Gloucester’s Economy and the Severn Trade

Image: Gloucester Bridge and West Gate. Gloucester developed as an industrial and trading base, route over the river and major port. Many Severn barges and trows exchanged their cargoes at the port. Larger vessels transported goods to Bristol and other British towns. The Gloucester Port Books survive as a major historical source for the economy of the Severn and the British coastal trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“In the reign of Henry VIII, a bridge of stone arches was erected over the Severn….Since Mr Ireland (the artist responsible for the engraving) visited Gloucester, this bridge…having fallen to decay, has been taken down, and the bridge has been replaced by an elegant structure, of a single arch, eighty-seven feet in its span. The new bridge from a design by Smirke, is of stone, from the Forest of Dean, faced with Cornish granite.

The associated companies of Gloucester are now as follows; – Mercers, including apothecaries, grocers, and chandlers; Smiths and Hammer-men, including ironmongers, cutlers, saddlers, and glaziers; Metalmen, including goldsmiths, braziers, pewterers, and pin-makers; Weavers; Tanniers; Butchers; Bakers: Joiners: Coopers: Shoemakers; tailors: barbers; and Glovers.

At present, the chief trade of Gloucester arises from the pin manufacture, the hemp and flax-dressing business, and the navigation of the Severn. A bell foundry has existed here more than three centuries. Gloucester has its Custom-house, at which, though few foreign entries are made, considerable business is done with coasters.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 177-178.


Image: Gloucester, from above the Bridge. Gloucester was an ancient foundation, distinguished by its medieval cathedral. By the time of Harral’s visit, the city had become an elegant regional centre.

“This ancient and respectable city, occupying a gentle eminence which rises on its eastern side from the Severn, is in the vale of Gloucester. The city of Gloucester, with its suburbs, is nearly three miles in circumference….Previously to the improvement of the city, by act of parliament, in the year 1749, the houses were chiefly of timber; but are now principally of brick, and well built; and the streets are paved and lighted.

Gloucester has long enjoyed the pleasures of a theatre, of assembly rooms, and of a triennial musical festival, established by members of the choirs of Worcestershire, Gloucester, and Hereford. Of late years, the attractions of the city have been much increased by the discovery of a spring in its environs. The water…in its essential impregnations, is said to surpass that of Cheltenham and Gloucester.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 148, 181.


Image: Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire from the Upper Lake.


“By the tortuous windings of the Severn, the large, respectable, and populous town of Tewkesbury is about seven miles south-east from Upton, and thirteen or fourteen miles northeast from Gloucester…It is delightfully situated in the vale of Evesham, on the eastern side of the Upper or Warwickshire Avon, near the confluence of that river with the Severn, and between the Carron and Swilgate streams, which flow into the Avon; the former above, and the latter a little below the town. Thus nearly surrounded by water, it is entered from different points by three bridges; the chief of which, over the Avon, from the Mythe to Tewkesbury Quay, was constructed of iron in the autumn of the year 1822….At present, the manufacture of nails, of cotton stockings, and the business of malting, are the chief sources of wealth and employment, in this town.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 118, 130

Worcester to Upton-on-Severn

Image: Junction of the Teme with the Severn. Powick Church From Clerkenleap below Worcester.


“On leaving Worcester, the Severn, having received the waters of the Salwarp, the Droitwich canal and the Beverburn, acquires additional breadth; and at about two miles and a half below the bridge, its volume is further increased by the reception of the Teme.

The river Teme rises in Radnorshire, and enters the county of Worcester at its north-western extremity, a little above Tenbury…. The river is supposed to derive its name from the extraordinary swiftness of its progress.

The Teme, though not eminently serviceable as a navigable stream, is highly ornamental to the country through which it passes. The fertile vale of Teme possesses every variety of wooded banks, of open verdant lawns, and of gently swelling knolls. For more than twenty miles, its borders are enriched with corn and pasture land, hopgrounds, orchards, etc.

By the windings of the stream, the pleasant little market town of Upton-upon-Severn lies twelve miles south from Worcester….There are no manufactures of importance here, but, from the advantage of a bridge, and of a harbour for the barges employed in the Severn navigation, the trade is considerable.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 83-84, 101


Image: Worcester. The county town of Worcestershire and a regional religious, cultural and economic centre.


“In proceeding down the Severn, the bridge, the cathedral, and the several church steeples of Worcester, rising beyond the race-ground, impress the mind of the spectator with an idea of a larger city than that which actually lies before him. The Malvern Hills, to the right, constitute a fine back-ground and give a bold relief to the principal objects in the town; but perhaps the most pleasing point of view in which the whole can be contemplated, is the one chosen by Mr Ireland (the artist of the engravings who visited the area in the 1790s), a little below the bridge.

The city of Worcester, agreeably situated in a rich vale upon the eastern bank of the Severn, and nearly in the centre of the county,…is about four miles in circumference. Its environs are distinguished by their beauty and fertility; its numerous outlets are eminently pleasing; and, in its broad, handsome streets, paved and lighted, and its well-built, modern brick houses, it wears the aspect of wealth, consequence, and comfort. The situation is dry and salubrious; and, from the extensive water-works, which were erected some years ago, about a mile above the bridge…the whole neighbourhood is abundantly supplied with one of the essential elements of cleanliness and health.

Worcester Bridge…more than half a century ago…had fallen to decay, and from its narrowness, it was found extremely inconvenient. In consequence…, the parliamentary representatives of the city, presented the sum of £3,000 to repair the old, or build a new bridge. The latter was determined on; money was borrowed to carry the plan into effect; the first stone was laid…on the 25th July, 1771; and the bridge was completed and opened in the year 1781. Mr John Gwynne was the architect.

The grand sweep of the bridge, from bank to bank is nearly two hundred and seventy feet. Archways, for the towing paths, are so constructed as to prevent interruption to the passage over the bridge. The approach to the bridge on each side of the river is open and commodious; the quays are spacious, convenient, and easy of access; and a fine street – Bridge Street, opening to Broad Street – leads the traveller into the middle of the city.

