Relics of a mar­itime past

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Diane War­dle Pho­to­graphs: Nick Dawe CON­TACT www.friend­sof­pur­

Along a windswept stretch of the River Sev­ern, sea birds stand sen­try on frag­ments of moss-cov­ered tim­ber and dis­in­te­grat­ing pipework. Wooden hulks, rot­ted frames, curved prows and half-sunken keels rise from the earth. Some are wo­ven into the grass, while wa­ter laps gen­tly against those ly­ing at the river’s edge. The birds’ mourn­ful cries add to the land­scape’s seem­ing des­o­la­tion. This is Pur­ton Ships’ Grave­yard, the fi­nal rest­ing place of ves­sels that once sailed the rivers and canals of south-west Eng­land and the seas be­yond. For a mile and a half, near Pur­ton in Glouces­ter­shire, these rem­nants of Bri­tain’s sail­ing her­itage stand tes­ta­ment to the in­ge­nu­ity of the ship­ping com­mu­ni­ties that worked along the Sev­ern.

Cre­at­ing a bar­rier

Be­tween the city of Glouces­ter and the port of Sharp­ness, the Sev­ern, Bri­tain’s long­est and fastest-flow­ing river, be­comes tidal. With strong cur­rents and un­sta­ble sand­banks, it is dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate and haz­ardous to ship­ping. In 1827, this prob­lem was re­solved with the open­ing of the Glouces­ter and Sharp­ness Canal, which en­abled ships to by­pass the worst of the river. From Sharp­ness, canal and river run side by side up to Pur­ton, be­fore the canal makes its way in­land. By 1905, the canal was han­dling more than a mil­lion tons of cargo ev­ery year, and was vi­tal to the re­gional and na­tional econ­omy. But four years later, it came un­der threat when the bank of the river col­lapsed near Pur­ton. “The canal com­pany’s chief en­gi­neer, AJ Cullis, had to pro­tect his brain­child,” says Paul Bar­nett. A for­mer hy­dro­graphic sur­veyor, Paul has been re­search­ing the ships’ grave­yard for more than 15 years. “Cullis came up with the idea of run­ning old, un­wanted boats aground along the bank where it had col­lapsed. This would slow the river, al­low­ing silt to be de­posited, cre­at­ing a bar­rier.” The first boats to be beached were re­dun­dant Stroud­wa­ter barges. Built to nav­i­gate the locks and bridges of the nearby Stroud­wa­ter Canal, the de­sign of these boats had changed lit­tle in more than 100 years. By the early 20th cen­tury, they had been su­per­seded by mo­torised ves­sels. The 70ft (21m) long barges were towed up the river from Sharp­ness to reach Pur­ton on the high­est tide. This meant they gained enough speed to be rammed onto the fore­shore. They were then winched fur­ther up the bank to pull clear of the tide. When the wa­ter

had re­ceded, the hulls were smashed to pre­vent the boats from float­ing and to en­cour­age sed­i­men­ta­tion. Ini­tially, all went well, but as the boats started to rot, the bank be­came ex­posed once more. Re­in­force­ments were nec­es­sary, so be­tween 1909 and the mid 1970s, 86 boats were hulked. These in­cluded ocean-go­ing schooners, grace­ful Sev­ern trows built to with­stand the va­garies of the river, and flat-bot­tomed barges, known as lighters, that trans­ferred goods from moored ships. As they filled with sand and silt, they be­came en­cased by veg­e­ta­tion. Today, the ships’ grave­yard is the big­gest col­lec­tion of mar­itime arte­facts on any fore­shore in Bri­tain. The rem­nants of 30 boats are vis­i­ble in the grass and mud along the river bank.

Jour­ney of re­dis­cov­ery

Al­though pho­to­graphs and doc­u­ments of the site in the 1930s sur­vive, over the years interest in the Pur­ton ships waned. “For a long time they were Glouces­ter­shire’s best-kept se­cret,” says Paul. “I used to play among them as a child in the 1970s, but back then every­one took them for granted. We didn’t re­ally think about their his­tory, or what they rep­re­sented. Many were more or less in­tact, al­though they had been aban­doned for more than 40 years.” In 1999, af­ter many years at sea, Paul re­turned to Pur­ton. “It was only then it struck me what a spe­cial place it was,” he says. “But al­though the lay­out of the site had been ap­praised by Bris­tol Univer­sity a cou­ple of years pre­vi­ously, no one seemed to know what the ac­tual ships were, or any­thing about them. I thought there might be of­fi­cial records of what was beached, but I checked all the ar­chives in the area and there were none. I couldn’t find a thing about them.” Then, on hol­i­day in Brix­ham, Paul came across a book called Lost Ships of the West Coun­try, by Martin Lan­g­ley and Ed­wina Small. Fea­tured in it were photos and names of three of the ships. “The book re­ally whet­ted my ap­petite,” he says. “I de­cided to carry on from there and try to iden­tify all the Pur­ton ships.”

