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.

The Old Country

A mill against hills, watched by a horse.

I’m Northern like Tony Soprano was Italian.

My Mum is from Lancashire but moved to Somerset when she was a child. She came with an accent (mostly intact 50 years on) and a fully formed Northern identity. I grew up surrounded by Lancastrians who talked constantly and longingly about the North, in Northern accents, sometimes while eating plates of tripe and onions. (That’s not a glib joke.) I heard all about Uncle John and his bus route in the Ribble Valley, endless jokes about the horrors of Yorkshire, and tales of a bastard ancestor whose personal motto was: ‘I’m Joshua Sykes of Stockport and I give a bugger for no man.’

Mum, pining for the Old Country more than my un-sentimental uncle, was the most prone to wallow in her lost Northerness. Even now after a glass of whisky she’ll recite her favourite dialect poem which (as my memory has it) begins: “As I were walking oer Thraitle Bridge I met me owd pal Mickey Plum and what dost tha think he says?” (There are numerous variations.) She calls buses ‘buzzes’ and – a sign that her Lancastrian accent operates at a fundamental level and not as a nostalgic pretence – cannot say Google; instead, it is ‘Goodle’.

My Grandpa looked a bit like Stan Laurel (another member of the Northern diaspora, who ended up further afield) and, apparently left with a damaged internal thermostat by his time as a prisoner of war in eastern Europe, hated any kind of draught. That’s why I remember him best in a kind of sound-and-motion second-long mental snapshot, shouting wearily “Door, door, door, door, DOOR!” whenever I left it open. He chewed the vowels and swallowed the R so that the word was more like dour, or dawer, or maybe dore. I wish I had the technical language to describe his accent. It definitely wasn’t a ‘daw’ at any rate, and he was definitely from Ozzlewtwizzle, not ‘Oswald Twist-el’.

Map of the North West at Manchester Victoria Station.

Oh, yes – Oswaldtwistle, Darwen, Bacup, Rawtenstall… I know the names of all these exotic places and how to pronounce them. ‘Bury’ is almost impossible to say correctly if you haven’t heard it said time and again by native speakers, using secret vowels not in general circulation. When I hear a Southerner say Berry, Dar-wenn, Backup or Raaaaaw-ten-stawl I think they sound bloody daft even though, remember, I’m not Northern, don’t sound Northern, and have never been to any of these places. Watching Juliet Bravo on TV as a child Mum would say to me, ‘They film this in Bacup you know’ and in anger and shame would snap at me in shops when I touched the goods: ‘Put that down! Are you from Bacup? That’s a Bacup look!’ (What a strange slur against one particular Lancashire town – that its natives can’t look at an object without manhandling it.)

I say I don’t sound Northern but there are lots of Northern words and phrases in my vocabulary. Nan was often ‘out of flunter’ and I started using that ironically as a teenager, like Billy Liar teasing Councillor Duxbury. Now, I just find it useful – the perfect word to describe a state somewhere between depression and exhaustion. And decades of hearing Mum call Uncle Norman ‘kid’ or ‘our kid’, and vice versa, has left me prone to referring to my own brother the same way quite instinctively, despite the Gallagher brothers’ brief ownership of this curtly affectionate term in the national consciousness.

A few months ago I was in a crowded pub and need to ask Mum across the room if she wanted a drink. Some previously unused software kicked into life and I mee-mawed, just as I’d seen her and Nan do so many times. She understood and mee-mawed back so that we were able to establish that, yes, she did want a drink, just a half, and, no, not lager — bitter this time, Doom Bar rather than Bass. It was all so fast and instinctive that it took me a moment to realise what had happened at which point I felt quite overcome at so effortlessly using a skill my grandmother had learned in cotton mills in the Rossendale Valley 80-odd years ago and that I had somehow inherited.

The first time I went to the North as a child felt important. It was for a great uncle’s funeral in Bury but we found time to explore. Mum had talked about the market for years with the sadness of an exiled Russian princess recalling the Winter Palace so we had to go there. I remember eating meat and potato pies (still an obsession) and being almost offended when someone told me my mild West Country accent sounded like Ian Botham’s.

In the years that followed we frequently went on holiday to Blackpool, Cleveleys and Fleetwood, popping into Manchester or Bury to visit relatives or shop. I loved it but didn’t feel at home the way Mum did. Of course. Because I wasn’t.

Years later I worked in various places across the North, alongside Northern colleagues, and it didn’t take me long to work out that whatever connection I might feel with the North Country, they saw me as hopelessly Southern. I didn’t understand the geography (true), the tensions, the dialects, or the culture. My belief that I had any claim on Northerneness when really all I had was a secondhand understanding of a particular version of a part of Lancashire of the 1950s was a handicap, not an asset.

Which brings me back to Tony Soprano. There’s an episode in the first season of The Sopranos where Tony and his cronies go back to the Old Country on business only to realise just how little they have in common with their supposed kin. The Italians find them vulgar, crude, stupid; and the Americans find the Italians irritating. An optimistic reading is that this leads them to appreciate their identity as Americans but there’s a sadness in it, too, as a key foundation of their identity is knocked out from under them.

In a small, muddy, mediocre way, my ancestors were migrants too, roaming all over the country in the 19th century chasing agricultural jobs, then industrial work, or service, so that I can claim connections all over England but no deep roots in any one part. Which is true of most non-aristocratic English people, I suspect.

These days, I am trying to be from Somerset, which is where I was born and mostly grew up. I say ‘trying’ because, despite it all, I’m more confident about how to pronounce Crawshawbooth than Muchelney.