Three centuries ago Worcester was much celebrated for its manufacture of broad cloth; but that, as well as the manufacture of carpets, has long since disappeared. More than six thousand persons are said to be employed at this time in glove-making; and the distillery trade of Worcester is considerable. The manufacture, however, in which, with the exception of Derby, Worcester stands unrivalled, is that of porcelain. The chief establishments are those of Messrs. Flight, Barr, and Flight, and Messrs. Chamberlain and Co. patronized by their late and present majesties. In the beauty of its designs, in the brilliance and durability of its colours, and in the excellence of its material, the Worcester porcelain is said to be superior to that of any manufactory in Europe.

An important communication is maintained between the city of Worcester and the town of Birmingham – and also amongst the several towns of that are seated on the banks of the Severn below Worcester, and the great sea-port and manufacturing towns of the north – by means of the Worcester and Birmingham canal.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 53-55, 75-77.

Stourport Bridge

Image: Stourport, Worcestershire from below the Bridge.


“The bridge of Stourport, seen in the two accompanying views, was built soon after the completion of the basin. Its first stone was laid in the month of March 1773; and, in September, 1775, it was passable. The cost was £5,000. It consisted of fifty-two arches, three of which, as represented in the plates, were over the river, and forty-nine upon land to make the approaches.    The bridge, however, after standing only a few years, was destroyed by a great flood, occasioned by a sudden thaw. Previously to the thaw, there had been a severe frost and a heavy fall of snow, and the immense quantities of ice which 4 were hurried down by the over-swollen torrent swept away every obstruction, with the most desolating fury.

This disaster led the inhabitants of Stourport to determine on the erection of an iron bridge, with an arch of such extent as to preclude the possibility of danger from any overflow of the stream. In consequence of this determination, the present beautiful structure was raised. It consists of a single arch, of one hundred and fifty feet span, and about fifty feet in perpendicular height above the surface of the water.”

Harral, vol. 2, p 5.


Image: Stourport, Worcestershire, from above the Bridge. Stourport was a creation of the Industrial Revolution. The opening of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal in 1771 led to the growth of a new town where the canal met the Severn.


“A little below Lickhill, on a sudden turn of the Severn, the bridge and town of Stourport break most pleasingly on the view. On the left, approaching the bridge, are some vinegar works, a foundry, and a spinning manufactory.

The flourishing town of Stourport affords a striking instance of the advantages which result from commercial industry, when judiciously exercised. Scarcely more than fifty years ago, the site which it occupies was a sandy barren, unprofitable heath, with only a few lonely cottages, exhibiting a picture of devastation and poverty.

At this time Stourport contains from three to four hundred houses, with numerous wharfs and warehouses. The streets are good; some of the dwellings may be termed elegant; and most of them are respectable, neat, and commodious. The town resembles a sea-port in the heart of the kingdom.

The commercial creation of Stourport…is attributable to the Trent and Severn, or Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal, the basin of which…forms a dépôt of communication between the central and western parts of the kingdom. This canal, one of the earliest works of the celebrated Brindley, was commenced about the year 1768, and finished in 1771, at an expense of £105,000….It is truly astonishing to observe the quantities of coal, iron, grain, flour, hops, apples, china ware, and other goods which are daily and hourly in transit by this communication.”

Harral, vol. 2 p1-4

The Wyre Forest

Image: Near Bewdley, Worcestershire from Blackstone Park. The natural attractions of this part of the Severn brought tourists to the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearby Spring Grove House, built by the local chemical manufacturer, Samuel Skey, between 1787 and 1790. In the late 20th century, it became part of another tourist attraction; Spring Grove House lies within the grounds of the West Midlands Safari Park.

“Eastward from the footbridge, is a little hamlet with a chapel called the Foreign of Kidderminster; close to which is Spring Grove, seat of the late Jonathan Skey Esq and now (we believe) of John Taylor Esq. “The House is a large white building, situated in a park, the north wall of which is skirted by the road to Kidderminster. Spring Grove forms a pleasing object in the scenery, and the views which it commands are very fine”

The late S. Skey, Esq. introduced a useful breed of mules, for agricultural purposes as well as for the saddle, into this part of the country. They were produced from grey, or white, mares, and a white spotted foreign ass. Some of the more beautiful, nearly milk-white, were reserved for Mr Skey’s carriage. All the farm work upon the estate – a light sandy soil – was performed by this race of mules.

On the western side of Bewdley, in a commanding situation, are the park and mansion of Ticken Hill….Here the view is singularly wild, romantic and delightful. The forest of Wyre, famous in past ages for the abundance and superior quality of its timber, has long been robbed of nearly all its verdant glory. Still, however, it forms a large nursery for oak poles and underwood, with here and there a timber tree in reserve.

About a mile below the town, from that part of the river which is seen in the plate entitled “Near Bewdley, from Blackstone Park,” the town, with its bridge, and Ribbesford church, are seen to great advantage. Here, on the eastern bank of the stream, rises a lofty wood-clothed range of cliffs, denominated Blackstone Rocks. The shrubs, shooting from the fissures and interstices of the rocks, spread forth their wild and verdant branches in every direction, forming gay festoons, and sweetly recessed arbours, in every fantastic variety that imagination can conceive. The contrast, thus produced, with the extended plain which lies beneath the cliffs of Wynterdine and Ribbesford, on the western bank, is eminently and beautifully picturesque.”

Harral, vol. 1, p 295-301.


Image: Bewdley, Worcestershire, from below the Bridge. Bewdley was the most important port for the West Midlands in the 17th and 18th centuries, serving Birmingham and the Black Country until the opening of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal in 1771. It also had a long history of manufacturing, but many of its trades declined after 1700. Nevertheless, Bewdley, the Wyre Forest and nearby townships such as Dowles and Wribbenhall remained as industrial centres into the 19th century, producing charcoal, rope, pewter and brass goods as well as the products described by Harral.

[For more on Bewdley’s industries see the website under Industry and Innovation]


“Within a mile of Bewdley, and just below the parish of Dowles, Dowles Brook pours its waters into the Severn through the western bank. In this neighbourhood are Skey’s clay-works, and Skey’s oil-of-vitriol works.

