World of Boats view Bertha

  • Boat Name: Bertha
  • Boat Use: Dredging
  • Boat Type: Drag Boat
  • Build Date: 1844
  • Country of Origin: United Kingdom
  • Area of Origin: Bristol/Bridgwater
  • Boat Dimensions: Length 49 ft 3 in



Bertha has a tonnage of 60 and is constructed of riveted iron with a timber superstructure.

The steam engine is a single-cylinder double-action engine and operates at a pressure of 40 pounds per square inch, steam is raised in a coal-fired boiler of unknown vintage, the motion is transferred to the main drive shaft which can be recognised by the large flywheel by means of a single reduction spur wheel drive.

Sometimes mistakenly referred to as a dredger, Bertha is in fact a drag boat. Where as a dredger operates by lifting the mud and silt out of the water, a drag boat is rather like a floating bulldozer with a submerged blade which scrapes the material along the bottom.

Although steam powered Bertha has neither screw propeller nor paddle wheels but is moved by hauling herself along a chain, the ends of which are secured to quayside bollards.


Bertha is believed to have been designed by the eminent Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and has the distinction of being the oldest operational steam driven vessel in Britain – possibly the world.

Bertha was probably designed in Bristol and assembled in Bridgwater where her role was to keep the docks clear of mud and silt. To do this, the blade, mounted on a sliding pole, was lowered by means of a chain. The vessel then hauled herself along the main chain bringing with it the mud and silt which was dragged out into the river Parrett where it was carried away by the tide. The vessel then hauled herself back along a lighter chain and the procedure repeated.

User Comments

Harry Hunt

Im very interested to see these pictures of Birtha as in 1990 – 1991 I was an apprentice shipright at Exeter maritime muesum under Mike Parimore.
We replaced the deck on Birtha and I was the lucky chap down in the hull breaking all the deck bolt nuts off with a cold chisel and a hammer, they were too far gone to unscrew, it made quite a noise in that iron hull!
We also replaced the main hatch as I remember.
It is a shame if she is in the state that some of these comments suggest.

Best Regards, Harry Hunt.Mary-Lou Watt

Hi Harry
Bertha isn’t in the worst condition but it would be super to have her displayed in an area more appropriate to her provenance. If you have any ideas about any associations who may be interested in housing her do put them in touch.
Pat.Posted: 3 years ago | Reply
We were fascinated to see Bertha at Eyemouth – at first we wondered why such an eyesore was there, until we saw the notices. It would be wonderful if she could be restored and have more documentation, and publicised. Although we are very interested in marine hiostory we’d never heard of her.
Eyemouth’s worth a visit! The Town Museum should be one your list – excellent. very helpful staff, too. The town’s interesting.Mary-Lou Watt3 years ago
Our new information board is now installed next to Bertha, by the harbour in Eyemouth.

As a charity that depends solely on visitors’ contributions we aren’t in a position to restore her at the moment but, as an important piece of maritime history, we are committed to displaying her to the public. We do hope that you, and future visitors, find the new information board instructive – it can also be viewed from our Facebook page – please follow the link at the foot of this page.


Hi Niall,

The number of Eyemouth residents who think and say that this is an eyesore are unbelievable ,the visitors stand and stare and shake their heads ,there is no interpretation board to tell anyone anything about her,she is a disgrace to the town as well as the other rotting boats in the harbour .People try to improve Eyemouth and make it desirable for tourists and locals alike but they are fighting a losing battle.She should be displayed somewhere more appropriate.
niall giffordPosted: 4 years ago | Reply
hi bertha is part of are history and devers much more than at the side of the road and in the werther roting
it is one of brunels and built in bristol work in exeter
i’ve made a model of her and put it on youtube

Margaret Paterson
Well Bertha actually looks so much better now that the Anglian Pipedream has been removed and the area tidied up,all you need now is an information panel to enable visitors to Eyemouth to have some info about her ,well done guysWorld of Boats Admin3 years ago
Hello Margaret
I’m still trying to make “Berthas'” site more presentable and would really welcome any input from you or anyone else. We’re not in a position to move her but signage is going up and, especially as Herring Queen is almost upon us, it’s essential that we tidy and make presentable areas which we’re responsible for. You’re very welcome to call in to have a chat and I’d like to meet you. Mary-Lou

Margaret Paterson

To World of Boats Admin:

I did attend at the Golf Club for the tour of the sheds but the talk was so long and boring that I along with several others left before the end ,disappointing really because I would really have liked to have seen the boats .As I look onto Bertha day in day out do you have any plans to tidy up the area and boats around her as she really is an eyesore , surrounded by weeds and the other boats are a disgrace. I watch visitors to the town looking at her and you can see that they are wondering what it’s all about ,it would be so much more inviting if the area was tidy.

