In the Purton Ships’ Graveyard, thousands of old trows and barges were deliberately sunk to create one of the largest ship graveyards in mainland Britain. In Gloucestershire, England, this ship graveyard can be found near Purton, a village located on the east bank of River Severn.
Between Gloucester and Sharpness, a canal was dug about two hundred years ago to bypass a particularly treacherous stretch of the River Severn. The massive canal was 26 meters wide and 5.5 meters deep and could accommodate ships up to 600 tons when it was opened in 1827. It was the world’s broadest and deepest canal at the time.
Much of the canal runs near the River Severn. There was a point near Purton where the canal and river were separated by less than 50 meters. As the river swelled during spring tides and overflowed its banks, the channel between the canal and the river was no wider than the canal’s towpath.
It was inevitable that the bank near Purton collapsed in 1909. As a result, the canal company’s chief engineer, A. J. Cullis, developed a plan. As a barrier and to prevent erosion of the narrow strip of land between the river and canal, he proposed grounding old vessels along the Severn’s bank, near Purton.
A number of ships were deliberately towed from Sharpness Dock and ran into the banks. They were positioned as high up the bank as possible, and their hulls were perforated to allow subsequent tides to deposit silt inside, making them immovable.
During this process of reinforcement, over eighty ships were deliberately beached here over the course of sixty years. BBC Television aired a program about the site in the early 2000s, giving it national exposure.
A group of conservationists called the Friends of Purton soon started excavating and documenting some of the vessels. Their discoveries include Harriett, a vessel lost in February 1944 after colliding with motor barge Severn Trader at Stonebench Turn on the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal.
A Kennet barge like Harriett is believed to be the only one left in the world. In addition to being listed on the National Register of Historic Vessels, the Harriett wreck has now been designated an ancient monument. Examples of the Severn trow can be found among the wooden vessels. There are also several concrete ships on site, made of steel and ferrocement (reinforced concrete).
There is one other notable vessel, the Dispatch, which is the only surviving example of an iron and wood composite hull that was exceptionally strong and survived at least two collisions. About a dozen concrete ships built during World War 2 were among the most recent vessels to be grounded here.
In 1990, one of the ships was removed from the Purton site and moved to Gloucester Docks as an exhibit at the Waterways Trust museum. However, in 2012, she was sunk. Post-Nelsonic, shipbuilding timber was in short supply, especially oak, which was one of the few species with strong enough branch attachments to serve as knees.