Telford, Birthplace Of Industry?

© Frank Verity 2005

Chapter 3: The Existing Tranport Systems

This chapter we will discuss the importance of the River Severn as an existing transport system. The areas of study will be primarily the advantage of the river over the road system. Secondly, the lives of the people involved with the river trade or 'watermen,' which will give us an insight into social conditions and culture of the period. And thirdly, the development of the canal system in the region will be examined.

In the previous chapters we have looked at the development of the various industries associated with the industrial revolution in Shropshire. We have seen how technological advances and innovation shaped the progress of the region. Geological and geographical features have been explored; it is perhaps the most prominent of these features -the river- which enabled such progress. The river was an essential part of the early industrial development initially providing a transport system which was both cheap and readily accessible. The significance of this ready made system is reflected in the words of Neil Cossons and Barrie Trinder who dub it: "The economic lifeline of the district"43 Raistrick reinforces this argument, claiming the Severn as: "the greatest commercial highway of the iron trade at that time".44 This reliance on the river as a transport system was not unique to our region. The whole country was experiencing an: "Age of intensifying trade"45 and transport systems nationwide were undergoing improvement. With the need for quicker trade routes 'turnpike trusts' were established by local initiative backed up by parliamentary authority and charged with the task of improving roads. River trade increased dramatically, the Gloucester port books revealing an increase from an average of 443 boats passing through in the 1670's to 736 boats by the 1720's. The number of commodities traded also rose dramatically from circa 150 to around 400 in the same period. If we take cheese as an example of local produce exported downriver, we can note that in 1637, seventy-two tons passed through Gloucester. Groceries going upriver in the same period numbered seventy-nine tons. By the early 1720's this had risen to 289 and 1,539 tons respectively. But by far the most impressive increases Wrightson concurs are the "Growing tonnages of industrial products passing downriver from the midlands". This grew from 4 tons of ironware in 1637, rising to 596 tons by the 1670's and reaching 1,456 by the 1720's.46 The greatest advantage in the use of the river to transport goods was the cost - it is estimated that river carriage was up to twelve times cheaper than road transport. As well as the financial advantage the other great saving was time. The greatest disadvantage however was the vagaries of season, goods could only be despatched on the river when levels allowed. Trinder reveals that: "There were lengthy periods especially in the summer months when water levels...were too shallow to allow the passage of vessels".47 This had the effect of the ancillary trades of the 'trowmen' or 'watermen' having to diversify, particularly up until the 18th century. The best evidence of this reveals itself in probate inventories. Barrie Trinder and Nancy Cox who have recorded the inventories of the workers of the Severn Gorge argue that, after the miners: "The most significant occupational group in the Gorge were the agents of distribution who worked on the river."48 Between 1662 and 1764 probate inventories in the Gorge include 73 river workers; this proportion of the population remained virtually constant throughout the period. Before 1700 however, several people who owned and operated barges engaged in other occupations simultaneously. William Oakes, a collier who died in 1669 had - along with his coalmining tools - a boat itemised; two William Ashwoods listed as blacksmiths of Madeley Wood, had a barge recorded. Trinder and Cox point out that the latter William Ashwood was described as a blacksmith on his inventory and as a trowman on his will, they also reveal that in other sources the prefix 'Owner' is used to describe those who worked barges, and the "somewhat inappropriate term 'mariner' was applied to river traders in several probate documents".49 There appears to be some confusion between the terms 'trow' and 'barge' and the type of vessel these terms signify. Trinder and Cox proffer an explanation: "The inventories throw some light on the distinction between trows and barges on the Severn", and then expand, "If the word trow referred to a distinctive type of vessel, it probably indicated one that could sail safely on the lower river below Gloucester."50 The vessels that actually traded below Gloucester are in fact very few in number. The development of the Severn Gorge iron trade principally through Coalbrookdale was to alter this fact. As David Hussey points out: "...the increased output of Darby's works at Coalbrookdale from c. 1708 steadily increased the activity of Shropshire and Ironbridge Gorge boats undertaking through-shipments to Bristol".51 However by far the most common trade on the river were local barges travelling downstream to the West Midlands and upstream to the Borderlands. Here they carried coal from the local mines, raw materials and semi-finished products. Vessels from the Gorge also conducted trade with the County Town of Shrewsbury, as Dr. Hussey states: "Shrewsbury pursued a healthy trade in agricultural goods, crafts and textiles, and the ports of the Ironbridge Gorge and Bridgnorth combined regular coal shipments with a range of other commodities."52 But that does not detract from the fact that trade below Gloucester did exist, and was indeed plied by vessels from the Gorge. One such vessel was the Thomas and Mary of Broseley. The captain was Samuel Brooks and the owner Thomas Williams. During 1722 the vessel was regularly engaged in trade below Gloucester. Trinder provides evidence of the typical downstream and upstream voyages from the port books of Gloucester. In July of that year a downstream cargo of: 10 tons of ironware; 8 tons of cheese; 8 packs of Manchester ware; 2 packs of sadlery ware; 2 hogsheads of oats; 2 barrels of oats; 8 hogsheads of hair; 80 crates of earthenware; 1 barrel of brass; 2 trunk of wearing apparel; 2 boxes of wearing apparel53 passed through Gloucester. An upstream cargo in February of the same year had consisted of:

