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The Water Transport Company Ltd

Unearthing History: NarrowBoat, Spring 2016

Stephen Rowson

Stephen Rowson details a short-lived, late 19th century enterprise intended to improve cargo-carrying between Cardiff and Birmingham.

The Water Transport Company Ltd of Cardiff was key to plans in the early 1890s for moving provisions between the Bristol Channel ports and Birmingham that would cut out the need for multiple transhipment.

The railway companies had become a complacent monopoly and their high rates for what was often an inconvenient service to move imports inland from the coast (and manufactured exports the other way) encouraged the idea of ship canals as a competitive alternative. Following on from the Manchester Ship Canal, several projects were proposed on the River Severn with the ultimate aim of building a Birmingham Ship Canal to replace the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

At the time, ocean-going ships and coasters would land their imports at Cardiff or Bristol. Loads destined forthe Midlands would then be taken up the Severn Estuary to Sharpness and through the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal to Gloucester Docks, where transhipment would take place into boats that could be locked out into the river and drawn by tugs to Worcester. From here, there might be a further transhipment into canal boats for the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. A significant obstacle en route was the Westgate Bridge at Gloucester that tug boats had difficulty getting under.

Severn scheme

Several factions in Cardiff were keen on diversifying the port’s activities from what was overwhelmingly the export of coal. The main driving force they looked to was Robert Johnston, managing director of the South Wales Public Wharf, Warehouse& Transit Co, who had been in the imports business at Cardiff since the 1870s. While his company had declined to subscribe to the abortive 1884 Birmingham Canal expansion scheme, Johnston was able to canvas private subscriptions and convince Cardiff Corporation and the Bute Docks Company to invest £5,000 each towards a £30,000 Severn Commissioners’ scheme of 1890. The intention was to deepen the river channel and locks from Gloucester to Worcester, to allow for 400-ton boats with a 9ft draught, and provide new dock accommodation at Diglis, near Worcester, for transhipment facilities. As part of the same scheme, the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal was also to lengthen its lock at Gloucester.

The representative of the Worcester merchants and corporation, who had also invested in the scheme, was the city’s mayor of that year, Alderman W. R. Higgs. He and a delegation from Worcester were entertained at Cardiff by Johnston and the local corporation in April 1891.

No photograph of Water Transport's narrow steam tug C1 has yet come to light, but this impression by Chris M. Jones, based on plans published in The Engineer of 1896, gives some idea as to what the vessel may have looked like.

Christopher M. Jones

By 1893, when the works were well in progress, Johnston was promoting the new Water Transport Company to operate the Cardiff and Bristol-toBirmingham trade, which would have suitable boats built to take advantage of the improved waterway. The boats would be able to pass easily under the Westgate Bridge and also capable of venturing as far as France for trade that could bypass the Bristol Channel ports completely. His idea was that the new company would relieve Cardiff from the monopoly of the railway companies and improve rates to the Midlands to such an extent (from between 25% and 75%), that it would have an import trade to rival Liverpool, London and Hull. Steamship lines calling at Cardiff would have the additional advantage of cheaper bunkering than at Liverpool or London. There would be a regular line running twice a week or more between Cardiff and the Midlands. The prospectus called for a substantial £250,000 capital.

In April 1893, a two-day trip was organised for interested parties to explore the whole line from Birmingham to Sharpness. There it was explained that the proposed 400-ton boats would draw barges from the seaboard to Worcester, and thence goods would be transhipped to lightweight 40-ton barges on 4ft draught for hauling by a lightweight tug on the canal from Worcester to Birmingham. With the success of these plans, this would open up the possibility of implementing the 1884-proposed improvements of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal that would allow the 400-ton boats to travel all the way to Birmingham without transhipment. The trip was attended by the engineer and naval architect Joshua McGregor, who had been chosen by Johnston to design the boats and barges. McGregor was said to have vast experience in canal service and inland navigation in India. Significantly, his remit was to design canal boats that were also seaworthy enough to make the crossing between Cardiff and Sharpness, and be able to pass under the Westgate Bridge. Asimilar trip was repeated in July and included delegates of a conference of naval architects at Cardiff.

