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What is a Wherry?

By Sonal Panse
Updated May 23, 2024
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A wherry is a flat-bottomed boat that was once widely used for transporting passengers and goods on the Thames river and on the inland waterways of East Anglia. It evolved from the Norfolk Keel, an old type of boat from the Middle Ages. There were two main types of wherries, the trade wherries and the pleasure wherries.

The trade wherries played an important role in commerce in the days before the railways. A wherry cargo boat could carry several tons of cargo back and forth along the waterways and canals to ships waiting out at sea. These wherry boats varied in size according to the size of the waterways they traversed, ranging variously from 12 feet (3.66 m) six inches (15.24 cm) by three feet ((0.915 m) six inches (15.24 cm) to 54 feet (16.47 m) by 12 feet (3.66 m) eight inches (20.32 cm).

A wherry cargo boat generally had a black-painted hull, black-painted sails and a white-painted prow. The black color of the hull and sails was meant to protect the boat from the effects of dust and dirt, while the white prow ensured an easy visibility of the vessel. The prow was built long and overhanging to make disembarking easier at a time when there were few or no landing stages along the waterways.

The cargo boats usually had specifically designed or decorated wind vanes and mast tops as forms of identification. People could recognize who owned a particular wherry by looking at its unique mast design or wind vane design. In addition to the cargo wherries, there were smaller wherry row boats that were used to ferry passengers across rivers and canals.

Row boat wherries usually had two boatmen rowing at each end. These boats were especially popular in the Elizabethan times, and continued to be in use until the 1800s. The arrival of more modern transport and the extensive building of bridges ended the mass appeal of the wherry row boat.

Modern forms of transport, like the railway, also dented the use of the cargo wherries. Seeing their traditional source of income vanishing, many trade wherry owners entered the burgeoning tourist industry and transformed their boats into pleasure wherries. The trade wherries were redesigned to have kitchens, dining areas and living quarters in place of the cargo hold and had sitting areas installed on the decks.

Steam wherries and yacht-like wherries next appeared on the scene and found a following. Their day was past though and keeping wherries afloat on a large scale soon became something of an economic encumbrance. In modern times, wherries are mostly owned by boating enthusiasts and boating clubs, or have been restored and put to use for the tourist industry.

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Discussion Comments
By anon331571 — On Apr 23, 2013

@anon171736: The people who rowed them were called wherryman, according to the book "Shakespeare Stealer."

By anon263481 — On Apr 24, 2012

Why is the wherry at Souter Lighthouse so named?

By anon171736 — On May 01, 2011

i would like to know what the people who rowed them were called.

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