The Night the Severn Burned

25 October 1960

by Paul Barnett

The Night the Severn Burned


Standing on the shore in the quiet village of Purton situated on the banks of the sleepy River Severn, recent visitors are often overheard to say how this tranquil setting lulls and carries them along on its peaceful waters. Now famed for its collection of hulked vessels, little do they realize that this idyllic scene hides a dark event which once shook Gloucestershire to it bedrock in a ball of flames, buckling iron and boiling spray.


Despite the passing of some fifty years, many locals still vividly recall the fog bound night that once brought death and destruction almost to their doors. For the 25th of October 2010 will see the 50th Anniversary of the Severn and Wye Railway Bridge disaster, which saw the untimely death of five men from the John Harker owned tankers Arkendale H and Wastdale H following a collision that night.

After arriving at Sharpness from Avonmouth a little after 10pm, the Arkendale H with her 300 tons of black oil, is said to have come into contact with the Wastedale H carrying 350 ton of volatile petroleum spirit, causing both to hurtle upstream on a flooding tide and strike an iron leg of Severn and Wye Railway Bridge.  In doing so both vessels are thought to have become entangled with the bridge structure, which eventually gave way, sending two adjacent spans crashing to destruction in the black waters with catastrophic results.  Fuelled by a fractured gas main serving the Forest of Dean, both vessels were quickly consumed by flames only to sink upstream after leaving a trail of destruction and consigning five of the eight man combined crew to a watery grave.


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 therefore immensely proud to announce that they are programmed to host a comprehensive exhibition in words and pictures to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of this sad event. Friends site photographer John Daniells is currently putting the finishing touches to the exhibition that is set to open at the Dean Heritage Museum on the 16th October 2010 and is keen to speak to any one who may have information, anecdotes or memories of that fateful night, for possible inclusion in the finished exhibition.  Alex Smith, Collections Officer of the museum, joined in the plea for information by stating “We are delighted to host the exhibition at the Dean Heritage Centre. The Friends of Purton have produced a fascinating and eye opening examination of an event that is deeply etched in the history of our area”.


Furthermore the Friends are particularly interested in making the acquaintance of any surviving relatives of the vessels crews with the view to inviting them to an official opening ceremony at the Museum in October later this year.


Further, sponsorship remains to be secured to ensure the event will be marked for eternity in the form of two 1.5 ton blocks of stone being inscribed with images of the bridge and both vessels, alongside the names of the eight men who fought the river that fateful night. Upon announcing this news Paul Barnett, the Chairman of the Friends of Purton has paid special tribute to the work of local Stone Mason M. E. Damsell of Bream near Lydney for sourcing the blocks of the original Bridge stone and for the donation of his valued time and expertise in forming a fitting memorial to this Gloucestershire Disaster.  In line, negotiations are currently underway with English Heritage and British Waterways to secure the erection of the finished plaques, both at Lydney Harbour and adjacent to the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal at Purton on the eastern bank of the river.  "This it is hoped will symbolically reunite both side of this wonderful river once again” said Mr. Barnett.


All those wishing further information should visit or contact The Friends of Purton on 07833143231 or by writing to 22 Gurney Av, Tuffley,Glos.



Bells sound out River Disaster Remembrance


Plans are currently underway to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Severn and Wye Railway Bridge disaster in the mass ringing of Church bells the county over.


As a mark of respect, Ian Unsworth, an accomplished Dursley bell-ringer, has choreographed a specific tribute by arranging for nearby church bells to be rung during Sunday 17th October, as a dedication to the memory of those affected by the tragic event on 25th October 1960.


Mr Unsworth said ‘interest has been shown by groups from the Wotton-under-Edge, Forest of Dean and Stroud Branches of the Gloucester and Bristol Diocesan Association of Church Bell Ringers, and it is planned that a full peal will be attempted at Wotton-under-Edge on Saturday 16th October followed by quarter peals at Berkeley, Stone, Slimbridge, Awre and Lydney.’.


Janet Presley, keen bell ringer and Vice Chairman of the Friends of Purton is delighted at the news and stated, ‘When you hear the bells being rung on the 16th and 17th October spare a thought for all the people whose lives have been taken while plying the River Severn over the years and for their families and descendants.’







Gloucestershire stands together to remember 50th anniversary


Sunday the 17th October 2010 saw early morning river fog roll up the Severn estuary almost in serene remembrance to similar conditions some fifty years ago the night 25th October 1960 the night the river burned to snatch  five lives and alter the course of Gloucestershire history forever.