In February 1894 the company was being urged to build the boats but, even though its design had received Board of Trade approval, it was awaiting permission from the Bute Docks Company to use the dock facilities. It wasn’t until October of that year that Sir W. T. Lewis finally acknowledged that the Bute Docks Company would accommodate the new company’s boats and barges. Meanwhile, the press recorded the impatience of the merchants and the corporations of Cardiff and Worcester since the river works had already been completed.

Finally, in July 1895 some capital had been raised sufficient for registration of the company to take place. But that was only £15,000 in £10 shares. The main subscriberswere: Sir W. T. Lewis: 100 shares; John Cory, Cardiff ship owner: 50; Thomas Morel, Cardiff ship owner: 50; Robert Johnston, merchant: 100; T. R. Hill, Worcester gentleman: 50; A. C. Cherry, Worcester banker: 25; W. R. Higgs, Worcester merchant: 25; John Corbett, Droitwich salt merchant 50. Other subscribers were the Earl of Dudley and William Jones of Abberley Hall, Worcester.

The original grand plan had been diluted somewhat but these private subscriptions were sufficient to test the concept. A river tug and two barges were already under construction by Charles William Dodgin, shipbuilder and chandler at his yard in Lydney Dock. Dodgin had been a Tyneside steam-tug boatbuilder who, after bankruptcy in the 1870s, moved to work at T. A. Walker’s shipyard at Sudbrook in Monmouthshire.

The most detailed set of plans yet seen for the Water Transport fleet appeared in The Engineer magazine of 24th January 1896, but excluding its steam barge A1. Christopher M. Jones Collection

A view of the Severn at Worcester in the late 19th century with a steam-powered river tug moored against a sailing trow on the right. The Severn & Canal Carrying Co Ltd used this spot as overnight moorings for its tugs. There are at least five pleasure steamers of varying sizes moored against the quay wall, and a narrowboat can be seen through the second arch.

Stephen Rowson Collection


Early in September 1895 the Water Transport Company’s first completed barge steamed across the Severn to Sharpness Dock and a successful trial took place to Worcester. Although the boat was unladen (except for Johnston and invited dignitaries), she passed easily under Westgate Bridge. The trip to Gloucester took three hours (including stops) and another five and a half hours to Worcester. At a ceremony at Worcester the steamer was named A1 by Alderman Higgs’ daughter. The press described the dimensions of the boat as 100ft long, 17ft 6in beam and 8ft 6in draught when loaded with 200 tons. That same month the 124ft-long Atlanta (with 20ft beam and 9ft 6in draught) of the Severn & Canal Carrying Co Ltd performed the trip from Cardiff to Worcester Bridge with a load of iron ore, having loaded directly from an ocean-going steamer at Cardiff. It was the second in the month to steam under Gloucester’s Westgate Bridge and was the largest boat to have reached Worcester.

Water Transport’s three other boats, a canal steamer and two barges, were expected to be finished in October. Two sets of plans are known to have been published: one in various newspapers and one in The Engineer. The former shows all four of Water Transport’s craft, although the dimensions given do not accurately record the vessels that were built, it does give us an idea of how they looked. The narrow canal steamer was named C1 and was designed to carry 30 tons on a draught of 4ft, while her butty was designed to carry 40 tons on a draught of 4ft. More detailed plans appear in The Engineer of 24th January 1896, where the draught of both narrowboats was shown as 4ft 6in.

This earlier set of drawings was published in the Western Mail of 6th April 1893 and provides an alternative interpretation of Water Transport’s fleet, showing all four vessels: two barges and two narrowboats.

This drawing of Robert Johnston’s main Cardiff base, on the tidal Ely Harbour, was published in 1896 at the time he was promoting the Water Transport Company. He was negotiating with the Bute Docks Company to be able to use more convenient wharfage within the docks for his tugs and barges.

Further information comes from the BCN gauging table after the boat was weighed at Smethwick on 11th April 1896. Described as a “cabin iron steamer”, she measured 70ft 11in long and 7ft 1½in beam. Her draught measured with 35 tons was 4ft 6in, so, for practical purposes she probably only carried 25 tons or less when operating in the Severn Estuary.

Boats lying on the mud at low tide and awaiting coaling at Victoria Wharf in the mid-20th century. The coaster is the SS Crowpill of Sully & Co. Behind it is an upriver craft of a design reminiscent of A1. Behind that is an unknown ocean-going vessel and beyond are storage tanks for petroleum, which Johnston was importing here as early as the 1880s. The wharfage company continued in business into the 1980s.

