Gloucester is home to a group of 15 historic warehouses and docks, all now listed buildings. This area was once the main basin and original terminus of the Sharpness ship canal which opened in 1827. The Victoria dock opened in 1849. Shipping to the docks included wood from the Baltic, corn from Ireland, and wine and fruit from Portugal.
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For the visitor there are, within the dock complex, the Gloucester Waterways Museum and Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum as well as an antique centre, shops, and food venues. There’s a yacht club, cruises on offer, a model boat club, and a mariners’ chapel.
The Gloucester Waterways Museum is housed over three floors in the Victorian Llanthony Warehouse, built in 1873. Visitors explore the history of the canal industry through interactive exhibits, videos narrated by former canal workers, touch screen computers, working models, and historic boats. Galleries include the Water Lives gallery (living and working on the docks), the Move It gallery (explains the engineering of canals), and the Ecology gallery (explores wildlife and ecology of canals and rivers).
There are historic vessels moored at quayside, including a narrow boat, a steam dredger, a tug, a barge, and a concrete narrow boat.
A section of the museum is devoted to oil and diesel engines and their influence on canal journeys. Before the oil and diesel engines steam was used and a restored narrow boat steam engine is on view. The first steamboats had paddle wheels on either side so could only be used on wide canals. These paddle wheels went out of use with the invention of the screw propeller c1840. And before the steam engine manpower was used with up to 50 men pulling a boat in areas with strong currents. The men were known as ‘bowhaulers’. At the time there were no canal paths so it was a challenging job. In the 1800s towpaths were finally built, and horse power came into use.
For 200 years the country’s canal network provided links for transport and trade, carrying produce from one area of the country to other areas. Different countries paid wages to narrow boat crews to do this, and pay was based on the specific trip they took. Whole families lived on the boats. The companies were required to pay tolls for use of the canals, cost depending on the particular canals being used and the produce being carried. Weight was the main consideration. Iron, coal, cement and grain were common products. The Cadbury chocolate company used the Shropshire Union canal to bring them milk and chocolate crumb.
Gloucester dock basin opened in 1812, and it was linked to the tidal river Severn. A tramway from Cheltenham went to the docks. In 1827 a canal was opened from Sharpness to the Gloucester docks. It was many years in the building. When it opened the Gloucester and Berkeley canal was the world’s deepest and widest and was able to handle ocean-going ships less than 1000 tons. The Sharpness docks were built in 1874 to handle larger ships up to 5000 tons.
The Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal opened in 1772 and carried trade from the Black County industries to the ports of the River Severn. The Worcester and Birmingham canal was never successful. The Hereford and Gloucester canal went as far as the coal area of Newent but due to further monies did not reach Hereford until 1845 at which time the route was sold to the railway. The Thames and Severn canal opened in 1789, linking the two important rivers. Unfortunately the two rivers were difficult to navigate and there was not always a reliable supply of water, so it never fulfilled its promise. The Lydney canal, one mile long, opened in 1813 to allow the loading of coal and tinplate away from the River Severn’s tides.
The first lock in Britain was on the Exeter canal and opened in 1566. The largest lock, Eastham, is on the Manchester ship canal and is 600 feet long and 79 feet deep. The deepest lock, Tuel Lane, is on the Rochdale canal and is 19ft 8.5 inches deep.
Boat trips are available along the canal and are boarded at the docks from April-September. Guided tours take place from main entrance of North Warehouse on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm from June-August.
The Soldiers Museum tells story of the lives and service of the Gloucestershire Regiment and Gloucestershire Huzzars over past 300 years.
Note: National Waterways Museums bring to life the story of Britain’s inland waterways. The story began 300 years ago and still continues today. The waterways collections at the three museums consists of 80 historic boats, 15,000 waterways objects, and 70,000 records. Visitors to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, the Gloucester Waterways Museum and Stoke Bruerne Museum can explore this history through tales narrated by former dock workers, historic artefacts, and interactive displays.
Southgate St, city of Gloucester, Gloucestershire
Tel. 0 1452 311 1900 (info line)
Open: exterior anytime
Web: Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
Information office near Southgate St entrance
Mariners’ Chapel: services on Sunday at 6pm, open to public
Gloucester Waterways Museum
Llanthony Warehouse, Gloucester Docks
Tel. 0 1452 318 200
Open: year round, daily (except 25 and 26 Dec and 1 Jan) , 11am-4pm; July and Aug, 10.30am-5pm
Web: Gloucester Docks and Waterway Museum
Pay car park
Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum
In former custom house at Gloucester Docks
Tel. 0 1452 522 682
Open: Jan-mid March, Oct-Dec, Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm; mid-March-Sep, daily, 10am-5pm
Tells story of the lives, travel and service of the Gloucestershire Regiment and Gloucestershire Huzzars over past 300 years
Shop; pay parking in dock complex
Photos © by Barbara Ballard except photo of docks exterior and photo of museum canal courtesy Gloucester Tourism