Cousin Jim and the Severn Bridge Disaster

The Severn Bridge under construction.
The Severn Bridge in 1879 via Graces Guides.

A few months ago I was with my parents having a pint overlooking the water in Bristol when my Mum said, out of nowhere, “My cousin Jimmy Dew was involved in a shipping disaster on the Severn.”

I naturally asked for more information but she didn’t have much – it happened in the sixties, she thought; and he was the skipper of a barge. When I got home I looked it up in the newspaper archives expecting to find a passing mention of some minor incident but what I discovered instead was the notorious Severn Bridge Disaster which saw the deaths of five men and ended with the demolition of the bridge.

Though I’d never heard of it before, it turns out to be incredibly well documented, being of interest to local historians and waterways enthusiasts among others, and has received plenty of coverage in the national press over the years, too.

Here’s what happened: at around 9 o’clock on the evening of 25 October 1960 a convoy of sixteen barges carrying various flammable oil products was travelling up the Severn towards Sharpness in Gloucestershire. As they passed Berkeley a heavy fog came down and two of the barges, Arkendale H and Wastdale H, overshot Sharpness. The Wastdale H was the vessel skippered by my distant cousin, James Dew, and was carrying 350 tons of petrol; the Arkendale was loaded with heating oil.

Wastdale H
SOURCE: Friends of Purton.

With the tide against them they struggled to come back towards the harbour and, at a narrow point in the river, collided. This sent them spinning out of control, stuck together, up the river and into the Severn Bridge.

The Severn Bridge, now generally referred to as the Severn Railway Bridge, was an iron structure completed in 1879. Though old it was still in active use by trains travelling across the river between Sharpness and Lydney, and by pedestrians. Fortunately, the stretch where the collision occurred was empty at 10:30, though a train had just passed through and was still on the bridge.

The conjoined and out-of-control barges hit hard enough to bring down one of the bridge’s piers (the upright bits) which sent chunks of the span above crashing into the Wastdale. That in turn caused its highly flammable cargo, already spilling into the water, to ignite and explode; the oil on the Wastdale soon caught, too.

The crews of both barges were cast overboard. George Thompson, skipper of the Arkendale, swam to safety, and his engineer was fished out of the water by rescuers after four hours. Cousin Jim boarded the Arkendale in an attempt to get it out of gear and then, when it caught fire, he stripped off before jumping into the water with a life-buoy. He turned up naked at a pub on the shore after three hours struggling in the water.

The next day, the fog being driven away by rain, the two barges lay smouldering on the mud flats while a helicopter from RAF South Cerney swept overhead, police searched the banks, and coastguard patrolled the river helped by local fishermen. They were looking for Percy Simmonds (34) and Robert Nibblett (25) of the Arkendale; and Jack Dudfield (46), Alex Bullock (40) and Malcolm Hart (17) of the Wastdale.

All five were found dead over the next few days.

Cousin Jim seems to have been quietly blamed for the disaster, even though he was officially cleared of any negligence. The Ministry for Transport suggested at the time of the inquiry that he made an “error of judgment” and he also described his own attempts to push the Arkendale off by revving into it (not technical nautical language but this is my understanding) as a “mistake” which only caused the two vessels to stick together ever more tightly. More recently BBC reporter Andy Vivian turned up official papers which seem to suggest that officials thought him “inept” and (as I read it) that he rather panicked under pressure.

I don’t know what became of cousin Jim – it’s something I’ll look into – but I was amazed to discover that the wrecks of the two barges are still there near what little remains of the bridge.

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