Derek Chaplin

The gauging table also records that she had cloths, under which were two beams, two standards and two cratches, with presumably her three planks mounted on them. The cratches were just over 44ft long and fixed either end of her hold, with a gangway between the stern cratch and her engine room shown on the different plans. Beneath this narrow deck was her coal bunker, accessed through hinged hatches and recorded as holding 1 ton of coal. She was also noted as carrying 200 cwt of pig iron, probably as ballast.

Plans show all four craft had a straight stem, akin to many other 19th-century river and seagoing craft, and rounded chines and a flat bottom. Both narrowboats were said to have cost well over £150. C1 was fitted with a vertical boiler that reduced the length of her engine room, and a living cabin. Such narrowboats would have had their cabins registered under the Canal Boats Acts, but so far no information has come to light except that the three canal boats were registered at Worcester on 28th July 1896; one was noted as having a cabin adjoining an engine room.

Trials with steamers and barges continued for six months. The larger steamer, A1, had run from all the lower Channel ports, Llanelli, Burry Port in Carmarthenshire, and Swansea to Worcester. In June it was reported that even the canal steamer C1 had run a trip from Cardiff to Birmingham, taking a general cargo of Belgian goods (glass, sugar and spelter). The journey was accomplished in 32 hours without transhipment. This was the first time an attempt had been made to run vessels through from the Bristol Channel to Birmingham. No mention is made of 28the risks this vessel had taken in the fast-flowing tidal waters of the Severn Estuary. The distance from Cardiff to Sharpness in tidal waters alone is approximately 36 miles. For all these trips it was necessary to anchor at appropriate places and wait for tides.

Frustration and failure

The concept proven, all that was needed now was regular cargoes and some fair treatment by the Sharpness company (which owned both the canals and Sharpness Dock). In July Cardiff’s Evening Express reported: “A large development in this new mode of carriage to Birmingham may now be anticipated, provided the company is met fairly by the owners of the Worcester & Birmingham and the Gloucester & Berkeley [today’s Gloucester & Sharpness] canals in giving facilities for the company’s boats to go through without interruption, as so much depends on despatch. If they further meet the company by a modification of their tolls, a fleet of steamers and barges with a large and regular service is to be put on.”

The Severn Commissioners showed their frustration too. Dredging the river to maintain the 10ft depth between Gloucester and Worcester was costly when it was not regularly used by the deep-draughted vessels for which the works were designed. Diglis Dock was so little boated that critics were suggesting it be converted to a bathing place. The commissionersblamed Cardiff for not generating more business – after all they had contributed significantly to the cost of the works. When invited by the Severn conservators to attend the annual inspection, no representative from Cardiff came – except, of course, for Robert Johnston who was a councillor. And from the Birmingham end there had never been much interest. On the occasion of the August annual river inspection, contrary to custom, there were no speeches at the luncheon, either prophetic or congratulatory.

Timber merchants at Cardiff were accused of not transferring their business to water because Johnston was not offering enough of a discount against the rates of the railway. They feared moving from railway to water and then finding the boat service inadequate and so being obliged to revert to rail, “it is morally certain that the railway companies would ‘take it out of them’ by the imposition of the maximum rates and a thousand and one annoyances which monopolists are able to inflict”.

George Keeling’s vision of a Birmingham Ship Canal was put to bed. Robert Johnston could not justify calling on more capital for the Water Transport Company to add to its boat fleet. The experiment was over. In January 1897 the company was wound up voluntarily. The fate of the boats has not yet been ascertained.

As a result of the failure of the Water Transport Company, the Great Western Railway continued to have no incentive to correct its rates anomaly, whereby it was cheaper to send goods to Birmingham from Bristol than from Cardiff. Bristol remained the favoured entrepôt and the imbalance of coal exports to other activity at Cardiff continued to widen.

Note on sources

This article has been written almost entirely with reference to contemporary Cardiff newspapers, with due regard given to their differing editorial stances. Robert Johnston was a Conservative councillor and his brainchild had much support from the Evening Express and Western Mail. The liberal South Wales Daily News and Cardiff Times were more sanguine.


Thank you to Christopher M. Jones, Alan Faulkner, Pete Harrison, and members of the Railway & Canal Historical Society Waterways History Research Group for their contributions.