RSP Home River Severn Tales Chris Witts

Severn Railway Bridge Disaster

Tuesday 25th October 1960

This was an incident which would be always be remembered as The Severn Railway Bridge Disaster in which two tanker barges and five men were lost.

 The tankers concerned were the ARKENDALE H, loaded with 300 tons of black oil, bound from Swansea to Worcester and the WASTDALE H, loaded with 350 tons of petroleum spirit, bound from Avonmouth to Worcester, both operated by John Harker Limited. Several craft had left Avonmouth that evening including the WYESDALE H, tug ADDIE and tug ROBERT A bound for Lydney with three lighters loaded with logs. There was no sign of fog on leaving Avonmouth and the craft proceeded steadily upstream towards Sharpness accompanied by vessels from Swansea.


The Arkendale H at Swansea

The Wastdale H leaving Avonmouth

On reaching Berkeley Power Station about 10 p.m. the fog descended very quickly and crews of the vessels were alerted to listen for the fog horn on Sharpness Pier. The ARKENDALE H was already swinging off Sharpness, stemming the tide waiting to enter the port when the tug ADDIE and tow came across the barges bow forcing skipper George Thompson [35] to go full astern. A collision was avoided, but the tanker barge lost momentum against the tide and was drifting back towards the old dock entrance. George Thompson suddenly saw another vessel come out of the fog and brush against his barge, he shouted to the other craft if they knew where they were. The reply was no, they didn't know where they were.

 The other vessel was the WASTDALE H, her skipper was James Dew [42] who had only been on her for three days as his own barge, the BP MANUFACTURER, was in dry-dock. When the fog had first descended he had had a slight collision with the WYESDALE H  and then decided to find the river bank until things quietened down, but on hearing the fog horn very plainly began to make for the piers at Sharpness. Unfortunately he went past Sharpness Piers and suddenly saw the White House located near to the old dock entrance, whereby he began to stem the flow of the tide and make back to the piers. Soon after he heard a vessel blowing and at the same time saw her lights and recognised her as the ARKENDALE H.

 The two vessels converged on one another, both skippers fighting with the wheel to bring them apart. Unknown to skipper George Thompson, crew men of the WASTDALE H had secured a mooring rope to both barges which made it impossible in the fierce current, to steer the barges to the safety of Sharpness Piers. Soon the Severn Railway Bridge was upon them so Jimmy Dew gave his barge everything it had in the way of engine revolutions, but then he found that the WASTDALE H's stern was going under the bridge. The stern cleared the bridge columns, but the bow swung across at an angle hit a column with the port bow. At this time he put the vessel into full astern to cant the barge off the column when suddenly he was flung from the wheelhouse into the water. At this time a girder from the bridge dropped, falling onto the barge. He climbed back onto the WASTDALE H, which by now was on her side, when he realised that she was also on fire. so he struggled to the starboard side and made a jump for the ARKENDALE H.

The ARKENDALE H had also been struck by a falling bridge girder which had sliced through the barge just forward of the wheelhouse. Inside George Thompson was struck by a flying object which caused him to lose consciousness for a short time. He revived and went to the stern of the vessel where he saw his mate and engineer. Knowing they couldn't swim he gave them each a life ring and told them to jump in the river together. George jumped, but the other two held back and remained on the wrecked barge.

 On board, as he jumped from the WASTDALE H to the ARKENDALE H, James Dew found two men, the mate, Percy Simmonds [35], and engineer, Jack Cooper [43] deciding which was the best way to escape. The ARKENDALE H's propeller was still turning with the stern high out of the water. All three men decided to jump, but Jack Cooper, as he jumped, caught his back with the revolving propeller. The river was ablaze for two miles along the surface of the water and Jack decided he would rather drown than burn to death, so he discarded his life ring and sank below the surface of the Severn, but a vision of his family made him fight for his life. On reaching the surface not only did he find his life ring again, but a clear patch of water and was later rescued, a very exhausted man.

Five other crewmen were not so lucky, Percy Simmonds drowned, so did the deckhand off the WASTDALE H, Malcolm Hart [17], mate Jack Dudfield [46], engineer Alex Bullock [40] and 2nd engineer on the ARKENDALE H Robert Nibblett [25].

