(C) Vin Callcut 2002-2013 Small extracts can be used with acknowledgements to 'Oldcopper.org website'.
Helpful comments are very welcome.
THE SEVERN IN SOUTH SHROPSHIRE by RALPH PEE
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
and the second busiest river in Europe 
now for the greater part of
its length, from its source
to Stourport, few boats can
be seen. Its great length
is due 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; but economic,
factors, the activities of those
living on its banks and more
recently those of various water
authorities have all played their
are many topographical and historical
features to be seen today
which illustrate these peculiarities.
These notes are a record of
admittedly casual observations made over
a long period. They are in
no way intended as an authoritative
monograph, but it is hoped
they may be of some interest.
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 .
It-is likely that below Linley
the original 'short' Severn followed.
the course of the present
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 a layer 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, The Rock 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 all
round the edge of the deposit,
from the Coalbrookdale coalfield in
the north to the Wyre Forest
coalfield in the south.
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 of violent upheaval.
The conglomerate does however slope down
from the river while many
roads leading from the river
rise steeply from the valley
and there descend gently 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 eventually become
the river valley.
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
Linley Green 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
from various 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 some
earth 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 to allow 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 
very wide and much divided ford may account for the otherwise most unlikely
location of the bridge at Bridgnorth.
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 
, 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 .
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 .
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.
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.
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 
. 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.
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 .
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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 ,
but it may have been necessary to bridge small streams where they entered the
river, as over Contree Brook.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
house of the 'River Steward', now demolished, was 'William and Mary (1689 -
but before this there was a row of cottages between the road and the river with
steps passing underneath like a water gate .
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 .
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
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 ,
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
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.
was originally intended to bring the Shropshire canal via an incline to
somewhere near the bottom of Coalbrookdale 
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.
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
 . W. Watkins-Pitchford, 'Bygone Traffic on the Severn', p.1.
 J. U. Nef, quoted in B. Trinder, 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire', p. 104.
 W.W. Watts, 'Shropshire: the Geography of the County', p.58.
 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.
 J. Plymley, 'A General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire' (1803), p. 286.
 W. Watkins-Pitchford, 'Bygone Traffic on the Severn', p.26.
 B. Trinder, 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire' (1973), p. 10.
 Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.25.
 J.E. Andrews, Shropshire Magazine. April 1972.
 Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.24.
 Ex.inf. former Apley Estate Agent, who remembered oaks on the estate having their branches weighted with stones to provide such beams.
 . Watkins-Pitchford, op.cit., p.5.
 Ex. inf. E.H. Pee.
 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.
 Trinder, op.cit., p. 122. 17. ibid., p. 109.
 ibid., p.109.
 ibid., p.130.