Acknowledgements and further reading

Readers seeking further information on the historical context to the modern estuary crossings are advised to consult the two sources from which most of the material in the previous chapters has been taken.

Stephen Jones generously invited the Trust to make use of relevant material from his book, “Links with Leviathans” the third volume of his trilogy; “Brunel in South Wales” now published by The History Press of Stroud, Gloucestershire.  Chapter 4 of the book, entitled “Severn Gateway”, covers all aspects of early transport links across and around the lower Estuary in great detail and was an invaluable aid to the Trust in covering the story.

The essential source for a real understanding of the construction of the Severn Railway Tunnel was written by Thomas Walker, the contractor who assumed responsibility for the project in 1877. His  comprehensive book entitled “The Severn Tunnel. Its construction and difficulties (1872-1887” was published in 1888.  Facsimile editions by Kingsmead Press of Weston-super-Mare were published in 1969 and 1990.  The website’s ‘page’ on the tunnel is based almost entirely on information obtained from that book.

In terms of engineering achievement, the 19th century railway tunnel beneath the Estuary undoubtedly ranks alongside the two great twentieth century bridges.  However, with the passage of time and the virtual absence of any visible indication of its presence, its importance and stature can easily be forgotten or overlooked.  To help restore the balance, a fairly lengthy coverage of its construction has been provided on the website to allow a wider public appreciate the scale of that achievement.  The story deserves to be better known.

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The First Road Crossing



Finally, as a harbinger for the great feats of engineering that were to be performed at the Old and New Passages in the second half of the twentieth century, mention must be made of the scheme recommended by consultants, Mott, Hay and Anderson to Gloucestershire County Council in 1934. It happened at a time when the country was recovering from the impact of the Great Depression, with pressure on highway authorities mounting from pressure groups seeking action to deal with the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the nation’s roads. The situation was particularly acute for long distance journeys and the County Councils, who at that time were the highway authorities responsible for major roads, were right in the firing line.

Gloucestershire’s consultants had initially favoured provision of a high level suspension bridge on the Aust-Beachley line, with a 3,000 feet (950 m) span and a conventional truss deck (essentially the same as the initial proposals for the Severn Bridge that were brought forward again in the 1950s). But Monmouthshire County Council had then joined Gloucestershire Council and, together, they decided to promote a scheme three miles downstream from the consultants’ first suggestion. This scheme, across the English Stones, would have been virtually identical to the Second Severn Crossing, except that it had a suspension bridge with a 900 foot (275 m) span, as its centrepiece across the Shoots channel, rather than the modern cable stayed bridge with a span of 456 m. Also, the spans of the viaduct sections on either side of the central bridge would have been shorter than those on the existing structure.

Sketch of 1935 design for a Bridge and Viaduct at the New Passage

The two councils launched a Parliamentary Bill to obtain the necessary powers to build this second scheme, assuming that they would be able to persuade the Ministry of Transport to meet 75% of the costs. However, the Great Western Railway opposed the scheme in Parliament, ostensibly on the grounds of potential damage to the Severn Tunnel and, in 1936 a Select Committee of the House of Commons rejected the bill. By that time, the national debate about the management of the major road system was coming to a head and the two County Councils decided to take no further action on a lower estuary crossing until those issues were resolved.

The government was under strong pressure to change the existing system, with strong evidence from other countries of the benefits to be gained from the construction of high speed inter-regional roads, under central direction. Recognising that the County Councils could not be expected to bear the burden of financing a new national highway system, the Ministry of Transport concluded that a Trunk Road Network should be created and that it should be administered, financed and maintained by Central Government. This change was enacted through the passage on to the Statute Book of the Trunk Roads Act, 1936. The defined network included a Severn Crossing and an improved A48 road along the South Wales coast. However before any significant progress could be made, the Second World War intervened.

Gloucester County Council started lobbying again, for a road crossing of the estuary, as early as 1943. A long span, high level option on the Aust-Beachley linenow was now favoured. In 1945, the Ministry of Transport appointed Mott, Hay and Anderson to prepare a scheme based on this route. The government published a National Plan in 1946 and this included a crossing on the Aust-Beachley-Newhouse line, together with a high-speed road link from the crossing at Beachley to the A48 at Tredegar Park, west of Newport. And in July 1947, the route of the road was fixed by an Order, made in accordance with the Trunk Roads Act, 1936.

