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Gloucester Docks &
For more about Barges, see Barges & Lighters and
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
The Barge Fleet
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
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.
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.
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.
being loaded on to Sabrina 3
of Bristol Authority)
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.
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!
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.
barges at Diglis Wharf, Worcester.
of Bristol Authority)
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
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.
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.
In 2004, she
was given a new role, as access ways were installed so that her
hold could be used as a performance area with seating for up to
90 people. Her first engagement in this role was at the Saul Canal
Festival in July, where she provided a venue for lectures, music
and theatrical performances. At the Museum, she is available for
schools and other groups.
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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