Narrowboat on Severn
History of the River Severn
The River Severn has affected the lives of those who've lived along its banks throughout history. Find out how it got its name and how it shaped the growth of industry, ensuring Shropshire was the at the heart of the Industrial Revolution
The River Severn, famous for its tidal bore, is the longest river in Britain. It flows for around 220 miles from its source in the Welsh Cambrian mountains, through Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, finally emptying into the Bristol Channel.
According to some sources, the name 'Severn' is derived from Sabrina (or Hafren in Welsh) and is based on the mythical story of a nymph who drowned in the river. There is a statue of Sabrina in Dingle Gardens in the Quarry in Shrewsbury.
The Severn's tributaries include the Teme, Stour, Tern and Avon and it is connected by canal with the rivers Thames, Mersey and Trent.
The River Severn has always been a significant factor in the life of the people who have lived along its banks. It has assisted and thwarted armies, disrupted life during floods and freezes, as well as being an important trade artery from medieval times.
River Severn near source
The river linked the iron and coal fields of the Midlands with the Bristol Channel and played an important role during the Industrial Revolution. It's reflected by the innovations of Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge on its banks in Shropshire and the growth of the brick and tile works at Jackfield and porcelain at Coalport.
By the end of the 17th Century the Severn had become the second busiest river in Europe. Commercial traffic declined with the advent of the railways in the 19th Century, but reminders of the river's heyday can still be found along the waterfronts of its former inland ports, like Bridgnorth and in its rural wharves and watermen's inns.
Nowadays, river traffic comprises mostly of pleasure boats. The river is navigable between Stourport in Worcestershire and Sharpness in Gloucestershire, a distance of some 50 nautical miles.
The river as a boundary
During the 7th Century the river became a boundary between the lands of two rival tribes. These were the Magonsaetan, who lived to the south of the river and the Wroecensaetan - (people of the Wrekin,) who lived to the north of the river.
These boundaries remain in place today, but now divide regions of church authority i.e. the dioceses of Lichfield and Hereford. The river also enabled the county town of Shrewsbury to thrive.
It was able to develop over the centuries, because it was protected by a large loop, or meander in the river. Shrewsbury Castle was built to defend the only land approach to the town.
The river as a trade route
For many centuries Bridgnorth was an extremely busy river port. The main exports from medieval Bridgnorth were clothes, wool and beer! The town made its own brew, called cave beer. The name reportedly came from the sandstone caves at the river's edge where the beer was stored.
River Severn at Wainlode Hill
Merchandise was ferried down river in trows or barges and pulled up the river by teams of men harnessed to a tow rope. Close proximity to the river led to the development of other trades such as malting, tanning, weaving, drapers and iron founders.
Coal was also carried down the Severn to Worcester, Bristol and beyond from around 1570. Coal trade along the Severn became vital to the development of Shropshire as an important player in the Industrial Revolution. Other industries that flourished were the brick and tile works at Jackfield and porcelain at Coalport.
In 1756 during a period when the number of boats on the river increased dramatically, to match the growth in the iron trade, there were no less than 55 barge owners in Broseley Parish, of which Jackfield was a part. The majority of owners probably lived in Jackfield. They owned 87 vessels and formed the largest community of Severn watermen between Welshpool and Gloucester.
The river remained an important part of the local economy until the arrival of the Severn Valley Railway in 1862. The railway immediately took trade from the river and by 1871 there were only five barge owners operating in the Severn Gorge. By the end of the century, all barge traffic had ceased.
River Severn at Epney
The river in flood
If you live close to the Severn, you will know all too well the problems that are caused when the river floods. In 1947, the Severn reached its highest recorded levels and the flooding cost the towns along the river, £12 million. Shrewsbury was completely cut off from the rest of the world. Shops and businesses were affected and people had to walk over wooden boards to cross the flooded area.
Floods are not the only peril though of the Severn. Deaths and accidents are another. On the evening of 23 October 1799, 28 people drowned while crossing the Severn between Coalport and Broseley. The workers were from the Coalport China works who were on their way home.
A week after the accident, the owner of the China Works, John Rose, wrote to the Salopian Journal, a weekly Shropshire newspaper, to let its reader know what happened.
last updated: 16/10/2008 at 12:58