Gloucester and Sharpness Canal History

The Gloucester & Shapness Canal is still open to boats though the vessels that use it today are a far cry from those which it was built for. Today it is pleasure boats which can be seen though it was ocean going sailing ships that used the waterway in its heyday. The start of the canal is at the historic Gloucester Docks (grid ref SO827183) where it links with the River Severn (which heads north towards the Midlands). The G&S runs south for about 16 miles to Sharpness (SO669022) on the tidal Severn Estuary.

1793
An Act was passed enabling the construction of a canal large enough to take sea going vessels which, at that time, had to struggle with the tidal, winding and often dangerous lower reaches of the River Severn to reach the city of Gloucester. The canal (as planned) was to run from the Severn estuary at Berkeley Pill to Gloucester.

A large dock area was to be built near the centre of the city where goods could be unloaded or transhipped onto barges, narrowboats or the trows which then used the upper Severn. The route was to be known as the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal, it was to be about 18 miles long, 70 feet wide and 18 feet deep with just two locks; a sea lock at Berkeley Pill linking with the Severn Estuary and a large lock at Gloucester linking back into the River Severn.

1794
Work began on the planned 17¾ mile canal at the Gloucester end, heading southwards towards Berkeley Pill. The canal company had all the usual problems to contend with while construction went on.

Their minute book records problems with a new invention, a mechanical digger! At first they’d tried to obtain one built by John Carne which had been used on the neighbouring Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal (among others) but later a local inventor provided a new digger which, basically, never worked.

They also had problems with pumping out water because steam engines (another fairly new invention) were in such great demand with so many canals being built that Boulton & Watts simply couldn’t make enough of them to meet demand.

The company also had a number of problems with it’s engineers. The first Chief Engineer was Robert Mylne – a very strange choice for engineer on what was to be the country’s biggest canal thus far. He had little experience of navigable waterways though he some experienced with water provision and supply (he had worked on the New River which supplied water for London). Like most engineers during the canal mania era he took on far too much work and couldn’t spend very much time (if any) on site. Work was left to the resident engineer who – with no one watching over him – often made disastrous mistakes which were usually only discovered long after they had been made. Dennis Edson was the first resident engineer on the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal, he was sacked after just nine months. However, this was not the first nor the last time a canal company would dismiss him. Twenty years earlier he’d been sacked from the Chester Canal and seven year later he was to be dismissed by the Grand Surrey Canal. James Dadford (a member of the famous Welsh engineering family) replaced Edson as resident engineer but the committee were never happy about the amount of effort either Dadford or Mylne put into the canal.

1799
After 5 years only 5½ miles of the route had been cut but money had completely run out. The company were left with 2 choices; either continue to a point on the Severn much nearer but far less convenient than Berkeley Pill; or turn the canal into an ordinary narrow canal and connect it to the Stroudwater Navigation to make a through route from Gloucester to the Thames. In the end neither was done because the shareholders wouldn’t provide money for either scheme.The company paid off Dadford and Mylne and were left with a useless 5½ mile stretch of ship-less ship canal, heading south towards… nowhere! The only good to come from any of this was that the company had completed Gloucester docks which could be used by ships coming up the Severn from the coast or by boats and trows coming down the Severn from the Midlands.

1809
Being in a somewhat useless situation as far as the canal was concerned, the company made a very early decision to co-operate with tramways and railroads. The first of these was the Cheltenham & Gloucester Tramway which laid its lines right onto Gloucester docks, remaining there until 1862.

1815
The canal company appointed John Upton as engineer though at this stage no further work was immanent. Upton set to work on a pamphlet outlining the mistakes of his predecessor and what should be done to rectify things.

1818
For 19 years nothing had been done on the canal though behind the scenes the committee had tried various ways of raising money. One of their ideas was to hold a lottery but the Prime Minister, William Pitt, personally stopped this going ahead. However, it was the government who came to the canal’s rescue in the end. Parliament employed Thomas Telford as a surveyor who’s job it was to recommended which schemes were worthy of an “Exchequer Bill Loan Commission” (grant). Telford suggested that the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal should be restarted with its southern terminus changed to Sharpness (making the route slightly shorter than the original plan to terminate at Berkeley Pill). The government of the day also created the “Poor Employment Act” and these two schemes provided the canal company with money and a free work force. In July the Duke of Gloucester laid the foundation stone at what was to become Sharpness docks.