“Then I shall ques­tion Peter, Upon the heav­enly floor What makes the tides in rivers How comes the Sev­ern Bore.” Ivor Gur­ney, ‘The Fish­er­man of Newn­ham’

The first ship he in­ves­ti­gated was the big­gest one in the grave­yard, the King. “Al­though she stands high on the bank and is only reached by the high­est tides, just her skele­ton re­mains now. Beached in 1951 dur­ing a snow­storm, she was a big ship, al­most 120ft (36½m) long. It was tough go­ing to iden­tify her, but when I fi­nally did, it was a eu­phoric mo­ment.” It took him three months, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of pri­mary and sec­ondary sources. These sources in­cluded the ar­chive held at the SS Great Bri­tain and per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Like many of the boats, the King was dif­fi­cult to trace be­cause she had been re­mod­elled and re­named dur­ing her life­time. Orig­i­nally a three-masted schooner called Sally, she was built in Lon­don in 1870. In 1940, she was bought and re­named by Fos­ter Broth­ers of Glouces­ter, who pro­duced an­i­mal feed. Her masts were re­moved and new deck hatches put in to open up her vast hold. She trans­ported lin­seed and cot­ton seed to the com­pany’s crush­ing mill on Baker’s Quay, and the fin­ished cat­tle cake along the canal net­work. But only 10 years later, it was more eco­nomic to use road trans­port, and she was ob­so­lete.

De­tec­tive work

In 2008, Paul founded the Friends of Pur­ton, a group of fel­low en­thu­si­asts. Ded­i­cated to re­search­ing the sto­ries be­hind the ships, they also wanted to ob­tain pro­tec­tion for the site as a sched­uled an­cient mon­u­ment. As well as look­ing at what was above ground, it was im­por­tant to es­tab­lish just what lay be­low the sur­face. This way, they knew just how big the site was. “At the start, we were mak­ing the best of what we had,” says Paul. “We used mag­ne­tome­ters to iden­tify fer­rous metal be­low ground, but were less high-tech too, even us­ing cam­eras on fish­ing rods. Now, thank­fully, we have the sup­port of the uni­ver­si­ties of Bris­tol, Birm­ing­ham and Cardiff, and the Nau­ti­cal Ar­chae­ol­ogy So­ci­ety. Af­ter recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of the site and the ves­sels, they have car­ried out so­phis­ti­cated geo­phys­i­cal sur­veys and laser scan­ning.” This has re­vealed many of the boats ly­ing un­der the sur­face to be largely in­tact. With names rarely sur­viv­ing on the boats, the Friends scour the site for clues. The small­est of de­tails can be vi­tal. “With the Durs­ley, we had no leads,” ex­plains Paul. “How­ever, the re­mains of a black band on a grey background were vis­i­ble on the rud­der post. These turned out to be the colours of the Bris­tol lighter­age com­pany Fred Ash­mead & Son. With this, and a num­ber on the beam, we man­aged an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

His­tor­i­cal im­por­tance

At the time they were beached, the Pur­ton ships were con­sid­ered worth­less. Of­ten un­sea­wor­thy and in breach of safety leg­is­la­tion, they were un­eco­nomic to re­pair. Their own­ers were usu­ally glad to be rid of them. But with the pas­sage of time, their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance has been un­der­lined. Most were built to de­signs used only around the Sev­ern, while oth­ers were of na­tional mar­itime im­por­tance. Many were built with­out plans and draw­ings, re­ly­ing on ship­wrights’ long ex­pe­ri­ence and time-hon­oured tra­di­tions. The con­struc­tion meth­ods used are not fully un­der­stood today. The Ada was built us­ing lo­cal tech­niques by the Bris­tol yard Thomas Gard­ner in 1869. She is a rare ex­am­ple of a wooden Bris­tol dandy, a spe­cialised two-masted sail­ing ship. She started her days trans­port­ing pit props and bark to Ire­land, re­turn­ing home with a hold of Ir­ish hams. With the de­cline of coastal trade in the 1930s, she was cut down and used as a towed barge, un­til be­ing beached in 1956. The Sev­ern Col­lier is a unique sur­vivor. Built circa 1937, this was a wooden screw barge, a tim­ber con­structed ves­sel with an on-board mo­torised pro­pel­ler. She fer­ried coal from Lyd­ney to the Cad­bury Broth­ers’ cho­co­late fac­tory at Keyn­sham. Built to re­place towed barges, she orig­i­nally had an en­gine, but this turned out to be too small for the job. It took her al­most eight hours to travel a mile and a half when fully laden. The mis­take was never re­peated. Her en­gine was re­moved and she, too, was