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The Severn Railway Tunnel

Preparatory work

It was while working on the ferry piers for the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway in 1862–63 that Charles Richardson first began to pursue the idea of replacing the ferry with a railway tunnel beneath the estuary.  However, it took him three attempts, over a period of ten years, to get the plan accepted.  His first approach, in 1865, was rejected because the GWR were in the process of seeking an Act of Parliament for a project, proposed by John Fowler, for a new double track, mixed-gauge railway, 41 miles long, from Wootton Bassett to Chepstow, crossing the Severn at Oldbury Sands.  And by 1869, Richardson’s scheme also had competition from two other tunnel proposals.

Richardson’s estimate for his tunnel, and for the short lengths of railway at either end, was £730,000.  The tunnel’s chances of success improved dramatically when, in 1870, the newly elected chairman of GWR, Daniel, later Sir Daniel, Gooch, denounced the Fowler project as an extravagance.  Apparently he had come to realise that the director who had been pressing the case for this project at Board meetings, had been doing so to further his own interests.  After further lobbying, Richardson’s scheme was adopted by the GWR Company in 1871 and, the following year, the Severn Tunnel Bill was approved by parliament.  Construction began in 1873, with Richardson as Chief Engineer and with John (later Sir John) Hawkshaw as Consulting Engineer.

Plan showing the Severn Railway Tunnel

The construction of what would become the longest railway tunnel under water in the world at that time, turned out to be a classic example of an engineer’s extreme fight against adversity.  It is surely the leviathan of all Victorian railway tunnels and one of the nation’s finest engineering achievements.  An excellent and detailed account of the works is contained in the book written by Thomas Walker, the contractor who assumed responsibility for their completion after progress stalled in 1877. The description of events, given below, is based on information obtained from that book.

The bold attempt fails

The original intention was that the work should be undertaken by an experienced contractor but Richardson was not satisfied with any of the tenders he had received.  Convinced that by using the GWR Company’s direct labour force, he could complete the job for 25% less cost than any of the contactors’ bids and so he decided to go ahead on that basis.   However, four and a half years later, all he had achieved was one winding shaft and 1,600 ft of 7 ft by 7 ft heading under the river.  In August 1877, the Directors of GWR intervened and instructed that tenders should be invited for the remaining works.

Appointment of the contractor
Sir John Hawkshaw, 1877
Sir John Hawkshaw, 1877

Only three tenders were received in response to the new invitation and Hawkshaw, acting as consultant, recommended acceptance of the tender from Thomas Walker, an experienced contractor in whom he had full confidence.  However, the Directors took the view that Walker was asking too much for contingencies.  In order to minimise their exposure, should a disaster occur, they decided not to enter into a contract with him until the ground had been proved by the completion of the 7 ft x 7 ft heading right through the length of tunnel under the river.  In the meantime, the heading was to go ahead using direct labour.  Certain other relatively small items of work were also allowed to proceed, some by using smaller contractors, others by direct labour.

The first major incident

The pace of the work picked up significantly but, on 18 October 1879 when the headings that were approaching each other from either side of the river were only 138 yards apart, a great inrush of water occurred.  Within 24 hours, water had filled the works on the west side, up to the level of the tide.  Fortunately, the safety measures that had been put in place, enabled all the men working in the tunnel to escape with their lives.

There is little doubt that all the men who ran for their lives on that day were convinced that the river had broken into the tunnel.  However, when the initial shock had subsided and it became possible to rationalise events, it became clear that the point at which the water had broken in was not under the estuary itself but a short distance from the west bank.  We now know that the influx of water came from the “Great Spring”, a major aquifer that carries extremely pure water down from the Brecon Beacons.  To day, over 130 years later, 20 million gallons of valuable spring water are still being pumped out of this aquifer, each day, from the point at which the tunnel had had been cut into it. At the time, this flow represented the daily intake of either Liverpool or Manchester – or about one sixth of the consumption of London.

