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Latton Basin

a small piece of canal history

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STAFFORDSHIRE TO CIRENCESTER BY WATER.
 

(Staunch at Cirencester Wharf 1904)
 

THE RE-OPENED THAMES AND SEVERN CANAL.

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STAFFORDSHIRE TO CIRENCESTER BY WATER.

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CRUISE OF THE COAL BARGE “STAUNCH”.

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            There is a popular lyric, of which a localised version is extant, whose numerous stanzas, set to a not exceedingly exhilarating melody, describes in picturesque detail the various and startling incidents in the “The Cruise of the Calabar.”  Now, the ‘Calabar’ was a clipper boat, copper fastened fore and aft, she is said to have sailed the placid waters of the Thames and Severn Canal, and to have been capable of at least “two knots an hour,” and, in fact, she was to averred to be “the fastest boat on the whole canal, though only one ‘oss power.”  We have not the poem to hand, but we have a vivid memory of the manifold dangers that beset the devoted craft, and thus:
 
And when she came to the Tunnel House,
A very dangerous part,
She ran bow on to a lump of coal,
Which wasn’t marked down in the chart.
 
            The song also describes how neatly the ship weathered “the straits of Smerrel Bridges, where you can pass two at a time,” while still more thrilling was her escape from the rascally pirates who essayed her capture, but to whom she showed a clean pair of heels, thanks to the energy of all hands thus stimulated by her heroic commander:
 
“Put on full steam,” the Captain cried,
“For we are sorely pressed.”
And the Engineer from the bank replied
That “th’ ‘oss was a doin’ is best.” 
 
            Well, the good barge “Staunch” (owner and captain, Joseph Hewer, from the port of New Swindon, and a native of the famous inland shipping resort of Chalford) has not the stirring adventures of the “Calabar” to recount, but she has been traversing the same classic waterway and on Tuesday last she made the port of Cirencester with a cargo of some 37 tons of Staffordshire coal – the first consignment of water-borne coal that has reached the town for we are afraid to say how many years.  The cargo was brought to the order of Messrs. F. Gegg and Co., coal merchants, of Cirencester, whose business is conducted at the Canal Wharf, and who therefore determined to charter a trial trip on the re-opened canal.
 
            Captain Joseph Hewer, to whom belongs the honour of re-inaugurating what it may be hoped will be a considerable coal traffic on the old and historic waterway, has been in the boat business all his life.  His father, Mr. Francis Hewer, of Chalford, broke him in when he was about seven years old, and when business on the Thames and Severn Canal fell off, owing to its increasingly dilapidated condition and the consequent difficulty of navigation, he took himself to New Swindon, and for 12 or 15 years he had four boats regularly plying between that place and Bristol.  But three years ago the Wilts and Berks Canal, and although Captain Hewer had plenty of work – Messrs. Butt and Skurray, the millers, were willing to keep him regularly employed – he had to seek other occupation, and though he did not actually burn his boats, he broke up two, sold a third, and retained the fourth, appropriately named the “Staunch.”  Naturally he looks back with regret to the interruption of his old calling – “I should have been a hundred pounds better off today if the Wilts and Berks Canal had kept going” – but, being an experienced “old salt,” if of the freshwater variety, he kept his weather eye open, and seeing that his boat was becoming more and more hopelessly stranded, he fifteen months ago headed for the Thames and Severn Canal via Latton, attracted thither by the restoration works in progress.  For ten months the “Staunch” lay up at Latton Wharf, but two months ago she once more kissed her native waters.  By way of testing her capabilities in a “sea way”, she carried some gravel from Cerney to Cirencester for Messrs. Gegg and Co., and some hundred tons of road stone from Siddington to Cerney Wick, and a month ago she entered on her Staffordshire voyage.  Sailing “light” to Gloucester, she there took up a load of timber Baulks, which she carried to Old Hill, near Dudley, and then went some 25 miles further on to the Hednesford Colliery, Staffordshire, to embark Messrs. Gegg and Co.’s load of coal.
 
            The homeward voyage was begun on Wednesday morning in the last week, the following several systems of navigation having been traversed:
 
 
Birmingham Canal 30 miles
Worcester Canal 30 miles
Severn (Worcester to Gloucester) 29½ miles
Berkley Canal 8 miles
Stroudwater Canal 6 miles
Thames and Severn Canal 17 miles
  120½ miles
 
            Like the “Calabar,” the “Staunch” is a boat of one horse power, and Captain Hewer’s single horse hauled the “Staunch” to Staffordshire and back unaided, including the Severn stretch, which is sometimes accomplished by means of a tug.  The 120 miles were covered in five and a half working days, divided by the following stopping places:1st day, Birmingham; 2nd day, Hambury Wharf; 3rd day Tewkesbury; 4th day, Dudbridge, Stroud, where the “Staunch” lay up for the Sunday; 5th day, Tunnel House, Coates; 6th day (10 o’clock), Cirencester Wharf.  The fifth day was no child’s play, for 29 locks had to be negotiated between Dudbridge and Coates (two of them on the Stroudwater Canal, and 27 on the Thames and Severn in the ascent from the valley to the summit level, and the dark recesses of the Sapperton tunnel had to be penetrated.  The tunnel, nearly 2½ miles in length, was got through in 3¼ hours, the boat being propelled by means of tunnel sticks manipulated by Captain Hewer and his “mate” Richard Bentley.  The canal was found to be in capital order throughout, including the tunnel, and at no point was there the slightest difficulty with the heavily loaded boat drawing 3 feet 7 inches of water.  The tunnel Hewer found to be greatly improved as compared with his former experience of it, and the influx of water through the roof at Caseywell much reduced.  As regards the commercial aspects of the undertaking, Captain Hewer accepted at the same rate as that charged by the railway companies, viz., 7s. 6d. per ton, so that assuming his load to be 37 tons his freight would come to £13 17s. 6d.  the tolls he had to pay to the several navigations traversed amounted to between £5 and £6, and the balance is what is available for the labour, horse and other expenses, use of boat, &c.  what is needed, of course, to make the venture successful is the development of a traffic in round timber to pay for the outward voyage.
 
            We believe that Mr. E. N. Edmonds has had a cargo of corn carried to Kempsford; Mr. G. Durnell, of Watermoor, has had several cargoes of timber; and last Sunday a boat with 24 tons of road stone, carrier Mr. Barnes, reached Kempsford from the Gloucester end.  Mr. P. J. Trouncer, of Chester Lodge, has this week placed an electric launch upon the canal.
 
Wilts &Gloucestershire Standard 26th March 1904
 

  Every canal wharf had to have its haulier; otherwise cargoes could not be shifted to and from their final destinations.  Frank Gegg of Cirencester was no doubt typical.  The Gegg family had various interests in Cirencester, and in 1889 Frank started a coal merchant's business on the canal wharf.  While at first he probably relied on water-borne coal, he soon had to find alternatives, and much of it must of come by rail instead.  He continued in business until 1921 and then probably sold out to a rival.  It was under his initiative that the narrow boat Staunch brought coal into Cirencester in 1904.  Frank Gegg's favourite horse, Joey, is seen between the shafts in this photograph taken on the weighbridge on the wharf.  The cart is typical of the type used by local delivery firms for coal and other relatively heavy goods.

(I don't know the origin of this information on Frank Gegg.  It was passed on to me, with other papers, by a descendent of Joseph Hewer.  DGS)