 WASTDALE H skipper Jimmy Dew was rescued three hours later upriver from the bridge on the Lydney side. He was uninjured and was the only survivor from his vessel.

 Skipper of the ARKENDALE H, George Thompson, thought he was going to die as he swam with all his strength from the flames which encircled the two barges. As he jumped from his barge over the flames into the thick black oily water he heard an explosion, the WASTDALE H was just one mass of flames. He eventually swam from one bank to the other, a distance of about one mile, and when he reached the bank on the Lydney side, just sat there hollering. A nearby farmer heard his cries for help and helped him back to the warmth of the farmhouse.

 The hero of the night was another tanker barge skipper, Tommy Carter, master of the SHELL TRAVELLER, safely tied up in Sharpness docks. He heard a great whoosh as the tankers burst into flames and described a great glow in the sky. Attempts were made to contact the two tanker barges by radio,but received no reply. Tommy Carter and his crew went to the pier, found a small boat and loaded it on a lorry. It was taken to Purton and launched into the river from the marshy land.

 With Tommy Carter in the boat was a local carpenter, Mr Henderson, both had to row in a zig zag fashion to avoid the flames. Jack Cooper was the first man they found, exhausted hanging onto his life ring, grateful to be alive and soon to be reunited with his family. Later at the public inquiry, Carter was praised on behalf of a Government Minister for his leadership and courage shown that night.

Images of the wrecked tanker barges out in the Severn, including photographs of skipper George Thompson.

The ARKENDALE H and WASTDALE H lay together on the mud in the middle of the river above the bridge and although attempts were made to salvage the vessels, they all failed. So that they would not float again both barges were ripped open with explosives. To this day they both lay there, clearly visible from the shore at Purton, a reminder of the Severn Bridge Disaster.

The Severn Railway Bridge was finally demolished in 1967, the iron girders being sold to Chile for a road carrying viaduct. All that remains today is the circular stone structure of the swing bridge on the side of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.




Tuesday 25th October 1960

2235 hours

the m.v. WASTDALE H and ARKENDALE H on River Severn between Sharpness and Purton.


Ship Owners: Transportation of petroleum by sea, river and canal.



Four water tenders, one foam tender and one water tender specially designed for generating foam in bulk were despatched to the scene of the fire; five to Sharpness Docks and one to Lydney Docks on the opposite side of the river. Due to its location the fire was inaccessible and no pumps were used. Lines of hose were, however, laid out on both piers at Sharpness Dock entrance and on Lydney Docks to be ready in the event of any burning oil being washed into the vicinity by the currents.


Steel construction, diesel motor vessel WASTDALE H Gross tonnage 229.33, Net tonnage 132.49 Steel construction, diesel motor vessel ARKENDALE H Gross tonnage 229.18, Net tonnage 112.03


Electrical or mechanical spark ignited leaking petroleum spirit.


m.v. WASTDALE H and m.v. ARKENDALE H severely damaged by impact and fire and the whole of the contents of both vessels consisting of 351 tons of Premium petroleum spirit and 296 tons of petroleum fuel oil respectively destroyed by fire

One pier and two spans [each span about 170] of single track .75 mile long railway bridge destroyed by impact and collapse. A 12 inch diameter gas main situated alongside the railway track and supplying the Forest of Dean area was broken away for the distance of the bridge damage.


A mixture of petroleum spirit and fuel oil spread over a considerable area of the river, which was about .75 of a mile wide at the scene of the incident. Precautionary measures were taken on both banks of the river, but due to sand and mud banks on each side of the main stream the fire did not threaten any buildings.


Each vessel was carrying a crew of four men. Out of the total of eight men involved two reached the river bank, aided by their life jackets, one was rescued by boatmen from Tites Point, Purton, four were later taken dead from the river and one is still missing, presumed dead.


During the evening of Tuesday 25th October 1960 some sixteen ships were on the River Severn travelling

from Avonmouth to Sharpness on the incoming tide.

In the area of Sharpness a dense fog came down reducing visibility in places to a few yards. Fog sirens

were in operation at Sharpness Docks and Sharpness Point.

The normal procedure for vessels entering the docks on the incoming tide is to pass the entrance, circle

and come in against the tide by the North Pier.

