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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Barges & Lighters

For more about Barges, see Sabrina Barges and Grain Barges

This page describes the changing role of barge and lighter traffic on the canal, which provided an important means for the carriage of goods between sea-going ships and the Midlands.

Early Barge Traffic
        In the early days of the canal, most of the regular barges using the canal were based up the River Severn at Worcester or Stourport, and they usually carried a variety of goods, classed as sundries, to and from Gloucester or Bristol. The barges were typically 65-70ft long and 13-15ft wide to suit the barge locks at Stourport, and they could carry around 60 tons of cargo. Each was crewed by three or four men who occupied cabins in the bow and stern. (Some vessels with two masts were referred to as trows, and some without masts or sails were called lighters, but all three types will be referred to here as barges.) While on the river and the canal, each barge was towed by a horse or later by a steam tug. When on the more open waters of the estuary south of Sharpness, sails were set to give the barge steerage way, but the crew also made good use of the strong tidal currents.

Carrying Firms
     In the middle of the nineteenth century, the main carrying firms were Danks & Co, Pickford & Co and Benjamin Devey, but competition from the railways forced a series of amalgamations until in 1874, most of the general cargo barges were brought together under what became known as the Severn & Canal Carrying Co. In due course, this company established its main base at Gloucester, where goods were trans-shipped between barges and inland canal boats.

More Barge Traffic
        The opening of the new dock at Sharpness in 1874 highlighted the need for barges to carry goods inland from ships that were too big to pass up the canal to Gloucester. This need was met primarily by Mousell Chadborn & Co and G T Beard, both firms having depots at Gloucester and Sharpness. Initially, their barges carried much grain and timber from Sharpness to Gloucester, with some continuing up the river to Worcester and Stourport. Later, they also needed to send barges to Avonmouth to collect imports from ships that were too big to come to Sharpness. Other barge owners also began picking up at Avonmouth, and in 1902 the Dock Co started a tug service in the estuary for this traffic. In the first half of the twentieth century, the principal barge operators were Severn & Canal, Mousell Chadborn and G T Beard, and there were other barges that supplied waterside flour mills. Some larger steel barges without sails came into service, typically carrying 120 to 180 tons, and some were fitted with motors.

        Many barges carried grain and timber from Sharpness and Avonmouth to Gloucester and further inland. The timber on some barges was piled so high that a platform had to be provided near the stern so that the steerer could see over the top. Other inward cargoes collected from Avonmouth and Bristol included metals, cocoa beans, carbide, strawboard and tinned food. This last cargo was particularly popular with the bargemen, as it was easy to arrange for a crate to be damaged in handling and for some tins to fall out. In 1929, John Harker Ltd began using tanker barges to collect petroleum products from Avonmouth, and this traffic became very important over the next thirty years, with many later barges having motors. Unfortunately, there were few outward cargoes, and most barges passed down the canal empty.

Going Down the Canal
        To pass along the canal, most of the dry-cargo barges relied on the regular tug service provided by the Dock Company, and it was common to have three or four barges in line behind a tug. As empty boats are difficult to steer, when going down the canal, they were usually linked by short ropes. Even then it was difficult to get all the barges through each of the narrow bridge-holes if there was much cross-wind, so whenever possible a loaded boat was put at the back of the tow to help to steady it. When a tow was approaching a bridge, the bridgeman opened one half-span, and it had long been the practice for a crew member to go ashore to open the other half-span and then to be picked up again. This difficult and risky operation was not popular with the men, and in the 1920s the Dock Company began providing a regular passman to accompany each tow, riding a bicycle along the towpath and opening and closing each half-span as the tow passed through.

Going Up the Canal
        For loaded barges going up the canal, it was usual for them to be linked by long ropes, to minimise the risk of collisions when slowing down. These long ropes were a popular target for boys swimming in the canal, as they could reach the lowest part of the sag and so be carried along for a bit of fun. One bargeman became very skilfull at walking along the towrope towards the tug in front, but when he had a bet with the tug skipper that he cold walk all the way, the skipper deliberately slowed his engine so the bargeman ended in the water. When the tow neared Llanthony Bridge, Gloucester, the ropes were cast off and each barge drifted under its own way to its intended mooring place. A round trip to Avonmouth typically took a few days, but it could last longer if there was a delay in loading.

A Final Flourish
        Barge movements on the canal reached a peak in the 1940s and continued high in the 1950s, with much use of motor barges and six new Sabrina barges (featured on a separate page). In the 1960s, however, barge traffic was seriously affected by the growing use of containers, the packaging of timber, road transport and coastal tankers. As the business diminished, most of the dry cargo barge owners sold out to the newly formed British Waterways, and they in turn formally disbanded their fleet in 1969. After this, the remaining barge movements were mainly those carrying grain to Healing’s mill at Tewkesbury (featured on another page) until these finally ended in 1998.

        This page is based on the Gloucester shipping registers, traffic register for Diglis Locks 1845, Canal Co records at Kew and the memories of former barge and tug men.

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