Skipper on the Trent

Les Davey started working for British Waterways in 1960 when he was 27, and describes the job he loved on the huge lighters (barges) of the River Trent as “…an adventure every trip”. The work was hard and sometimes took him away from home for up to a week, depending on the weather and the types of load his boat would be required to carry. In winter, it was often so cold that the crew had to take the ropes inside the cabin instead of stacking them neatly on deck where they might freeze and be unmanageable.

But Les has always been adventurous, and although he was glad to return between trips to his wife Susan and three sons in Sherwood, he also enjoyed going camping in all weathers – and still does at the age of eight-four. Interestingly, for the last fifty years Les has also found poetry very therapeutic, writing it as well as reading it.

The following are accounts of some of the ‘adventures’ Les experienced during his time as skipper of one of Nottingham’s lighters in the 1960s:


We cast off from Nottingham on the Trent at 8.30 in the morning, heading for Hull, intending to reach there sometime tomorrow. Our cargo would be gravel, which we would load up on the lighter (or ‘dumb boat’) from the river-bed by the dredger, just south of Newark. We made it there and moored up to the dredger; me and my brother Robert loaded up, and we set off for Hull.

We were making good time and decided to moor up at West Burton. It was possible to get to Hull in a day but we decided to stay for the night at West Burton as there was a jetty there where we could stay for the night, not far from a nearby power station. We arrived and moored up, checked the rope and stepped ashore. It was about a mile from the pub that we were heading for, and when we reached it and being a winter evening it felt very cold. We ordered a pint and stood there chatting.

We didn’t know, of course, but 30 minutes earlier there’d been a big fight between some local men and a few Irishmen who worked at the power station. The locals had given the Irishmen a thrashing and by the time we got there it was all quiet. We all six of us – me and Robert and the crew from the other lighter – stood there chatting when all of a sudden we heard voices and a crowd of very angry Irishmen came barging in.

They all had large screwdrivers and large spanners, and thought we were the local men who had beaten their friends up. To me they didn’t seem reasonable – they just wanted revenge.

We stood at the bar in amazement, then I saw the side door and did a runner. When I returned the place was empty except for our bargees. One of our lads had a large bandage over his head, put there by the landlord’s wife who was a nurse. Apparently they had started fighting, then the landlord had told the men to stop fighting, pointed to one of the Irishmen and said, “Patrick, what’s going on?”

Patrick explained that some local men had beaten them up earlier – but the landlord replied that we were not from this area, and added, “Leave now or I’ll call the police! So they left, but we had a lucky escape. That bandaged man could have been me. We supped up and went back to our boats and crawled into our bunks.


We cast off in the lighter from Nottingham at 10am, bound for Hull with another load of gravel. We  moored up at Gainsborough and stayed the night there, casting off from there next morning and arriving at Hull mid- afternoon. From there the tug would sort a load to take back to Nottingham, which would be the following day. After the task of dropping down to near the mouth of the river Hull, we had a meal. My younger brother Robert, who was mate on the boat, went for a walk to the shops to get some groceries, and I settled down for a read.

After a while I thought I’d make a cup of tea. It was 4 pm. The tide was ebbing and bearing in mind it was late October, it would soon be getting dark. At this time, twilight, there would be visitors who were not welcome on board. Rats! They always come out when it starts to get dark, a bit like vampires. So I got my airgun and loaded it.

I went up on deck and lay behind the Carley Float [an emergency raft carried on board, consisting of a buoyant canvas ring with a wooden grid deck]. I lay down and sure enough about 30 minutes later a big rat started walking along the head rope, intending to get on board. It was about 15 feet from where I lay.

I aimed – and smack, it was a head shot. The rat just fell off the rope into the water. It splashed about a little and then sank into the quagmire. A boating friend of mine told me a short while back that he once fell overboard and in no time he was up to his waist in mud, which is like grey porridge, and if it wasn’t for his friends pulling him out he would have disappeared.

Then I looked along the craft and saw another rat coming aboard so I loaded my air rifle again and started crawling along the deck so that the visitor couldn’t see me. When I thought I was near enough I spied the rascal and took aim. That one joined its partner in the  mud and disappeared. It was starting to get dark and I made my way along the decking to the cabin which was aft. Just then my brother appeared and said he’d got us some fish and chips.

We climbed down into the cabin. We had two foldup chairs, a drop down table and two comfortable bunks and we also had a coal or wood burning stove so it was a home from home. After we had dined and had a drink we decided to turn in. The toilet was in the forecastle, so we used that and then turned in. By this time it was almost low water outside.

Next morning we got up at 6 am and I had a look outside, where the tide was flooding (which means that the water was rising). We were prepared for it and got our breakfast and afterwards did our ablutions.

About an hour later I stuck my head over the side and checked the other boats in the river. They were all afloat, yet we were still sitting on the bottom. I thought, how strange, and started to potter about tidying the deck ropes. My brother and I drank some more tea.

I then had another look over the side, and we were still sitting on the bottom whilst the other boats around us were afloat. Why weren’t we?

By this time I was concerned and told my brother to get all our personal gear on deck. I remembered I had a heavy lump hammer so I walked round the decking, smashing the hammer down with all my might on the steel decks, hoping the boat would rise with the vibration. I soon got fed up with it, but by this time the waters had risen to the decks.

Suddenly she rose, just like a submarine. My – was I pleased!! My brother put our personal gear back down into the cabin. Just then the tug came for us and took us to King George’s dock for a load of timber planking from Norway. And when we were loaded up and ready, we set off for Nottingham.

Memories by Les Davey. Words Edited by Viv Apple. 

Mr Les Davey


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
This entry was posted in Memories of Nottinghamshire, Nottinghamshire Industrial History, River & Parks, Trades & Characters. Bookmark the permalink.

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