Thomas Walker
The aftermath

The ingress of the Great Spring, no doubt, caused GWR Directors to ponder their previous statements about the amount requested by their chosen contractor for contingencies.  Their reaction, to all that had happened up to that point, was to invite Hawkshaw to take full charge of the works, as Chief Engineer, with authority to act as he thought fit.  Hawkshaw intimated that he was prepared to accept, but on condition that he be allowed to let the works to Thomas Walker.  The Directors concurred but still wanted the length of 7 ft by 7 ft heading to be completed under the deep channel known as “The Shoots” before any major works were undertaken elsewhere.  They asked Hawkshaw to seek a price for this element, alone.

Walker responded, suggesting that his 1877 tender should still stand, though modified to allow for the lapse of time and the amount of work still to be done.  He was prepared to concentrate on completing the heading under the river, as soon as he had dealt with the influx of water and pumped the workings dry.  This suggestion was agreed by all parties and the works were handed over to Walker on 18 December 1879.

Richardson’s Departure.

The events described above inevitably led to the departure of Charles Richardson from the project.  Great credit is due to him for the conception of the scheme and for its safe passage through the unpredictable Parliamentary procedures.  He also developed a system for successfully aligning the two headings with unprecedented accuracy.  However, while his administrative and conceptual expertise remained untarnished, his ability to drive a difficult project through to fruition had been called into question.  The extent to which his difficulties stemmed from a lack of expertise or commitment on the part of the GWR direct labour force is difficult to judge after the passage of so many years.  Before Richardson leaves the stage, it is worth mentioning that generations of boys, both young and old, should be grateful to him for coming up with the idea of inserting three layers of rubber into the cane handle of a cricket bat, a devise that soon became universally adopted and is still used, worldwide.  It is on record that several of his professional colleagues, including Brunel, often complained about the amount of time that Richardson spent playing cricket!

The dramatic inundation of the works and the departure of Richardson provide a convenient point to leave the story of the tunnel. Another seven years would elapse before the tunnel was complete and ready to take its place as one of the outstanding feats of British engineering, a monument to the skill and perseverance of those involved. However, the prime purpose of this website is to provide information about the design and construction of the two motorway bridges and so it would be inappropriate to cover the whole of the amazing story of the tunnel in the main text. If you wish to read the rest of that story, click on the link below.

For completion of the tunnel, Click Here

The Conclusion

The incidents described above, and many other unexpected difficulties that bedevilled the operations, are all vividly described in Walker’s book, each one requiring men to work at the limit of human endurance and ability, while using the most advanced technology available at that time.  On several occasions, it seemed that the task would prove to be beyond the men responsible but, with outstanding skill and perseverance, they managed to overcome the obstacles and complete the task.

The first train journey through the tunnel took place on 5 September 1885.  A special coal train ran through from Aberdare to Southampton on 9 January 1886, but it was not until the end of 1886 that the tunnel was opened to regular traffic.  The construction of the 4 mile 628 yd long tunnel took almost fourteen years to complete.  The final cost was £1,806,248, two and a half times Richardson’s original estimate and nearly double Walker’s 1877 contract price.

The opening of the tunnel for regular passenger services on 1 December 1886 marked the end of Brunel’s unique steam ferry railway, the last crossing by the steam packet taking place the previous evening.  Over thirty years later, a ferry was re-introduced at New Passage, this time in order to transport cars and other road vehicles across the Estuary.  And later, with the inexorable growth in the car use after the Second World War, British Rail introduced an occasional piggy-back car-carrying service, through the tunnel.  Both these services ceased when the Severn Bridge opened on 8 September 1966.

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The Bristol and South Wales Union Railway

An improved ferry service – after a long gestation

In 1844, Brunel started to consider the possibility of reviving the direct route across the Severn, via the New Passage, by bringing together the convenience of a railway and the flexibility of a steam ferry.  The idea had much to commend it but, for various reasons, it did not get underway for another 14 years.   Brunel himself was involved from time to time, although he was also working on many other projects during this period.

