The River Severn in South Shropshire




Part I  Geology and the Course of the River

Part 2 : Navigation


Part I  Geology and the Course of the River

Confined to the west and most mountainous part of the country where one would expect to find short rivers, the Severn is the longest river in England. Once navigable for 155 miles [1] and the second busiest river in Europe [2] now for the greater part of its length, from its source to Stourport, few boats can be seen. Its great length isdue to a geologically recent combination of two drainage systems. Its fall from grace as a great navigable highway is in part due to this geological immaturity; buteconomic, factors, the activities of those living on its banks and more recently those of various water authorities have all played their part.

There are many topographical and historical features to be seen today which illustrate these peculiarities. These notes are a record of admittedly casual observationsmade over a long period. They are in no way intended as an authoritative monograph, but it is hoped they may be of some interest.

It is generally accepted that, prior to the breakthrough at the Severn Gorge, the area north of Wenlock Edge was a great marsh which drained  towards the Dee estuary, while the land, to the south of the Edge drained towards the Bristol Channel [3]. It-is likely that below Linley the original 'short' Severn followed. the course of thepresent river which flows over the western edge of a huge deposit of Permian and Triassic rocks, mostly soft sandstones. These were capped, at least in this area,  with alayer of hard conglomerate i.e. :nixed pebbles cemented together. Traces of this capping can be seen at such places as High Rock and queens Parlour, Bridgnorth, TheRock at Quatford, and the Red Bill on the Bridgnorth-Wolverhampton road. These Permian rocks overlie the coal measures, and coal is or has been mined almost allround the edge of the deposit, from the Coalbrookdale coalfield in the north to the Wyre  Forest coalfield in the south.

Of the ages between the forming of the Permian-Triassic rocks and the Glacial Epoch there is no trace in this part of Shropshire and the deposit shows little trace ofviolent upheaval. The conglomerate does however slope down from the river while many roads leading from the river rise steeply from the valley and there descendgently to the valley of a tributary. It appears that there was an upthrust which would crack the hard capping. Such a crack would form a drainage channel and eventuallybecome the river valley.

Above Linley the main stream of the 'short' Severn may have followed the valley of the Linley Brook which has three clearly marked terraces. The road from LinleyGreen down to the brook is rather like a giant staircase. The 'treads' and 'risers' indicate periods of violent erosion followed by periods of tranquillity resulting fromvarious ice ages. The breakthrough at the Severn Gorge could have been, and, one might think from the nature of the gorge, probably was, the dramatic result of someearth movement in the area. But even before the breakthrough, each time the retreating ice blocked the drainage to the north, and until it had retreated sufficiently toallow such drainage to be resumed, all drainage would be southwards. It may be that the deepening of the channel through Wenlock Edge towards the end of each ice acre finally made the direction of drainage irreversible. Whatever the case, the evidence of Linley Brook, where the terraces are on too grand a scale to have been made by a small brook two miles long, indicates that the breakthrough came at the end of the Glacial Epoch, if not later,

Towards the end of each ice age and in the ages immediately following the breakthrough, great torrents filled the whole valley bringing vast quantities of gravel to be deposited where the valley widened and the current slackened. Remains of these deposits are found at Bridgnorth and Erdington. These gravel deposits are quite distinct from the angular boulders which used to adorn the street corners in Bridgnorth - these granite boulders were glacier-borne from much farther north.

As warmer and drier conditions succeeded the ice ages this now composite river with a severe drop in its middle reaches (something over three feet per mile between Ironbridge and Bridgnorth which is considerable for so large a stream) carved out the river valley as we know it today. Being swift, its course through south Shropshire is fairly straight, but its meanderings have been sufficient to carve out a flood plain averaging something like half a mile wide.

