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The ghost ships of the Severn

On a narrow strip of land between the River Severn and the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, lie the wrecks of more than 80 barges, trows and schooners. These decaying vessels form part of the largest ship graveyard in mainland Britain, commonly known as Purton Hulks.

Photo of Purton Hulks

How did the Purton Hulks get here?

The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal opened in 1827. Once the deepest and broadest in the world, the canal was built to allow barges and seagoing vessels to bypass the often-perilous upper stretches of the River Severn.

By the turn of the 20th century, the canal was a major thoroughfare, carrying ships and barges laden with grain, timber and wine. But on a stormy night in 1909, the future of the canal was thrown into doubt. Years of erosion from the River Severn had weakened the tidal barrier that separated the two stretches of water. On that fateful night, the Severn broke its banks and threatened to overwhelm the canal.

With the canal on the brink of collapse, the chief engineer, Mr AJ Cullis, came up with an extraordinary plan. He commandeered a small flotilla of ageing trows and barges and had them towed upstream and steered into the riverbank. The beached vessels gradually filled with water and silt, raising the ground level and shoring up the bank.

Over the years, more than 80 boats were run aground at Purton to reinforce the riverbank. Today, many of these crumbling hulks still line the shore as ghostly reminders of a bygone era.

Preserving a piece of our maritime history

While time and tide have taken their toll, there's no doubting the historical significance of these rusting hulks. Purton ship graveyard is home to a unique collection of vessels, dating back to the middle of the 19th century.

Among the twisted metal and sun-bleached timbers, you'll find the last surviving Kennet barge, concrete barges constructed in the Second World War when wood and steel were scarce, and the schooner Katherine Ellen, impounded in the 1920s for running guns to the IRA.

One man, in particular, is in no doubt of the site's historical and cultural value. Paul Barnett fell in love with Purton Hulks as a child, roaming the banks of the river with his friends, exploring the mysterious, decaying boats. Years later, he formed the Friends of Purton, dedicating his life to preserving the wrecks that had made such an impression in his childhood.

“I came back here in 1999 after a long time away with the Navy,” he told the Canal & River Trust when we caught up with him several years ago. “The state of the place horrified me. For decades this site didn't have a formal owner, so the wrecks fell victim to arson, vandalism and graffiti. I just thought, this has to stop. Since then, I've done all I can to bring this place to people's attention and protect it."

Photo of Purton Hulks

In recent years we have taken on joint management of the site with the community, supporting Paul and others like him in their tireless work. A monolith-style monument now overlooks the graveyard, commemorating the boats that came to rest at Purton. As Paul so succinctly puts it: "The wrecks won't be here forever. Iron will decay, timber will rot. But we shouldn't hasten its end.”

Perhaps, when the shadow of coronavirus lifts, more of us can take the time to appreciate these wonderful vessels, lost in time on the banks of the River Severn. But first, you can learn more from the Friends of Purton.

Paul Barnett's book, ‘Fore & Aft: Lost Ships of the Severn Sea', is available via [email protected]

Last Edited: 01 February 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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