The houses in Bewdley, like those of most other old towns, were originally timber, or of timber or plaster; but, of late years, most of the wooden buildings have been superseded by more secure and permanent structures of brick; and at this time, the principal streets are as well built and paved as those of any other provincial town.

The bridge over the Severn, mentioned by Leland, is believed to have been erected by Edward VI….It is this building which is represented in the View of Bewdley Bridge. On the western pier of the centre arch, is seen a wooden gatehouse, the end of which, towards the north, served as a residence for the toll-gatherer, whilst that towards the south, commonly called the Bridge-House, was used as the corporation prison.

Since this view was taken, the old bridge has been replaced by a new structure, of elegant proportions, exhibiting a light and graceful appearance, superior even to that of Worcester. The sides are at once protected and embellished by balustrades.

The navigation of the Severn here presents a very busy appearance; and it is the boast of the inhabitants, that their trows and their sailors are the best upon the river. On each side of the stream, are extensive and commodious wharfs. It is said, that the people opposed the intention of making the Staffordshire canal communicate with the Severn at this place. In consequence of their opposition, the canal was carried on from Kidderminster to Stourport; a circumstance which tended greatly to increase the trade of the latter town.

The tanning of leather has long been an established and lucrative business in this town; and, in former periods, Bewdley was distinguished for its extensive sailors’ caps, generally denominated Monmouth caps. This once flourishing occupation, however, has been nearly destroyed by the almost universal adoption of Beaver and silk hats. Formerly also, as is evident from the many traces of malt-houses that occur, a great trade must have been carried on here in malt. The working of horn has for a number of years, given employment to a considerable proportion of the industrious poor. A flannel manufactory of recent origin, was established in the town by subscription, for the purpose of employing the aged and infirm. Bewdley may be considered as the emporium for the smaller neighbouring towns.

Soon after leaving Bewdley, Mr Ireland (the engraver, who visited in the 1790s) was struck by the appearance of a barge, carrying about thirty tons, which had been built by Mr John Wilkinson, five years before. Cased with iron plates, about a quarter of an inch thick, she did not draw, when unladen more than nine inches water. The shrouds, stays and blocks, originally of iron, had been exchanged for others of rope and wood. This barge, he was informed, answered every purpose extremely well.”

Harral, vol.1 p 271-272, 281-292

Quatford and the nearby Landscape

Image: Quatford, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Another tourist attraction, given the beauty of the natural landscape in this part of the Severn Valley


“About two miles below Bridgnorth, near the tumbling Sailors, on the eastern side of the river, is the village – or rather the church, for there scarcely seems to be a sufficient number of houses in the parish to entitle it to the denomination of a village – of Quatford.

The rocky bank, which rises with grandeur almost approaching to sublimity from the Severn side, the solitary church on the eminence, and the surrounding beautiful combination of sylvan scenery, render this spot peculiarly deserving of notice.

This is the only ford upon the Severn within several miles. On the opposite bank of the river, rather lower down, is an iron foundery (sic).

The river may be said to increase in beauty at every point in the descent from Bridgnorth. On both sides of the stream, the banks continue to be enriched by a succession of luxuriant hanging woods….Here it may be remarked, that the banks of the Severn, nearly all the way from Shrewsbury…abound in beauties. Hence to Stourport they are eminently beautiful…. The river assumes, in some respects, the appearance of a canal; its placid water, continually winding under lofty and frequently well-wooded precipices and crags, until it reaches Bewdley, presents a succession of scenes truly enchanting.”

Harral, vol.1, p 265-269.

Bridgnorth Castle

Image: Remains of Bridgnorth Castle, Shropshire. The castle was one of the picturesque sites for visitors to the Severn, a location for numerous legends about the locality.

“The founder or date of the foundation of the castle, does not appear to be known….its only remains were what seemed to be part of a tower. This Leaning Tower, as it is termed…formed an angle of nearly seventy-three degrees with the horizon; a position which…it still maintains.”

Harral, vol.1, p 261.

Bridgnorth’s Economy

Image: Bridgnorth, Shropshire. A second view of the town.


Bridgnorth was formerly celebrated as a clothing town; but its chief manufactory now is of stockings. It also has a considerable trade in leather, iron tools, etc. The air of Bridgnorth, and of the surrounding country, is remarkably salubrious. The town is well supplied with water, partly, by means of pipes from a copious spring half a mile off, and partly by an engine, which throws water from the Severn to the top of Castle Hill.

Harral, vol.1, p 264


Image: Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Bridgnorth is spectacularly and strategically situated within a gorge of the River Severn. Originating as a port in medieval times, the town became another of Shropshire’s industrial centres during the 18th century.


“Between two rich embowering woods, the Severn, with a full body of water and a strong current, rushes down towards Bridgnorth. Rocks of considerable size present themselves at the extremity of the wood on the eastern side of the river; whilst the town with its churches, on a bold eminence, breaks pleasantly through the thickets by which it is in a manner surrounded.

Bridgnorth is twenty-two miles south-east from Shrewsbury. This ancient borough may be said to consist of two towns, separated by the river, but communicating with each other by a stone bridge of eight arches. The upper town, which is much the larger, rises most agreeably on a hill, or rock of red sand, encompassed by a deep valley, bounded by rising hills….The lower town…is well built, and delightfully situated. In Mill Street particularly – so called from its leading to the town mills parallel to the river – the houses are handsome. The streets are paved with pebbles.

St Magdalen’s church…. was a mean edifice, with a plain square tower at the west end, as seen in the View of “Bridgnorth in coming down the Severn.” This church was much injured during the civil wars. In the year 1796 it was taken down, and replaced by the present handsome structure, from a design by Mr Telford.

Harral, vol.1, p 255-263.

Madeley, Broseley and Lilleshall

Image: Lillyshall (Lilleshall) Abbey, Shropshire. A view of the ruins of the medieval priory with a canal barge pulled by a horse on the Marquis of Stafford’s Canal. Lilleshall was also home to a residence of the Marquis, a member of the Leveson-Gower family with extensive industrial, agricultural and transport holdings across the Midlands and beyond.

