Hull’s World War II Concrete Barges Part 1

By Richard Lewis

The History of Concrete Shipbuilding

In 1848, Frenchman, Joseph-Louis Lambot built a ‘ferro-cement’ dinghy. A second one following in 1849 and ‘Ferciment’, the methodologies and materials used to build his concrete boats, was patented, and presented at the 1855 ‘Exposition Universelle’ in Paris. His ‘Bateau Ciment’ dinghies were still afloat in 1901 and are now preserved at the Museum of Brignoles and at the Port Musée de Douarnenez.

In 1887, Picha-Stevens of Sas-van-Gent built sloop ‘De Zeemeeuw’ of wire mesh and cement mortar construction. It was presented at an industrial exhibition in Middleburg in 1889 and was in regular service at the Amsterdam Zoo until 1966, now on display at Industrieel Museum Zeeland.

In 1898, Daniel G Banks built a ferro-cement boat in the USA named ‘Gretchen’ and the first American ferro-cement boat built in the 20th century was aptly named ‘Concrete’, used by the US Naval Reserves on the Great Lakes.

In 1902, Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built the first conventional reinforced concrete barge, a 50 ton lighter known as ‘Il Ettore’. A 150-ton deadweight barge, ‘Liguria’, followed in 1905 and carried coal and tobacco bails from Genoa to Civita-Vecchia. At 54’ long and 18’ wide, her hull was polished to give the appearance of marble.

1910 saw the first British reinforced concrete vessel, ‘Sand Witch’, and the first North American commercial concrete barge, ‘Pioneer’. By 1912, The Furst Concrete Scow Construction Co. built a 500 ton TDW ‘scow’ in Baltimore and The Yorkshire Hennebique Contracting Co. Ltd of Leeds built a lighter for the Manchester Ship Canal Co. The barge was 100 feet long by 28 feet wide, 13 feet deep and could carry up to 200 tons of machinery and coal. It also had chambers to hold large quantities of sludge dredged from the canal.

Concrete vessels were also being built in Belgium, Holland, El Salvador, France, Germany, USA, France, Canada, Panama, Brazil, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, and others.

During World War I, the German U-boat campaign, targeting Allied merchant vessels, had a catastrophic impact on the Allied Merchant fleet. By September 1915, the Germans had sunk 570,000 gross tons of shipping and by one year later, British losses alone had risen to almost 640 merchant vessels with a capacity of 2,295,329 Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT). These losses continued to escalate and indeed, by the end of World War I, German U-boats attacking the trade routes in the Atlantic alone had resulted in the sinking of almost 5000 Allied Merchant vessels with a loss of nearly 13 million tons GRT.

This heavy loss of ships, combined with an acute shortage of steel, led the British Government to look for alternative materials with which to construct ocean going merchant vessels. Lloyd’s created a classification for ferro-concrete ships and by late 1917, the British Government funded a programme to construct 154 concrete ships – 24 steam tugs and 130 barges – to be managed by the Ministry of Shipping at an estimated cost of £4,000,000.

Concrete ships were said to be cheaper, quicker to build & saved on steel. Other advantages were that there was no jointing or rivet holes, a reduced upkeep and repairs bill, freedom from corrosion, and less skilled labour could be used in the building, traditional shipbuilding skills being in short supply and established shipyards flat out building and repairing steel vessels.

Companies that had never built a single ship before were given contracts to build ‘Crete Ships’, so called because the name of each ship was prefixed with ‘Crete’ and suffixed with a noun. In the event that the noun started with a vowel, the trailing ‘e’ from Crete was dropped, hence ‘Cretacre’, ‘Cretalp’ etc. Most ‘Crete Ship’ builders were construction companies. There were two systems employed to build ‘The Crete Fleet’ – the Mouchel/Hennébique ‘Monolithic’ system and also a new emerging methodology, the ‘Ritchie Unit System’ method which used moulds to form pre-cast sections, which were then assembled on the slipway to form the ship’s hull.

Courtesy of Preston Digital Archive

17 shipyards completed 12 ‘Crete Tugs’ and 52 ‘Crete Barges’ from the 24 ‘Crete Tugs’ and 130 ‘Crete Barges’ originally ordered. Today, there is only one surviving example of a floating World War I Crete Ship – Cretegaff, the hulk of a steam tug which is sited at Carlingford Marina, Co. Louth, Republic of Ireland.

For more information please visit

Ferro-Concrete Barge Building in World War II

The Ministry of Shipping that had controlled merchant shipping in World War I was re-established on 13th October 1939, and by the end of 1939, the Ministry inaugurated what was described as a ‘modest programme of reinforced concrete shipbuilding’. The driving force for the programme was the need to conserve steel required for guns, tanks and ships but unlike the World War I concrete ships, the Ferro-Concrete Barges (FCBs) were designed for use on inland waterways, rivers and docks.

