MAIN SECTIONS >  Home  Gloucester Docks  Sharpness Docks  G&S Canal  Vessels  People  Studies
 WAREHOUSES & MILLS PAGES >  Warehouses Intro  Next Warehouse  Location Map

Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


North Warehouse at Gloucester

The North Warehouse at Gloucester is of particular importance as it was the first to be built, and it served as a model for all those that followed. It was built by the Canal Company in 1826-27, during the final stages of the construction of the canal, to ensure that there would be somewhere to store cargoes once ships began to arrive.

     The siting of the warehouse was recommended by the eminent engineer Thomas Telford, who was supervising the completion of the canal, and the detailed design was provided by Bartin Haigh, a Liverpool builder who had probably had experience of building dock warehouses in his home town. Haigh proposed a row of three adjoining units with five floors and with brick vaulted cellars underneath. The Canal Company thought that two units would be sufficient, and to save expense, they suggested building only three floors initially and adding the other two later if necessary. However, Haigh recommended building to the full height, and this was agreed.

Building Contract
     William Rees & Son of Gloucester put in a tender for £6600, and a contract was signed on 18th May 1826. Within a month, it was found that the ground was not as suitable as had been expected, and additional work was required to lay large stone blocks to provide good foundations. Possibly as a further consequence of the poor ground, it was decided to lower the height of the building by one floor, and the contract price was reduced by £820.

     The bricks used for the walls probably came from the riverside brickworks at Walham, and the stone sills and lintels came from Bath and the Forest of Dean. The contract allowed free use of the basin for unloading from boats, but some of the bricks had to brought by horse and cart while water was drained out of the basin to allow completion of the canal banks. The timber for the roof frames and the floors was probably imported from the Baltic area, and the roof slates were brought round the coast from North Wales. The cast-iron columns supporting the floors most likely came from William Montague's foundry near Westgate Bridge.

Building Progress
     William Rees and his men made good progress with the building work, and by the end of the year, they installed a stone tablet near the top of the wall bearing the inscription "The Glocester and Berkeley Canal Company's Warehouses Erected by W. Rees and Son Ano. Dom. 1826". Work continued through the winter and was effectively completed on schedule in February 1827. The Canal Company initially objected to the hanging of the window shutters, but when Telford was brought in to adjudicate, he ruled that they were sufficiently near the description in the specification to be acceptable. Thus the building was ready for the opening of the canal on 26th April 1827, and it no doubt provided a superb vantage point for a few of the vast crowd who gathered to see the first two vessels come to their moorings in the basin amid noisy celebrations.

Early Tenants for the Cellars
     The early tenants were mainly local men who realised the advantage of importing direct to Gloucester, thereby cutting out the former need for trans-shipment at Bristol where there were high port charges. The brick vaulted cellars were of immediate interest to two firms of wine importers, Messrs. Johnsons (later Johnsons and Tasker) and Messrs. Saunders (later Martin and Washbourne). However, it was found that the doors and windows did not meet the standard of security required by the Customs for bonded stores, where imported goods could be kept without paying duty, and so modifications were carried out by the Canal Company. They also improved the rolling ways at the entrances to the cellars. Unfortunately it was soon found that in wet weather, the cellars suffered from flooding, and after repeated complaints from the tenants, the Canal Company raised the floor a few inches. One of the tenants then asked for a reduction in rent as his storage space had been reduced, but the Canal Company refused saying that the improved condition of the cellar compensated for the loss of storage.

Early Tenants for the Main Floors
     The upper part of the building was designed so that individual floors on each side of the central partition wall could be rented to different merchants. There were two sets of boxed-in stairs with lockable doors on all floors, so that each merchant only had access to his own goods and to the hoisting winches that were installed in the roof space over the loading doors. The early tenants were mainly small corn merchants who started importing wheat, barley and oats from Ireland and occasionally from Europe. These included Mr. Lucy, Mr. Morris, Joseph Hobbs and James Lloyd.

Paying Labourers
     Another early tenant was the firm of Price & Washbourne. They were primarily timber merchants, but they also started importing corn, and they were initially over-generous in paying labourers to do the unloading. An old man later remembered "When they fust begind, they know'd nought about it, and they gid at the rate of 9d per hundred bushels. We did four-and-twenty hundred the very fust dee. This reet didun't last more nor two dees, vor they zoon found out as this yur reet wud niver do, and they drop't it. If thy had ah kipd on as they begind, why two dees a wik wuld ha dun I capeetal".

Increased Rents
     By March 1829, all the floors in the building were occupied and there was a waiting list for space as it became available. Tenancies changed quite frequently as each merchant's trade fluctuated, and there was some unofficial sub-letting. To try to regularise matters, the Canal Company gave all tenants formal notice to quit and proposed to introduce higher rents. This was naturally resisted and eventually a compromise was reached. In September 1833, it was agreed that the rents would be £60 per annum for each cellar, £70 for each first floor and £65, £55 and  £50 for the higher floors. The lower rents compensated for the additional effort required when loading goods in and out of the higher floors.