“Madeley, on the northern bank of the Severn, formerly had an excellent market, which was discontinued in the time of the civil wars and not revived until 1763. Here the Shropshire canal runs from the Severn to the Ketley iron-works; having been joined, in its course, by the Marquis of Stafford’s canal, which, taking a northerly direction, passes Lilleshull. About a mile below the iron bridge, is an inclined plane, by which iron coals, etc. are lowered in troughs, about six feet wide, from the canal above; and hence, by a small canal, of about half a mile in length, made by damming up the Severn water, they are conveyed to warehouses at the Wooden Bridge.

In forming a foot-road in this parish, in the year 1788, a spring of native, or fossil, tar burst forth from several holes, one of the streams of which was six or eight inches in diameter. For a long time, several hogsheads of tar per day were caught; but the spring is nearly, if not quite, exhausted. Here is a work, however, for obtaining tar from the condensed smoke of pit-coal. Various coal and iron-works are in the neighbourhood.

At Coal Port, just below the inclined plane, is a china manufactory; and a little further, is the Wooden Bridge, already mentioned.

Nearly opposite to Madeley, on the southern bank of the stream, is the village of Jackfield. A little further to the south, is the market town of Broseley, the inhabitants of which are chiefly employed in the iron and coal works. Here also are large manufactories of coarse ware and glazed tobacco pipes. Broseley is remarkable for a burning spring, or well, that was discovered there in the year 1711. This spring, by sinking a coal pit near it, some years afterwards, entirely disappeared. For its combustible qualities, the water was supposed to be indebted to a mixture of petroleum.

The neat little market town of Wellington, eleven miles eastward of Shrewsbury…has a handsome modern-built stone church, the roof of which is supported by cast-iron pillars. The window-frames are also of cast-iron….The neighbourhood abounds with limestone, coal and iron, which are employed to great advantage….

Five miles north-east from Wellington, is the retired village of Lilleshull; about a mile to the south-east of which are the remains of an abbey, or priory, now the property of the Marquis of Stafford.”

Harral, vol.1, p 232 -237

Coalbrookdale and the Ironbridge

Image: The Iron Bridge, near Coalbrookdale Shropshire. Harral’s description is largely based on the account provided by Samuel Ireland when he visited the area in the 1790s.


“Having left The Birches….the river passes by the opening of Coalbrook Dale, a district which has long been famous for its coal and iron-work, and flows between the opposing summits of Benthall Edge and Lincon (Lincoln) Hill under an iron bridge, the first and perhaps the most beautiful of its kind, ever constructed.

Coalbrook Dale is accurately described, by Mr Young, as “a winding glen, between two immense hills, which break into various forms, being all thickly covered, and forming most beautiful sheets of hanging woods….The combination of coal, iron ore, and lime in these parts, is very remarkable; and it is to that combination, united with the advantage of water carriage, that Coalbrook Dale is indebted for becoming the centre of the most extensive iron-works in the kingdom.

On his arrival at Coalbrook Dale, Mr Ireland (the artist who created the images on which the engraving is based)…was most obligingly allowed to view…the extraordinary wonders of the place:

The noise of the forges, mills, etc., with all their vast machinery; the flames bursting from the furnaces, with the burning of coal, and the smoke of the lime-kilns, were, as Young observes, altogether horribly sublime.” Proceeding along the vale, a succession of volcanic eruptions seemed to flash upon the sight in every direction, from the furnaces which are incessantly employed in smelting iron ore. These eruptions – these flaming apertures, projecting huge columns of intermingled fire and smoke into a dense atmosphere, with here and there a group of gaunt, sooty labourers, like demons of a lower world – produced an effect the most wild, unearthly, and appalling that can be imagined. Perhaps no association of terrene objects could impress upon the mind so vivid an idea of those realms where “hope never comes” as the iron-works at Coalbrook Dale, thus witnessed at midnight.

Having been invited to see the opening of one of the furnaces – an operation very rarely witnessed by strangers – Mr Ireland repaired on the following day to the appointed spot. The immense furnace stood in the centre of a large area walled around, communicating with each side of which was a colossal pair of bellows, whose alternate blasts, with a noise like the incessant roaring of heavy ordnance, excited an intense heat, which had been kept up, night and day, for a considerable time, to separate the metal from the stone, and to reduce it into a state of fusion. The aperture whence the fused iron was to flow, was guarded only by some clay and sand, constantly kept moist by the application of water. Preparatory to the opening of the furnace, a channel of damp sand was formed, from its mouth to a large circular basin of the same material, into which, on its liberation, the burning fluid impetuously rushed. On a wide surrounding space, were numerous moulds, in sand, for the fronts of stoves and other articles. Into these the fluid iron was poured, from ladles with very long handles, carried by athletic workmen, who filled these utensils from the great circular reservoir. So intense was the heat of the metal, that the moment the ladles, though very thick and ponderous, were dipped into it, they became red hot, far above the bowl. Indeed, were it not for that the labourers were supplied with gloves, so constructed as to protect them from the violence of the heat, even at the upper part of the ladle-hafts, it would be impossible for them to perform their work.

The celebrated bridge at Coalbrook Dale was cast upon the spot, in the year 1778, and erected in the course of 1779-80. It occupies the site of an ancient horse ferry between Madeley and Benthall, in the most public road from Shrewsbury to Bridgenorth (sic). The bridge is composed of a single arch, the expansion of which within is one hundred feet six inches, and its height forty feet. Thus, with the altitude of the walls upon which it is supported, the bridge rises more than fifty-five feet above the surface of the water. The road-way, formed of clay and iron slag, a foot in depth, is twenty-four feet in width, and its entire length is about three-hundred feet. The whole of the bridge is covered with iron top-plates, projecting over the ribs on each side; and, on the projection, stands the balustrade, which is also of cast iron. The weight of metal employed in this structure is 378 tons and a half; each piece of the long ribs weighing five tons and three quarters. On the largest, or exterior rib, is inscribed, in capitals –



All the principal parts of the bridge were erected in the course of three months, without obstructing the navigation of the river, and without accident to the workmen.