These meanderings swept away much of the gravel deposits except where they were protected by some prominence. The High Rock protected the gravel terrace of the Grove; while the deposits at Erdington were protected by the rise at Knowle. Here the protection was such that the river takes a permanent turn to the left and the large area protected still provides a valuable source of gravel for building. The smaller area protected by high Rock has been long since abandoned for building. An interesting relic of this earlier gravel-getting can be seen on the side of Hermitage Hill. Here the sandstone floor on which these gravels were laid has been cut into to provide a shoot and wagon bay to load the gravel into the once ubiquitous one-horse tipping cart.

The meadows of the flood plain, being separated from the main farm lands, were almost always used as permanent pasture. These meadows, now used for example as caravan sites., fenced in or utterly neglected, are remembered as delightful hay fields with a wide variety of flora and bird life but few wild animals, which may have been the result of periodic flooding.

Where not obstructed by natural or man-made obstacles the river continues to meander and push its curves downstream. A picture in one of Arthur Mee's encyclopaedias shows children watching from a spot which is now in the middle of the river!

I think it fortunate for navigation that the sandstone over which the river flows is not uniformly hard. Had it been so, at summer levels the river would have been swift and shallow all the way. Had it been uniformly soft, the river would have eroded its bed downwards and back upstream to the harder rocks above Linley. This would have meant an impassable cataract between the lower and the upper reaches. As it is, hard. streaks appear at intervals running roughly NE to SW. These hard streaks, often connecting prominences like Queens Parlour and High Town at Bridgnorth, provide fords which at low water act as natural weirs so that the river descends in a series of shallow steps. The water between these fords is often very deep and slow-moving, while all the fords have a comparatively narrow deep channel somewhere across their width. The barge operators would have been aware of these. At the Gadstone forge near Apley, which is very long and shallow, the deep channel is so clearly defined in the rock that it appears to be, and probably is, artificial.

At Bridgnorth the original river valley was very wide and the hard streak very marked. This caused the river to break up into a number of channels. One such channel ran somewhere east of Mill Street along the route of the new by-pass. A ridge marking this channel can still be seen in the fields below the town. This ridge is not the edge of the flood plain, which extends beyond it. In years gone by the road near the Fox public house was always subject to flooding when the river was high.

In historic times another channel ran between Mill Street and the present river, joining the Bylet channel via what is now the first arch of the Bridge. The end of the island formed by this channel is marked by a gully at the bottom of Doctors Lane. This gully has merely been left unfilled, not excavated for barges as is sometimes asserted. The channel can be traced in the gardens behind Mill Street, but traces of its northern end may have been obliterated by rubbish from Hazledine's Foundry [4].

This very wide and much divided ford may account for the otherwise most unlikely location of the bridge at Bridgnorth.

Part 2 : Navigation

The navigational properties of the river, which amount to volume of water/ maximum depth of channel at low levels, must have started to deteriorate at a very early date. Deepening of brooks by erosion and clearance of forests would lead to faster drainage with higher floods and lower low water. Telford noticed a deterioration in his time and put it down to draining of water meadows [5] , but this would be only one factor. In fact, concern had been shown as early as the 15th century: in 1425 a commission was appointed to view the banks of the Severn, repair defects and see that mills and weirs did not obstruct traffic (these were probably fish weirs); and in 1472 another commission was appointed. It appears that there were difficulties even in those days [6]. In 1575 another factor appeared: the dumping of industrial rubbish. James Clifford, Lord of the Manor of Broseley, was accused of obstructing the river with his pit waste [7].

For how long the river could naturally dispose of all the rubbish dumped into it is a matter for conjecture, but it certainly could not in later years. It was noticeable that when the new gas main was laid across the river north of Bridgnorth, material from a deep trench in a deep part of the river contained a large proportion of ceramic waste from the Broseley area, which means that industrial rubbish was filling up the deeps, making the current faster. There are numerous examples of alteration to the side of the river bank by dumping, such as that near Maws and the Coalport Work and near the Bridge Clock at Bridgnorth, where purposeful dumping has practically closed the first arch and may be partly responsible for the filling of the Bylet channel.