40 bags of cotton wool; 40 packs and a truss of cloth; 4 hogsheads of train oil; 1 ton of saltery; 2 barrels of herrings; 5 cwt. of salt fish; 4 cwt. of red lead.54

So it would appear that the Severn was well employed both as a long distance and local trade route with goods and materials travelling downstream and upstream. The goods shipped to entrepot towns along its length were then sent out to the hinterlands, thus sustaining urban growth and also supplying rural communities. The cargo listing whilst appearing straightforward does conceal anomalies. If we take for example the listing for ironware, Dr. Hussey reveals that customs officials: "Freely combined types of the basic good", hence it has not been possible to differentiate between as he puts it: "The various grades of iron (pig, cast, rod, sow and bar iron, for example) from large-scale worked ironware (ironmongers' wares, furnaces, pots, kettles, pans and iron guns) ".55 The significance of the river trade and the relationship to Coalbrookdale was to grow throughout the 18th century. As early as 1718 goods manufactured at Coalbrookdale amounted to around 17 per cent of the 1,398 tons of ironwares and iron traded through Bristol via Gloucester. Darby used local trowmen such as, Edward Owen, Thomas Williams, (whom we have already encountered) and George Bradley.56 These families as we will see had been involved in the river trade for many years, and we will now look at them in more detail.

The river trade was not a new phenomenon of industrialisation, it was already well established. Professor Wanklyn discusses this fact: "It was in the middle part of Queen Elizabeth's reign that the river trade in coal first began to flourish".57 The Victoria history of Shropshire reveals that as early as the 15th century barges and larger trows were in use. It further states that: "By the earlier 17th century there was a community of barge and trow men settled in the Severn Gorge".58 We will now examine through probate inventory, courtesy of Trinder and Cox the lives of some of these people. The most prominent of the barge-owners were perhaps the Owen family of Madeley Wood. The father Edward Owen who died in 1728 left two trows and a barge called the Edward along with two small boats. His will stipulated that one trow be sold for the benefit of his widow, whilst his son, also called Edward was to work the other together with the barge and small boats. Young Edward at the time of his death in 1732 owned vessels to the value of 200; these included the great trow at Gloucester worth 70. He was obviously a successful tradesman for at the time of his demise he lived in relative luxury. He left chairs covered with leather, maps, pictures, a weatherglass and Bristol wares including a punch bowl. His widow Elizabeth carried on the lucrative business after his death, and continued to carry for the Coalbrookdale Company for which her father in law had once been the principal carrier. The Owens were related to another prominent family - the Beards - whom we will now look at. The Beards, described as the most extensive of families involved in the Upper Severn trade, were already established in the Severn Gorge by 1706. This is when Thomas Beard, the first of the family to be positively identified as working on the river, owned a middle sized trow and a small barge worth 60. In 1724 the Coalbrookdale Company accounts show a Eustace Beard carrying for them who subsequently became one of their most trusted contractors. Eustace regularly transported goods to Bristol, and occasionally conveyed money for the company. He also carried much of the pig iron from the first blast furnace at Horsehay from 1755. He died in 1761 leaving a house and garden to his daughter and her husband James Owen, who was also a bargeman carrying for Coalbrookdale. Eustace's son Richard succeeded him as a carrier and was left property by his uncle, also known as Richard, who lived in Madeley and was described, as a mariner in his will. The Beard family continued to work on the river until the very end of the navigation, and Thomas Beard of Jackfield was the author of a book detailing the lives of the barge-owning community.59 So we can see that the families involved in the river trade formed a distinct and separate community. Inter-marriage was encouraged and dynasties established. The larger more successful families owned property and lived relatively comfortable lives. More importantly however is the fact that these families provided the vital link between the manufacturing industries and the market, aiding and abetting the growth of both the region and its community. The second half of the 18th century saw profound changes to these well-established trade routes. With the opening of the canal system the region experienced an opening up of its markets; its reliance on the Severn with the threat of uncertain water levels was coming to an end. We must now examine the effect of this new mode of transport on the region.

John Gilbert was the pioneer of the canal system in the Shropshire coalfield. Gilbert was agent to the Duke of Bridgewater's Worsley estate on the outskirts of the textile district of Manchester. Construction of the first canal in the district began in 1765. This was only four years after the first navigable canal in England was completed on Bridgewater's estate. Earl Gower & Company of whom Gilbert was a partner had powers to make 'navigable cuts', and employed thirty men on the initial construction from Donnington Wood to Pave Lane. Gilbert's pioneering work was followed twenty years later when William Reynolds constructed three private canals from the Severn towards Blists Hill. These were followed by a 3,000 yards long link from Donnington Wood to mine workings in Wombridge, through what Trinder describes as a, "curious tunnel", near to the church.60 On his next project Reynolds opened up a route to the very centre of the coalfield. This arm linked the Ketley ironworks with the Oakengates mines; a tunnel was once again incorporated in this length. The most significant feature of this stretch however, was an inclined plane61, this carried boats to the ironworks located 73ft down in the valley. This was cutting edge technology, a concept that enabled transport over most gradients and a development that revolutionised local movement of raw materials. Trinder reveals that: "This was the first successful inclined plane in Britain, and it could make 24 hauls in an hour".62 When the East Shropshire canal system was completed the inclined plane system was utilised eight times from Lilleshall to Coalport.63

Contents | Previous | Next
Top of this page
Exploring Telford