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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Workman Family

Jack Workman, who now looks after the footbridge at Saul Junction, is following a long family tradition of connections with the canal and the River Severn. Born at Purton, he worked on Harker's tanker barges and Reynolds's grain barges and then spent fifteen years as a docker at Sharpness before moving to the Junction.

Jack Workman's great grandfather, Henry Workman, moved to Sharpness soon after the new dock opened in 1874 and worked there as a corn porter (docker). Jack's grandfather, James Henry Workman was a lockgateman at Sharpness, handling ropes from ships entering and leaving the dock.

James Henry Workman (picture right) was also a keen salmon fisherman in his spare time. As the tide was going down, he joined other men with lave nets wading through the shallow water covering the sands off Sharpness, looking for the tell-tale wake made by the fin of a salmon. When one was spotted, the fisherman started running, and the chase continued until the fish was scooped up in his net. Even when Jack's grandfather was nominally on watch at the pier-head, he spent much of his time looking down into the pools under the piers, and if he saw a salmon trapped, he was quickly down there with his net.

As a child, Jack virtually lived on salmon and eels from the Severn, as his father was also a keen fishermen. Jack remembers sitting on his father's shoulders to help spot a salmon better. As there were other fishermen about, Jack was told not to shout but just to pat his father on the head and point.

James Henry Workman - salmon fisherman
James Henry Workman with lave net and salmon 

Jack Workman on BP Miller
Jack Workman on board BP Miller in Upper Lode Lock


Tanker Barge Wheldale in the ice
Tanker barge Wheldale rounding
Stonebench Turn in the ice

 Soon after Jack Workman left school, he joined the crew of the tanker barge BP Miller with Wilf Rowles as skipper. A normal trip was down to Swansea to load, back up to Monk Meadow Dock at Gloucester to discharge half the cargo and on to Worcester with the other half. There was seldom enough water in the river to allow a full cargo to be carried up the river. When leaving Gloucester early in the morning, the crew liked to buy a tray of hot lardy cakes from the café beside the lock and eat them going up the river. It was usual to do two trips a week including Sundays when they were paid double time.

The tanker men used to buy chrysanthemums from Tom Fredericks at Hardwicke Bridge, who had a wonderful show in his garden. They could order a bunch or two when passing up the canal, and Tom had the flowers ready to collect on the return journey. To avoid the boat having to stop, Tom attached the flowers to the end of a long pole which also had a cup to receive the money.

In September 1960, the BP Miller was selected to attend the official opening of the Quedgeley oil terminal. The crew did not like this as they had to tie up for two days near the old coal tip at Sharpness to paint the boat, and this meant that they were loosing trip money. They were given special white overalls for the opening day, but they had to give them back once the ceremonies were over.

In the early months of 1963, a long spell of cold weather caused ice to form on the canal, and tugs with steel plates fitted on each side of their bow were going up and down all the time trying to keep a pathway open. In spite of this BP Miller got jammed in the ice on the way up above Purton, and Jack walked on a ladder across the ice to go and get some cigarettes for the skipper. In the morning, two tugs came down from Gloucester with two or three Harker's tankers running light behind, but it took half a day for them to force their way past and allow the BP Miller to continue. Soon after this, BP Miller went into dry dock for her annual refit, and Jack did some trips on the Wheldale.

In the mid 1960s, Jack Workman got a job on the barges running to Reynolds Flour Mill at Gloucester - initially on the Wheatstone and later on the Severn Side. These carried grain from Avonmouth to Gloucester and returned empty. When loaded, Severn Side could stick any weather in the Severn, but she was difficult to control in the narrow channel of the canal. If she started to take a run, there was no way the helmsman could stop her, and she'd just go up the bank. For discharging at Gloucester, Reynolds had a Redler chain elevator in a steel pipe that went down into the hold, but the crew still had to shovel the grain to the bottom of the elevator, which was very hard work

MV Severn Side discharging wheat
MV Severn Side discharging wheat
at Gloucester

In the 1970s, Jack Workman became a docker at Sharpness. Working conditions had changed a lot since his father's time as a docker. Then it was common to end the day with blistered hands from moving bags of grain or with a bleeding shoulder from carrying lengths of timber or covered in coal dust after tipping the contents of wagons into barges. By the 1970s, the work of a docker mainly involved driving a fork-lift truck or a crane or handling strops used when lifting goods by crane. Bulk grain was sucked directly into the silo and timber came in packages lifted out by the dockside cranes. The big Henderson crane was used to move containers and another big crane moved skip-loads of scrap. The worst goods to handle were heavy bags that had to be lifted on to the crane strops, particularly bags of basic slag that was like coal dust. There was a flourishing trade with West Africa which included exports of cars, TV sets, foodstuffs and women's make-up. The main import from West Africa was big cubes of rubber, and as this was being discharged, it was common to come across vermin such as lizards and cockroaches and occasionally exotic butterflies. Sometimes the vermin were so bad that the whole ship had to be gassed.

Jack Workman at Saul Junction
Jack Workman closing the footbridge at
Saul Junction

In 1987, Jack Workman took the job of bridgeman at Saul Junction and moved to the Junction House. Although commercial traffic on the canal has subsequently died out, he has been kept busy opening the footbridge for the growing number of pleasure craft cruising up and down the canal. On a typical summer weekend day, there can be 50 to 60 boats passing through, although the number has been known to exceed 100. For several years, some of his time was spent controlling the water level in the canal. If the canal level was too low, Jack went to Gloucester to run the pumps, and if the level was too high, he opened the flood gates on the weir at Whitminster. Now Jack's son Darren is continuing the family connection with the canal, working as a bridgeman and helping with water control.

Sources: the memories and photos of Jack Workman.

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