Margaret Paterson

John ,she is in such a sorry state at Eyemouth that you perhaps would not want to be re-united with her .In fact most of the boats are lying in an old farm shed and the public never see them.Bertha as I have said before is lying surrounded by weeds and other old boatsWorld of Boats Admin4 years ago
Margaret, the former ‘Ostrich & Potato Sheds’ on Gunsgreen Hill in Eyemouth, where we store some 170 of the EISCA collection isn’t open to the public due to health and safety reasons and conditions of our lease with the council. However, members of the public are more than welcome to a guided tour at any time by appointment. Last October we also held an open day where members of the public where given a talk and guided tour of the collection. This is an event we plan to hold annually. The boats in storage are all extremely well chocked, supported and catalogued and not simply lying around. If you weren’t able to make the open day event I would be more than happy to give you a tour of our storage facilities.


I have a tape recording of Bertha in action in Bridgwater Docks made in 1970, just before she retired. I was on board at the time. Let me know if you want a copy.World of Boats Admin3 years ago
Hello Richard.
We would really appreciate any footage available of “Bertha”. Do you have this as a digital recording?Mary-Lou Watt


1. Allow me to be pedantic over the spelling of Bridgwater – the correct spelling would bring the page up on relevant Google searches, as well as not annoying the locals!

Here is her tale…

The management committee of the Canal Company (dock owners at the time) commissioned William Cubitt not long after the docks opened in 1841 to look into solutions for the silt problem, which accumulated at a rate of around a foot a month! He criticised the design of the docks and advised the committee that if they wouldn’t carry out his design of introducing a lock between tidal and inner basins the purchase of a “dredging engine” is essential.

It’s unknown how long the committee took to buy the machine but it was certainly in operation by 1844. Brunel designed a similar one for Bristol in 1843: larger but mechanically similar and operating on the same principle.

She’d pull herself up and down the docks with a large adjustable blade beneath the hull scraping and stirring the mud, and accumulating it in the tidal basin and shutting the gates to the inner basin. They then emptied the tidal basin, opened the sluices and washed the mud out into the river.

Bristol & Exeter Railways purchased the docks and canal in 1867 and amalgamated with GWR in 1876. Plagued by the River Parret silt, they finally carried another of Cubitt’s recommendations and put sluicing culverts in the inner basin in 1907. From then she didn’t need to operate so often or drag the mud out into the tidal basin.

Still operational, British Rail presented her to Exeter Maritime Museum in 1964, just before trying to sell the docks to the Borough of Bridgwater in 1965. With operational costs of £20,000 a year they unsurprisingly declined, and British Rail petitioned Parliament to close the docks and they shut in 1971.

Considering all the time and money the local councils have spent rejuvenating the area, I think its unfortunate Bertha has been taken so far from her “home” town.

Jim Bunting

” was dragged out into the River Parrett where it was carried away by the tide. ” Unfortunately this is incorrect and due to unsupported logic on my part when I wrote the original Bertha ‘blurb’.
Many years later I met the last captain of the vessel who advised me that the dredger was simply used to drag the mud to the centerline of the dock. When the tide was low, the lower gates would be opened and water would be flushed through the empty dock taking the accumulated mud with it, into the river. On the bottom of dock, in the middle, there were a number of horizontal propellers which helped agitate the mud as the water flowed past.
I also understand that throughout its life, incoming boats would enter the lock and moor alongside Bertha where they would quietly unload and store illicit alcohol and tobacco prior to customs inspection!

John Lee

I was interested to see that Bertha still exists. I was aware that she was in Exeter and I believe Bristol for some time but was surprised that she is now in Eyemouth.

As a boy, I can well remember watching Bertha operating in Bridgwater docks (Circa 1955). She always seemed to be working in the large inner basin moving mud down to the lock gate, presumably to be flushed out at low water. The big adventure was to go on board when the dock keeper wasn’t looking.
In those days Bridgwater docks were still just active. Coal is brought into the outer basin and mainly sand and timber in the inner Basin.
Good memories, perhaps if I am ever in the area I will come and visit to get reunited! John Lee