Atlas Bell
     There were few watches around in those days, and so the Canal Company set up a bell on the south east corner of their warehouse to signal the docker's starting and finishing times. The bell came from the full-rigged ship Atlas, launched in 1812, that had made several voyages out to India and China for the East India Company. As well as being rung at regular times by the watchman on duty, it also served occasionally as an alarm bell when there was a fire on board a ship or in a warehouse.

Tenants in the 1830s and 40s
     During the 1830s and 40s, the corn trade was expanding and was moving into the hands of larger merchants, such as J & C Sturge from Birmingham, Wait James & Co from Bristol and Phillpotts Lloyds & Co. These firms had their own warehouses in the docks, but they still used the Canal Company's building for additional space when required. Another important tenant was Fox Sons & Co. It was during this period that iron bars were installed in many of the lower window openings so that the floors could be used as bonded stores.

Change to One Occupier in Each Half
     Following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, there was a large increase in corn imports, particularly from Europe and the Black Sea ports around the mouth of the Danube. New corn merchants became established and more warehouses were built. There was no longer a need to cater for small merchants who only required one or two floors, and the Canal Company was able to let each half of their building as a unit. For many years, the western half was occupied by Thomas Robinson & Co. and the eastern half by John Weston & Co., both firms also having large warehouses elsewhere in the docks.

Office Building
     It seems that John Weston had a small office in his part of the warehouse as the Canal Company allowed him to have a stove with a chimney of terra-cotta tubes passing outside the building. Then in 1873, Weston built a single storey office adjoining the east end of the warehouse, and this had the benefit of gas lighting as well as fireplaces. A second floor was added in 1889. This extension obscured the name "North Warehouse" that had been painted on the east wall of the main building, and the sign was only revealed again when the office was demolished in the 1980s.

Change to a Single Occupier
     In the early years of the 20th century, the western half of the warehouse was used by G T Beard, who provided a storage service for corn merchants, and the eastern half was used by the British Oil and Cake Mill Company and then by Priday Metford & Co, who operated the nearby City Flour Mills. Around 1920, Priday Metford took over the whole building and for the first time made access ways through the partition wall. In the eastern half they established an electric-powered mill for producing stone ground wheat meal flour, and the western half was used for sack cleaning and for storage. Also at this time, two of the original hand operated winches were removed and replaced with electric powered hoists. Each hoist was operated by a rope hanging down outside the building, and these were obviously a temptation to inquisitive passers by. On one occasion, a sack truck was lifted right up to the pulley at the top of the hoist so that its protruding handles displaced some of the tiles in the roof of the gable above.

New Uses for Cellars
     The brick-vaulted cellars of the warehouse had not always been used fully since the early days as they were rather damp and liable to flood occasionally. During the Second World War, they were brought into use again to provide an air raid shelter and a rifle range for the local Home Guard.

Building Shows its Age
     Priday Metford & Co continued using the whole building after the war, but one day it was found that one of the roof trusses had rotted right through and was only being supported on the sacks of flour being stored there. Temporary repairs were carried out, but it was clear that other woodwork was also at risk. All the roof trusses and floor beams had been built into the walls, and over the years, dampness had penetrated through the bricks and affected the wood. At this stage, there was a proposal to demolish part of the building in order to make space for constructing a second lock into the River Severn, and because of this, Priday Metford gave up possession in 1962. In the event, the second lock did not get built, and the whole warehouse remained standing. The upper floors were not now considered safe, but the ground floor and cellars were used by builders merchants etc until 1975.

Proposed Demolition Not Allowed
     By this time, the building had been listed as being of Special Architectural and Historic Interest, and Gloucester City Council pressed for proper repairs to be carried out. Some temporary repairs were done and shoring was erected to support the front of the building, but in 1977 British Waterways applied for listed building consent for demolition. They argued that their responsibility was to run the waterways, not to restore uneconomic buildings, but following a Public Inquiry in 1981, consent for demolition was refused.

Building Rescued
     The building remained empty and continued to deteriorate until 1985, when it was bought by Gloucester City Council for conversion into their main offices. The contractors responsible for carrying out the work were Longs of Bath. Most of the roof had to be replaced, but the main timbers were retained wherever possible. Any woodwork that had been affected by rot was cut away and replaced by short metal girders. The former loading doors on each floor were replaced by windows, and the brick vaulting of one of the cellars was destroyed to allow the introduction of a lift shaft and staircase. This work re-exposed the large stone blocks that had been used as foundations and uncovered the original level of the cellar floor before it was raised to reduce flooding. The two surviving hoisting winches were preserved in the roof space. 

A New Role
     The restored building was handed over to Gloucester City Council staff in July 1986. To complement the restoration, the Rotary Club of Gloucester and Gloucester Civic Trust replaced the Atlas Bell which used to hang on the corner of the warehouse. Later modifications converted the upper floor of the building into a Civic Suite with Council Chamber and Mayor's Parlour.

     This article is mainly based on the minute books of the Canal Company (PRO RAIL 829). Other sources include the original plans and contract specification (Glos.RO D2460), memories of an early corn porter (Glos. Extracts Vol.4 p254-263), Poor Rate Books (Glos.RO), BWB evidence at the Public Inquiry, and the memories of Messrs W.Ellis, H.Staite and D.Barnes.

Return to Top Menu   Copyright Hugh Conway-Jones 2004   Contact