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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