OLIVE MAY was launched from the yard of Wills & Packham, Sittingbourne, Kent on 3 July 1920. She was built for Kent Coasters Ltd., a consortium of which a leading figure was Skipper Arthur Wenban, who was to command her. She was perhaps the ultimate development of the barge type and was given an engine at the outset instead of having one fitted later in life. For this reason she had a centre screw. The first engine was a Vickers-Petter of 76hp, direct drive. When she changed hands in the mid 1930s this engine was replaced by a Crossley DR6, of 150hp and also direct drive. In 1964 a secondhand Kelvin 132hp (with gearbox) was fitted, which made her easier to manage.
Originally, the vessel had a conventional wooden rudder but, possibly in 1934, this was replaced by a steel one. Originally she had a 'mule' mizzen instead of the usual sprit mizzen. The boom extended across her sunken deckhouse and her wheelhouse at its after end. When the mizzen was removed, the height of the wheelhouse was increased to give a better view right ahead.
The after cabin was in this deck house and had three settee berths. A tiny galley opened off this cabin. The panelling was of plywood instead of the usual oak, or mahogany, or pitch pine.
In 1963 OLIVE MAY's big coasting mast and derrick were removed and a small steel mast and derrick was installed to the starboard side of the foc'sle companionway. This could handle the small boat and display her oil masthead light.
Her gross tonnage was 160 and nett tonnage 107. Had it been possible to reduce this to 99 tons, it would have helped make OLIVE MAY more profitable as various harbour, river and dock dues rose sharply once 100 tons were reached.
OLIVE MAY was built for coasting originally and traded to the Continent. In the 1950s she did some long runs: Blyth to Exeter and Colchester to Middlesborough. In the mid1960s, her load-line and expired and she was restricted to Colne-Reculvers in the summer and could only trade between the Thames and Medway in the winter, for which her draught (over 10 feet when loaded) made her ill-suited. She could take 265 tons to sea, depending upon the size-to-weight ratio of the cargo.
Due to her size, OLIVE MAY was composite built, so many parts were of iron or steel, which in smaller barges were of timber.
She was last used commercially in the late 1960s after carrying coal, shingle, china clay and bricks for almost half a century. Unfortunately, a freak accident caused her to be sold out of trade in 1967.
In 1996, under private ownership, OLIVE MAY was gutted prior to restoration by her new owner but sadly, that same year, it was reported that OLIVE MAY was sunk at her moorings in Gloucester's Monks Meadow dock during the night of 7-8 June after heavy rainfall.
Classic Boat: The Thames Barge OLIVE MAY...., August 1996
Classic Boat: Olive May sinks at Moorings, August, 1996
Vessel launched from the yard of Wills & Packham, Sittingbourne
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