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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Memories of the Canal in the 1940s

This page features the memories of Ron Abbotts, Chris George, Rex Potter, Ken Hughes, Ken McTigue and Dave Crowhurst. Further contributions welcome. 

Ron Abbotts
        I first had regular contact with the canal from September 1939 when the pupils of my school in Birmingham were evacuated to Gloucester to share the old building of the Crypt School (a scheme which lasted for a mere twelve months). During my time with a family in Tredworth, I would cycle regularly down the tow path to Fretherne Bridge near where three households of my father's family lived. Subsequently I paid many more visits to the area during the 1940s. When we first arrived, we evacuees were encouraged to get to know Gloucester. Two of the "treats" we were given were a conducted tour of the gas works just south of Hempsted Bridge and a look over Salamander, the fire tder, at her berth at the south end of the docks.

Tanker Barges
        I would spend quite a few hours at the canal side watching the heavy wartime traffic, particularly the Hull registered John Harker oil barges which would ply the route in the form of a motor powered lighter usually pulling a second craft. I gathered that the north end of their journey would be the oil depot at Stourport on Severn. Two workings would often operate with very little space between them, sometimes sharing only one passman who cycled along the towpath to help open and close the bridges. Having seen the northbound fourth craft safely through Fretherne Bridge, he would have to pedal like fury to Sandfield Bridge so that he could open his half of the bridge to enable the leading pair of barges an uninterrupted trip on through to Saul Junction.

        An impressive ship to be seen from time to time on the canal in those days was the Ben Robinson, a coaster from the old Ben Line, regarded by the locals as the biggest ship that could make it to Gloucester. I seem to remember, too, at least one occasion when an RN submarine was taken up to Gloucester to assist in the promotion of the War Savings campaign.

Hempsted Dry Dock
        Cycling down the towpath below Hempsted Bridge, I looked across to the small dry dock at right angles to Bristol Road opposite the gas works. High and dry there in September 1939 was Hurley, a steam powered pleasure boat owned by Grove & Sons of Evesham and used for trips along the Avon to Chadbury and Fladbury. I had been given a number of trips on her as a child and was surprised to see that she had managed to reach Gloucester, given what was then the horrendous and barely navigable state of the Warwickshire Avon in its last few miles to Tewkesbury.

Two Mile Bend
        At Two Mile Bend, I can remember looking across from the towpath to the lagoon on the other side where there were floating raw material log stocks for the Moreland's match factory.

Mud Distribution
        Between Castle Bridge and Saul Junction, a hazard for cyclists on the towpath was a large structure spanning the path. This equipment took up canal bed mud raised by the dredger and conveyed it overhead by bucket chain to the low lying fields on the west side. I endured a few interesting mud splatters whilst peaceably cycling underneath.

Sandfield Wharf
        Not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army began to arrive in the UK in some strength, at which point two large warehouses were put up adjoining Sandfield Bridge, to be occupied by a unit of US army supply troops. I cannot recall any canal traffic mooring at the unit as most of the movements in and out of the site were by heavy army trucks which came and went via the Perry Way. The warehouses were manned by a small contingent of black soldiers at a time when the US army observed strict colour segregation. This afforded a slight cultural shock to the local community, and led to a modest but eye-raising amount of fraternisation between the troops and some local young ladies in Saul.

Fretherne Bridge
        An interesting feature at Fretherne was the steel pontoon which was moored just south of the bridge on the Frampton side. This was used as a float-under support to the bridge when any heavy vehicles or equipment (e.g. telegraph poles) had to be moved across for Arlingham or anywhere westward towards the river.

Chris George Recalls a Scout Camp
        I was a member of the 2nd City of Gloucester Sea Scouts from 1941 to 1946. In 1942, we acquired a campsite on the east bank of the canal, north of Sellars Bridge just on the Stonebench Turn. It consisted of Canal Company land between the farm hedge and the canal where we set up tents, and our scout master Ken White later brought his caravan. We held our first camp there over Easter 1942. It was cold, wet and for me (aged 12) a big adventure. During the following summers, we spent much time there. We had our boat; a 15ft open yawl; in which we learnt the rudiments of sailing, pulling, and most useful of all, sculling over the stern with one oar. To go afloat, we all had to pass a swimming test clad in shirt and shorts - across the canal and back, about 50 yds. Several of us built the "Boy Scout Association Kayak" design advertised at that time. I think we had two or three of them. In 1943, a dumb barge had sunk off the campsite, and the hulk had been dragged against the bank on our side. I believe we eventually removed the name board and the handsome wooden ship’s wheel, and a hut was built using timber "salvaged" from the wreck.

