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Lydney's Lost Fleet

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April 2013

At the April meeting of the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society, Paul Barnett returned to share the fruits of his most recent researches into the maritime archaeology of the River Severn.

After many years of work to identify and catalogue the hulks on the foreshore at Purton, Mr Barnett has turned his attention to other parts of the Severn shore, and in particular to Lydney. Lydney was a small but important port for the shipping of coal mined in the Forest of Dean up until the 1960s. The River is tidal at the point where the Lydney Canal joins it, so to permit the canal's effective commercial use it was equipped with a form of floating harbour (similar to the one at Bristol) which maintained water levels even when the tide was out and made it easier to manoeuvre vessels into and out of the tidal stream.

Outside the floating harbour on the foreshore can be found the remains of a wooden "gridiron" onto which boats could settle as the tide went out, while still remaining upright so that they could be worked on. At Lydney the gridiron was used for vessels which had reached the end of their useful life, enabling the shipwright who lived in the nearby cottage (now the headquarters of Lydney Yacht Club) to dismantle them so that serviceable components could be re-used in other vessels.

At the back of the small basin known as the Front Harbour, the "ship lock" leads into Lydney Canal. However, the lock is too short for any ship of real size, so use of the port was restricted to smaller vessels. The tugs which used the canal had a very low draught, and as a result parts of the canal were very shallow, only needing to be dredged to a depth of a couple of feet or so. These flat-bottomed tugs were often loaded whole into the holds of larger, river-going vessels, effectively constituting an early form of containerisation.

The 'Lost Fleet' of the title refers to three large vessels which were once grounded on the foreshore at Lydney but have now vanished completely. One of them, the Jonadab, worked in the coal trade and was run aground when its last owners decided that it had come to the end of its useful life. One night it vanished, but in 1980 a vessel was spotted floating in the Severn and a warning was issued to mariners: it may well have been Jonadab, a 26 foot section of which was washed ashore at Purton on the opposite bank from Lydney and remains there to this day.

The fate of another of the three, Willie, is unknown, but its captain is the subject of an interesting yarn. He was known as a heavy drinker and a gambler, who on one occasion won a cockerel for the pot. He left it, as he thought, securely fastened on board the Willie while he went back ashore. Returning that evening, the worse for drink, he found the bird loose and was apparently chased around the deck by it (much to the amusement of his crew): he eventually escaped only by diving overboard. The cockerel was spared the chop, given the name Mojo, and was eventually buried in Lydney churchyard next to the captain.

The Severn foreshore offers a fascinating window onto the vanishing maritime heritage of the region, and Paul Barnett is undoubtedly one of the foremost experts in the field. The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society looks forward to welcoming him back in the near future. Keep an eye on www.mythornbury.co.uk/thornbury_society where details of the Society's 2013-2014 programme will be posted soon.

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.

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