RSP Home River Severn Tales Chris Witts


Saturday February 4th 1939     Three Tanker Barges Lost

The war in Europe loomed close, making the Severn Corridor an important waterway in keeping Great Britain supplied with oil products. A large fleet of tanker barges owned by local companies, the Severn & Canal Carrying Company, John Harker Limited and others, would load their tanks at Avonmouth to take it far inland to Stourport. Each barge would complete two round trips a week, or sometimes part of a third if weather and tide conditions were right. The first day was down to Avonmouth to load and back to Sharpness on the next tide to tie up in the entrance to the old dock above the High Level Bridge. Early next morning it was along the Gloucester & Sharpness Ship Canal to Gloucester, lock out into the Severn and then a long day getting to Stourport. The third day would be travelling back to Sharpness empty ready to begin it all again next day! This schedule could not be kept up day after day, engines would break down, the river would flood, accidents would happen and of course, the crews had to have some time off. But time off meant losing money, as the men were paid a bonus for each trip, ‘trip money’ as it was called. Sadly this was the root cause of many an accident, forcing the crews to work, sometimes against their better judgement.

No wonder then that 57 year old Henry Phillips groaned as he was woken at 4am, hastily getting ready to leave his home at Purton to begin a long day on his barge, the Severn Pioneer. Bidding his wife a fond farewell, telling her he would be home by 9pm that evening, he left the comfort of his warm cottage to travel the few miles to Sharpness Docks. His mate, 35 year old George Butler of Epney, was already on board, tidying and making cosy the small cabin. No engine to worry about as the Severn Pioneer was a dumb barge, a vessel without an engine, relying on a tow from a motor tanker barge.

 The Severn Pioneer, together with the Severn Carrier was to be towed by the Severn Traveller, all similar sized tanker barges. Although the Severn Carrier had an engine, it made economical sense for the three barges to travel together and only use one engine out of the three vessels. At 4.45am Albert Tonks, the 29 year old skipper of the Severn Traveller gave orders to let go and all three craft slowly manoeuvred into Sharpness lock. Soon they were out in the Severn Estuary and as the tide turned were able to make good progress on the fast flowing ebbing water.

 By the time they arrived at Avonmouth, daylight was breaking making their life easier as all three vessels proceeded to the large oil dock to each load their different liquid cargoes. The Severn Pioneer was booked to load 115 tons of petrol, as was the Severn Traveller, but with an extra fifteen tons. Skipper of the Severn Carrier, 31 year old Reginald Stokes of Gloucester, had also received his orders, to load 130 tons of Gasoleen. All three barges were soon loaded, thankfully, as being in an oil dock with safety in mind, all engines and heating had to be shut down. There is nothing worse than being on a steel tanker barge with no heating on a cold winters day!

 By 4.30pm that afternoon all crews were busy preparing to move off from their berths and proceed down to the large sea lock ready for the passage back to Sharpness. Again the Severn Traveller was to be the towing vessel, which meant engineer Frederick Vincent of Olveston had to keep a keen eye on the engine, any breakdown out in the estuary would give them all big problems. The Severn Carrier may not have been using her engine on this trip, but her engineer, Joubert Matthews, 19 years old and living in Berkeley, still made sure it would start first time if needed. The motor tanker barges carried a crew of three men and the deckhand on the Severn Carrier who was also 19 years old, was Granville Knight, whilst the deckhand on the Severn Traveller was 18 years old Walter Capener of Saul.

 At 5.15pm the outer gates of the sea lock opened and as Albert Tonks increased the revs on the Severn Traveller all three vessels slowly moved out into the murky waters of the Severn Estuary. There was a large spring tide running that night, which made the passage across The Shoots quite rough, [the area now crossed by the Second Severn Crossing bridge], requiring cabin hatch to be secured and all crewmen congregating in the wheelhouses.

 The manila tow-rope between each barge would have been paid out for most of its length, creating quite a long distance from the towing barge to the last third barge. The crew on this third barge would only have the sound of the waves lapping the vessel, not so on the Severn Traveller, here it would be noisy in the wheelhouse with the sound of the engine working hard below them. Having safely passed Charston Rock and then Beachley Point, the passage up through Slime Road would have been relatively calm, but no time to relax, as they still had to cross the Severn toward Sheperdine passing Narwood Rocks.

