River Severn Tragedy
PUBLISHED: 17:44 20 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013
Fifty years ago the River Severn witnessed a tragedy that saw the death of five barge crew members...
A tragedy on the River Severn
Gerald Martin remembers the night of the Severn Bridge disaster
Autumn along the River Severn is famous for its gales and fogs. Certainly it is hazardous conditions like these that have been an influencing factor in many of the accidents that have happened close to the old Severn railway bridge that linked Sharpness and Lydney. Few though, have been quite as terrible as the accident that happened on the night of Tuesday, October 25 1960.
The mighty River Severn nearly divides Gloucestershire in half as it flows north to the south through the county. Wooded hills of the Forest of Dean in the west, the bare Cotswold Hills escarpment in the east and the broad river valley runs through the centre. The river holds the fog and the valley guides the south-west wind to bring the high winds and high tidal surges in spring and autumn. It was on such a cold, damp and foggy night in October 50 years ago that tragedy struck for five Gloucestershire families.
The Severn flowed quietly through the thick, grey fog and two barges bound for Gloucester with their bellies full of petrol and fuel oil taken on at Avonmouth rode deep on the rivers back. Both crews peered anxiously into the fog searching for the entrance to Sharpness docks but they had become disorientated in the murk. The vessels collided and were locked together by suction in a fatal embrace. The iron skeleton of the old railway bridge loomed out of the darkness, but too late for tired eyes. The barges were swept helplessly into one of the central support piers by the force of the incoming tide and the night became day when the cargo of petrol erupted. The crews jumped for their lives into the flaming water as their only slim chance of survival, but only three of the eight men saw the sun rise in the morning.
There had been heavy rain for several days before the accident and the Severn was swollen with muddy water the colour of milk chocolate.
The river can be difficult to navigate at the best of times but on that foggy night with the tide coming in it proved to be lethal for five crew members of the Arkendale H and Wastdale H, the two ill-fated barges.
The fatalities were:
Percy Simmonds, mate on the Arkendale H, age 34.
Robert Niblett, 2nd engineer on the Arkendale H, age 25.
Jack Dudfield, mate on the Wastdale H, age 46.
Alex Bullock, engineer on the Wastdale H, age 40.
Malcolm Hart, deckhand and trainee engineer on the Wastdale H, age 16.
The three survivors, who managed to scramble onto a sand bank, were Captain James Dew of the Wastdale H, Captain George Thompson of the Arkendale H and the engineer George Cooper.
The barges were owned by the Messrs John Hawker & Co of Gloucester.
As a result of the explosion a supporting pier was destroyed and the two centre sections of the mile-long Railway Bridge fell into the river. The bridge also carried the main gas pipe line to the Forest of Dean, which meant that Lydney and the surrounding area were soon without gas. This brought factories to a halt and homes without cooking and heating facilities for several days.
The bridge never reopened and was finally demolished at the beginning of 1970. It was a cruel twist of irony that only a few years before the remains of that Victorian engineering masterpiece was finally taken down, the new road-bridge a few miles down the river was opened in August 1966. This first Severn Bridge seemed to attract the shipping on the river to its supporting piers like a magnet. In 1879, the year it was officially opened for rail traffic the 39- tonne vessel Brother was wrecked on one of the piers. The vessel Victoria foundered in the 1880s.
In 1938 three tanker barges Severn Traveller, Severn Pioneer and Severn Carrier became entangled and sank; several men were drowned. In 1961, when the bridge was no longer in use the tanker BP Explorer capsized and drifted into one of the remaining piers with the loss of all hands.
There are now two road bridges and during the construction of the first one, two tankers set out from Sheerness and collided with a rescue launch from the bridge and one man was drowned. One hopes that this was the final tragedy under the great brides that span the mighty River Severn.
- Many thanks to: Newnham library, Forest News, Gloucestershire Echo, The Forester and Lydney Observer for delving their archives to unearth the information needed for this article.
An eye witness account
Chris Witts was a 16-year-old deckhand on the Wyesdale H on the night of the River Severn disaster in 1960
At about 9.30pm the bell in the accommodation of the Wyesdale H began to ring summoning the deckhand on deck to see what the skipper wanted. The lad was shocked to see that they were surrounded by a thick fog, so bad that it was impossible to see the bow from inside the wheelhouse. Orders were given to summon the mate and to get on the bow and listen for the foghorn at Sharpness. For the lad it was his first time out on the river in fog and having listened to the tales of those river men only a few hours previous, he wouldnt be sorry to see the safety of Sharpness Docks. Suddenly out of the fog appeared the bow of the Wastdale H with mate and lad also listening for the foghorn. The two lads on each barge exchanged words and then were lost again in the fog.
