The origins of the Humber keel can certainly be traced directly back to Anglo Saxon times, when square rigged vessels known as ‘ceols’ carried cargoes around the coasts and navigable rivers across the whole of northern Europe. Dated to the end of the 10th century AD, the Graveney boat found in Kent is a rare example of an Anglo-Saxon clinker-built ceol. Although most of the upper sections and nearly one-third of the stern were missing upon its discovery in 1970, enough material survived (the timbers are currently held in storage by the National Maritime Museum) to show that this vessel could carry a large cargo with a crew of four. Evidence on board indicated that the vessel was a ‘bulk-carrier’ and had had contact with the Rhine Valley, perhaps indicative of its ocean-going qualities. (English Heritage: Introductions to Heritage Assets; Ships and Boats: Prehistory to 1840)
Some believe Keels also have links to Viking ships and it is certainly true that keels were most prevalent in the areas of the east coast most visited by the norsemen. Although the square rig immediately reminds people of Vikings, it is difficult to reconcile the bluff bow and stern of Humber keels with the far sleeker hulls of Viking longships. Vessels are built to to fulfill specific functions and whilst Viking longships were built for speed and to be propelled by oars as well as sail, keels evolved to carry as much cargo as possible. However until the second half of the nineteenth century keels were clinker built (i.e. with overlapping planks) and there is evidence that they had finer lines than the carvel built (i.e. planks joined edge to edge) wooden keels and the later steel keels.
There is a model of a medieval cargo ship in the Science Museum in London that is very reminiscent of a keel, both in its hull shape and details of the rig and ground tackle.
Although sea going vessels developed in both hull shape and sailing rig, the simple square keel rig was maintained for inland craft. This was not just in England but also in the Netherlands, where the early Tjalks were square rigged as can be seen in the painting Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael dated around 1669 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). However in the Netherlands they were soon after replaced first by spritsails and then by the gaff rig.
Until the nineteenth century there were various types of keel trading around the east coasts of the UK. They survived longest in the north east. As well as the Humber keel there were small Tyne keels used to transport coal from the coal mines to sea going ships on the Tyne. Further south there were Norfolk keels that survived until the end of the 19th century, before being replaced by the gaff rigged wherries. There is evidence of Humber keels trading along the east coast as far south as London until the nineteenth century. These keel were clinker built and probably more seaworthy vessels than the later keels.
With the coming of the industrial revolution there was a need to carry bulk cargoes as quickly and efficiently as possible and the numbers of Humber Keels increased significantly. The emphasis became more on serving the industrial centres linked to the inland waterways accessible from the Humber. Although canals in other parts of the country were built to accommodate the traditional narrow boats, more seaworthy vessels were needed for the challenging waters of the Humber and adjoining rivers of the Ouse and the Trent. When canals were built to improve transport to the growing industrial centres in the north east, they were built as wide beam canals able to accommodate Humber Keels and avoid further transhipment of cargoes. There were different sizes of locks, with some as small as 57” 6′ x 14′ 6” but the most common size for steel vessels was the Sheffield size 61′ 6” x 15′ 6”. As Humber Keels came to work more on inland waterways there was more emphasis on increasing carrying capacity and making the maximum use of the lock dimensions.
Ship or Barge?
Some people refer to keels as ‘ships’, based on the fact that one definition of a ship is a vessel that is square rigged on all masts. Whilst it is true that a keel is square rigged on its single mast, other definitions require sailing ships to have three or more masts. Many Humber keels, including Daybreak, were registered with the British Registry of Ships and certainly fall within the definition of a ship under both the merchant shipping acts and the more recent historic ships committee definition. Although it could be argued that keels fall under the generic term of ships, the fact that keels are flat bottomed and designed to navigate inland as well as coastal waters would seem to indicate that they also fall within the definition of a barge.