Harral, vol.1, p 224-232

Buildwas Bridge and the Severn Earthquake of 1773

Image: Buildwas Bridge, Shropshire. This view shows the old bridge which was replaced by an iron bridge designed by Thomas Telford and built by the Coalbrook Dale Company in 1796.


“This structure, supposed to have been of very ancient erection…is thought to have been formed chiefly for the convenience of the abbey. From the narrowness of its arches it greatly obstructed the navigation of the river; and, although the accident of its destruction, by a high flood, in the year 1795, subjected the county to the expense of a new bridge, the consequent advantage has been great. The present edifice, completed by the Coalbrook Dale Company, in 1796, is of cast iron, admirably executed, from a design by the county surveyor, Mr Telford, of Shrewsbury.

The river, soon after it leaves Buildwas, passes by a place called The Birches, supposed to have derived its name from some large birch-trees which formerly grew there. This spot is memorable in the history of Shropshire for a concussion of the earth, which, in the month of May, 1773, pushed the Severn somewhat out of its course; so that what was formerly its right bank is now its left…. It was an earthquake…which forced the Severn from its accustomed channel, and converted a scene of rural beauty into a tract of terrific devastation. The effects of this extraordinary convulsion of nature are thus strikingly described, in a sermon which, on the succeeding day, was preached on the spot, by the Rev. Mr Fletcher of Madeley:-

“But leaving the newly formed mounts, through heaps of ruins, go to the ancient bank of the Severn. You come to it and she is gone! You are in the middle of her old bed…you stand in the deepest part of the channel and yet you are in a wood! Large oaks spread their branches where bargemen unfurled their sails: – you walk to-day on solid ground where fishes yesterday swam in twenty feet of water. A rock that formed the bottom of the river, has mounted up as a cork and gained a dry place on the bank, while a travelling grove has planted itself itself in the waters, and a fugitive river has invaded dry land.” 

Harral, vol.1, p 209-223.

The Wrekin

Image: The Wrekin, from Cunde Park. One of the tallest hills in England, the Wrekin, a long- established strategic location, was the most prominent natural feature in the Shropshire landscape.


“The height of the mountain…is 1320 feet. It is craggy at the summit, and so much more lofty than the surrounding hills as to have the appearance of rising alone from the centre of the plain.

Harral then quotes from The Beauties of England and Wales:

The View from its highest point is delightfully awful. The vast plain of Salop, stretched like a carpet below, with its various intersecting hedges, diminishing in apparent extent as they recede from the eye, till they appear like the meshes of a net; the bold outline of the Welch hills; the romantic aspect of the Caer Caradoc, the Lawley, and the Stiperstones, with intervening varieties of hill and dale – here and there a wood or a forest, which, from the towering height of this natural pyramid, seem to dwindle into an insignificant garden, are objects that here meet the eye in every direction, and fill the mind with admiration of the wonderful works of the mighty Architect of nature.” 

(From Beauties of England and Wales, vol. XLIII p 192)

Harral, vol.1, p 206-208.

Atcham Bridge, Shropshire

Image: Atcham Bridge, Shropshire. Another important design by John Gwynn, Atcham Bridge was not only a distinguished crossing of the Severn, but another route assisting the expansion of the Shropshire economy.

“The first place which the Severn reaches, after leaving Shrewsbury, is the pleasant village of Uffington, on its left or north-eastern bank. The river, here, is very shallow: in dry seasons it is sometimes not more than a foot in depth.

At Preston Boats, about a mile and a half below Uffington, a stratum of coal crosses the river. In different parts of the stream, during the summer months, the fishermen obtain large quantities of coal…which proves very serviceable to the malsters and brickmakers of the neighbourhood. The mode of procuring this coal is by raising the bed of the river; an object which is effected by means of a stout iron hoop, fixed at the end of a pole, with a small net appended. From the material thus raised, the sand I rushed away, and the net retains nothing but coal, in pieces chiefly of the size of small pebbles.

Atcham Bridge on the London road, crosses the Severn at the distance of four miles south-east of Shrewsbury. The old bridge thus mentioned was erected in the reign of Edward VI at the sole expense of Sir Rowland Hill…. Close to where the old bridge stood is the present structure; a plain neat bridge of stone, consisting of seven arches, and completed in the year 1776, from a design by Mr Gwyn (sic).”

Harral, vol.1, p 194 -199.

The Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury

Image: Welch Bridge, Shrewsbury. Like the New or English Bridge, the new Welsh Bridge, which replaced the structure shown in the engraving, provided further evidence of economic growth in the town. It enabled a commercial bottleneck, close to Shrewsbury’s main port area, the Mardol, to be reduced. The bridge was designed by John Carline and John Tilley and built between 1793 and 1795.

“The old Welch bridge, represented…, was anciently regarded as the chief architectural ornament of Shrewsbury. It consisted of seven arches; its extremities were protected by fine castellated gates; and it consisted…one of the most important defences of the town….It was not long after the demolition of the fine gate at the opposite end of the bridge itself had fallen so far to decay as to render its removal necessary. On taking down the gates, the tolls, arising from the transit of marketable goods, were abolished by the payment of £6,000, raised by public subscription, to the corporation. A further sum of £8,000 was then required for the purpose of rebuilding the bridge. Another subscription produced £4,000, and the corporation advanced £4,000; and thus the new structure, which is at once convenient, substantial, and ornamental, was completed in the year 1795….The approaches from the Welch side of the Severn, in the suburb of Frankwell, are steep, narrow, dirty and irregular; evils for which a remedy will probably be found in the projected improvements. A quay, faced with stone, and occupied with warehouses, connects the bridge with the town at the end of Mardol Street.”

Harral, vol.1, p 128-130.

