Main Basin at Gloucester was constructed as the terminus of the
ship canal with an entrance from the Severn estuary at Sharpness.
As the work was nearing completion, there was concern that the basin
would not be large enough for the trade expected, and so an additional
Barge Arm was constructed to ensure that the Main Basin could be
kept free for sea-going ships. In addition, the Canal Company built
a warehouse at the north end of the basin. The canal was formally
opened on the 26 April 1827, and a huge crowd gathered to watch
the first two vessels enter the basin amid the firing of guns and
the ringing of church bells.
the canal was fully operational, local merchants were soon taking
advantage of the new facilities. Importing through Gloucester cut
out the former need for transshipment at Bristol, where there were
high port charges. Cargoes could be transferred direct to narrow
canal boats which could carry the goods up the river and through
the inland canals to supply the growing industrial towns of the
geographical position of Gloucester so far inland was a tremendous
advantage, and traffic was soon exceeding all expectations. As well
as the trows and barges employed in the existing river and coastal
trade, there were increasing numbers of two-masted brigs and schooners
and some three-masted barques. Early imports included corn from
Ireland and the Continent, timber from the Baltic and North America,
and wines and spirits from Portugal and France. The main export
was salt which was brought down the river from Worcestershire.
cope with all this activity, warehouses were built around the Main
Basin, an earlier dry dock was enlarged, and an engine house was
built to augment the canal's water supply by pumping from the River
Severn. To extend the quay space, Bakers Quay was constructed along
the canal, and this was mainly laid out for timber yards. Large
storage yards were necessary as the timber loading ports were iced-up
during the winter and most of the imports arrived during the summer
and autumn. Several of the yards were surrounded by high fences
and were locked up under customs supervision so that foreign timber
could be stored there without paying import duty. Some of the ships
bringing timber from North America were locally owned, and they
often carried emigrants on the outward journey.
the 1840s, it was realised that further developments would be necessary.
At busy times, the basin became so crowded that vessels had to wait
their turn for a berth. Also, there was a national movement towards
reduced import duties, and particularly following the repeal of
the Corn Laws in 1846, the Canal Company recognised they should
prepare for a major increase in foreign imports. They therefore
arranged for the Victoria Dock to be constructed to the east of
the Main Basin with a narrow cut linking the two, and the new dock
was opened in 1849. At the same time, further corn warehouses were
built and new timber yards were established.
during the 1840s, there were various moves to bring railway connections
into the docks. First the Midland Railway constructed a standard
gauge line from their station to the south end of Bakers Quay with
a branch serving the east side of the main docks area, and later
the Great Western Railway operated a broad gauge branch from the
South Wales line to serve a new quay on the west side of the canal.
These lines were increasingly used to distribute imports to the
Midlands in competition with the river and canal route.
the benefit of the improved facilities, foreign imports increased
dramatically during the 1850s and 60s. Corn came from northern Europe
and the Black Sea ports situated around the mouth of the Danube,
further warehouses were constructed and three flour mills were established.
Timber came from the Baltic, North America and the arctic coast
of Russia, and new timber yards and saw mills were established beside
the canal south of Gloucester. Other imports included wines and
spirits, oranges and lemons, and bones and guano for fertiliser.
Unfortunately, salt was still the only regular export, and most
vessels chose to go elsewhere to find a return cargo.
Sharpness New Dock
the 1860s, difficulties were reported because the general increase
in the size of merchant ships meant that some were too big to come
up the canal fully laden. The Canal Company therefore built a new
entrance and dock at Sharpness that would take the largest ships
of the day. The new dock opened in 1874, and this allowed the growth
in imports to continue. The smaller vessels came up the canal as
before, whilst cargoes from the larger ships were transhipped at
Sharpness and brought up the canal in barges and lighters.
Early Twentieth Century
the early years of the twentieth century, the docks were being used
by steamers as well as by sailing vessels, and there were regular
services to continental ports. However, the continuing increase
in the size of merchant ships, particularly steamers, meant that
a growing proportion of the goods coming to Gloucester arrived in
barges and lighters from Sharpness or other Bristol Channel ports.
Much of the corn was sent straight on to the Midlands, and this
led to a decline in the use of the warehouses at Gloucester.
the 1920s, new traffic was generated by the demand for petroleum
products for the growing number of road vehicles with internal combustion
engines. This became very important in the years following, and
a fleet of tanker barges was used to bring the petroleum from Avonmouth.
Some of the barges continued up the river to depots at Worcester
old Canal Company was nationalised in 1947, and the new management
set about encouraging more sea-going ships to come up to Gloucester.
The docks also remained busy with barge traffic well into the 1960s.
The petroleum traffic then declined rapidly following the construction
of underground pipelines and the establishment of a depot at Quedgeley,
and the other barge traffic came to an end in the face of competition
from road transport. By 1980, virtually the only remaining commercial
vessels were the coasters coming to the quays south of Llanthony
the commercial traffic died away, it was partly replaced by an increase
in pleasure craft, and the docks became a popular place for moorings.
The survival of the old warehouses made the Main Basin an ideal
location for filming historical drama, and many scenes for the popular
television series The Onedin Line were filmed in front of Biddle
Warehouse. In recent years, new uses have been found for the
warehouses, and the docks are developing as a popular leisure and