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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Russell Family

Five generations of the Russell family worked boats on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, spanning most of its commercial life. George Russell was a waterman in 1829, and his son Reuben-1 followed the same occupation in 1862. His son Reuben-2 bought his own canal boat in 1894 and later employed his son Reuben-3 to work a second boat. In the 1930s and 40s, Reuben-3 worked on the boats that carried tar from local gas works to the tar works at the Upper Parting, Sandhurst, and his son Chris continued this work in the 1950s. 

Reuben-2 (pictured right with his wife Eliza) owned several canal boats in the years before and after the First World War, mainly carrying grain into the Midlands and returning with coal. Initially, he was based in Gloucester and carried for other people, but c1910 he moved to Quedgeley where he later established his own business as a coal merchant. He had the reputation of being a hard employer.

When Reuben-3 and his family were on one trip up-country with a load of wheat, they got stuck in the ice. With no prospect of a thaw, they sent a message back asking for money so they could buy food, but the reply was "You move the boat and then I'll pay you". In desperation, they agreed to sell some of the wheat to a friendly lock keeper who kept chickens, but while Reuben-3 was carrying a sack along the towpath, some of the wheat leaked out and left a trail all the way from the boat to the chicken coop. Worried that a policeman might realise what had been going on, Reuben-3 persuaded the lock keeper to let his chickens out to clean up the incriminating trail.

Reuben and Liza Russell at Quedgeley
Reuben-2 & Eliza Russell in the 1920s

Times became hard for owner boatmen in the 1920s, and one day when Reuben-3 had his boat at Sharpness, his father arrived and told him to get all his things out as the boat was sold. Reuben-3 managed to get a job on one of Perry's barges based at Bristol for a few years, and then he worked on the boats based at the tar works beside the River Severn near Sandhurst.

The motor barge Kathleen, later replaced by the Jolly, collected tar from the gas works at Gloucester and Worcester. The Jolly was too big to pass through the locks on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the gas works site, and so the canal boat Marie (pictured right) carried two 25 ton loads of tar down to the Jolly moored in the river and then was filled with 30 tons for the return trip to the tar works.

Reuben Russell at Worcester
Reuben-3 at Worcester in the 1940s 

The Marie was towed up the Worcester & Birmingham Canal by a horse. In the 1940s, during the school holidays, Reuben-3 was joined by his son Chris (pictured right), and when Reuben-3 retired, Chris took over as skipper of the Marie in the early 1950s.

In earlier times, it had been possible to turn the Marie in the entrance to Lowesmoore Basin, but by the 1950s this had become so silted up that the Marie had to be towed up the canal stern first.

Coming down the river loaded, the Marie was towed on a long rope, and she was low in the water. Care was needed, therefore, when meeting the wash of another vessel, that she didn't dig her bow in too far, and so it was usual for the Jolly and the other vessel to ease down as they approached.

Chris Russell later worked on the Sabrina 5 (now preserved at the National Waterways Museum) carrying imports from Avonmouth to Gloucester and Worcester.

Sources: Memories and photos of Chris Russell; Canal Boat Registers; Parish Registers.

Chris Russell at Worcester
Chris Russell at Worcester in the 1940s

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