Water and hay do not normally go together. Water is definitely not welcome when cut grass is drying into hay. But, in the pre-rail era when heavy, bulky goods had to be moved long distances, rivers and canals were used as transport networks, and waterborne boats and barges were common hay vehicles, not only into big cities like Paris and London but out of New England coastal marshes and around San Francisco Bay. This essay brings together several images of waterborne hay and waterside haystacks, the pre-industrial equivalent of tankers and refineries. The delicate work to the left, appropriately enough, is a watercolor, by George Chambers (1803-1840), one of two marine paintings in the Tate Gallery by this short-lived artist. As in our other essays, images are clustered by sub-theme: seventeenth century Holland; Empire Paris and Edwardian London; eastern England; rural France; hay-boats around the shores and waterways of the North Sea; and finally smaller hay sailboats from France, New England, and northern California.
Hay boats of seventeenth century Holland
Hay boats in the hearts of Paris and London
The two views above both show the banks of the Seine in the heart of Paris, early in the nineteenth century. The Victor-Jean Nicolle watercolor on the left, about 1810, is from the collections of the Chateaux de Malmaison et Bois-Preau. It is an upstream view of the ‘port au foin’ (the hay port of Paris) on the Quai de la Tournelle near the bridge of the same name. The artist and precise date of the other print are unknown. However it also shows the Quai de la Tournelle, looking downstream to the Pont de Sully, the Ile St-Louis and beyond to Notre Dame. Thus hay was delivered to the very center of the great city.
London's National Maritime Museum has a fine description of its 1835 painting (at left) by Edward William Cooke, providing details on the commercial importance of the hay trade and the other freight, fertilizing growth both in town and country, associated with it.
'Thames barges such as this carried hay and other goods to London and around the south-east English coast. On board the laden barge, two men row with long sweeps and two are positioned at the stern. These barges had a shallow draught and were particularly suitable to enter farm creeks. They brought hay from as far as Suffolk and Margate on the Kentish shore to feed the thousands of horses in London, returning with loads of manure to spread on the fields. Under the hay they often carried a heavier cargo such as bricks, for London's rapid urban expansion. The river, the main highway through the capital, is shown full of craft. Greenwich can be seen to the left with the two domes of the Hospital and its buildings prominent.'
Another painting in the National Maritime Museum shows how far hay-boats followed the Thames into the heart of the country. John Thomas Serres' landscape of the river near Shillingford in Oxfordshire includes among several other types of river-craft a large, flat-bottomed hay-barge. Again, the Museum's annotation is invaluable: 'There are three different Thames craft, two spritsail 'upstream' barges used for trading with London together with a flat lighter-barge carrying hay... The idealized setting evokes Dutch 17th-century landscape painting and the pronounced reflections reinforce an air of stillness and unreality.' Serres, once the official marine painter of George III, according to the Museum biography, signed his name on the stern of the hay barge.
The left etching below is by Sir Francis Seymour Haden, eminent Victorian surgeon who honed his skills by becoming an equally eminent etcher. His 'Hay barge' in the Albright Knox Gallery is almost certainly moored on the Thames, since it appears on the same plate as a landscape of Barnes, west London. The other etching below, from the Collage database of the Corporation of London,was done by Mortimer Menpes almost a century later, when hay barges still delivered food for the dray horses of London, to the Thames embankment near the Custom House.
Hayboats on the water of eastern England
The engraving above is from a series by the great English landscapist J. M. W. Turner on the 'History of Richmondshire' (now North Yorkshire). 'Simmer Lake' (now Semer Water) is transformed by Turner into a grandly sublime mountain landscape reminiscent of the Norwegian fjords. At the near end of the lake a large boat is loading or unloading hay, while an empty cart waits nearby. Further out on the lake another boat is also carrying a mound of hay-like material. The engraving is part of the finest of all Turner collections, the Tate Gallery in London. To the right of the Turner is an oil painting by Peter De Wint, also in the Tate and also depicting waterborne hay in one of England's eastern counties. But the landscape and theme could not be more different. Much of East Anglian Lincolnshire is a lowlying plain, like the Netherlands just above sea level and transected by a network of canals and tidal rivers. A wagon is being unloaded onto a barge on the 'Roman Canal.' The loose hay on the barge is being packed in much the way a stack is created, firmly compressed forkfuls built around the edges first.