1819
Engineer John Upton was sacked after just 6 months of construction when it was discovered that he was fiddling the company by buying the building materials from himself! John Woodhouse took over.

1820
Woodhouse was also sacked when it was found that his supplier was actually his son and – like Upton – Woodhouse was using inferior materials to those he was claiming he’d paid for.

By the end of the year work was at a total standstill again. The contractors had gone bankrupt and the company were nowhere near to being able to pay back any of the loan granted to them by the EBLC. The government stepped in and took control of administration and this led to a much more efficient running of the company. A new contractor was appointed and Captain Nicholls became Chairman, (he later became Sir George Nicholls, Commissioner of the Poor Law and Chairman of the Birmingham Canal Navigations). The Clegrams (father & son) were appointed as engineer and clerk, (Clegram junior stayed with the company until he retired in 1885 when he was given a seat on the board).

1824
The company joined the Stroudwater Navigation and the Thames & Severn Canal in opposing a scheme to build a railway from Framilode to Stroud. The Stroud & Severn Rail Road wanted to completely take over the Stroudwater Navigation and build their track along exactly the same route. The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal were mostly concerned about the loss of the through route to London. The railway proposals were defeated.

1827
Thirty four years after the first Act was passed, the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal was fully opened. It was the greatest canal in England at that time, it was successful too but debts and loans from its construction days hung over it for many years. Unlike smaller canals, the boats on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal did not use horses to pull them along the route. It was customary in the River Severn area for gangs of men to bow haul ships along the navigations. Of course sailing ships and, later, steam boats could navigate the wide waters very easily.

1830
Despite the canal now doing well, the government told the company they did not feel it was expedient (worth the bother or money) to continue to look after the canal’s affairs. They threatened to pull out and take away the grants etc. They told the company that the waterway would have to be sold or liquidated to pay off their debts. The company managed to persuade the government to continue to control the canal but the threat remained for a number of years.

1843
The company continued to see the benefits, rather than the disadvantages, which could be gained by co-operating with railroads. They gave permission to the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway to lay tracks at Gloucester docks.

1844
The canal was used at night for the first time. Pickfords (the famous long distance carriers) persuaded the company to allow this in order to compete with the much faster railways.

1858
The Gloucester & Sharpness company began to take interest in other waterways. It had a big concern in the routes from Gloucester to Birmingham so when the Worcester & Birmingham Canal was fighting for its life against a railway take over the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal stepped in and supported it. The Oxford, Worcester & Birmingham Railway Company was defeated and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal was safe… for now.

1862
The first tugs were introduced on the canal to replace the gangs of men who had hauled the boats along the route up until then.

1866
Faced with more and more proposed railways the neighbouring Thames & Severn Canal put forward its own Bill to become a railway company. It proposed to link the railways near Oxford to those near Stroud and to use the ready made canal tunnel at Sapperton for a single track line. This, of course, meant that the Thames & Severn Canal would be dried and filled in, leaving the Stroudwater Navigation and the the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal with no water supply. To get around this the T&S Canal Company proposed to pipe water to the canals from Thames Head. The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal Company, who had previously joined the Thames & Severn in opposing a similar idea from an independent railway company, now also bitterly opposed this new railway scheme. The Bill was defeated though it is thought that the water supply proposal is what cost the Thames & Severn their Act because there was huge opposition against using Thames water to supply the Severn Valley.

