Posted by: travelrat | May 14, 2010

The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal

Gloucester: 24th April 2010

When I wrote about the Ulverston ship canal a couple of years ago, I jokingly suggested that it might have been cheaper to build Ulverston closer to the sea. The Gloucester and Sharpness canal posed a similar question.

Why, I asked, didn’t the ships sail up the River Severn to Gloucester? The answer wasn’t hard to find.

The Severn is a tidal estuary, which meant it often wasn’t available when the tide was out. And, when it comes in, it comes in strongly. Indeed, at certain times of the year, when conditions are right, it produces the famous Severn Bore, a wave which surfers come from all over the world to ride. Furthermore, the ships had a nasty bend in the river to negotiate.

So, in 1793, the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal was started by engineer Robert Mylne. From the start, financial difficulties plagued its building, and it wasn’t completed until 1827.

It was 86 feet wide, and therefore much wider than the usual English narrow-boat canal. And the only locks are at either end of the canal. There are swing bridges … even the railway used to cross on a swing bridge. To allow the passage of sailing ships, nothing else was allowed to pass over the canal below 250 feet; which is a reason that the electricity pylons passing over it are twice the height of normal ones.

Ships would sail through the Sharpness Lock, to be man-hauled along the canal to Gloucester.

The task of hauling the ships along the canal was eventually taken over by draught horses … but not before a minor revolution, led by one Tom Jones. The men hauling the ships feared they would be put out of work, so sabotaged the horses by mixing herbs with their feed which gave them stomach pains and diarrhoea.

Early imports included corn from Ireland and the Continent, timber from the Baltic and North America, and wines and spirits from Portugal and France. They used Gloucester to avoid paying the higher port charges at Bristol, further downstream. And, the cargoes were more easily transferred to narrowboats, and distributed via the English inland waterways system.

Remember the Haut Savoie? New article about it at 


  1. This was a really interesting post. Do you do a lot of research for your posts? They are extremely informative. I am often impressed by your attention to detail.

    • ‘If you copy from one source, it’s plagiarism; if you copy from many, it’s research

      Usually, it’s in 3 parts; before I go, I read as much as I can get hold of about the place, and talk to people who’ve been there. When I’m there, collect as many leaflets, brochures etc. as I can; listen to the guide, but don’t take everything he or she says as gospel until you’ve checked it. And, talk to as many people s I can.

      The, when I get home, verify everything I’ve learnt from an independent source before committing it to print.

  2. That water looks so still it could be a mirror

    • Conditions like that occur more often than you think … but you do have to get up very early to catch them!

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