Relics of a maritime past
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 By the early 20th century, they had been superseded by motorised vessels.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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 Purton Ships’ Graveyard
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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 the Voltiac, was built by the Perth New Ship Building Company in 1867, and beached in August 1953.
The enduring ferro-concrete barges, born out of necessity during the Second World War.
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 Dispatch, sponsored by shipbuilding family, the Geddies.