“A trade fraught with danger and tribulation”
In June 1892, James Percy Knight and Robert Jeffries set themselves up as seeking tug owners, aiming to tow barges and lighters on the River Thames. With a legacy from James’ father, John Peake Knight, they bought three new steam tugs, hired rooms at 27 Great Tower Street, London, rented moorings at Blackwall Pier and named the business ‘The Kaiser Steam Tug Company’. Given that London was easily the largest port in the world at that time, they could hardly have chosen a more crowded or competitive marketplace in which to start out. James had, however, inherited his father’s engineering talent.
John Peake Knight, who was the former general manager of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, was a prolific innovator in locomotive engineering, and most remembered as the inventor of the traffic light. Powered by gas, his “chromatic glory” was positioned at a notorious horse-drawn traffic black spot by the Houses of Parliament on 9th December,1868.
James’ technical aptitude was quickly demonstrated by his introduction, in 1897, of London’s most powerful barge tug, the 325 hp Kestrel. He applied engineering standards derived from the more advanced locomotive industry to the rudimentary steam tugs of the day, prone as they were to boiler explosion. Indeed steam was to remain the motive power of the industry for many decades to come; JP Knight being one of the first to switch to diesel, in 1931.
The Kaiser Steam Tug Co’s operation extended from Hammersmith on the Thames round to Tonbridge on the River Medway, towing barges loaded with cement, coal, even hay. By 1914 the business owned fourteen tugs: but war made its presence felt, not least by way of a change of name to JP Knight. River towage continued, surviving not only the First World War, but also the Great Depression of the late Twenties and the Second World War. Indeed it was not until 1972 that the traditional barge trades dried up on the Thames.
In 1950 JP Knight diversified into ship handling following the construction of an oil refinery on the Medway at the Isle of Grain. From here the company expanded in to Scotland in 1969 onto the Cromarty Firth and in 1976 to the Orkney Islands, co-founding the Orkney Towage Company. The company became a significant pioneer in harbour tug design, especially in automation and propulsion.
In 1964 the company built their first flat deck barge, the 1,000 tonne Kingsnorth, to move steel piles for the construction of a power station jetty on the Medway. The fleet grew through the 70s and 80s to become one of the largest offshore barge contractors in the North Sea, culminating in the Kawara, a 22,000 tonne giant.
For all of the Company’s first hundred years, JP Knight had either tugs but few barges, or barges but no tugs to tow them (though built many ship handling tugs). It took a major change of direction in 1990 to bring the two together in a bauxite barging contract in Guyana, South America. By 2006, when the contract ceased, over 24 million tonnes had been transported by river.
122 years later, JP Knight continues to be guided by its founding father’s pioneering spirit of competition through innovation and integrity, albeit in a trade and a continent far removed from Blackwall Pier.