Views of the Severn

Understanding the watermen

Image :  Gloucester Bridge and West Gate. Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824

An increasing awareness from the 1970s of the significance of custom in social history proved helpful in understanding the Severn. Watermen dressed distinctively in flannel frocks. A hierarchy extended from owners who worked sets of vessels, through men who operated single coal barges, to the watermen who were their crewmen. All asserted their superiority over horse drivers who from the closing years of the eighteenth century led the beasts that pulled vessels upstream, and were the successors of the equally despised bow haulers who previously dragged the vessels from the river banks. There is considerable evidence of group solidarity amongst river workers. At the annual May Day wakes on the Wrekin watermen traditionally fought with miners. When the river could not be navigated in the winter of 1861 watermen sought sustenance for their families by Morris dancing. Bow haulers showed solidarity, in raising rates for haulage in 1755, in opposing river improvement in 1786 and in resisting the use of towing horses at Worcester in 1832. Analysis of an attempt by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1805 to 1808 to run their own fleet of vessels – which ended ignominiously when traffic was returned to an established owner – suggests that the river-working community could effectively protect its own interests.

Reflections on the Surface: Illuminating the River Severns historyDownload the supplement
Reflections on the Surface: Illuminating the River Severns history
By Barrie Trinder

Was there a Shropshire enlightenment?Download the article
Was there a Shropshire enlightenment?
By Barrie Trinder


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Image courtesy of: Shropshire Archives

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Image 1 iStock_6364273Reflections on the Surface: reviewing the River Severn’s history image 2 BTInvestigating the Severn image 3 BT large boatImportant Sources Iron-BridgeCharting the Severn Riverscape Iron BridgeRiver Traffic Image 6 RP 2257The Severn Trade image 7 BT WribbenhallShop goods and transit cargoes Iron-BridgeThe Coal Trade Views of the SevernUnderstanding the Vessels Views of the SevernUnderstanding the watermen Views of the SevernVarieties of Severn History Views of the SevernConclusion