Shortly before arriving at the entrance to Sharpness Docks at 7.05pm an hour before high water, skipper Albert Tonks had swung his vessel around to stem the fast flowing tide. A procedure he and his crew had done many times in the past. All vessels bound for the port of Sharpness have to make this manoeuvre due to the strength of the tide and all masters are not happy until they have their vessel tied up either in the basin or in the lock.

 The deckhand on the Severn Traveller, Walter Capener, noticed after his vessel had completed the turn that the 5½ inch thick tow-rope had come adrift from the Severn Carrier. He yelled to Tonks, then began the arduous task of hauling it in, which he was doing as engineer Frederick Vincent came out of the engine-room and proceeded to help get the rope back on board. Skipper Tonks had to swing his barge around again at full speed to get close to the Severn Carrier so that one of his crew could throw a heaving line to the other barge. Hauling hard on the heaving line which had the tow-rope attached, the crew of the Severn Carrier quickly made it fast back onto the bollards on the bow of the barge.

 As soon as the crew of the Severn Carrier realised that the tow-rope had come adrift they started the engine to stop them and the other tow, the Severn Pioneer, from being swept up past Sharpness Piers. Unfortunately the engine was not powerful enough to hold both barges against the fast flowing tide. Above Sharpness Docks it is dangerous to navigate with the tidal race becoming very strong and soon all three vessels were above the piers at the dock entrance and heading towards the Severn Railway Bridge.

 They were only 300 yards from the bridge when the tow-rope was secure again, too late though, for the Severn Traveller did not have the power to make any progress against the tide. The first barge to strike the bridge was the Severn Pioneer, hitting it so hard that she sank almost immediately. This was quickly followed by the Severn Carrier hitting the bridge and turning turtle. Vincent on the Severn Traveller reacted quickly and as the Severn Carrier hit the bridge he slipped the tow-rope, again too late. The Severn Traveller hit the bridge amidships on the starboard side, heeled over, and then righted herself. Vincent was thrown into the water, but was able to grab some life chains as he went over and was in the water for some considerable time before being able to haul himself back aboard.

 In the gloom Frederick Vincent had seen the other two barges hit the bridge, but had not heard any shouts from the crews. He assumed that they had been thrown into the Severn on impact, as had happened to Walter Capener as his barge, the Severn Traveller hit the bridge. He had been standing alongside Vincent on the after end of the barge and after climbing back aboard began shouting for Capener, but got no reply.

 A Purton man, Mr W H Tudor, was duty signalman that evening on the Severn Railway Bridge when he felt vibrations through the bridge. This, he assumed, must have been as the barges struck the columns of the bridge with such force.

 Albert Tonks on the Severn Traveller, tried to make headway with the barge, but found his propeller was not operating properly and was drifting with the tide above the Gloucester side of the bridge. He and Vincent dropped the anchor, but they still continued to drift until the anchor held on the sands north of Purton at the Royal Drift. He began to flash a light onto the shore for help and although they could see lights flashing back no one came out to them. Frederick Vincent had noticed as they came to rest at the Royal Drift, the hull of the Severn Pioneer drifting down, back towards Sharpness.

Severn Traveller on the sands near Purton

The next thing they saw was the navigation lights of the Severn Traveller, which seemed to be stranded with another barge drifting towards Sharpness. Keedwell hailed it, but as there was no response, presumed that none of the crew were on board, then watched the other barge, which seemed to be at anchor and hearing nothing from it did not go to her assistance. Mr Keedwell thought that everything was alright so went back into the inn to retire to bed for the night, but just before he turned in, thought he would have a last look, so glanced out of his bedroom window and saw what appeared to be one of the barges.

He felt there was going to be trouble so quickly dressed and went back out to the foreshore. With the aid of shouts and a flashlight he was able to discover that there was someone on board and asked if they wanted to be taken off. Lionel gathered together some local men, George Cook, Ernest Robins, Melvin Robins, Harry Phillips and Jack Phillips to help him launch his boat into the river. With two of them, in the darkness and with great bravery, they rowed out to the Severn Traveller, which by now had been on the sandbank for two hours, and found the two exhausted survivors of this tragedy on the barge. Albert Tonks had a wound to his face, but Frederick Vincent appeared to be uninjured.