The first positive proposal along these lines, known as the Bristol and South Wales Junction Railway, was approved by Parliament in 1846.  It comprised a branch line from Bristol to the pier at New Passage, a further short length of track  on the opposite side of the Estuary to connect from the ferry pier at Portskewett to the SWR, and a ferryboat to run between two piers.  The timber piers, designed by Brunel, were to be approximately 500 ft long to accommodate the full length of the train and to reach out into the deeper water.  Financial problems led to the abandonment of the scheme in 1853.

Another project based on a similar principle and entitled the Bristol, Wales and Southampton Railway was brought forward in 1854.  It proposed to use a “steam bridge” across the river at the same point – with the railway carriages being hauled onto the ferry boat, thus allowing people to stay in their seats.  This project also failed from a lack of investment.

Finally, a scheme was brought forward by the new Bristol & South Wales Union Railway Company (B & S W U R), this time with strong Welsh backing and with the chairman of the SWR on board.  A public enquiry was ordered by the Admiralty and it opened in the New Passage Hotel on 25 March 1857.  Opposition was raised by the City of Gloucester and the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal Company, as well as owners of small craft and the steam packet Wye, that ran between Chepstow and Bristol.  Those who opposed the scheme had the mistaken impression that a chain ferry would be used.  Brunel, who had become engineer for the project in 1855, explained that this was not the intention; the project would be based on a train ferry and confined to passenger and light goods only.

An Act of Parliament for the B & S W U R was obtained in July 1857.

A Digression

Three years earlier, in 1854, when construction of the bridge over the River Tamar at Saltash was well underway, the new Duke of Beaufort had consulted Brunel about the possibility of bridging the Severn Estuary at Old Passage.  On 30 May 1854, Brunel replied through the Duke’s agent, in the following terms;

“I should be very glad, if the Duke thinks seriously that it would benefit his interests, to look seriously into the question and give the best advice I can.  And if I should be able to suggest a feasible plan and there should be friendly people ready to make it, I shall have the satisfaction of bridging the Severn, as well as the Tamar.”

Brunel’s sketch for a bridge across the Severn Estuary
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Brunel is on record as saying that he believed there would be a bridge or a tunnel across the estuary within fifty years.  Although the Duke did not take the matter further, Brunel obviously kept the exchange in mind because, in April 1857, probably while attending the public inquiry into the B & S W U R, he made a sketch of a design with obvious similarities to that of the Tamar Bridge.  Under the drawing, Brunel had written ” Severn Bridge.  Q: is 1,100 ft practical”.

Construction of the B & S W U R

In September 1858, a contract for the 11½ miles long single line railway from Bristol to the estuary was awarded to Rowland Brotherhood, with Charles Richardson as resident engineer, working under Brunel.  From the junction with the existing railway, ½ mile east of Temple Meads Station, the line would include five local stations.  The piers leading into the river were the most innovative items, incorporating floating pontoons at the ends of the timber piers on to which the trains would run, with stairs and lifts down to the pontoons.  The piers extended far enough out to provide sufficient water for the steam ferry boat to come alongside at any state of the tide.  The pontoons floated with the tide and were therefore at the same level as the boat when it came alongside.  Sadly, Brunel died in 1859.

Charles Richardson

The full system from Bristol to New Passage, across the ferry, then on to the link to the SWR, for Cardiff, was achieved by November 1863, with the formal opening taking place in January 1864.  Initially, there were five trains a day, each way, and a single ferry, called “Relief”.  The route became so popular that other vessels were used from time to time to provide additional capacity.  Eventually, a second ferry was ordered from the Glasgow shipyard and named “Christopher Thomas” after the chairman of the company.

Old photograph of New Passage Hotel
Present day photograph of what was the New Passage Hotel, from the foreshore
Sketch of the Ferry Pier at Portskewett
Remains of the Portskewett Pier, with the Second Severn Crossing in the background
New Passage Hotel and Ferry Pier, on the opening of the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway in 1864

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The Coming of The Railways

Early proposals

The coming of railways encouraged engineers to explore other ways of crossing the estuary, especially for journeys between Bristol and the important and growing industrial areas of South Wales.  The coastal section of the South Wales Railway (SWR) had been completed as far west as Haverfordwest by 1854 and it soon began to displace shipping as the chosen method of transporting goods and people from one South Wales coastal town to another.  But the problem of negotiating the ferry at Old Passage remained.  Despite the improvements brought about by Telford, the ferry crossing was still treacherous in bad weather.  On a good day, the time taken to travel between Bristol and Cardiff, by coach and ferry, would be about seven hours.

