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Gloucester Docks &
the Sharpness Canal


Steam Packets

For more about Service Craft, see Bucket DredgersSuction Dredger, Fire-float Salamander, SL Sabrina,
MC Risga

For about eighty years, two steam packets operated regular passenger services bewteen Gloucester and Sharpness, stopping at any of the bridges where people wished to get on or off. Named Wave and Lapwing, the two boats were much used by Gloucester residents seeking a pleasant day out and by villagers coming into town for shopping. They also carried parcels and occasionally livestock.

The Original Wave and Lapwing
        The Wave was brought up from Bristol by John Francillon to start running regular services on the canal in 1852. It was 87ft long and was licenced to carry 258 passengers, although it was only required to have two lifebelts! The Lapwing arrived a year later, having been built at the Neath Abbey Ironworks with a length of 65ft. The two boats ran three times a day in each direction during the summer and twice daily in winter. As well as those travelling for leisure or for shopping, early passengers included merchants and ship brokers visiting Sharpness to meet arrivals, sailors joining their ships at the last moment before departure and a growing number of labourers who worked at Sharpness during the week and only returned to Gloucester at the weekends. The boats were also used occasionally for special excursions with musical entertainment and for the annual inspections of the canal by the Canal Company committee and their guests.

Replacement Boats
        In 1890, the Wave was replaced by a new boat built at Cardiff to the design of William Sisson of Gloucester who also supplied the engine and boiler. It was 85ft long, mainly on the lines of the old boat, and it was certified to carry 242 people. The Lapwing was replaced two years later, both new vessels taking the names of their predecessors. Both vessels had a first class cabin astern of a central engine room and a second class cabin forward. During the summer months, an awning was set up over the aft deck to provide protection from the sun. The hulls were a reddish-brown colour with a white streak at the bow waterline, and the funnels were pale red with a black top.
        During the First World War, Lapwing was requisitioned by the Admiralty and its place was taken by one of the steamers that had plied on the river to Tewkesbury. The early morning and evening boats were packed with workers going to and from the munitions factory built at Quedgeley.

The 1920s
        After the war, under the management of a third generation of the Francillon family, the steamers ran twice daily each way in summer and once in winter, taking two and a half hours for a one-way passage. Gloucester folk visited the Pleasure Grounds overlooking the river and parents had a cup of tea while children played on the swings. Or the family might get off the boat at Saul Junction and walk down the path by the Stroudwater Canal to visit the tea gardens at Framilode or cross the river by ferry to reach the sands on the other side. During the summer months, it was usual for the skipper’s wife to provide afternoon refreshments on board, drawing hot water from the boiler to make tea. Occasionally, baskets of pigeons were taken down the canal and released at an appointed place.
        When people from the villages visited Gloucester, there was a chance to watch ships being unloaded or to see the big steam boilers in the pumping engine house. Shops in Gloucester would deliver purchases to the boat to save customers carrying heavy parcels around town. Some children travelled by boat to attend school in Gloucester, although the  timing of the boats meant that the youngsters always missed the first lesson in the morning and the last in the afternoon. Sometimes the crew was asked to take one or two calves to Gloucester. These were enclosed in sacks tied to the handrail so that only their heads were sticking out of the top.

End of the Service
        Sadly, however, passenger numbers declined during the 1920s due to the growing popularity of motor buses. This led to Lapwing being retired in 1931 and Wave ceased regular service in the following year, although for a few years it was used at Christmas to bring Father Christmas to the docks on his way to Blinkhorn’s, a big store in Eastgate St.

        Canal Co minutes RAIL 829/10, 11; Shipping Register D4292/6; Passenger Certificate D6482; GJ various; Directories; Memories of Royce Denning, Fred Rowbotham, Wilf Rowles, D V Webb, Catharine Wixey, Ruth Yates. 

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