towed, un­til the Cad­bury fac­tory switched to oil power. She was beached in 1965. Some of the most his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant wrecks are the eight ferro-con­crete barges of the stem-head type, built in Bar­row-in­Fur­ness in the early 1940s. This was a unique type of bow, de­signed to cut through the wa­ter, rather than ride over it, in the case of a swim head. In­tended to use a min­i­mum amount of iron and steel, which were scarce in wartime, they were con­structed by pour­ing con­crete slurry over a metal frame. Only 39 were built, and they were used as float­ing stor­age for oil, grain and food. Some of the tech­nol­ogy used in their de­sign was in­cor­po­rated into the float­ing road­ways which served the Mul­berry Har­bours, later used in the Nor­mandy cam­paigns. The Dis­patch, a schooner later named the New Dis­patch, was the penul­ti­mate ship to be built at the Ged­die ship­yards on the River Spey in Scot­land. Built in 1888, she was one of only four equipped with move­able ‘iron knees’ de­signed to hold the deck to the side of a ship. These were in­stead of the wooden braces usu­ally fit­ted. In the­ory, this would make the ship more stream­lined, and fast enough to carry per­ish­able goods. How­ever, it was not so suc­cess­ful in prac­tice. Orig­i­nally part of a fleet which fished the wa­ters around New­found­land, she was de-masted in 1936. Her last years were spent along the Glouces­ter and Sharp­ness Canal, be­fore be­ing beached circa 1961.

Pro­tec­tion for the ships

Paul’s vi­sion for Pur­ton was fi­nally re­alised in 2010, when English Her­itage agreed to list the Har­ri­ett as a sched­uled an­cient mon­u­ment. Al­though she is the only one of the wrecks to be so pro­tected, her pres­ence con­fers le­gal pro­tec­tion on all the other ves­sels on the site. Con­structed in Bris­tol circa 1905, the Har­ri­ett is an oak Ken­net and Avon barge, the last of her kind any­where in the world. Mea­sur­ing 72ft (22m) long, she spent most of her life car­ry­ing wood pulp and coal from Bris­tol docks to mills along the Bris­tol Avon Nav­i­ga­tion. She was pulled out of eco­nomic ser­vice in 1960 and beached in 1964. At least 60 per cent of her up­per tim­bers sur­vive today.

Rest­ing place

Ex­posed to the el­e­ments and vul­ner­a­ble to sou­venir hunters, the Pur­ton ships are slowly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. Paul does not want them to be pre­served, how­ever, ei­ther at the grave­yard or in a mu­seum. “Re­mov­ing any boats from the site would mean dis­man­tling frag­ile re­mains, and jeop­ar­dise other ves­sels nearby,” he says. “Through­out their many his­to­ries, these ves­sels have served the Sev­ern, and should re­main there as tes­ti­mony to a life since past, rest­ing in peace, not pieces. Even on-site mea­sures would be too ex­pen­sive for too lit­tle re­turn. I be­lieve the money would be bet­ter spent pro­tect­ing other, more vi­able and ac­tive parts of our mar­itime her­itage.” The Friends group hopes interest and a sense of pride in the wrecks will be­come wide­spread as more peo­ple re­alise what they rep­re­sent. Me­mo­rial plaques with short his­to­ries of some of the boats, of­ten spon­sored by the de­scen­dants of those who knew them, have been erected on the site. The Friends also run guided tours. “We’re al­ways on the look­out for in­for­ma­tion from any­one who might know of the ships at Pur­ton, or who would like to help with our re­search,” says Paul. “The aim is preser­va­tion through doc­u­men­ta­tion. The real longevity will come by ex­plor­ing and record­ing the lives of these ships, and those who built and sailed on them.”

The en­dur­ing ferro-con­crete barges, born out of ne­ces­sity dur­ing the Se­cond World War.

The bare bones of the once im­pos­ing triple-mast schooner, the King. Made of both wood and iron, today she is one of a very few sur­vivors of boats made of a com­pos­ite con­struc­tion method, used for only 40 years. › The Sarah MacDonald, a schooner re­named...

A walk through his­tory with the Sev­ern on one side and boat re­mains on the other (top). Part of for­mer Stroud­wa­ter barge the Durs­ley (cen­tre). Founder of the Friends of Pur­ton, Paul Bar­nett looks for clues in iden­ti­fy­ing the relics (above). Chep­stow...

A once-sturdy cross-braced schooner, the Dis­patch was hewn from Scot­tish pine with an elm keel. Today, a sea of grass has flooded her amid­ships. The rust­ing iron knees re­main on her moss-cov­ered tim­ber. A me­mo­rial plaque gives a brief his­tory of the...

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