The Post Office had considered installing a chain ferry during 1836.  James Meadows Rendel surveyed both the Old and New Passages but reported that tidal currents were too strong for his system which employed a steam engine on the ferryboat to pull, or warp, itself along a submerged chain.

By 1851, the SWR was connected up the western side of the estuary to Gloucester.  This facility, together with the line between Gloucester and Bristol, provided a more attractive journey between South Wales and Bristol than was available using a coach and ferry, via the Old Passage route.  Accordingly, patronage of the Old Passage ferry declined rapidly and, by 1855, the use of steamboats could no longer be justified.  Attempts were made to keep the ferry open, using sailing boats, but eventually the passage closed.

Not enamoured with the circuitous route through Gloucester, the railway companies started to look into the possibility of crossing the Severn somewhere between Gloucester and Bristol.  This would provide a shorter route between South Wales and Bristol and it would please the colliery proprietors in the Forest of Dean who were seeking a less costly route for transporting their coal to English markets.  Also, the Great Western Railway Company (GWR) had concerns about the steep gradients in the Stroud Valley, between Gloucester and Swindon.

Proposed Rail Crossings of the Lower Estuary
Sketch of railway viaduct with 20 arches, proposed by Charles Vignoles in 1834


Early proposals for bridges in the vicinity of the ancient ferries included an ambitious 20-arch railway viaduct by Charles Blacker Vignoles in 1834.  He, like Brunel, had also considered the possibility of tunnelling under the Severn.  Later, James Walker, FRS, reported on two bridge designs by Thomas Fulljames in a similar location.

Two designs for a bridge at Old Passage by Thomas Fulljames

Mr Fulljames, Chief Engineer to the Bristol and Liverpool Junction Railway Company, proposed a more practical scheme, published in 1845. He suggested two possible designs for what he described as the Aust Bridge, in the vicinity of the Old Passage, just a few hundred yards below the line of the present crossing. It took advantage of several rocky outcrops that were exposed at most low tides.

Mr James Walker FRS was commissioned by the Admiralty to report on the proposals. Mr Fulljames argued that his first design “could be achieved with perfect safety to navigation”. Mr Walker disagreed, saying it would be objectionable on account of a pier, which “would be directly in the middle of the navigable channel”. Navigation was a most important consideration in 1845 and shipping trade through the line of the Old Passage exceeded 600,000 tons per year with the largest ships drawing 19 feet (6 m) of water. Mr Walker found no fault with the second design, but, in the event, the Aust Bridge was never built. Mr James Williams, first class pilot for 13 years seems to have had the last words – “it will not do at all”

In 1845 Mr S B Rogers of Monmouthshire proposed a toll-free road crossing at the English Stones. It consisting of 21 arches of 350 ft (about 100 m) span and which would be at least 120 ft (about 40 m) above high water mark. It was to have “shops, bazaars and a lighthouse”. However this scheme was not well received by entrepreneurs or navigation interests.

Other early proposals for a railway crossing on the lower Estuary were concentrated on the short stretch between Sharpness and the Horseshoe Bend at Arlingham. The very first was in 1810 when the Bullo Pill Railway Co. started to tunnel under the Severn, south of Newnham, primarily for its own benefit. The company had acquired the rights of the Newham Ferry and began to construct a road tunnel that would have enabled adapted tramroad wagons to gain access to the eastern side. However, a major influx of the river brought work to a halt and it was never resumed.

On behalf of the SWR, Brunel brought forward a proposal for a timber viaduct that would cross the river from Hock Crib to Framilode on the Arlingham Bend, about 5 miles above Sharpness. In his report, James Walker described the proposal as being “at about the very worst place on the river for navigation” and the scheme was rejected by Parliament in June 1845.

