The Pilots' Role
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.
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.
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his licence withdrawn after a Dutch ship he was in charge of crashed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.
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.