1871
Seventy eight years after the company had first formed, they announced that they were finally out of debt!

Meanwhile, after thirteen years of fighting against various railways to save the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the Gloucester & Sharpness company leased the Worcester & Birmingham from the liquidators. They also leased the Droitwich Barge Canal and the Droitwich Junction Canal. The G&S company now controlled all of the artificial waterways between Bristol and Birmingham. They did a lot of work in improving their new acquisitions during the following months, including dredging the Droitwich Barge Canal for the first time since it had opened. However, none of these canals ever paid any profits and, in fact, the tolls didn’t even cover maintenance costs but the Gloucester & Sharpness company kept the routes to Birmingham open because it was very important to their own canal’s survival.

1874
The harbour at Sharpness was greatly improved. This was because trade was being lost to the “modern” harbours at Swansea and Cardiff. The docks at Sharpness were originally made for sailing ships and had become too small to take the new large streamers. The improvements allowed steamers carrying over 1,000 tons to navigate the canal to Gloucester.

1878
Following the improvements to Sharpness harbour the company went into a rate cutting war with Avonmouth harbour.

1879
The first Severn Bridge opened but not without the same difficulties that lots of other transport routes had often suffered. When cash had run out the Gloucester & Sharpness company were among the first to help the railway company who owned the bridge. The canal had already done well with coal carrying at both Gloucester and Sharpness docks so they were quick to realise the possibilities of coal coming from Wales and the Forest of Dean. This must surely be the only case of a canal actually giving cash to a railway to keep it going!

On the other hand they did not support various attempts by privateers to make the River Severn navigable between Sharpness and Gloucester. This of course would be direct competition and boats had not used the Severn below Gloucester since the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal had opened.

1881
The Thames & Severn Canal Company once again threatened the through route to London when it again proposed to build a railway – this time from Cirencester to Stroud – which would link with other existing railways. Again the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, along with the Stroudwater Navigation and the Wilts & Berks Canal, strongly opposed the scheme though the Thames & Severn Canal’s owner vigorously urged them to join forces with him. They all refused and the Bill was defeated but the owner of the Thames & Severn then sold his canal to the Great Western Railway. The opposing canals were let off fairly lightly though as GWR bought the canal to stop any rivals from doing so rather than to put tracks on it themselves. However, they did nothing to maintain the Thames & Severn and it soon became virtually unnavigable.

1882
An agreement was reached with Avonmouth harbour after 3 years of rate cutting wars.

1895
The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal became involved in the Thames & Severn Canal Trust which was set up to keep that canal open after railway ownership had almost destroyed it.

1897
Once again, striving to keep all through routes to London open, the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal successfully opposed a proposal to close the North Wiltshire branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal although all the neighbouring waterways were now struggling due to heavy railway competition.

Over the following decades the G&S continued to survive against strong railway competition. Unfortunately its neighbours did not fair so well. The Thames & Severn was neglected by its railway owners until it was rendered useless while the Droitwich and Stroudwater canals also declined and eventually closed. Because the G&S was not a trading route but a passageway for sea going vessels it continued in business and was nationalised in 1948.

1951
The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, now under government control following nationalisation, was listed by the government as one of a small band of canals thought to be worth maintaining and promoting for commercial use.

The canal appeared in further government reports in the 60’s and has remained open and still commercially used to the present day – though much less than it once was. Nowadays it is pleasure craft that make up the main bulk of vessels on the canal.

Gloucester & Sharpness Canal Route

The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal is 16 miles long with a good towpath throughout. From a walking point of view the canal is pleasant but not “outstanding”. It has no great structures or features – though the canal itself was a great engineering feat. The route is wide and mostly straight with no locks, tunnels or aqueducts. By far, its best locations are the docks at either end, especially the historic Gloucester Docks at the northern end of the route (SO827183).

Gloucester Docks are an absolute must for any canal, ship or dock fanatic, they are situated close to the centre of Gloucester around a large square area of water and surrounded by huge old warehouses. Among the “attractions” here are a sailing ship, a large ship lock, the busy Llanthony lift bridge, new shopping units, an antiques warehouse, an old boatman’s chapel and the National Waterways Museum. There is lots of parking space at the docks and the whole complex can be reached from Southgate Street.

