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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Brief History of Gloucester Docks

This page gives a brief outline of the history of the docks at Gloucester. For the history of the Sharpness Canal and the Port of Gloucester, see the links above.

For more docks history, see  Telford's Contribution  Benefit from Slavery  High Orchard  Policeman Missing

Main Basin
        The 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.

Early Traffic
        Once 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 Midlands.
        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.

More Facilities
        To 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.

Victoria Dock
        During 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.

        Also 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.

1860s Boom
        With 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
        During 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
        By 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.

Petroleum Tankers
        During 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 and Stourport.

        The 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 Bridge.

        As 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 residential area.

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