all deck carlings.  Under the king (deck) planks extending from the forward bulkhead to the after bulkhead are heavy iron plates riveted to the carlings and with additional plates under the sailing deck which are riveted to the beams.  The central iron beam in the fore hold was constructed to enable the section between the combings to be removed for the loading of bulky cargo or long timbers.  Decking and combings are pitch pine and hatches of pine on oak.

Spritsail rig with large spritsail mizzen mast stepped forward of the wheel.  Windlass of ‘coasting’ design with centre pawls, to work two anchors and the bow sprite bobstay.

Main combings were raised, in pitch pine, during the 1930s. In 1939 an iron bulkhead replaced the original after bulkhead and was sited further forward. In 1945 the hull was sheathed in oak planks and the bottom in elm by way of a ‘thank you’ from the Admiralty to the owners.

Raybel was built by Wills & Packham, barge builders known for building strong barges, particularly their last barges which were built after WWl.  The iron plates under the combings and the sailing deck are a feature unique to Raybel. They are an ingenious addition as they add considerable strength without interfering with the flexibility of the surrounding timbers.  And they serve to tie the combings, beams and the heavy gauge carlings together. 

The Raybel was also to be used occasionally for the owners’ family holidays and so some elegant details were added.  The cabin hatch was large and of teak and brass with the compass mounted centrally on the after end and bench seating running its full length either side.  The bow and quarter boards were made especially long and the rail capping tapered from 4 inches forward to less than 3 inches aft.

It was the good fortune of Raybel to have been the pride of the original owner and generally well looked after.  Also, when only 25 years old, the barge was given a sheathing of oak and elm planking at the expense of the Admiralty – a practice normally reserved to extend the life of ageing craft. During ownership under Raybel Charters the barge has been regularly maintained but no extensive rebuilding has been carried out.  A great percentage of the original structure and fabric of the barge is original and in remarkable condition considering the 100th birthday of Raybel is approaching.  However, there is restoration work needed before sailing is possible again so a cover has been made to keep the topsides dry until the necessary funds have been raised.  The most urgent work needed is to the planking of the bows as well as to covering boards and outer whale.

Because of the good condition of so much that forms the inner fabric and structure of the barge – inner whale, lining, sealing etc. - all effort will be made to retain this through any replacement work to the hull.  The extensive original ironwork remains in very good order.


Built in 1920 by Wills and Packham at Milton Creek, Sittingbourne, as a coasting barge for G F Sully, of London, RAYBEL is of composite construction, mainly of wood but with iron beams and steel keelson, knees and carlings.

The name ‘Raybel’ was derived from the twins Raymond and Isabel who were born to the Sully family earlier that same year.  While still on the yard it was decided, by the Sully family, that the barge would be used for summer holidays with their children.  A large after cabin skylight of teak and brass, with seating on either side, was fitted.  By all accounts this was very splendid and can be seen in the early photographs.  The Raybel became the pride of the Sully fleet and soon earned the nickname ‘Sullys Yacht’.

Bernhard Sully had ordered a powerful coasting barge of 86 feet from stem to stern post and with a cargo capacity of at least 150 tons.  The intention was to have the ideal barge for their increasing trade to and from Belgium, France and Holland.  And so it was no accident that the high bow and sweeping sheer of Raybel, unusual in a sailing barge, is reminiscent of fishing boats working the North Sea.

Soon after the outbreak of WWII Raybel was commandeered by the Admiralty and for the remainder of the war worked from the Clyde, Scotland as supply ship to naval craft.  On the voyage to Scotland Raybel just managed to pass through the Crinan Canal and thus avoid the passage round the Mull of Kintyre.To achieve this the leeboards were shipped onto the main hatch. 

An auxiliary engine, a Kelvin 88, had been fitted for the work in Scotland and after the war Raybel continued to deliver all manner of cargos between London and east coast ports as well as the near continent.  Albert Webb was skipper and, in 1949, Jim Lovegrove, a talented artist, made occasional passages as trainee hand whilst studying at the Royal College of Art, London.  In 1951 he was taken on as mate and kept journals and notes of the freights carried.  However, on 28th January 1953 Raybel was run down by steamship Swiftsure in the Thames off Greenhithe.  Jim Lovegrove was not on board but both skipper and temporary mate survived and, through quick work, the barge was towed to shallow water and saved.  Some of the journals and artworks were ruined but detailed records of cargoes delivered in the early ‘50s remain.  Raybel was repaired at St. Clements Yard, Ipswich where a new transom was fitted together with frames, whale, and planking to the port quarter.  Jim Lovegrove went on to sail with the now legendary explorer Major H.W.Tilman.  In 1957 he answered an advert in the Times which read ‘Hands wanted for long voyage in small boat: no pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’.  He joined the crew of “Mischief”, a 40ft Bristol Channel Cutter built in 1908.

