RSP Home River Severn Tales Chris Witts

River Severn Trading Vessels

The Motor Barge

Before the era of the modern motor barge, a fleet of steam tugs operated on the Severn, towing

narrow boats and dumb barges from Gloucester to Stourport. These same tugs would also work down the estuary from Sharpness to Avonmouth, towing only the larger dumb barges. A few Trows were still working on the river, they also would have been towed by these tugs.

Diglis Lock

World War I saw a dramatic decline in traffic on the river, which continued into the 1920's, including the General Strike of 1926. Then quite suddenly, oil became a very important commodity with oil storage tanks quickly growing at sites on the river from Gloucester to Stourport. At the start, oil was transported in dumb barges such as SHELL MEX 7, SINCERITE, CLEPROD NO 1, etc. By 1935 new motor tanker barges had been built by the Yorkshire company of John Harker Limited. These diesel engined tanker barges were to become the modern successor to the Trow.


The Severn was to become, for several decades, one of the major commercial waterways of this country. Not just tanker barges, but numerous cargo barges built in the 1930's at the yard of Charles Hill of Bristol. The peak of all this trade was during the 1950's and early 1960's with two main companies in the tanker trade, John Harker Limited and Regent Oil. The Severn was just like a floating pipeline, seven days a week loaded tankers could be seen carrying this liquid gold to depots on the river.

Harker barges were large, 140ft long and 22ft wide, [the maximum size to fit into Worcester Lock], crewed by 4 men, with the ability to carry 400 tons of cargo. They were sea going barges, having to make the rough voyage down the Bristol Channel to Swansea to load their cargo. Because they operated in the Bristol Channel they

were subjected to certain rules and regulations. One of these was that the crew had to sign six monthly articles at Gloucester Customs House in Commercial Road, with the regulatory stamp in the seaman's discharge book. The crewmen had to be skilled at seamanship and river work, the two quite different. Whilst in the Bristol Channel they were navigating a busy waterway, sharing it with ocean going freighters, tankers and coasters. A knowledge of the tides, currents and marker buoys a must.

Yet, once back in the safety of the ship canal to Gloucester and on up the river to Worcester they were bargemen again. This time a knowledge of navigating a difficult and narrow river in times of flood and low water levels important. The deep-sea

crewman thought Harker men were thick bargees, whilst those on narrow boats thought the opposite. Therefore Harker men became a breed of men like no other on the waterway. The job was hard, away from home for days, sometimes weeks, enduring severe storms in the channel, tossed around like a cork in a bath.

A typical Worcester trip would mean leaving Gloucester, empty, at 5am, down the canal to Sharpness, locking out into the estuary,

hoping for calm waters during the eight-hour trip to Swansea. On arrival there, the barge would have to tie on the piers to wait for the first lock, in the hope that you could be the first to load at the jetties at the far end of the Queens Dock. If this was the case it meant you could sail out of Swansea on the last lock of the tide, anchor in the bay to wait for the flood tide to take you back to Sharpness. At Sharpness, if you were lucky, it could be a night's sleep in the bunk before leaving at 5am for the long trip to Worcester.

Three hours up the canal, then a further seven hours up the river, to begin unloading in the Diglis Oil Basin, Worcester at about 3pm, when four hours later should see the barge empty .A night ashore, a night in the bunk, ready for another 5am start back to Gloucester, to start all over again.


Harker barges suffered a few disasters, Haw Bridge knocked down in 1958, [1 killed], Severn Railway Bridge knocked down in 1960, [5 killed], and the BP EXPLORER turned over in the estuary in 1961, [5 killed].


This trade finished during the early 1970's, the motorway came and a pipeline was built. The only commercial trade on the Severn, which lasted, was the two grain barges working from Sharpness to Tewkesbury and that has now finished. The stern wheeler, OLIVER CROMWELL and a new vessel the EDWARD ELGAR operate out of Gloucester during the summer months. They carry passengers on a week's holiday travelling the Severn up as far as Stourport and on the canal to Sharpness.

The stern wheeler OLIVER CROMWELL leaving Gloucester (left) and arriving on her return after a cruise to Worcester

Photomarine . Sharpness Shipping . Links . Gloucester Shipyard