Rex Potter Also Recalls the Scout Camp
     I was a very keen member of the 2nd Gloucester City Sea Scouts from 1941 to 1947. One night, we were camped in a tent on the bank of the canal when the sirens sounded and we could hear the planes going overhead. We could see the bright powerful searchlights lighting up the sky and hear the distant sound of the anti-aircraft guns. The next morning we had breakfast of baked beans heated in a frying pan over a wood fire. We used a forked stick to suspend the billycan to heat the water for our cocoa. Unfortunately, our meal was spoilt due to earwigs falling out of the forked stick into the frying pan.
     After a barge was sunk in the canal near our camp-site, the army set a number of explosive charges, blowing up the wreck to clear the way for water traffic. It was thrilling for me as a young boy to see how high the water shot up into the air. I was saddened to see how many fish were killed, reinforcing what I knew was happening all through the British Isles and around the world due to the war. I knew that through seeing all the newspapers in our family's newsagents shop in Southgate St. Chris George and I salvaged the timber from the barge in the intervals between the laying of explosive charges, using the scout 15 foot yawl to tow the timber ashore. The salvaged timber was later used for building a scout hut to accommodate our kayaks. We also used it as accommodation a few times, sleeping in our home made hammocks. From memory the hut was approximately 20 feet long by about 6 feet high and 8 feet wide. I also used some of the timber to build a punt, caulking it with oakum and sealing it with tar melted over an open wood fire in a paint pot. It was not very successful, being too narrow, and was very heavy. I moored it in a small bay, but when I came back a week later, it had been swamped by passing traffic and was full of water.
     During the War, a Sea Scout Jamboree was held in Gloucester, scouts coming from all over England, with events centering on the docks. It was great fun. Scouts were accommodated in a hall in Southgate Street, which was used as a war time cafeteria. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor. Some kayak & canoe races were held in the docks. Chris George and I paired up in his canoe, and we won a race. 

Ken Hughes Recalls the Perils of War
        My father was captain of the SS Pamela which left Sharpness on 10 Oct 1944 bound for Liverpool with a load of barley. The ship never arrived at her destination and was declared lost at sea with all hands. I have recently found that she was built in 1921 and registered at Beaumaris as 403 tons gross. Her original duty was the transport of slate mined in the hills behind Bangor, but later she became a general cargo vessel. After her loss, a court of inquiry concluded that she had probably struck a mine. In the late 1990s, her wreck was discovered by divers sitting upright at a depth of about 50m with a hole in her starboard side. In spite of what happened to my father, I also chose a life at sea and, by a remarkable coincidence, started on the training ship Vindicatrix at Sharpness on the same day in 1957 as my father had left there in 1944.

Ken McTigue Recalls a Ship Aground
      While I was a trainee deck boy on board the Vindicatrix in October 1948, a Greek ship ran aground while trying to enter Sharpness. A hawser had been passed from the ship to the jetty, but as the winches took up the strain to haul her in, the hawser parted and the wind and tide carried the vessel up into shallower water. There was a raging storm at that time with lashings of rain, and the tugs that were there were unable to pull her off the shallows. The next day, larger tugs were brought up the river, and as far as I can remember she was floated off successfully and taken into the tidal basin. I know that she was taken into the docks and discharged her cargo because I was allowed to work on the docks during my last weeks on the Vindicatrix, and I went on board and bought cigarettes from the crew.

Dave Crowhurst Remembers Fishing in the 1950s

     Reading the above memories reminded me of fishing in Gloucester Docks when I was a boy in the 1950's. It was a popular place to fish for us boys because of all the wheat overspill that fell from the quayside into the water near Llanthony Bridge. It attracted many small dace and other fish near the wall and made for easy fishing. I recall on one occasion that a midget submarine was diving and surfacing in the docks. It caused huge excitement and a very large crowd of onlookers.

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