Fifty years on, Lydney Docks saw early Autumn sun soon melt the last fingers of mist to unveil a sombre gathering of some 200 family members, old friends, former neighbours, and invited guests, all who had come together to remember 10 local men who left loved ones to work on the river that night, some never to return.


The event, orchestrated by the Friends of Purton, was the first of several tributes to mark the 50 years since the partial destruction of the Severn and Wye Railway bridge by the fully laden John Harker tankers Arkendale H and the Wastdale H, which came together in a ball of flames killing five of the eight man crew.


During an emotional ceremony, a two ton block of recovered bridge stone was unveiled to reveal poignant images of the 21 span bridge, the vessels and the eight men’s names, all of whom have now passed away.


Following a reading of the crew men’s names by Friends patron David Drew, the gathered observed a minute's silence accompanied by the faint chiming of distant church bells which were to rung out the entire length of the river to remember the dead.


This was then followed by a slow procession the short distance by road to the Dean Heritage Centre at Soudly, where the official exhibition was formally opened by the Family of the late Thomas Carter in recognition of his and Charlie Henderson gallant rescue attempt to pull the eight family men from the burning waters.  During this quiet time of reflection, the families of rescued man Jack Cooper and Mr Carter’s daughter, who until that day had never meet, were allowed time to share one common grief.


Time and tide against them the gathering moved off as one to travel the 40 miles through the sunlight streets of Gloucester after first crossing the mighty river at Over, to arrive at its final destination in the quiet hamlet of Purton within sight and overlooking the twisted remains of their menfolk’s stranded tankers.


Patiently waiting and in attendance were several local dignitaries, with Stroud MP Neil Carmichael presiding to unveil an identical stone memorial, placed on a diagonal tangent to the adjacent Lydney docks effectively intersecting the tanker remains.


Following the unveiling Neil said ‘I have been working with the Friends of Purton to have the largest ships graveyard recognised and for them to have organised this memorial to those who lost their lives is a testament to their commitment to the hulks and the history of the river’


Standing shoulder to shoulder, the party assembled silenced in grief and with the sun high above, witnessed the tankers slowly slip below the black waters of the Severn.  Gripped with their own memories of loved ones lost but now at last recognised for the sacrifice each made.


Then around the backdrop of Sharpness point, came the distinct silhouette of two solitary historic R.N.L.I. life boats, once more fiercely punching the rushing waters to arrive at the crash site, only this time the precious cargo was one of the combined sadness of nine family members intent on paying their last respects in person with flowers, trinkets and tears. 


Nearby, excitement rippled through those on the shore as they watched, with further poignancy of what might have been, as in attendance followed two fast inshore rescue boats of the now Sharpness based Severn Area Rescue Association,


Once positioned atop the site of the former bridge pier 17, instructions were issued for the crews of Nellie & Charlie and the aptly named Always Ready to haul too, the silence was broken via ship to shore radio by Robina Bayliss daughter of the Arkendale H survivor in order to address the assembled party, her voice trembling and her pain clear for all to hear.


Wreath cast, and heading north on the current, past the waiting families, the flotilla turned south to leave the scene accompanied by the haunting sound of Capt Bevis Musk’ remark ‘lifeboat Nellie & Charlie to lifeboat The Always Ready, let’s take them home Craig’.


The Arkendale H

Capt. George Horace Thompson

Percy Alexander Simmonds

George (Jack) William Cooper

Robert John Nibblett


The Wastdale H

Capt. James Dew

Hubert Jack Dudfield

Alex Albert Bullock

Malcolm Hart


Capt. Thomas Carter of the Shell Traveller

Charlie Freeland Henderson


To sail is to sea

To try is to be

Photo:The memorial to the Severn Bridge disaster on the Lydney bank of the River Severn.  David Drew (on the left) and Paul Barnett remove the cover and reveal the stone.

The memorial to the Severn Bridge disaster on the Lydney bank of the River Severn. David Drew (on the left) and Paul Barnett remove the cover and reveal the stone.

by Paul Barnett

This page was added by Iris Capps on 09/11/2010.
Comments about this page

My brother was Mate on The Arkendale H. On the day of the disaster he was not on board due to illness. He still talks about Arkendale and Wastdale from time to time.

By Barbara Edmonds
On 21/01/2014

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