The tide was flowing up the river at about 5 knots that night and increasing in speed above Sharpness, giving each skipper the added problem of holding their barges safely in a position ready to make the difficult manoeuvre between the piers and into the lock. As the tide could be more powerful than the engines on the barges, it required the skippers to turn their barges around to stem the tide whilst passing Berkeley Power Station, then carefully dropping back slowly towards Sharpness whilst still punching the tide, barely holding themselves against the strong flowing current.
The Arkendale H was 40.3 metres in length and 6.7 metres wide and had been built as a dumb taker barge in 1937 and converted to a motor tanker barge in 1948. Skippered by George Thompson (35), who had swung his barge around earlier at Berkeley Power Station to stem the tide and as he did so he noticed the fog coming across the river from the foreshore. Before being completely enveloped in the fog he had managed to reach Sharpness Piers and as well as sounding his horn, kept a listen out for the fog siren, located on the end of one of the piers. Pushing ahead against the tide George Thompson could again hear the fog siren on his port bow but as he began to make the turn to go between the piers, he saw the tug Addie with a string of barges in tow going across his bows. To avoid a collision he took power off the engine of the Arkendale H, which unfortunately caused the barge to drift past the piers again. Finding himself in comparatively slack water above the old harbour entrance he began to line his vessel up to proceed back down the river to the harbour entrance.
James Dew [relief skipper on the Wastdale H] gave his 4 cylinder Ruston 7 engine full power and wheel hard to starboard (right) to try to push the Arkendale H away, whilst George Thompson gave his vessel port (left) wheel to keep the barge heading into the tide. With both men having great difficulty in breaking the two barges apart, they could not hold the vessels against the tide and soon the vessels became out of control as they were taken out into the fast flowing current. The barges still locked together travelled sideways up the river heading towards the Severn Railway Bridge.
All eight crew of both vessels were on deck, the two skippers in the wheelhouses, some on the bow and the remainder stood at the stern. They had four minutes of fear as both barges fought to break apart, George Thompson put his wheel hard to starboard with an endeavour to swing the barge around and stem the tide again. Meanwhile James Dew put his engines full astern to hopefully pull away from the Arkendale H. Too late, for suddenly the Severn Railway Bridge was looming up on his port side and the barge struck column number 17 with the bluff of the port bow. The bridge shook with the impact as the barges lay against the column, then the Wastdale H turned over onto her port side with the force of the tide pushing the Arkendale H on top of the sinking barge. George Thompson was coming out the wheelhouse as two spans of the bridge dropped from 21 metres onto the two barges, the impact throwing him against the bulkhead and he was temporarily knocked unconscious. James Dew was thrown into the water from his barge with the impact but managed to cling to a rail and climb back on board.
George Thompson quickly regained consciousness and made his way aft to the stern of the Arkendale H, where he could see two of his crewmen standing in the well deck. He knew that both men could not swim so gave them each a life ring and stood between them and told them to jump into the river with him. The river was ablaze with petrol from the ruptured cargo tanks of the Wastdale H and the Arkendale H was on fire as well and sinking. Thompson jumped and as he hit the water, he looked back only to see that both crewmen had stayed behind. He had no choice but to swim clear of the wreckage away from the burning fuel oil.
Taken from Severn Bridge Disaster by Chris Witts, published by River Severn Publications and available for 4.95 from www.severntales.co.uk
The night the Severn burned
Despite the passing of some 50 years many locals still vividly recall the foggy night that brought death and destruction to the River Severn.
To this day visitors can still see the remains of the vessels locked together in the river after all attempts to raise them failed, a permanent reminder of the gallant sacrifice made by those who routinely navigate these treacherous waters. Keen eyes will also note that despite a long battle to save the Severn Railway Bridge, it was finally torn down and shipped away for scrap in 1967, leaving behind a few solitary stones to mark the base of this Victorian triumph over nature.
The Friends of Purton are hosting a comprehensive exhibition, opening at the Dean Heritage Museum on Saturday, October 16, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of this sad event.
The event will also be marked in the form of two 1.5-ton blocks of stone, at Lydney Harbour and Purton, inscribed with images of the bridge and both vessels, alongside the names of the eight men who fought the river that fateful night.
Paul Barnett, the chairman of the Friends of Purton, paid special tribute to the work of local stonemason ME Damsell of Bream, near Lydney, for sourcing the blocks of the original bridge stone and for the donation of his time and expertise in forming a fitting memorial to the disaster.
This, it is hoped, will symbolically reunite both sides of this wonderful river once again, says Paul.
The Friends of Purton, 22 Gurney Avenue, Tuffley, Gloucester, GL4 0YL, tel: 07833 143231, www.friendsofpurton.org.uk
The exhibition is at Dean Heritage Museum from October 16 2010 until January 16 2011. www.deanheritagemuseum.com