The narrowing of the channel by building out the banks would not of course in itself affect navigation, the real limiting factor being the depth of water in the deep channels of the fords. At the fords the bed of the river is rock, and here the level of the bed can only alter very slowly and only downwards. This level can be taken as a datum for purposes of comparison. Taking a known example, fifty years ago the depth of water in the deep channel of the ford at Bridgnorth at summer levels was of the order of 2 ft: just too much for a young boy to paddle through even with his trousers round his buttocks. At this level, the level at the bridge was much the same as that shown in the numerous 18th and 19th century pictures of the town. Even given a 6 ins. error in observation, this only gives us 2 ft 6 ins. of water over the ford at summer levels in the 17th century and the pictures usually show some traffic. The conclusion is that until fairly recently the summer levels of the river were not very much different from those of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Navigation by barges was always difficult, if not impossible, during the summer months. This low water hindrance to navigation normally lasted 2 or 3 months, sometimes 4 or 5, and on one occasion 10 months [8] . One might have done better in the 1920s. In more recent years, 'export' of water from the catchment area and the control of water flowing into the river has made it impossible to assess what the natural deterioration is. Certainly in summer months, sufficient water for commercial navigation or even regattas would be by courtesy of the Water Board.

It is also apparent that traffic moved when the river was something above low summer levels when the current in places, if not everywhere, would be fairly swift. A barge going downstream would not only be travelling pretty fast, but would not be under very positive control. Shooting a ford with a heavy load must have been a matter of knowing the river, choosing the channel and saying prayers. The idea of putting up sails to gain steerage-way by going even faster is hardly conceivable. It is not surprising that the last barge down the river crashed into the bridge at Bridgnorth. Incidentally, it is believed that the wreck of this barge was hauled ashore at the bottom of Doctors Lane and finally disappeared during the coal strike in 1912 [9]. A thought comes to mind that the sailing conditions must have called for a recognised 'Highway Code' and a strong river discipline, but no code of signals or rule of the road appears to have been recorded.

In spite of the many pictures and statements by reputable historians, I find it difficult to believe that barges on this part of the river ever used sails. In the first place, the wind in a deep inland valley is far too erratic to make it worthwhile and sailing downstream on a 'running tide' would be nothing short of suicidal. Upstream, on very rare occasions, sails could have been of some help but only to the benefit of the bow haulers, who could not be dispensed with in case the wind dropped or changed and who would have to be paid anyway.

The barges certainly had masts which were necessary because the deep river banks made it impossible to tow with a rope attached directly to the vessel. These masts would, no doubt, also carry derricks for loading, which seem to have been taken by the artist as spars for sails, so that when he went home to London after making a sketch, he gave the vessel the rig of a London barge. Furthermore, to sail a wide flat bottomed barge, would be very like trying to sail a coracle. The Dutch sailed barges on their inland canals, but not only are the winds more regular in a flat country, they used barge boards lowered from the sides of the vessels to act as keels. I know of no record of barge boards being used on the Severn, but it is on record that in 1797 Severn trows were redesigned and fitted with keels for use under sail on the Severn Estuary [10].

Bow hauling by men seems to have been an unfortunate practice which grew up from expediency, and, having become established, proved difficult to eradicate. The provision of a towpath can only have been a small, albeit essential part of the problem, as the only difference between a horse path and a footpath is that a horse cannot negotiate stiles and such-like obstacles.

It seems to have been an extreme form of Ludditism. Dr. Watkins Pitchford sees in it some truth in the old saying ‘people born and bred in Shropshire are strong in the arm and weak in the head’. On the other hand, £5,000 to make a towpath is a lot of money to replace stiles and other obstacles with gates [11], but it may have been necessary to bridge small streams where they entered the river, as over Contree Brook.