It is understood that eight vessels entered the docks at about 22 50 hours and three at about 23 40 hours

WASTDALE H and ARKENDALE H, owned by John Harker Ltd., of Knottingley, Yorks, did not enter the


WASTDALE H, a tanker of 229 grt, carrying 351 tons of Premium petroleum spirit, was skippered by James Dew [421 of 15 Hudson Street, Burnharn-on-Sea, with a crew of three men; Hubert Jack Dudfield [46] of Widdale, Gloucester Road, Staunton, Glos., Alex Albert Bullock [401 of 154 Melbourne St.,Gloucester and Malcolm Hart [171 of 115 High Street, Gloucester

ARKENDALE H, a tanker of 229 grt, carrying 296 tons of fuel oil, was skippered by George Horace Thompson [331 of Flat 1, 18 Bisley Road, Tuffley, Gloucester, with a crew of three men; Percy Alexander Simmonds [341 of 27 Kitchener Avenue, Gloucester, George William Cooper [43] of 5 Cornish Houses, Buckshafts Road, Cinderford, Glos. and Robert John Niblett [25] of West View, Canal Bank, Hardwicke

It appears that due to the thick fog both vessels missed the entrance to the docks and were swept up river by the incoming tide, which, it is understood, was running at about 8 knots.

During their endeavour to locate the dock entrance they either collided or ran alongside each other and were unable to break apart before being swept against one of the piers of the .75 mile long, single

track railway bridge carrying the line between Lydney and Sharpness.

The force of the impact carried away the pier which allowed two spans to fall. The railway lines fell across both vessels holding them together.

Both vessels were severely damaged, allowing the contents of the tanks to leak away. It is believed that vapour from the tanker carrying petroleum spirit was ignited, either by a mechanical spark due to stone and concrete striking the steel of the vessel, or by an electrical spark when the electric wiring operating at 110 volts D.C. was severed.

It is understood that flames from the burning vessels were higher than the bridge, which is some 70, above high water and a mixture of burning petroleum spirit and fuel oil floated for one mile upstream until, the tide turned, it spread over almost the whole of the .75 mile width of the river.

The two vessels, blazing furiously and still held together by the railway lines, floated about a half mile towards Gloucester where they went aground on a sandbank.

The river above Sharpness is not navigable due to the treacherous currents and sandbanks.

The fire was observed by people on the river bank and the Fire Service was called by exchange telephone at 2235 hours.

It would appear that members of the crews were on deck keeping a lookout and that when the bridge was struck they were either thrown or jumped into the water. Cries for help were dearly heard by people on the banks of the river, including at Purton about a mile upstream.

At this time the Chief Fire Officer and a Divisional Officer, who, with the Home Office Inspector, had been visiting stations, were travelling from Lydney to Cheltenham when a glow suddenly appeared in the sky in the direction of the River Severn.

It was ascertained by radio to Fire Control that no call had been received to any fire in the area.

As the glow persisted a visit was paid to Severn Bridge Station at the side of the river when, u;upon arrival, it was found that the surface of the river was alight as far as could be seen. The fire was causing the fog to disperse and the estimated distance of vision was about half a mile.

This information was passed to Fire Control by radio. Simultaneously with the receipt of this message a call was received by exchange telephone from Berkeley Police stating that a petrol tanker was on fire on the Sharpness Canal.

Although the Home Office Inspector and Chief Fire Officer were within half a mile of the fire they had to travel 40 miles via

Gloucester Bridge to proceed to the scene of the incident. In the meantime four appliances were despatched.

It was quickly ascertained that the burning vessel [it was not then known whether one or two vessels were involved] was on the river and not on the canal.

This was an extremely frustrating job as the glow could be seen through the fog, but it was impossible to get near the fire. There were three problems which could not be resolved: [a] Where the vessel or vessels actually were: [b] If that were ascertained, could they be reached? and [c] If this were possible could a rescue of any personnel be carried out?

The radio was a great asset for this particular operation and was in use continuously in organising the disposition of the appliances along the river banks.

On the advice of the Harbour Master it was decided that it was quite useless for appliances to be taken out to the fire; it should be appreciated that the River Severn is particularly treacherous above the entrance to Sharpness Docks due to strong and unknown currents, sand and mudbanks.