Later, in 1865, a scheme by Sir John Fowler was rejected as an ‘impediment to navigation’. Like several other rejected proposals in this area, it would have been located above the entrance to the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal. There is, however, an interesting footnote to this tale. Sir John continued to develop designs for a Severn Crossing, with spans of up to 1,000ft and based on the use of steel, until, in 1872, the GWR obtained parliamentary powers authorising construction of a tunnel under the estuary. At that point, Sir John took his plans up to Scotland where, assisted by Sir Benjamin Baker, he developed them further until the design emerged for what was to become the world famous cantilever bridge that now spans the estuary of the Forth.

The ill-fated Severn Railway Bridge

Eventually, in 1871, engineers George William Keeling and George Wells Owen, on behalf of the SWR, put forward a scheme for a railway bridge, to be located just above Sharpness. Parliament gave approval to the scheme in 1872. The design, for what became known as the Severn Railway Bridge, was for a conventional single line viaduct 4162 ft. long, comprising twenty-one spans supported on huge cast iron cylinders. The bridge was to be situated half a mile above the entrance to Sharpness docks and the canal to Gloucester.

It is rather surprising that investors were prepared to support this project at the time. Work did not begin until 1875 and, by that time, construction of the railway tunnel under the Estuary, on the direct route between South Wales and Bristol, had already been underway for two years. However, part of the motivation behind this investment was undoubtedly to support mining interests in the Forest of Dean and many of the investors were sceptical about the tunnel ever being completed.

Severn Railway Bridge, as built

The fate of the many earlier attempts to obtain authority to construct a rail link across the lower Severn Estuary indicated a general reluctance on the part of Government to approve a scheme if it were deemed to be a hazard to navigation. All the previous attempts, mentioned above, were abandoned, at least in part, because they failed to surmount that hurdle. It is therefore surprising and – with hindsight – rather disturbing, that construction of the Severn Railway Bridge should have been allowed to proceed.

Disaster struck on the night of 15 October 1960, when two self-propelled fuel barges missed the entrance of the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal. In the dense fog, both skippers attempted to get back to the canal entrance but the two vessels collided and became locked together. Minutes later, with a combined weight of 858 tons, they struck one of the piers of the railway bridge. The debris from the cast-iron pier of the bridge and the two adjacent spans crashed down onto the barges, igniting the fuel. Five of the eight crewmen on board the barges lost their lives. The bridge was not replaced. Apparently, it had been hit many times previously but the cost of substantial protection around the bridge piers had always been considered prohibitive.

Severn Railway Bridge after collision


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History of Estuary Crossings

The River Severn

Throughout recorded history, until well into the Industrial Revolution, the most efficient method of transporting heavy goods was by river and coastal water. It is, therefore, not surprising that the majority of large urban settlements in all parts of the world have been located in close proximity to an effective waterway.

The River Severn is the longest river in Britain. It played a crucial role in the economic development of the post-medieval nation. Prior to the development of canals, it carried a greater volume of traffic than any other waterway in Europe.  Rising on the slopes of Plynlimon Fawr, it meanders through central Wales as far as Shrewsbury and then turns south, passing under the famous Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale and several bridges designed by Thomas Telford. His bridge at Over, just downstream of Gloucester, was opened in 1830 and remained the lowest road crossing of the estuary until the M4 motorway was opened in 1966.

The golden age of water-borne transport came immediately before the coming of the railways, when all possible use was made of this mode. By 1800, small river craft were able to navigate up the river as far as Shrewsbury; while Bewdley was considered to be the upper reach for larger vessels. With the construction of new waterways such as the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal which gave access to the Black Country, the Severn played an even more important role in the economy of the region. Access up as far as Gloucester, was improved by the opening of the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal in 1827, after a tortuous gestation.

