A barge fit for a queen

The Royal Barge Gloriana

Malcolm Knight of the Gloriana Trust describes how the world’s ultimate rowing boat is always a sight to behold, whatever the weather

The story of the building of this splendid barge goes back to when Lord Sterling (Chairman of the National Maritime Museum) was approached, on behalf of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, and asked which vessel might be suitable for an event on the River Thames at Hampton Court Palace to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Following consultation with the curators at the National Maritime Museum, Lord Sterling commissioned the building of a barge that would be timeless. Plans were drawn up, with original drawings from master boatbuilder Mark Edwards (Richmond Bridge Boathouses) developed by naval architects Stuart Roy and Ed Burnett. The keel was laid in November 2011 in a warehouse in Brentford, west London, with the build being managed by Damian Byrne (Byrne, Longshore & Co.).

A team of nearly sixty traditional boat builders from around the UK was brought together to work in shifts for nineteen weeks building the first royal barge for over two hundred years. They were joined by skilled artists from Hare & Humphreys, who completed the fine painting and gilding of the exterior decorations, which were carved by Polygon Scenery Ltd.

Launched in ‘Gloriana weather’

Sir Steve Redgrave coxing a young crew at Newham. Photo: The Gloriana Trust

The result of their labours is the craft we see today – 90 feet (27 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide, 10 tonnes, built of highgrade marine plywood on oak ribs, with sweet chestnut and oak from Prince Charles’s estate used in the construction. The hull is finished to super-yacht standards, and all the fine decoration was hand-painted and gilded using over 2,300 books of 23.3-caret gold leaf.

During the build, assistance from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Lloyd’s Register ensured that the royal barge complied with all necessary regulations for her to be granted a Class V Passenger Boat certificate. When not being rowed by eighteen oarsmen/ women, she is powered by two Torqeedo Deep Blue 40 Sail Drive auxiliary electric motors, whose rechargeable lithium ion batteries give approximately eight hours of cruising time – the first of her kind on the Thames.

In early April 2012 the barge was taken from the warehouse by low loader to Isleworth, where she was launched in what we came to call ‘Gloriana weather’ – it poured with rain!

Diamond Jubilee Pageant

The final build and coming together of all the finery was completed with the barge moored at Richmond. The royal barge, named Gloriana after Elizabeth I, was presented to the Queen accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh at Greenland Pier, Rotherhithe, on 25 April (it rained), and the public finally saw the barge for the first time on 3 June when she led the 1,000- boat Diamond Jubilee Pageant down the River Thames from Chelsea to Tower Bridge. It rained!

The pageant was the largest flotilla seen on the river for hundreds of years, with boats coming from all over the country, Europe and most importantly the Commonwealth. Leading the Queen and the royal party on board the Spirit of Chartwell were the 300 boats of the Manpowered Squadron (organised by Thames Alive – Malcolm Knight and Peter Warwick) and the flags of the 53 Commonwealth countries carried by Sea Cadets in their Trinity 500s. Following the royal barge were 700 motorised boats of all types – a spectacle enjoyed by millions in London and worldwide on that special day.

Olympic and other duties

Gloriana taking part in the Jubilee pageant on the Thames. Photo: The Gloriana Trust

Gloriana was next seen carrying the Olympic Flame on the final day of the torch relay before the London Olympics. The cauldron mounted on the bows was lit by Sir Matthew Pinsent outside Hampton Court Palace and a crew of eighteen Olympians ranging from 1946 to the 2012 hopefuls rowed the barge down river escorted by three different flotillas – traditional skiffs and gigs, youngsters from London Youth Rowing in fine boats, and finally Watermen’s cutters from the City livery companies.

Once again, thousands came and watched this spectacular flotilla as it progressed down the Thames into London. The flame was then passed to a motor launch, which delivered it to the Olympic Park, and the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ began.

The Queen’s Row Barge has gone on to attend events up and down the River Thames. She has become a welcome sight at regattas and riparian events, and has led flotillas celebrating Magna Carta 800, the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Queen’s 90th birthday, the Commonwealth Games and many others.

More recently the Duchess of Cornwall welcomed the winners from the BBC Radio 2 ‘500 Words’ competition on board outside Hampton Court Palace. The six youngsters were then taken for a short row with students from Kingston Grammar School at the oars.

In recent years Gloriana has led a flotilla of traditional rowing craft over the University Boat Race course an hour before the main races. Boats from as far afield as Venice and Malta have taken part, with oarsmen and women from fixed-seat rowing clubs bringing their boats from around the UK. The flotilla is followed up the course by two divisions of Watermen’s cutters being raced by the City livery companies and finally the 1829 replica original eights are raced by invitation crews – a wonderful ‘warm-up’ preliminary event to the boat races that follow.

Promoting youth events on the Thames

Her Majesty asked that Gloriana be retained by a new charitable trust, with assistance from Thames Alive, and she approved the principle that the royal barge will be used to promote better use of the Thames. This will be achieved by providing opportunities for a range of charities to play their part in events and celebrations upon the river, with particular emphasis on involving young people.

In 2016, a concept from Lord Sterling and Sir Steve Redgrave (now a trustee) to support and encourage youth rowing led to the setting up and running of the Gloriana Achievers Day in the Royal Albert Dock, London. Eighty students from east London schools with a rich mixture of ethnic backgrounds who have never rowed before are invited to attend.

During the morning session they are taught to row in skerries (eight-oared side-by-side boats) by coaches from Skerries 4 Schools, and this is followed by a time trial to find the fastest overall school and then side-by-side races to decide the fastest two crews. These two winning crews then row Gloriana in the finale flotilla, escorted by their fellow students in their skerries. They are all given certificates for attending, and the winning school is presented with the Gloriana Achievers Blade, a splendid trophy created for the event. The feedback has been tremendous, with such comments as ‘life changing’, ‘amazing day’, ‘awesome’ and ‘unique, enjoyable’. Plans are now afoot to extend the Achievers Day to another similar event in west London.

A permanent home

During the summer months Gloriana currently moors in St Katharine Docks, on display to the many visitors to these historic docks. The Port of London Authority assists with winter storage for the barge and with her annual maintenance. Discussions continue regarding a permanent home for the barge in a purpose-built barge house on the River Thames, to protect the fine gilding and woodwork and ensure she remains on display throughout the year.

The Queen’s Row Barge is now managed by the Gloriana Trust on behalf of the Queen, while an operating company, Gloriana Services Ltd, handles the day-to-day running of the barge. For further details, see www.glorianaqrb.org.uk or our Facebook page.