MAIN SECTIONS >  Home  Gloucester Docks  Sharpness Docks  G&S Canal  Vessels  People  Studies
PILOTAGE PAGES > People Index  Canal Pilotage  Canal Pilots  Channel Pilotage  Channel Pilots

Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Canal Pilotage

This page outlines the role of the pilots who guided ships along the canal, and another page provides information about
individual canal pilots.

Authorised Pilots
     In the early years of canal operation, anyone could offer their services as a pilot and could charge a ship’s master whatever he would agree to, but experience showed that not all were really competent. In 1849, therefore, the Canal Company arranged for candidates to be examined by the local Sub-Commissioners of Pilots appointed by Trinity House, and the Canal Company brought in a bye-law barring anyone who had not received a certificate. Of the first group to be authorised, six lived in Gloucester and six in or near Purton, and supernumerary pilots were appointed who could act if the main pilots were all busy. The Canal Company also fixed the amount a pilot could charge, depending on the size of the ship he was guiding. Following the Bristol Channel Pilotage Act of 1861, Trinity House gave up their local role in pilotage matters and responsibility for the licensing of canal pilots passed to the Canal Company.

A former sign-board of the Pilot Inn
at Hardwicke

The Pilots' Role
     Pilots had the difficult task of guiding ships along the narrow channel of the canal although the speed through the water was hardly sufficient to provide steerage way. Each pilot was assisted by two hobblers who walked along the towpath ready to take a rope if required. Then if the ship was going off-line, the pilot ordered a hobbler to put a bow or stern rope on to one of the many checking posts along the towpath, and the crew used a winch to adjust the alignment of the ship. This means of control was particularly useful when approaching one of the narrow bridge-holes or when going round a bend, especially if there was any cross-wind. In the early days, the canal pilot also directed the minder in charge of the towing horses, and in later years when tugs took over the towing, he gave orders to the tug skipper. The passage along the canal took the best part of a day, and if there was no ship to bring back, the pilot had to make his own way home. In either case, it often meant spending a night away from home, one of the popular lodging places being the Trumpet Inn in Southgate St.

        Particular care was needed when two ships travelling in opposite directions were going to meet. Ships going up the canal to Gloucester generally had right of way as they were likely to be heavily loaded, and any ship coming down was expected to pull into one of the occasional lie-byes and moor up while the loaded ship passed by. It is not clear how this was managed in the early days, and no doubt there were disputes when two ships met in a narrow reach. In later years, the bridge keepers were linked by a private telephone line and it was easier to pass appropriate messages.

        Even with authorised pilots, there were occasional incidents which required the attention of the Canal Company’s management. One pilot was suspended for a month for moving a vessel contrary to the orders of the Harbour Master, and another was fined five shillings for delaying a barque, the fine to be paid to the local Ragged School. A third pilot had his licence withdrawn after a Dutch ship he was in charge of crashed into Sims Bridge, breaking the spindle and carrying away all the upper part of the bridge pier on the towpath side.

Changing Role
        Following the opening of the new dock at Sharpness in 1874, there began a slow decline in the number of ships passing up the canal to Gloucester, which was compounded in the 1880s by a general depression in trade. Henry Lewis, who had been handling around 80 ships a year in the 1870s, found he could only get around 20 jobs a year in the 1880s, and he had to supplement his income by working as a hobbler. Others canal pilots earned additional money by helping to turn the big ships in the dock at Sharpness. Although the extreme depression of the 1880s passed, the demand for canal pilots never fully recovered and the work at Sharpness became an increasing part of their job. The need for a few experienced dock and canal pilots did continue throughout most of the twentieth century, but as ships became more manoeuvrable, the work declined further and effectively died out in the 1980s.

Sources: Canal Co minute books in TNA; Canal Co bye-laws in Glos Coll; Glos Arch D1910; Census returns.

 Return to Top Menu   Copyright Hugh Conway-Jones 2007   Contact