Hay on rustic rivers
Hay on and around the North Sea
The next four images continue the progression from small barges on tidal inlets to relatively huge seaworthy boats, piled proportionally as high with hay as our contemporary container ships are with their cargo. At upper left is a glowing oil painting from 1865 by the Belgian, Charles Leickert, whose 'Unloading the hay' appeared in a London gallery in 1980. To its right, is Edmund Crawford's 'Dutch hay barge' a coolly delicate 1870 English watercolor in which the eye is drawn to yellow hay under white sails. The large 'C' watermark stands not for Crawford but for 'Collage' the useful visual database assembled from collections owned by the City of London. The contrast between these works and those below is accentuated by the different (and indifferent) quality of the reproductions. Johan Jongkind's 'Bateau de foin' on the Meuse near Dordrecht is done in sketchy, linear brush-strokes, while Henry Redmore's canvas of massive hayboats under full sail on the Humber estuary, even in black and white, is a more conventional marine painting. Redmore was an obscure Hull engineer who began to paint 'in a highly competent and serene Dutch 17th century vein' (Country Life 3/25/71) in the late 1850s.
The last of our collection of large sea-going hayboats is by another obscure English artist, Richard Henry Nibbs, who, according to Lowndes Lodge Gallery, London, which offered this canvas for sale in 1973, 'specialized in marine subjects and painted many scenes off the French coast.' Even in the imperfect Country Life reproduction of a modest work which in the original is only 12 inches wide, the two moored hay barges achieve a certain dignity, certainly grander than the status normally associated with their humble cargo. Their geographic location is uncertain, but their importance to the nineteenth century coastal trade along the shores of the English Channel and the North Sea is clearly evident, both in this image and in the ones above.
Hay under sail
Let's end with an evocative passage from Sarah Orne Jewett on the subject of gundalows, bringing together all 'curiously foreign elements' with an especially vivid imagination:
'When you catch sight of a tall lateen sail and a strange, clumsy craft that looks heavy and low in the water, you will like to know that its ancestor was copied from a Nile boat, from which a sensible old sea-captain took a lesson in ship-building many years ago. The sail is capitally fitted to catch the uncertain wind, which is apt to come in flaws and gusts between the high, irregular banks of the river; and the boat is called a gundalow, but sometimes spelled gondola. One sees them often on the Merrimac and on the Piscataqua and its branches, and the sight of them brings a curiously foreign element into the New England scenery; for I never see the great peaked sail coming round a point without a quick association with the East, with the Mediterranean ports or the Nile itself, with its ruins and its desert and the bright blue sky overhead; with mummies and scarabei and the shepherd kings; with the pyramids and Sphinx -- that strange group, so old one shudders at the thought of it -- standing clear against the horizon.'
from 'River Driftwood' which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (48:500-510), October, 1881, was collected in Country By-Ways, 1881, and is now, thanks to Terry Heller, online at http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/cbw/river.htm .
Several more hay boats floated into the database after the above essay was more-or-less completed, thanks in part to the willingness of our hay-mate correspondents to alert us to what we had missed. Please keep those suggestions coming. Go to the database to find more details about these images, including source information.
1. Eric Bottomley greeting card (date unknown) Hay barge, Great Western Canal (ID 1329).
2. Frederick Watts, Hay barge on the River Itchen, 1850s (ID 1340).
16. Wilhelm Hester. Freighting bales of hay in small boats, Washington State. c 1900 (ID 2082).
17. Charles Hosea. Marsh lighter with scythe [Norfolk, England] (ID 2480).
"The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a Harmony in grey:
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold
"The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses' walls
Seemed changed to shadows, and S. Paul's
Loomed like a bubble o'er the town."
James and Kimel Baker (see their comment below) were kind enough to send me a digital version of a painting in their collection by the California artist Bertha Stringer Lee. It shows barges loaded "with ochre-colored hay" at the old hay wharf in San Francisco, where fogs, although rarely as yellow as those of Edwardian London, are just as common as the ones so vividly described by Wilde.