The River Severn Trows and Grain barges

It is sad that the Severn, Britain’s longest navigable river, has so few reminders of its trading history afloat, or even in existence.

The shallow river barges that once sailed over 170 miles upriver beyond Shrewsbury to Welshpool all disappeared back in the 1890’s, whilst the local style of down-river sailing barge, the Severn ‘Trow’ is now only represented by the restored Spry preserved at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, and a few rotting wrecks. One of the problems was that much of its traffic started or finished in the Midlands. However big and efficient the river barges became their goods usually had to be transhipped into narrowboats to reach most of their customers in the industrial areas of Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

Severn barge Barge Tirley, one of the small fleet that continued to take imported grain up the Severn to Tewkesbury on the Avon until 1996.

Trows could trade from Gloucester and Bristol to Stourport and Worcester, but if it had to be transhipped you might as well take it all the way by road. In the 1950’s the Severn still transported thousands of tons of fuel oil in tanker-barges but that ended very suddenly with the building of pipelines and the opening of the M5 motorway. For a number of years there was an occasional and erratic load of grain from Gloucester to Tewkesbury but that too has finally ended.

A few of the handsome steel barges that replaced the Trows survive as dredging lighters, but it is difficult to imagine that the Severn Navigation was busy until well after the second world war.

The docks in Sharpness remain in business for big ships, but it is a rare event when a coaster ventures up the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal to Gloucester docks.

Trows were tough little ships, capable of sailing the tempestuous tides of the Severn estuary from the ports of Bristol and South Wales, as well as on the river to Worcester and Stourport.

They had open holds, with an odd system of extra canvas bulwarks laced up to a rail to increase their freeboard in choppy waters.

Upriver trows probably remained square rigged until their disappearance, but the bigger craft that remained in work until the 1930’s were ketch rigged, with a bowsprit to fly a jib in front of the foresail, and a topsail set above the mainsail gaff. The hulls were carvel built with a characteristic vertical transom stern, carrying the ship’s name and port.

Happily the handsome Spry of Gloster has been most carefully and thoroughly restored, and after a short sailing season in 1996 for recording purposes, is now preserved in perpetuity at Coalbrookdale.

One of the 'Purton Hulks'.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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