During the late 18th century, most roads in this country were in such a poor state that manufacturers often went to very great lengths to transport their goods. An example of this was the route chosen, in 1775, by a company from Wellington in Shropshire to deliver a consignment of pig iron to Chester, 60 miles further north as the crow flies. The journey began with the iron being transported by cart to the Severn, to be loaded on to Bristol-bound riverboats. On arrival in Bristol, the material was transhipped to sea-going vessels and then taken right around the coast of Wales, into the mouth of the Dee, and so to Chester. This example, involving a journey of over 400 miles by water with two trans-shipments, speaks eloquently about the state of the roads at that time.

Ancient crossings of the lower Severn estuary.

Crossing the river has always been hampered by the high tides and fast currents, causing a real problem for all the peoples who have inhabited its boundaries. An ancient crossing route has been identified from the end of an ancient ridge-way over the Cotswolds to Shepperdine on the English side and onto the Beachley peninsula on the Welsh side. After the retreat of the ice, this route would have been used by the first settlers, their primitive rafts taking advantage of the tidal flows to go E-W on the ebb and W-E on the flow. This crossing probably survived through the Roman period and into mediaeval times, as indicated by the location of the southern end of Offa’s Dyke, part way down the Beachley Peninsula.

No record survives of the efforts made in early times to provide a regular ferry service but there is archaeological evidence indicating shipping trade across the Estuary. The first record of a regular ferry is from AD 1131. It was used by monks at Tintern Abbey, under a grant from Winebold de Balon who owned the land. The ferry plied across at the narrow point between Aust to Beachley. This ferry route was maintained down the following centuries and is known as the Old Passage.

Plan showing the ancient ferries

The alternative ferry route, across the English Stones, might, in fact, be the older of the two. However, it was closed by Cromwell, following the drowning of Parliamentary troops marooned on the English Stones in 1645. After it reopened in 1718, it became known as the “New Passage”.

The early ferries were not for the faint hearted. Daniel Defoe described the Old Passage crossing from Aust to Beachley as an ‘…ugly, dangerous and very inconvenient ferry over the Severn…’ Travelling to Wales in 1725, he decided that the alternative route via Gloucester was a safest and surest way, taking account of the weather and seeing the sorry state of the ferry boats at Aust;
“…the sea was so broad, the fame of the Bore of the tide so formidable, the wind also made the water so rough, and which was worse, the boats to carry over both man and horse appeared so very mean, that in short none of us cared to venture: so we came back, and resolved to keep on the road to Gloucester.”

The Contribution of Thomas Telford

The road from the east bank of the Severn, opposite Bristol, through South Wales was in a poor state of repair throughout the eighteenth century and frequent calls were made for its improvement. Reductions in journey times became of pressing importance in the 18th century, as markets increased in scale and reach with the establishment of Empire and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1800s steam pickets were plying between West Wales and Southern Ireland. In 1823, the Post Master General sought to improve the Mail Coach route between London and Milford Haven and he called upon Thomas Telford to advise on what should be done.

The advantage of replacing the long diversion around Gloucester whenever the ferry services were interrupted was evident to Telford and he believed that the value of the reduced journey times would justify the building of a permanent crossing. In modern times, major estuarial crossings have far outstripped other public works in economic gain, providing returns in the region of 200% in the first year alone.

Telford’s opinion of the New Passage crossing near the English Stones was unequivocal;
‘One of the most forbidding places at which an important ferry was ever established, a succession of violent cataracts formed in a rocky channel exposed to the rapid rush of a tide which has scarcely an equal on any other coast.’

Telford’s first proposal was a crossing from Uphill Bay in Somerset to Sully Island on the west side of Cardiff (this is similar to the line of the proposed Severn Barrage). It is possible to imagine Telford staring across the swirling waters in awe and excitement at the prospect of engineering such a structure and the wealth it would generate for the area. However, the proposal was rejected.

Telford then considered the Old Passage which crossed at the narrowest point on the estuary. At that time, his two suspension bridges were in the course of construction in North Wales, so it came as no surprise when, in 1824, he suggested a similar solution for the Severn at the Old Passage. However, his suggestion was not taken forward because, at that time, the route to Dublin via Holyhead carried more political clout than the South Wales route to southern Ireland. Nevertheless, on 26 November 1825, plans were announced for improvements to the Old Passage, including a new ferry and improved landing facilities on both sides of the estuary.

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