The river Avon east of Bristol may seem to us now a tranquil backwater, a rural idyll winding its way to Bath, but back in the 1830s it was an arterial conduit of thrusting industry. Around it seethed satanic mills, belching chimneys and spewing mines on the Bristol coalfield. This was a time of population explosion and sweeping change. More people worked in manufacturing than in farming. This was the Dickensian era of slums, workhouses and transportation, the era of ‘rotten’ boroughs, radicals, revolution, reform and riot. (The Bristol riot of 1831 heaped death and destruction on people clamouring for representation.)
The fuel that fed the fires of revolution was coal. The coal that made the steam, that drove the engines, that powered the factories and mills. By 1750 there were over 140 collieries in the Bristol area. Coal from the Bristol coalfield had to be transported from the mines to the industrial cities, the largest market being London, and that was the subject of Dr. Jim Pimpernell’s talk to the December gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society.
The river Avon had been navigable as far as Bath in the 12th century but the construction of many water mills had obstructed this. In 1727, as Bath boomed and vast quantities of Bath stone were exported, the Avon Navigation opened to transport the stone to Bristol. The Kennet Navigation had opened 4 years earlier between Newbury and Reading, but it was not until 1810 that the Kennet and Avon canal completed access by boat to London. Now you just had to get the coal from the mines around Coalpit Heath to the river Avon.
The Kennet and Avon Canal Company funded the building of the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway (now known as the Dramway – a Dram being a local name for a coal wagon). The standard gauge, single track line opened in 1831 to take horse-drawn 4 ton coal wagons from the mines to the river at Avon Wharf, where several railway buildings survive. Most notable is elegant Avondale house, which was the original management office. There is also a large stable for the horses, a workshop, and a weighing house, where each wagon was weighed so that the company could charge the mines by the ton. A branch of the Dramway led to the river a little west of Avon Wharf at Londonderry Wharf. Coal unloaded here could be shipped to Bristol without having to pay a toll at Keynsham Lock.
Being a Landscape Archaeologist, Jim was particularly interested in the ‘lumps and bumps’ in the fields behind the Avon Wharf end of the railway. A geophysical survey exposed a system of rails and turntables that allowed the wagons to pull up at the stone-built wharf, tip their cargo of coal down a chute into waiting barges, and then be hauled back up to the mines. Each day up to 144 wagon loads would be tipped into 10 barges for transport up to London.
Just as today your computer is obsolete in a few years, so it was with transport in the 1830s. With the completion of Brunel’s railway from Bristol to London in 1841, coal could be transported more quickly and cheaply, and the Dramway began to decline. Nowadays the Dramway makes an interesting walk, featured on the South Gloucestershire Council web-site and a booklet, with some fascinating remains along its route.
Many thanks to Dr. Jim Pimpernell for his talk.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.