Working on the Canal

Recollections of a tug boat stoker

By Bob Merrett

Photo:Tug boat Primrose

Tug boat Primrose

Photo:Primrose at Gloucester Docks January 1963

Primrose at Gloucester Docks January 1963

My life changed as a result of a conversation with Harry Herbert whose exploits as a skipper of the Severn Industry cargo ship persuaded me to join the Gloucester Dock Company as a fireman. So started one of the most enjoyable and exciting times of my life.

My name is Bob Merrett and I was born, brought up and educated in Frampton on Severn. Aged 14 in 1943 I joined the Gloucester Dock Company as a fireman stoker working on the canal tugs.

That first morning I travelled from Frampton to Gloucester by bus and reported to the Dock Office to be assigned work and live on the canal tug boat Speedwell. My first skipper I remember as being quite elderly and 'me being a bit green' he sent me off to a shop at Hempsted to get a tin of elbow grease which was needed as the tug's steam engine was being repaired! There was a crew of three on the tug, the skipper, an engineer and me the stoker. I was expected to live on board and to keep the fire in all the time. The skipper and engineer lived in Gloucester and were able to go home each evening. I had a bunk bed with blankets brought from home; washing was done in a bucket which also provided the only toilet facilities.

The other tugs working the canal were Staingarth, Iris and Mayflower.

My day began any time from 3 o'clock in the morning as dictated by high tide at Sharpness, as we were expected to arrive at Sharpness and hour before the high tide. I had to stoke up the boiler to get steam pressure up, a job that took about half an hour, before the skipper arrived. Once a week I loaded coal into two bunkers either side of the tug which was enough for the week's journeys.

The skipper on arrival at Gloucester picked up the day's schedule of work from the foreman in the Company Office, in the event of an early start the schedule would be found pinned to the door. We would circle the dock quays picking up 4 or 5 empty barges, and some times from other quays like Cadburys at Frampton. Each barge had a crew of two to steer and operate. We also had a pass man who cycled along the tow path to open up the bridges on the way down the canal. All the bridges opened in the middle, the bridge man opened one side and the pass man the other. The journey down to Sharpness took about four and a half hours. At Sharpness the barges were moored by the bargemen. We would then collect barges loaded with many different goods including timber for Morelands and Nicks, peanuts for Foster Brothers Oil and Cake Mill at Bakers Quay, petrol and coal for Cadburys. Then back we came to Gloucester. I was paid £1.10s.0d. per week and got home very rarely.

Bank holidays provided the only break in the weekly routine and on one such occasion the tug had been moored at Sharpness and the fire let out. After the holiday I set off in the early hours from Frampton cycling down the towpath. Half way down I lost a pedal and being unable to fix it I had to continue the journey rather slowly using one pedal. By this time I was late and the skipper arrived before I had managed to get steam pressure up, and so I spent the next few days in the 'dog house'!

After six months I transferred to the Primrose, one of three river tugs owned by the Company based at Sharpness. The other two were the Resolute, and the diesel powered Addie. These tugs had a crew of four, skipper, engineer, mate and stoker. Unlike the Speedwell this tug had a kitchen range and I was in charge of cooking. Seaman enjoyed double rations since their work was considered to be important to the war effort. I remember catching an eel in the mud off Portishead, skinning and making a meal out of it.

The tugs worked on a schedule of two weeks in the river and one in the canal. The skippers were very skilled making the hazardous journey down to Avonmouth every day, even in thick fog. There were no radio or radar aids in those days.

Having completed a week's canal work, on Sunday evening we would lock down into the tidal basin at Sharpness. We would make four journeys between Sharpness and Avonmouth every day, working every tide, with four hours off in between. Being war time we were aware of the bombing in Bristol but fortunately I was never involved in any incidents.
I was paid £2.0s.0d. a week on this tug and remember earning an extra 10s. salvage money when we raced out into the river to help a ship caught in the tide and in danger of crashing into the Severn Railway Bridge.

In 1947 the winter was bad and the tugs went up and down the canal day and night to keep it free from ice. Later that year I was called up and left the Company to join the Royal Artillery. I really loved my time on the tugs, every day was different and I enjoyed the company of the boatmen.

This page was added by Jean Speed on 07/03/2009.

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