Lionel Keedwell with two survivors at the Berkeley Arms

The barge had petrol streaming from her sides, the wheelhouse was completely smashed with the wheel broken away and the engine-room flooded with the cabin sodden and in disorder.

The two survivors said that the rest of crewmen had been lost and that another barge had foundered a mile above them. Keedwell, with the others, rowed farther up the Severn and found the barge capsized with lying nearby two bodies. There was little they could do, but collect items of value and then take Tonks and Vincent back to the shore. It was later established that the two bodies that Mr Keedwell had seen were those of Reginald Stokes and Henry Phillips. When brought ashore on the Sunday they were placed in a wooden outhouse at the inn and it was noted that a watch on one of the deceased had stopped at 7.10pm.

Sharpness Harbour Master, Captain G T Owen, had been alerted that the wreck of the Severn Pioneer was drifting back to Sharpness and at 9.35pm gave instructions for the tug Primrose to go out into the river to assist with the emergency. The usual crew of the tug could not be mustered, only the skipper Frank Savage. So he had to sail with a scratch crew of Oliver Powell, skipper of another local tug, the Resolute, his engineer Jack Pittaway, Sharpness Lock foreman Cecil Turl and lockman Christopher Bastholm. Shortly after leaving Sharpness Frank Savage saw the Severn Pioneer, now righted again, but low in the water, off the piers. Finding it very difficult to land a party on her, he had to follow the barge for nearly a mile before he could manoeuvre effectively alongside the vessel. Oliver Powell and Cecil Turl boarded the barge with some difficulty, as the tug had to be swung round steaming against the ebbing tide to let the two men jump from the bows onto the slippery deck of the Severn Pioneer, which was awash with oil from the cargo. Eventually they secured a rope to the barge and the Primrose began to tow her back into Sharpness Docks at 10.15pm.

Albert Tonks looking for survivors


 News of the disaster travelled slowly and only a handful of people were there to see the stricken vessels. The two survivors, Albert Tonks and Frederick Vincent, both fit young men, walked out across the sands to the wreck of the Severn Traveller where they spent some time on board. They reported that petrol was still leaking out of the hull.

The people of Purton had been keeping a constant look-out for signs of bodies and did give aid to the police in recovering that of Joubert Matthews from the river. Ten men had set out on that Sunday afternoon with only a wooden stretcher and ropes and had to struggle for some time in difficult conditions to reach his body. Placing the body of Joubert Matthews onto

  the makeshift stretcher, the men set off on the arduous treck back to the shore. The men at times were sinking deep into the soft mud and the stretcher had to be pulled through it with the aid of ropes. The body was placed with the other two in the outhouse at the Berkeley Arms. The police praised them saying they were tireless in their efforts and would like to express their gratitude to those who proved of utmost assistance to them. Without their help and expert knowledge of the river the police would have experienced far greater difficulties.

left to right: Fred Vincent, Albert Tonks, Sergeant Frank Jeynes and Inspector Wickham

Severn Carrier near Purton

Men carrying the body of Joubert Matthews

The Inquest

The coroner, Sir Seymour Williams, at Berkeley Police Court, opened the inquest into the death of Henry Phillips, Reginald Stokes and Joubert Matthews. The court was crowded to its fullest capacity and extra accommodation was provided for the press and other people. Attending in their official capacities were Mr Leslie Farnfield of London for the Severn & Canal Carrying Company, Mr J Hieatt of Gloucester for the Transport & General Workers Union and relatives of Henry Phillips, Mr A Ingleden of Cardiff for the Sharpness Docks Company and Inspector G A Wickham as an observer for the police.

Before the coroner heard any evidence Leslie Farnfield suggested that it might be advantageous to adjourn the inquest until the Board of Trade enquiry had been heard. Sir Seymour said he must find the cause of death to see if anyone was criminally liable for the accident. He recalled that at the time of the Charfield Railway Disaster he had Colonel Pringle sit with him and this was of help to both sides.