The English Bridge, Shrewsbury

Image: New Bridge and Abbey, Shrewsbury. Designed by John Gwynn, the New Bridge or English Bridge was evidence of Shrewsbury’s participation in the economic growth of the late 18 century. Between 1925 and 1927, it was remodelled and the steep gradient was reduced.

“The original east bridge, which passed over the Severn towards the London road….consisted of no fewer than seventeen arches, varying considerably in their style and dimensions….nearly the whole of its northern side was occupied by houses, which reduced the actual width of the bridge to twelve feet. In the year 1765 a subscription was entered into for repairing, widening, and improving the bridge…The subscription, however, proved so liberal, that, notwithstanding some progress had been made in the intended alterations, it was determined to pull the old building down, and to erect a new one. In pursuance of this spirited determination, Mr Gwyn (sic), a native of the town, was employed to furnish a design…and what is now termed the New Bridge, is justly regarded as one of the finest ornaments of Shrewsbury. Its entire length is four hundred feet; it has a handsome balustrade on each side; and the breadth between the balustrades is twenty-five feet. The arches, seven in number, are semicircular. To allow a free passage to the frequent floods of the Severn, the architect found himself under the necessity of giving a quicker curve to the bridge than the eye of taste or a sense of safety or comfort could justify. The central arch is sixty feet in width, and forty feet in height, and thirty-five in width. The material employed in the bridge was the fine stone of Grinshill quarry.”

Harral, vol.1, p 126-127.


Image: Shrewsbury Castle and Public School. As one of the most important towns on the Severn, Shrewsbury was a political, cultural and economic centre for Shropshire and beyond.

“When within two miles of Shrewsbury, the Severn visibly expands, acquiring consequence, and continuing to augment as it approaches the town, which is indebted to its current for a great portion of the trade, commerce and wealth it enjoys.

The lofty spires of the churches, the hospital, and other buildings combined, form, in the distance, a striking picture; and, as the objects become more distinct, the castle and public school particularly attract the notice of approaching strangers.

The population of Shrewsbury appears to be rapidly on the increase: In 1801, the number of inhabitants…was 14,739; in 1811, 18,543. The chief articles in the commerce and manufactures of this town have been, for ages, flannels and Welch webs….The commerce of the town, as well as the general comfort and convenience of its inhabitants, is greatly promoted by the Shropshire, Shrewsbury, and Ellesmere canals.”

Harral, vol.1, p 94-182.

Welshpool to Shrewsbury

Image: Llandrinio Bridge, Montgomeryshire. As the Severn draws closer to Shrewsbury, the extent of river traffic increases and Harral comments on the growth of roads and evidence of prosperity.

[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]

“About three quarters of a mile from the town of Welch Pool, the Severn, increasing in importance, is navigable for small barges up to a place called Pool’s Stake, or Pool Quay, where it receives the waters of a rivulet called the Gledding. Hence its navigation is continued all the way down to Portshead Point; a distance probably little short of two hundred miles, without any lock, or the least assistance from art. The Thames, it may be remarked, would not be navigable, without much assistance, much higher than Richmond; certainly not half that distance from its mouth, at the Nore.

The traffic here is carried on by vessels of two sorts, barges, or frigates, as they are called, and trows. The former from forty to sixty feet in length, bear a single mast with a square sail, and carry from twenty to forty tons. The trows, or larger vessels, are from forty to eighty tons burden. These have a main and top mast, about eighty feet high, with square sails; and some have mizzen masts. They are generally from sixteen to twenty feet wide, and sixty long. When new, and completely fitted out, they are probably worth from £300 to £400 a piece.

As far back as the year 1758, the number of vessels employed between Welch Pool and Gloucester amounted to four hundred: they were mostly navigated by three or four men each, robust and resolute fellows. This trade has proved a valuable nursery for seamen.

At Buttington, Mr Ireland was desirous of obtaining a boat to convey him to Shrewsbury; but he was disappointed, as the only acquatic conveyance that happened to present itself was one of the ancient British coracles, which are yet extensively in use for the fisheries on the Welch rivers.

Six miles below New Quay, at a small village called Llandrinio, one of the roads from Lllanfyllin to Shrewsbury crosses by a handsome stone bridge of three arches….this is the first bridge of stone over the Severn. Two miles below Severn receives a tributary from the Virnwy – adds greatly to its size.

At Montford Bridge, the great road from London to Holyhead crosses the Severn. This bridge, built of a reddish stone, was unfinished at the period when the annexed view was taken. It consists of three arches, and was erected after the design of Mr Carlisle, of Shrewsbury. At this part the river is about thirty yards wide.

Various improvements have recently been made in the road between Montford-Bridge and Oswestry, by the removal of mud banks, by making small cuttings and embankings, and by widening; effected by cutting off quick bends, setting back fences, and re-constructing the surface. It is also intended to ease the hill, by cutting, widening, embanking, and removing the road near the bottom.

From Montford Bridge to Shrewsbury, the country is eminently fertile, and exuberantly chequered with meadow and cornlands, which constitute the uninterrupted embellishments of the expanding current: whose banks continue to be no less adorned by the villas of the opulent; and the rich and tasteful style of the buildings, – seeming to vie with each other in a display of the wealth and liberality of the prolific county of Salop.”

Harral, vol.1, p 78-92.

Powis Castle to Welshpool

Image: Powis Castle, Montgomeryshire. 

“The situation of the old castle is imposing, and the views which it commands are magnificently grand….Beneath are stretched the vales of Montgomery and Shrewsbury, though which the placid waters of the Severn most beautifully meander, apparently interrupted at intervals by green and fertile meadows….in the distance are seen the Wrekin, in a conical form, rising solitary amid the vale of Salop; to the south the extensive chain of the Frieden Hills, with the summit of Snowdon; and westward, the colossal Cader Idris terminating the sublime prospect.

At this time (1823) the entire building is undergoing a thorough repair, with extensive improvements on a tasteful and judicious plan, under the direction of its noble owner, Viscount Clive. The old castle, of red stone, forms the greatest part of his lordship’s mansion. The grand entrance, from the south, is through an ancient gateway, between two massy round turrets….These entrance turrets have, under the improvements which are now going forward have been Grecianized.