Although the canal does not have locks and aqueducts, it does have lots of swing bridges, each now manned by a BW employee. Once upon a time bridge keepers used to live in the cottages which stand beside each of the 15 bridges. Many of the cottages are by no means typical of the canal houses found elsewhere in the country. Eight of them were designed to look like mini mansions with classical frontages containing Doric columns. Each is still lived in today and though they look like tiny one-storey buildings most of them are much larger than they appear. They were built across the canal bank and many of them have extra floors at the back where the banks drop away.

For many decades there was a big question mark over who built theses strange bridge keeper’s cottages, and why. Some accounts credited Mylne who had been the original engineer on the canal, some credited Thomas Telford who was certainly well capable of creating such buildings. However, recent research by Hugh Conway-Jones discovered that the cottages were not built until the 1840’s when William Clegram was company engineer. The houses were built during the period when Pickfords pushed the company into opening the canal during the night to compete with newly built railways. At first the company had continued to use the bridge keepers who had always lived in neighbouring villages. However, it soon became apparent that most of these men were failing to report for duty during the night or were often found to be drunk. Clegram built the cottages to tie employees to their job! If they misbehaved they would be sacked and made homeless. Conway-Jones tells us that any doubters who still don’t think Clegram designed the cottages should take a look at Hatherley Manor Hotel, 3 miles north west of Gloucester in Down Hatherley. The hotel used to be a manor and its lodge is identical to the bridge cottages. Conway-Jones discovered that a member of the family who lived in the lodge married William Clegram’s son. However, Conway-Jones does not say whether the lodge was also built by Clegram or whether he merely saw its design and copied it.

One example of such a cottage is at Fresherne Bridge at Frampton On Severn (SO746085). I have picked out this particular bridge because, as well as the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, a visitor can also see the wide River Severn and the entrance to the Stroudwater Canal from roads leading off the B4071 which runs through Frampton and across the canal. Frampton itself is a nice village with a huge green.

There a very few villages along the G&S route, despite all the swing bridges. Many of the roads seem to lead to the canal and then go nowhere after crossing it. At Shephard’s Patch (SO727043) the swing bridge leads to the well renowned Wildfowl Trust’s nature reserve (Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetlands). The reserve is home to the largest collection of captive wildfowl in the world. Shephard’s Patch itself is worth taking a look at. It pre-dates the canal by many centuries, it has a cafe, a gift shop and two pubs.

Near the southern end of the G&S is the only village to properly straddle the canal. Purton (SO692042) is often described as charming and most guides mention how strange it looks to see a huge ship passing through this tiny village on what is a rather narrow stretch of the canal.

Just south of Purton is a huge waterworks complex which can draw 24 million gallons of water from the canal per day. If you live in Bristol it may (or may not?) please you to know that when you drink a glass of water you may well be drinking the G&S Canal!!!

At the southern end of the route is another dock complex, at Sharpness (SO669022). Although not as grand as Gloucester it is still a very interesting place. The complex has two huge working locks which bring ships up from the Severn Estuary into the safety of the canal. The docks are still very busy with large vessels arriving from all over the world – though very few now use the canal beyond the docks. A third lock, now disused, stands on an old arm which is now home to a boatyard and used for pleasure craft moorings. Beyond this disused lock is a tidal basin which is also now closed to boats but open to walkers. The edge of the basin overlooks the River Severn which flows strongly alongside. A large Harbourmaster’s house stands on ground beside the basin. Although much larger, it was built in the same style as the bridge keeper’s cottages. It has recently been restored after years of dereliction.

On the Severn, a little way upstream (SO678033), was the point where the railway crossed the estuary on the first Severn Bridge. Sadly the bridge was struck by a ship on a foggy night in 1959. It later had to be completely demolished and only its stone piers can now be seen – sometimes. The bridge’s iron girders were – believe it or not – sold to Chile where they are used today on a viaduct carrying a road! Sharpness docks can be reached via the A4066 which also runs through Berkeley. A minor road from Berkeley runs west to Berkeley Pill which was originally planned to be the terminus of the canal before Telford recommended Sharpness.