She continued in Sully’s ownership until 1974 when she was sold to the artist Ian Houston, who later gained a master’s certificate in order to study sea, weather and traditional sail in action aboard RAYBEL.

By the early 1970s most barges had been retired from freight carrying.  Due to economics, the smallest – and oldest - were the first to go.

Ian Houston bought Raybel on the advice of Reuben Webb of F.A. Webb & Sons barge yard of Pin Mill, Suffolk.  His brother, Albert Webb, had been one of the longer serving skippers of Raybel and he knew the particular strength and good condition of the barge.  When it became apparent that there was still freight delivery work available Ian Houston founded Raybel Charters and in May 1974 Raybel returned to trade under skipper Douglas Bridges.  The work continued for two years with cargoes including wheat, starch, haricot beans, pitch, and flour.

When freight charters became increasingly difficult to find Raybel returned to Webb’s yard where sailing gear and rigging were refitted.  The pitch pine mainmast and sprite, together with wire rigging and leeboard winches, were sourced from a much older barge – Asphodel.  A new suit of flax sails were built by Whitmores of Ipswich in the autumn of 1976; the last suit of barge sails this once busy sail loft produced.  

 RAYBEL is usually based at St Katharine Docks in London, where she is used for static and cruising charters. 


Source: Paul Brown, Historic Sail, The History Press and Matthew Houston


Chancellor, F & S, Cooper, John, A Handbook of Sailing Barges, 1955
Pipe, Julia, Port on the Alde; Snape and the Maltings, 1984
Alan & Williams, Cordell, Leslie, The Past Glory of Milton Creek, 1985
May, Dinah, Surviving Michael Winner; A Thirty Year Odyssey, 2014
Benham, Hervey, Spiritsail Barges of Thames and Medway, 1948
Brouwer, Norman J, International Register of Historic Ships, Anthony Nelson, Edition 2, 1993   
Carr, Frank, Sailing Barges, 1971
Hugh Perks, Richard, Sprts'l: A Portrait of Sailing Barges and Sailormen, Conway Maritime Press, 1975
Wood, D G, The Last Berth of the Sailorman, Society for Spritsail Barge Research, 1987
Wood, D G, Barges Sailing Today: Sailing Barge Information Pamplet No: 1, Society for Spritsail Barge Research, 1995
March, Edgar J, Last Stronghold of Sail, 1948

Key dates

  • 1920

    Built by Wills & Packham of Sittingbourne, Kent - owner G.F.Sully . Begins trade to the near continent – France, Belgium, Holland.

  • 1938

     In the infamous November gale dragged both anchors off Yarmouth and is towed to safety by lifeboat

  • 1939

    Commandeered by the Admiralty for work on the Clyde – carrying supplies to naval ships. Fitted with Kelvin 88 auxiliary engine and whaleback wheelhouse

  • 1945

    Returns to general cargo delivery

  • 1953

    Run down off Greenhithe by G.N.S.C. Swiftsure on 28th January and new transom fitted at St. Clement’s Yard, Ipswich

  • 1962

    Fitted with auxiliary Gardner 6LW engine

  • 1966

    Mainmast removed and continues trading as motor barge

  • 1974

    Raymond Sully sells barge to Ian Houston and Raybel Charters is formed

  • 1976

    Trading with freight ceases. Fore hold fitted with accommodation. Gear and rigging reinstated by Reuben Webb of F.A.Webb & sons, Pin Mill, Suffolk

  • 1977

    Begins sailing charter work from Pin Mill and Ipswich docks under skipper Reuben Webb

  • 1979

    Charter work from Maldon, Essex – educational trips for school children - skipper Gordon Swift

  • 1981

    Sailing charter work from the St. Katherine Docks, London. Beginning of several years’ sponsorship by Windsor & Newton Artist Materials.

  • 1998

    Main and fore hold re-fitted to enable educational activities, theatre, fine dining, corporate hospitality, exhibitions, and promotional events.   

  • 2003

    New mainmast, mizzen mast and sprite and all rigging renewed to original sail plan

  • 2010

    Gardner engine rebuilt, new stem and stem-band fitted 

  • 2016

    Raybel Charters CIC Ltd formed

  • June 2019

    National Lottery Heritage Fund grant awarded for restoration

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If you are the owner of this vessel and would like to provide more details or updated information, please contact info@nationalhistoricships.org.uk

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