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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Sabrina Barges

For more about Barges, see Barges & Lighters and Grain Barges

Six unpowered barges named Sabrina 1 to 6 were built by Charles Hill & Sons at Bristol in 1944, and No 5 is now the largest exhibit at the National Waterways Museum. Towed everywhere by tugs, they were mainly used for carrying 130 to 150 tons of imports from Avonmouth to Worcester or Stourport via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and the River Severn. This page gives a brief account of how such barges were operated.

The Barge Fleet
     The 90ft long Sabrina barges were ordered by the Ministry of War Transport and initially joined the existing barge fleet of the Severn Carrying Company. This fleet was later taken over by what became British Waterways who by 1960 had 6 motor and about 20 dumb barges. Each barge was crewed by two men, who shared a cabin in the stern under the wheelhouse.

barges at Gloucester and some mud hoppers (with cargo visible) that had to be pressed into service at busy times. On the left are the West Quay warehouses, since demolished. (Photo: K Gibbs)

Role of the Barges
     The main role of the British Waterways barges was to pick up imports from ships at Avonmouth and to carry them inland - mainly to Diglis Wharf at Worcester or Nelson Wharf near Stourport. The principal cargoes were metals such as copper, zinc, steel and aluminium, and foodstuffs such as wheat, cheese, cocoa beans and tinned tomatoes. Occasionally there was an outward cargo, and some trips were made to other ports in the Bristol Channel, but these were rare. Other motor and dumb barges were operated by private companies.

     The operation of the fleet was managed from an office beside the Barge Arm at Gloucester. When a ship carrying goods destined for the Midlands was expected at Avonmouth, barge and tug crews were given appropriate orders. A tug could tow two or three dumb barges and sometimes as many as four.

     At Avonmouth, a barge went alongside a ship, and the cargo was loaded by registered dockers. Then the crew replaced the hatch boards and sheets over the hold. If the cargo was particularly valuable, a wire was stretched back and forth across the top and a lead seal was attached. Coming up the channel towards Sharpness, waves occasionally caused the barge to roll so badly that the cargo shifted and caused a list, but there was nothing the crew could do about it.

Copper "cigars" being loaded on to Sabrina 3
(Photo: Port of Bristol Authority)

     Approaching Sharpness, the tug and barges had to swing round to head into the last of the flood tide, and then at more or less high water, they turned into the entrance. During these manoeuvres, each helmsman had to be careful to steer to keep the tow ropes taut, for if a rope went slack and then suddenly tightened, it was liable to break. Each helmsman therefore kept his eye on the barge behind, and if that rope started to drop, he turned his wheel slightly to bring it taut again.

     Once under tow on the calm waters of the canal, the crew might take the opportunity to swill the deck down, but collecting water in a bucket needed to be done carefully. The bucket had to be lowered and snatched back quickly or there was a risk of being dragged over the side. When the timing was appropriate, the crew stopped overnight at Gloucester so they could return home briefly, and then they were off up the river first thing in the morning.

Worcester and Stourport
     At their destination, the crew could earn extra money helping to discharge the cargo. If the cargo was something desirable like tinned tomatoes, the crane driver was encouraged to drop a box, and then the crew had several enjoyable meals over the next few days!

Returning Home
     On the way back down the river empty, if the river was high, the crew had to strip the wheelhouse down to get underneath the fixed bridges. Even so, approaching Worcester Bridge, it sometimes seemed as though they would not get underneath, but the tug skippers knew that there was a drop in water level at the bridge. The bow dropped first and then the stern, and before it came back up again they were through the bridge. Back at Gloucester, the crew returned home until it was their turn for another trip.

Sabrina barges at Diglis Wharf, Worcester.
(Photo: Port of Bristol Authority)

     Originally each barge had its own regular crew, but this meant that much of the crew's time was wasted while waiting to load or discharge. The Fleet Superintendent therefore introduced a system, known as hobbling, whereby men were moved around by train or bus when appropriate to work temporarily on one of the barges that did not have a regular crew. In this way, it was possible to manage more traffic with less men.

     For many years, the barge fleet was very busy and operated profitably, but its function of moving imports to the Midlands was eroded during the 1960s by the growing use of containers and lorries. After struggling for a few years, the fleet was formally disbanded in 1969, although some barge movements continued into the early 1970s.

Barges Remembered
     Although the commercial use of barges had long ended, the importance of their former role was remembered when preparations were being made to establish the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester. Sabrina 5 was restored at R W Davis & Son's yard at Saul, and in 1988 she became an exhibit at the Museum.

New Role
     In 2017, she was given a new role, as an access way was installed and her hold was converted to a meeting and education centre.

Restored steam tug Mayflower towing restored Sabrina 5 to the National Waterways Museum in 1988.

Sources: Mercantile Navy Lists, Glos RO D2460 Arrivals at Sharpness, memories of Chris Russell
and Maurice Freeman.

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