There were three primary designs of FCBs – Stem-head Open Barges, Swim-head Open Barges and later what became known as ‘Petrol Barges’. Stem-head Open Barges, also known as Lighters, could carry up to around 200 tons of cargo and their purpose was ‘lighterage’, receiving cargos from larger ships in the docks and transporting said cargo to where it was needed via rivers or canals.

The plan – below – for the Stem-head Open Barges as designed by Mouchel, appeared in (the now defunct) Concrete & Constructional Engineering October 1945 entitled ‘Precast Reinforced Concrete Cargo Barges’ and was the design used for Hull’s Ferro-concrete Barges.

Both Mouchel and Ritchie were invited to design the FCBs to be largely built of pre-cast panels, the system pioneered by Harry C Ritchie two decades or so earlier. Pre-cast panels of standard design could be mass-produced anywhere in the country from concrete poured into standard moulds, on an assembly line basis. Only a little steel reinforcement was necessary for these pre-cast sections and steel ends projected for the interlocking and knitting process when they were assembled.

The concrete once poured was vibrated at high speed to ‘shake it down’. Panels were then moved to the ‘erection yard’ for completion. Except for bow and stern shapes, the concrete slabs were of standard shape and size, 7 ft x 3 ft x 2 inches thick. A certain amount of additional reinforcing of the concrete was needed for the keelson, the floors, frames, hatch coamings and the bow & stern.

A Mouchel designed barge was made up of 174 pre-cast units and used 12.25 tons of reinforcing steel. The steel mesh reinforced concrete panels were bolted and cemented together to form the hull.

The dimensions, taken from a Lloyd’s Registry certificate, were as follows, and they had an empty draught of 3’ 8” and a loaded draught of 8’ 1” :-

Length from fore part of stem to the aft side of the head of the stern post84 Feet, 7 Tenths
Main Breadth to outside of plank22 Feet, 7 Tenths
Depth in hold from tonnage deck to ceiling amidships7 Feet, 5.5 Tenths
Depth from top of deck at side amidships to bottom of keel9 Feet, 1.5 Tenths
Round of Beam3 Tenths

A Ferroconcrete Barge (A 4700) Copyright: © IWM

As to whether FCBs were a success is a matter of opinion, but it is a fact that from 1940 onwards, the Open Barges transported and transhipped a wide variety of goods – grain, coal, raw materials and even equipment such as armoured personnel carriers – at all the major west coast ports and on the Thames and in 1961 23 FCBs were still in service on the Manchester Ship Canal.

This article is © Richard G Lewis and is an edited excerpt from two manuscripts, researched and written by the author on the subject of British ferro-concrete ships.

For further information and contact:




Thanks to:

Barney Smith, curator of the Preston Digital Archive for permission to use the Ritchie System image.

The Imperial War Museum


Bonderund, E. Concrete Shipbuilding Volume I – 1848 – 1939. Unpublished.

Bonderund, E. Concrete Shipbuilding Volume II – 1940 – 2000. Unpublished.

Simons, P. 2012. Reinforced Concrete Barges of World War II – A Working Paper. World Ship Society. 2nd Edition.

Concrete and Constructional Engineering. 1945. Precast Reinforced Concrete Cargo Barges.

Ritchie & Black. 1922. A New Way of Building Concrete Ships, The Ritchie Unit System. Liverpool. Ritchie & Black.

National Archives. Ministry of War Transport, Marine Division file MT 9/3384.

Thanks very much to Richard for the article and if you have any information regarding Ferro-concrete Barges and ‘the Crete Fleet’, please get in touch with Richard at

One thought on “Hull’s World War II Concrete Barges Part 1

  1. A bit more info on concrete craft in war.
    Concrete craft played a vital role in the D Day landings. As well as the massive Phoenix Caissons, some of which can still be viewed off the Normandy Beaches. There were the ‘Beetles’ that looked like the Crete barges but were considerably smaller and acted as the pontoons for the flexible roadways which linked the floating Pier-heads or the Lobnitz spud legged Piers to the landing beaches. These were vital to the rapid discharge of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of vehicles and supplies to enable the Allied advance into France and Germany.
    Some of these ‘Beetles’ can still be seen on the beaches in the vicinity of Garlieston on the Solway Firth. Much of the testing of components for the Piers and roadways took place near Garlieston. Somes ideas worked, others did not pass stress testing! One of which was the ‘Swiss Roll’ , another one was the ‘Hippo’.


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