In the 17th and 18th centuries the Severn was alive
PUBLISHED: 13:32 18 March 2011 | UPDATED: 16:17 20 February 2013
Preserved in a corrugated iron building at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum is an historic sailing boat which is as important to Shropshire as the Cutty Sark is to Greenwich - and just like the famous tea clipper, she is the last of her kind....
And right now, there is a robust debate brewing over what should happen to her. To understand how important trows once were to the region, you have to go back to the 17th and 18th centuries and imagine the Severn as it was then. Instead of being the reserve of a comparatively small number of pleasure craft as it is today, the river was a crowded thoroughfare used by boats carrying valuable cargoes. The vessels cruising along it kept the western side of England and the Welsh borderlands supplied with imports from abroad and, in
turn, provided a transport system for food, minerals, timber and other cash crops produced in the region to reach their markets in the outside world. As Britain's longest navigable river, the Severn could once be sailed for 160 miles from the sea to near Welshpool in Wales. In an age when roads were still muddy tracks which were often impassable for weeks on end, goods produced in Shropshire, Wales, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, could be carried all the way to Bristol, London and even the Continent by boat no matter what their
weight and bulk. The river, which was still tidal as far as Worcestershire until the 19th Century, was as vital a commercial thoroughfare as the M6 and the M5 are today. The county became a changeover point where the larger, deeper keeled craft which sailed from the sea, gave way to smaller boats with lesser draughts which were needed to carry cargoes along the shallower, upper reaches of the river. In particular, it helped to make Worcester a considerable inland port, a type of marine clearing house where goods were transferred to smaller or larger craft depending on whether they were being carried up or down river. This led to the gradual development of specialised boats with names like barges, frigates, wherries and flats with specific jobs to do which are no longer understood and for which no record remains. But the greatest and most famous vessel of the lot was the Severn trow. More than 70 feet long, 18 feet wide and with a hold nearly seven feet deep, this type of vessel was bigger than a modern 40-ton truck and hundreds of them used to sail under a splitsail rig with a three-man crew and were originally steered not by a wheel, but by a tiller. They had open holds with an odd system of extra canvas bulwarks laced up to a rail to increase their freeboard in choppy waters and this enabled them to sail the restless Severn estuary and reach Bristol and the ports of South Wales, Devon and Cornwall. They carried away for export engineering products and lead ore from the cradle of the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge, Welsh wool and cheese, coal and charcoal from the Wyre Forest and fine china made in Worcester. They also transported timber and other products from Shropshire farms which could survive the lengthy journey to London and the Continent. On their return, they brought back spices and silk from the Orient, brandy and wine from France and Spain, tobacco from Virginia and rum and molasses from the West Indies. In the process, the trade they helped to build up turned Bewdley into such a substantial inland port that a complete pewter industry was established in the town just to supply the local taverns with beer pots for the river sailors to drink their wages. It also led to the building of canals to the West Midlands conurbation and gave places like Birmingham and Wolverhampton direct navigable access to the sea for the first time. The Severn with its unique trows remained a main artery of the country's commercial transport system until the middle of the 19th Century when theadvent of the railways, with their faster journey times, started taking away some of the water-borne business. Even then, the
Severn continued to be a viable way of transporting commercial produce until after World War II. By the 1950s, however, carriers found it quicker, cheaper and easier to transport goods between the main sea docks and the Midlands by road. One by one, the Severn trows fell into disuse and were gradually scuttled and filled with concrete to strengthen the river banks at places like Kempsey in Worcestershire and Pirton in Gloucestershire. The only riverside relic of the trows now left is a small plaque about them on Worcester's road bridge over the
Severn. But after the boats had all been scrapped, and it seemed that future generations would never know what they were like, marine conservationists found one last surviving example in Worcester. The Spry had been built at Chepstow in 1894 by William Hurd and was registered at Gloucester under the ownership of a Chepstow stone mason. She spent much of her early working life hauling stone in the Severn Estuary between Cardiff and
Chepstow. During the first quarter of the 20th Century, she traded in the Severn between Bristol and Gloucester and by 1937 she had been derigged to become a dump barge. She came up to Worcester in the early 1950s and was berthed in Diglis Basin. During the next 30 years, she became a floating workshop, though for most of that time she did not float, but rested on the bottom with her hull submerged. She changed ownership so often that the British Waterways Board were never able to collect dues on her. This sad, rotting hulk was all that was left of one the largest and most unique inland cargo fleets to have been found anywhere in Europe and she was in such a poor state by the 1980s that the small band of enthusiasts, who wanted to preserve her, knew they would have to move fast if they were to succeed. She was bought by the Upper Severn Navigation Trust (since renamed the Spry Trust) in 1983 and was taken by road to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum to be restored by Alan Williams.
She was rebuilt under a massive corrugated iron canopy during the next 13 years. The work was complete by 1996 and Spry was transported to Red Cliff Wharf, Avonmouth, where her final fitting-out took place, before being towed by the tug Lowgarth up the river to Bristol to participate in the first International Festival of the Sea. In June, 1996, the oldest working steam tug, Mayflower, towed the Spry up the Severn and the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal to Gloucester Docks where she was put on display near the National Waterways Museum.
In May the following year, members of the Upper Severn Navigation Trust sailed her from Sharpness Docks to Queen Alexandra Docks, Cardiff. On 28 May, infine weather conditions, the Spry left Avonmouth Docks for a final day's sailing and the occasion was recorded on film so that future generations would always be able to experience the sight of a trow under sail. After that, she was returned again to the museum at Ironbridge to be laid up under cover on dry land in the Blists Hill Victorian Town. The debate which is now going on, is about whether she should be preserved indoors as a nurtured relic where her condition can be protected more easily or whether she should become a living, sailing vessel again with the inevitable extra expense and risk which that would mean. Opinion on the matter is divided right down the middle, although the cost of getting her under sail again might be prohibitive. But if she were to sail again, it would not be for the foreseeable future. At the moment, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum is carrying out a feasibility study for what is described as "a long term aspiration" for moving the Spry to a dry dock adjacent to Coalport China Museum and right next to the River Severn. That, at least, would seem a bit like her going home.