A Working Life on the Severn

At the March meeting of the Society Chris Witts talked of his early life on the working barges now no longer seen on the River Severn. The river’s main function now is as a source of our water, a sort of moving reservoir, but until 20 or so years ago it was one of the busiest waterways transporting cargo in the country.

Chris left school in 1960 and started his working life on the Shell Steelmaker, a very modern craft for its time. Established crews were tough as befitting the life on board, not easy for a youngster. He told the story of the major disaster that caused the bridge collapse and the death of five men. The very nature of the Severn with its dramatic tidal movements combined with poor weather conditions constantly made for difficult sailing conditions.

Chris spent the next few years as part of a crew of four, a tough life but one of interdependency and a valuable experience. He described the importance of the Sharpness Canal locally and the real significance of the barges. After some years he joined the Fire Service but after retiring in 1990 he worked on a grain barge, later becoming the skipper. As bigger, faster roads were constructed the movement of what had been a vast range of cargoes via the river came to a halt and by 1998 it had all but finished.