The park, containing spacious and verdant lawns, diversified with swelling hills, was, in ancient times, enriched with extensive and finely wooded plantations….For many years, the castle and grounds had been suffered to fall into a state of decay; the pride and ornament of the park had been felled for the value of the timber; and, but for the recent determination to restore its pristine glory, the beauty of Powis would, at no very remote period, exist only in the recollections of the past…

The neatly built town of Welchpool stands about a mile below Powis Castle….The town is large, and, although somewhat irregular in its plan, it is well built…The Montgomeryshire canal, which passes by the town, has caused many new houses, chiefly of brick and covered with slate to be erected in the last few years….The chief manufactures carried on here are those of flannel, called gwart, or webb, and coarse woollen goods, such as are used for soldiers clothing. These are purchased to a great extent, mostly for ready money, by the Liverpool and Shrewsbury dealers. With an increasing population of 3,500, the place has altogether an air of great opulence and comfort.”

Harral, vol.1, p 57-75.

Newtown to Montgomery

Image: Newtown, Montgomeryshire. Newtown and Montgomery were larger than Llanidloes, but also combined industrial activity in a rural setting

“(Newtown) is a large, irregular market-town…Lying in a beautiful valley of meadow and pasture, it is bounded on each side of the stream by moderately rising hills, most of which are mantled with wood.

Here is the chief manufactory of Welch flannels, the weaving and spinning of which are carried on in several buildings in and next to the town….Nothing can divest the mountain-sheep of the country of the fineness of their fleece, which is of short staple, and admirably adapted to the purpose.

From Newtown, the Montgomery canal accompanies the Severn for many miles. Much business is transacted on it, in the conveyance of lime, coal, slate and timber.

Although Montgomery is the county town, it was, no further back than the year 1756, little more than a village in extent….Formerly it contained only about two hundred timber–and-plaister dwellings, forming a single street; but the houses are now chiefly of brick, roofed with slate: altogether its appearance is remarkably clean and neat, and around the market-place it is not without some pretension to elegance. The circumjacent scenery indicates fertility of soil; and, from the number of pretty cottages of a superior class, which occupy the most agreeable spots in the environs, it may be said to possess considerable attractions for persons of moderate fortune, fond of good society, and of the inexpensive enjoyments of life. The process of tanning is carried on to some extent in this town; but its general traffic is not considerable. Here, however are five annual fairs for horses, sheep, and horned cattle.

The surrounding country is luxuriantly rich in meadow and corn land; and the views, in every direction, are extensively and beautifully diversified.”

Harral, vol.1, p 24-28, 38-57.

The Severn and its Origins in Wales

Image: Near Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire. One of the small Welsh towns on the river, Llanidloes was a market town, river crossing and centre for wool production.

“The Severn, anciently regarded as the queen of British rivers, is the most rapid stream of our island; and, for the length of course, for majesty of aspect, for extensive advantages afforded by her fertilising waters to agriculture and commerce, she justly ranks as second only to the Thames.

In compensation…for the absence of regal dwellings, of the peaceful abodes of science and the arts, the banks of the Severn are occupied by noble and venerable cities – by towns, rich and flourishing in commerce – by splendid mansions of the great and wealthy – by the modest, yet lovely retreats of ease and refinement; mouldering remains of many a hollowed pile, and dilapidated towers of many a baronial castle….

This interesting river, which, in its progress to the sea, is said to be increased in the volume of its waters by no fewer than forty tributary streams, rises at a place called Maes Hafren, amidst extensive moors, in the high, wild and, and morassy tracks of Plynlimmon. The circumjacent scenery presents a singular combination of the wild the grand, and the beautiful.

Proceeding to the summit of Plynlimmon, the sides of its acclivities, as well as the adjacent hills, are destitute of wood; the barren steeps presenting one expanse of cheerless solitude. Here and there a wretched farm, or cottage divested of inhabitants, peeps forth. These desert tracks may be justly termed the region of sheep-walks; where…the numerous flocks, driven from distant places to feed on the summer herbage in these exposed pastures, are heard to bleat at the close of day. Thus every cottage throughout the vale is merely a winter habitation….

The soil of these mountainous districts consists chiefly of maiden turf, which the officious had of cultivation has never yet approached; the pasturage affording nutriment to sheep, goats, black cattle, and herds of merlins, or diminutive wild horses, commonly called Welch ponies.

Winding, in an east-south-eastern direction, through a chain of stupendous hills, the Severn pursues its precipitous course over large craggy stones, which occasionally produce falls of considerable magnitude; particularly in the rainy seasons, when the rude hand of winter, combining with the tremendous rush and roar of waters, gives birth to scenery so wild and terrific, so majestic and sublime, as would excite the imagination…by the time it reaches Llanidloes, the expanse of its waters has acquired a considerable increase.

This little market town…is seated on the right bank of the Severn. Its name derives from Saint Idloes to whom the little church is dedicated….The chief articles of trade are wool and yarn: the latter is manufactured to a considerable extent by young country women, and sent to Welch Pool, once a fortnight, for sale. Over the Severn…is an old wooden bridge, much decayed; but as the river, though of considerable width, is shallow, and generally fordable here, it is used only in winter, at the time of floods. Near the town are several extensive sheep walks; and in the neighbourhood is an excellent quarry of coarse slate.”

Harral, vol.1, p 1-2, 6-19.

Poetry and Visions of the River Severn

Image: Ruins of Montgomery Castle from the Severn. This is one of the most picturesque of Harral’s views, a portrayal which is consistent with Milton’s pastoral vision of the river in Comus.

Visitors to the river were entranced by its beauty. John Milton in his masque, Comus, which was first performed at Shropshire’s Ludlow Castle in 1634, personified the Severn in verse:

There is a gentle nymph not farre from hence
That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream,
Sabrina is her name, a virgin pure….
Made goddesse of the river; still she retaines
Her maiden gentlenesse, and oft at eve
Visits the heards along the twilight meadows;
Helping all urchin blasts and ill lucke signes
That the shrewd medling ele delights to make,
Which she with precious violed liquors heals;
For which the shepheards at their festivalls
Caroll her goodnesse lowd in rusticke layes,
And throw sweet garland wreaths into her streame
Of pancies, pinks, and gaudie daffadills.