In the 1920s there were two barges in use at Bridgnorth, both commercial barges adapted for passengers. They were not so wide as the original Severn barges, but certainly not narrow boats. One owned by Corfields on the right bank had a punt end, while the other owned by Darleys on the left bank had the normal rounded bows. They were both flat bottomed and drew only little water, possibly a foot when full of passengers. Although I never saw it used, Darley's barge had an upper deck, with seats for a band. Filled with 'trippers' of that age, these barges plied between their landing stages near the carpet factory and the Town Mills ( a round trip of about 2 miles), negotiating the ford at the Water Works. They were normally drawn by a single horse, with the tow rope attached to the top of the mast. At that time, horses for this sort of thing were normally supplied by 'Pop' Jones of soda water fame, who delivered his pop in horse-drawn wagons. When horses were not available (if they were Pop Jones's they might have been pulling the hearse or the fire engine), the barges were pulled by any handy volunteers. On occasions, one or other of these barges took Sunday School or such like parties as far as Apley for picnics, which meant negotiating several fords, including the difficult Gadstone. Possibly the last commercial voyage on this part of the river was made by Mr. Tomkins of Waterloo House, who in the '20s took curtains and the like to Apley Hall by rowing boat.

Low Town, Bridgnorth, has or had a large amount of stabling concentrated near the river. Some of this in corrugated iron is obviously connected with the horse sales held at the Falcon Hotel early this century. Some in brick and earlier is probably connected with the port traffic and distribution of goods by road. Some, still earlier and in sandstone, is more intimately connected with the river traffic. The sandstone stabling at No. 2 Bridge Street, originally the first house over the bridge, was once directly connected with the quay on the left bank, via a wide doorway which can still be seen in the wall between Nos. 1 and 2 and on 18th century prints. There is also a small sandstone building now part of No. 1 which can be seen on these prints and which may have been some kind of port building. Most of these 18th and 19th century prints show this quay as being silted up much as to-day. The stables are behind No. 3 Bridge Street, an Elizabethan cottage, and have very poor access to the street.

As a boy, I was always told that they had been used for barge horses. The stable building itself is of some interest in that the beams of the main roof truss are angled to meet the beams supporting the left floor, providing a clear dormer loft uninterrupted by any cross ties [12]. It has not been possible to date No. 2 Bridge Street. Part is Elizabethan, while a unique oak staircase speaks of a later period of some affluence. At the rear it had direct access to the quay and the riverside, and there are traces of a large cobbled yard.

The quay itself is not as high as that on the right bank; but it is quite high above summer river levels and, according to the 18th and 19th century prints, is practically unaltered. Whenever it was built, and it may have been quite early, by 1800 it had become, or was becoming, quite unusable owing to silting up. The quay on the right bank is higher, but steps go down to low water level. Some way down the first flight there is a manhole to a sewer far down below quay level, indicating that the quay has been built up over it. It seems strange that although the quay is so high, there are no records of a crane or derrick to lift the cargoes out of the barges.

The house of the 'River Steward', now demolished, was 'William and Mary (1689 - 1702) [13], but before this there was a row of cottages between the road and the river with steps passing underneath like a water gate [14].

Having all the port facilities on one side of the river and most of the stabling on.the other could not have been very convenient, especially as the bridge was subject to toll. It would, however, have been quite simple to dodge the toll by taking the horses across the ford. I remember a Mrs. Oakes wade across the river 'to save going all round by the bridge. The toll house was on the bridge over the buttress of the now first arch, not as appears at first sight over that of the second. It was quite a large toll house with a lantern tower. Sometime between 1797 and 1824 it was rebuilt on a much smaller scale and the lantern used to decorate the outbuildings of Parlors Hall[15].

There are a number of warehouses on the right bank of the river of various ages, some possibly Victorian, but very little stabling. One gets the impression that river traffic originally concentrated on the left bank, but that the silting up caused it to move to the right bank, where the port facilities are in general of a later date. This narrowing of the river, from the left, seems to have continued over the ages from the time when there were channels. It is still going on and, in spite of some dredging, the Bylet is unlikely to be an island for very much longer.