 Harold Phillips of Sharpness gave evidence of identifying Henry Phillips, barge master of Purton. His elder sister Aileen Smith Matthews identified Joubert Matthews of Berkeley and Albert Tonks identified Reginald Stokes of Gloucester.

 As Albert Tonks began to give evidence, Sir Seymour told him that he need not give evidence if he felt something would transpire that would tend to imply he was criminally responsible for the accident. Tonks replied that he was perfectly willing to continue and proceeded to give his evidence. During his time in the witness box Tonks used matches to illustrate to Sir Seymour the procedure in securing the barge and the position when the collision occurred. He did agree that the primary cause of the trouble was the tow-rope becoming disengaged from the Severn Carrier. The accident would not have happened if the rope had not separated from the barge and it was not the duty of the crew of the Severn Traveller to make fast the rope of the barge being towed.

 He agreed with Mr Hieatt that he had obtained his position of master of the barge by promotion in the ordinary way. He said that none of the barge masters had a Masters Certificate or any form of certificate. [As is still the case today with commercial barges operating on the Severn above Gloucester. Traditionally the skipper of a barge would recommend to the company that his mate was ready to take position of master should a vacancy occur. Certainly no exams were ever taken, it was all down to local knowledge].

Severn Pioneer lying in Sharpness Docks

An attempt to salvage the Severn Carrier in the basin of Sharpness Docks

Tanker Barges


Motor Tanker Barge  built 1935 Official Number 163859

Built By: Charles Hill, Bristol

130 grt  88¼' long, 18½' wide, 7' depth

1948:  Sold to John Harker Ltd

1957:  Sold and converted to passenger vessel.

Still working on the River Severn at Worcester


Motor Tanker Barge built 1933 Official Number 160019

Built By: Charles Hill, Bristol

140 grt  89' long, 19½' wide, 7' depth

1948:  Sold to John Harker Ltd

1957:  Sold to unknown buyers


No construction detail

Dumb Tanker Barge

Tanker Crews


 Skipper Albert Tonks [29] 18 Great Western Road, Gloucester


 Engineer Frederick Vincent  Zion Cottage, Olveston


 Deckhand Walter Capener [18] Saul

   Single man Had been with the company for 12months. Prior to that had worked on transatlantic ships, BOSTON CITY and TORONTO CITY. He was about to embark on the GLOUCESTER CITY when he was offered the 3rd hands job on the tanker barge.


 Skipper Reginald Stokes [31] 91 High Street, Gloucester

   Married man with four children.

 Engineer Joubert Matthews [19] Berkeley

   Single man Had worked for the company since leaving school.

 Deckhand Granville Knight [19]  Saul

   Single man Had only left the QUEEN MARY three weeks previously to join the company.


 Skipper Henry Phillips [57] Purton

   Married man with two children.

 Mate  George Butler [35]

   Single man Had been with the company for 12 months and had worked on ships all around the world. He was a fine swimmer and often swam in the Severn.

Story by: Chris Witts

Copyright with Chris Witts 2015

No copying of this material for whatever reason without permission from the author

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Goddess of the Severn

Before adjourning the inquest until a later date, Sir Seymour Williams said that no living man could say why the rope came off the bollards on the Severn Carrier, but that there had been no error in navigation by the Severn Traveller.

As daylight broke on the Sunday morning the full extent of the tragedy could be seen. The Severn Traveller was still held by her anchor on the sandbank half a mile north of Purton, whilst the Severn Carrier had moved again with the following tide and was now resting on the bank above the Sever Railway Bridge. That day Oliver Powell took his tug, the Resolute, out into the Severn with Captain G T Owen on board. There was little they could do until the following day when they towed the Severn Traveller to the banks of the river above the Berkeley Arms Inn at Purton and secured her there.

Lionel Keedwell, the 22-year-old son of the licensee of the Berkeley Arms Inn at Purton said that at 8.25pm someone had told him that there appeared to be a boat in difficulty about a mile above the Severn Bridge. He went onto the foreshore and saw the barges and began to hail one of them, but all he got was, “We want a boat”. The Severn Traveller had gone too far with the tide so it was impossible to try and reach them as they drifted a further mile and soon sight of them was lost for an hour or so.

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