John Milton, Comus, a Masque (1637 edition).

In 1785, the Severn attracted another visitor, Anna Seward. Her poem, Colebrook Dale transformed Milton’s pastoral vision into a scene of industrial rape:

Scene of superfluous grace, and wasted bloom,
O, violated Colebrook! in an hour,
To beauty unpropitious and to song,
The Genius of thy shades…
Slumbers! – while tribes fuliginous invade
The soft, romantic, consecrated scenes;
Haunt of the wood-nymph, who with airy step,
In times long vanish’d, through thy pathless groves
Rang’d; – while the pearly-wristed Naiads lean’d,
Braiding their light locks o’er thy crystal flood,
Shadowy and smooth.  What, though to vulgar eye
Invisible, yet oft the lucid gaze
Of the rapt Bard, in every dell and glade
Beheld them wander; – saw, from the clear wave
Emerging, all the watry sisters rise,
Weaving the aqueous lily, and the flag,
In wreaths fantastic, for the tresses bright
Of amber-hair’d SABRINA. – Now we view
Their fresh, their fragrant, and their silent reign
Usurpt by Cyclops; – hear, in mingled tones,
Shout their throng’d barge, their pond’rous engines clang
Through thy coy dales; while red the countless fires,
With umber’d flames, bicker on all thy hills,
Dark’ning the Summer’s sun with columns large
Of thick, sulphureous smoke, which spread, like palls,
That screen the dead, upon the sylvan robe
Of thy aspiring rocks; pollute thy gales,
And stain thy glassy waters. 

Anna Seward, Colebrook Dale, c. 1785 (see the website and Digital Library for a full version of the poem).

Seward’s poem is important; it was one of the first commentaries on the polluting effects of industry upon landscape at a time when the application of technology and the exploitation of nature were generally portrayed as progress. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden for example, celebrates industrial achievement in verse. In time the Severn became a tourist attraction, not just for what remained of its natural beauties, but for its record of industrial activity. Harral’s Picturesque Views… describes the factories, forges and foundries along the river’s bank. His description of Coalbrookdale, based on Samuel Ireland’s words, presents an awesome picture of the industrial energy of the place. Elsewhere his picture of industry is more factual.

Introduction: the Severn Waterway

Image: King Road, viewed from the entrance to the Bristol Avon, where the Lower Avon, after running through Bath and Bristol, joins the Severn and forms the Bristol Channel. This engraving shows the mixture of river traffic and ocean going ships as the Severn meets the sea.


In 1824, a publication, Picturesque Views of the Severn, with Historical and Topographical Illustrations by Thomas Harral was published. The book, originally in two volumes was illustrated with engravings and accompanied by a detailed commentary which explored a journey from the source of the Severn in Wales, until it entered the Bristol Channel. The prints were “embellishments from designs” produced by the artist, Samuel Ireland, several years before. In some editions, the pictures are in colour. Produced for the wealthy 19th century tourist, Harral’s illustrations and text provide an account of the waterway when urban growth, commerce and industrial activity formed part of the Severn’s attractions.

The Severn rises in Wales and enters the sea via the Bristol Channel. At two hundred and twenty miles is the longest river in Britain. The name emerged from several possible roots. In Welsh, the river was called Hafren or Queen of Rivers. The British word, Sabi or Sabrin denotes muddiness or cloudiness and the Romans, deriving the name from this source, called the river Sabrina. In old maps the Severn is called Seavren, probably from Se-havren, the prefix being a reference in Welsh to the hissing sound made by streams. The word Saefyrne is first recorded as a label for the river in 706 AD (Harral, vol.1, p 3). Whatever the origins of the name, the Severn has played an important role in the history of Britain and the Midlands region.

For centuries, the river has been an agent of economic growth. As a liquid motorway, the Severn transported imports and exports to and from the interior of Britain, coastal ports and the wider world. By the 18th century it was intimately connected with the development of industry along its route. Without the Severn trade, coal, iron and other mineral resources would have been more difficult to exploit. Pastoral and arable farming flourished in the fertile and well-watered river valley. The Severn became an artery connecting central Wales, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire with the national and global economies.

In other respects the waterway was important. The high ground, through which the river ran, provided suitable locations for castles and settlements, as at Bridgnorth. One example of a town which developed at fords where the river could be crossed or where bridges were built was Bewdley. Shrewsbury emerged because the meandering river provided a good location for defence.

A Journey down the Severn from Thomas Harral’s Picturesque Views of the River (1824)

Image: Llandinam, Montgomeryshire. The engraving shows the combination of themes which recur in Thomas Harral’s description of the Severn, the combination of the grandeurs of nature with human settlement and economic activity. This quotation describing the nearby Welsh countryside illustrates these subjects:

“The Severn, combining with the rich and hilly country through which it flows, here forms a beautiful and characteristic landscape…. On the banks of the stream here, are a few scattered mills for the purpose of spinning woollen thread. The domestic manufacture of flannels, by the farmers and cottagers, extends through this vale from Llanidloes… In the descent …one unvaried expanse of smiling cultivation presents itself on either margin….”

Harral, vol I, p 22-24.

Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824
[Image from Shropshire Archives]


This Journey down the Severn, selects from Harral’s material to explore the experiences of an observant early 19th traveller, following the route of the river. Using engravings based on images by Samuel lreland (d.1800) who travelled the Severn in the 1790s, Harral notes how the mountains of Wales give way to fertile soil and sheep farming, whilst the banks of the river show increasing evidence of human settlement, bridge building, industry and commerce. The route passes through growing towns, such as Montgomery, Shrewsbury and Stourport, as Harral describes local history, architecture and economic activity. Alongside the attractions of nature, he notes the contributions of landowners, engineers and entrepreneurs to the shaping of the Shropshire landscape. Women and workers are absent from his record.