The fire boat stationed at Sharpness Docks is only suitable for use either in the dock or in the canal and was totally unsuitable for use on the river, particularly under the conditions obtaining at the time. Advice was then sought from the Harbour Master as to the direction of the current on the turning of the tide and, with this point in mind, three fines of hose were laid out in the Sharpness Docks area and one at Lydney Docks on the opposite side of the river so as to be ready in the event of any burning oil being brought into the vicinity by the currents.

Bristol City Fire Brigade were warned of the possible hazard of fuel going down the river. They were also asked if their fire boat could be brought up to the scene of the incident, but is was understood that this could not be done.

The Fire Service personnel loaded a row boat onto a lorry at Sharpness for transportation to Purton, a small hamlet about two miles upstream, where they assisted in manhandling it across the foreshore and launching it with the skipper of one of the tankers which had docked and one other man. They were successful in rescuing one member of the crew who was landed on the opposite bank of the river.

When the vessels damaged the bridge they also severed a 12 inch diameter gas main, the leaking gas

from which did not become ignited. Immediate action was taken to shut off the supply.

During the night J W Dew, G H Thompson, [the two skippers] and G W Cooper, whose rescue is referred to above, were recovered from the river alive and the following day, A Simmonds [deadl all from the Forest of Dean side of the river.

At 0730 hours on the 26th October it is understood that the Sharpness Harbour Master and Police went to the stranded vessels. At the time the ARKENDALE H was on an even keel and the WASTDALE H lying on its starboard side. Owing to the incoming tide and the fact that the vessels were lying about half a mile from the river bank, with the intervening space consisting of mud flats, sandbanks and quicksand, no further approach could be made until the following day at low water. A further search was made the following morning, but due to the quantity of water and oil in the vessels only a small section could he searched.

During the day arrangements were made to transport a light portable pump to the wrecks to pump out the water and the remaining oil to enable a search to be made of the interiors of the vessels for the missing members of the crews. At 0700 hours on the morning of the 28th October the pump and ancillary equipment were assembled on the river bank and the task of transporting them across the flats commenced. At that time, due to the tides, the WASTDALE H had regained an even keel and both vessels were surrounded by water to a depth of about Severn feet. By climbing along the railway lines which straddled the vessels it was possible to climb aboard. The pump was carried across the mud flats, then, mounted on an improvised sledge, was dragged across the mud. About halfway across the personnel and pump began to sink into the sand and it was only with extreme difficulty, after the pump had almost disappeared in the quicksand that it was extricated and, with the help of a ladder as a lever, moved to firmer ground. A search was made within the vessels as far as possible but, due to the pres cence of oil, water and fumes, much of the interior was inaccessible.

At this point the operation was abandoned until low tide the following morning.

During the day the Chief Officer made arrangements for a new type of ultra light pump to be obtained from Coventry and,

with the co-operation of the Royal Air Force, for a helicopter to carry it from a selected spot at Sharpness directly to the deck

of the WASTDALE H.

Accordingly, personnel and equipment with the Chief Fire Officer in charge assembled at Sharpness at 0700 hours on Saturday the 29th October. Soon after arrival, a message was received by radio to the effect that the helicopter had engine trouble and would not be available. AN personnel and equipment were taken to Purton and the equipment was manhandled across the soft mud and sand to the vessels. The pump was taken on board and the cabin of the WASTDALE H drained and searched by personnel wearing breathing apparatus, without result.

A similar attempt was made to pump water from the engine room of the ARKENDALE H but the vessel was apparently holed below the water line.and no progress was made. The engine room was, how ever, probed as far as possible without any sign of a possible body.

Shortly before 1100 hours the men were withdrawn and, with all gear, moved off to the shore in the face of the incoming tide. It was decided that the possibility of any bodies remaining in the wrecks was very remote.

On Sunday, 30th October between 0700 hours and 1130 hours, the wrecks were blown up by a series of

small explosions to prevent any danger of their moving with the coming of high tides

Photographs taken the following day on the 26th October 1960

Copyright with Chris Witts 2001

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

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Incredibly, despite over 50 years of tides sweeping over them, the barges remain in the Severn off Purton.

Chris Witts has written a NEW book Severn Bridge Disaster -  - 25th October 1960

Three survived.

Tragically five crewmen were killed.

Thick fog lay across the Severn off Sharpness.

Two tanker barges laden with highly volatile oil products hit the Severn Railway Bridge.....

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