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James Herbert


James Herbert rose from humble beginnings to become a leading figure in the dying days of the Severn Vale shipping community that was based around the villages of Frampton, Saul and Arlingham. This community of sailing vessel owners and crews had developed during the nineteenth century near to the junction of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and the Stroudwater Canal.

James's father Thomas was an agricultural labourer who moved to the area shortly before James was born in 1850, but James followed many local young men in choosing a life afloat, and other members of his family followed his example.


The Chepstow smack Industry purchased
by James Herbert in 1919

Early Days
After leaving school, James Herbert joined the crew of one of the numerous small sailing vessels then trading around the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel. He evidently made a good impression, as in 1872 (at the age of only 22) he became master of the barge Ready Penny, owned by Framilode coal merchant Richard Williams. He soon moved on to the larger Nelly and then the Maria, both also owned by Richard Williams. These two barges regularly carried about 60 tons of Forest of Dean coal from Lydney to wharves along the Stroudwater and Thames & Severn Canals.

Coal to Stroud Gas Works
In 1876, James Herbert took on a new role as master of the barge Reliance, owned by the Stroud Gas Light & Coke Co and pictured right on the Stroudwater Canal. For the next 20 years he averaged 40 trips a year to Newport to collect 65 to 70 tons of coal and bring it back to the gas works. During this time, he lived at Framilode and then Whitminster, and he and his family were also involved in farming.

First Vessel
James Herbert evidently prospered with his busy life, and in 1891 he was able to purchase his first vessel. The barge John of 72 tons register, with successive local men as master, traded across the Bristol Channel, sailing between Newport, Bristol, Cardiff and Weston super Mare. Two years later James purchased the barge Volunteer, and with his eldest son Benjamin as master, this carried Forest coal from the railway tip at Sharpness to Stroud gas works. Three years later Volunteer was replaced by the barge Wherry Packet, which continued the same traffic. During this period, James's younger brother Charles was also afloat, as master of barges owned by the Field family carrying coal from Bullo Pill to wharves along the Stroudwater Canal.

Owner/Master
After 20 years of routine shuttle between Newport and Stroud gas works, in 1897 James Herbert arranged for Benjamin to replace him as master of the Reliance, leaving James himself free to become master of his own barge John. As befitting an owner/master, he also moved into the newly-built Kimberley House close to Fretherne Bridge. Unfortunately, his new life proved more exciting than had he would have wished. In the following March, the barge experienced heavy weather while sailing from Barry to Newport and foundered near the island of Flat Holm. The crew, who included James's third son Arthur, had to take to the boat - they were later rescued by another vessel and landed at Weston.

More Family Involvement
James Herbert replaced the John with the smaller trow Victory, 37 tons register, and this he used to trade between Newport, Bristol, Chepstow and Bridgwater. On some of these trips, he was accompanied by one or more of his younger sons, Arthur, John and James jnr, until he handed over command to his son-in-law William Halling in 1910. By this time, he had also purchased vessels for other members of his family. His son Joseph became master of the Bridgwater registered ketch Two Brothers (pictured right at Bridgwater), his son William became master of the barge Perseverance, trading between Bristol, Lydney, Chepstow and Newport, and the Wherry Packet was replaced by the Endeavour taking coal from the Sharpness tip to Stroud gas works. Meanwhile his eldest son Benjamin continued as master of the Reliance, still taking coal from Newport to Stroud gas works.

Cadbury's Factory
The Herbert family's long association with Stroud gas works was about to come to an end, however, as the opening of Cadbury's factory near Fretherne Bridge in 1916 created another customer needing a regular supply of coal. Benjamin Herbert relinquished his command of the Reliance, the Endeavour ceased carrying to Stroud Gas Works and instead the family began supplying Cadbury's with coal brought from the Sharpness tip. To help with this traffic, James Herbert bought the former Severn & Canal Carrying Co barge William in 1915, although four years later this was replaced by the smack Industry which was fitted with a motor. Cadbury's factory was partly built on land sold by James Herbert, and as his house became the home of the factory manager, he moved to Cambridge near Slimbridge and later to Oatfield between Frampton and Whitminster.

Final Years
By the 1920s, the days of commercial sail were coming towards their end, but although over seventy, James Herbert was determined to keep the old traditions going as long as possible. He bought the Reliance after she ceased carrying coal to Stroud gas works in 1920, and he bought the Bridgwater ketches Marian and Champion - the latter being an appropriate name for an owner who was a champion of coastal sailing vessels until he died in 1930. By this time, it was very difficult to keep such vessels trading profitably in competition with motor barges, and it was not long before most of James Herbert's fleet were converted to towed barges or were broken up. Members of his family continued with their lives afloat, but they had to come to terms with the new mode of propulsion.

Sources: Mercantile Navy Lists; Crew Lists Glos RO D3080; Stroudwater Canal tonnage books Glos RO D1180; Census records; Loss of the John GJ 26 Mar 1898. Thanks to Nigel Harris and Paul Barnett. Photos: Nigel Harris and Fred Rowbotham Archive.

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