The rings in the bridge, often quoted as a relic of the barge traffic, were never intended for mooring barges; they are too big and too high from the water and are purely ornamental. Barge traffic is pretty flexible. A barge can stop and unload anywhere it can get near the bank. In the early days recognised loading places were known as loades, and the name persists in Hampton Loade, Fosters Loade, Skinners Loade and Friars Loade. The monks of Buildwas Abbey would have had a loade, but the name and whereabouts is lost. Later, industrialists built themselves wharfs like Willey Wharf. There was one at the Knowle for loading bricks and there would be one at the Wrens Nest. There must have been many others. Goods from the Upper Forge at Astbury were shipped from a wharf at Erdington via a miniature canal between the valley of the Mor brook and the Severn. This canal ran in a tunnel cut through the intervening sandstone, ending with a miniature quay out in the sandstone high above river level - a small scale Shropshire canal but without the incline. Clifford shipped his coals from the Calcutts and there was a Benthall quay [16], but there are no physical traces of this early barge traffic in the Ironbridge area, and it was never a major distribution centre. The great build-up of river traffic in the 18th century, giving rise to Coalport and the quays near the Gothic Warehouse, was almost entirely concerned with the export of coal and manufactured goods from the area, which may have been a factor in the establishment of the practice of bow hauling.  It would be easy for a team of haulers to ride downstream on a loaded barge in order to pull it back empty or lightly loaded. A horse would have to be led downstream. Many of the bow haulers came from Jackfield [17].

There is now a very difficult stretch of river between Coalport and Ironbridge. Continuing landslips due to the geological immaturity of this part of the river makes it difficult to visualise what it was like in the 18th century, but it could never have been very good.

It was originally intended to bring the Shropshire canal via an incline to somewhere near the bottom of Coalbrookdale [18] where there was to have been a short service canal as at Coalport. One might think this project was very wisely abandoned and the traffic directed to the Hay incline and Coalport, thus avoiding a bad stretch of river. There was a railway down to the river, but the Gothic Warehouse and the adjoining wharf does not appear to have been meant for handling heavy goods in bulk. In fact it gives the impression of a glorified parcels office. In contrast with the quays at Bridgnorth, the quay here is very little above water level and it seems strange for a quay to have been built which is flooded every time the river rises a foot or so. It may be that it was not always so and that changes in to earth movements or silting, have given it its present characteristics.

In conclusion, it can be said that the exploited, possibly abused, and now neglected Severn has served the country well in spite of its shortcomings. Without locks above Stourport, it is not surprising that river traffic vanished with the coming of the railways. That the river was used to such a large extent illustrates the need for transport brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The possibility of a weir at Bridgnorth is raised from time to time, but it is never likely to be built. It would, after all, only provide some local scenic effects and a pool for small boats. It would need a virtual staircase of weirs and locks to make it navigable for any great distance (the Thames, a much simpler river, has 44), and it is likely to remain the resort of canoeists and anglers.

Ralph Pee


[1] . W. Watkins-Pitchford, 'Bygone Traffic on the Severn', p.1.

[2] J. U. Nef, quoted in B. Trinder, 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire', p. 104.

[3] W.W. Watts, 'Shropshire: the Geography of the County', p.58.

[4] Traces of the furnace of this foundry (of which the importance was noted by Maurice Hawes in Journal No.3) have now been found (February 1978) near Darley's landing stage.

[5] J. Plymley, 'A General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire' (1803), p. 286.

[6] W. Watkins-Pitchford, 'Bygone Traffic on the Severn', p.26.

[7] B. Trinder, 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire' (1973), p. 10.

[8] Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.25.

[9] Ex.inf.E.H.Pee.

[10] J.E. Andrews, Shropshire Magazine. April 1972.

[11] Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.24.

[12] Ex.inf. former Apley Estate Agent, who remembered oaks on the estate having their branches weighted with stones to provide such beams.

[13] . Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.5.

[14] Ex. inf. E.H. Pee.

[15] There are many prints of the bridge at Bridgnorth, a number of which can be seen in the Northgate Museum. The lantern can now be seen on Clark's motor showrooms in Wolverhampton.

[16] Trinder, op.cit., p. 122. 17. ibid., p. 109.

[17] ibid., p.109.

[18] ibid., p.130.






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