Trade and Transport on the River Wye by Heather Hurley

Trade and Transport on the Wye

Heather Hurley

Meeting of 8 September 2016

The River has always seen user conflict; today it is canoeists and fishermen, in the past it was mills, fisheries and those trading along the river. Trade won for a while and, following the 1695 Act, all 52 weirs were dismantled to enable river trade (apart from New Weir, at Symonds Yat, which had a lock put in). Flat-bottomed barges, 50 feet long would be poled, or towed by teams of up to 15 bow hauliers . Autumn and spring were the busiest times as lower summer water levels were balanced against the reduced risk of winter floods. Floaters were also used: a raft made of timbers. These were paddled down to Chepstow during the Napoleonic Wars for ship-building.

Bow hauliers were itinerant – going from job to job – and rough and ready … they had a reputation for tapping the wine or cider barrels they were carrying then filling them up with water. The 1809 Towing Path Act was meant to make moving vessels along the river easier and cheaper, however, it was stymied by a sixpence per mile charge on horses so the bow hauliers’ trade continued. There were very few bridges on the Wye (Kerne Bridge not being constructed until 1872), so towing was fairly uninterrupted (masts would have to be taken down to get through bridges). Few bridges meant the hand ferries were vital.

Whilst every Wye-side town had a quay and a barge, not all remain as some were only a floating wood platform or a grassy bank. Brockweir – an important site of transhipping – has been restored. Boats were built along the Wye banks, including a 111 tonne snow built at Monmouth in 1827, which tipped over when launched. We know of three boats built in the 18th century at New Weir. There were a huge number of wharves and off-loading points along the Wye, many of which Heather had traced from old adverts, maps and barge records. She cannot find Cobbler’s Point – can anyone help? Many English Bicknor inhabitants earned a living from the Wye trade; there were four wharves at Whitchurch, and kids from New Weir came to Bicknor School.

Interestingly, Ross was outshone by Wilton for river trade; Ross was better known for the Wye Tour.

Generally, the cargoes going downstream were agricultural products, bark, timber, lime, cheese, cider, paper etc. (Hereford cider was already renowned in the 17th century and was bumped along the roads to London until the barges took over). Going upstream were coal, iron, bricks, rags and wine. One record details stone from Brockweir being transported to Hereford Cathedral to repair the West end after its collapse. Barge names often reflected what they were carrying, such as Farmer. Chepstow had lots of warehouses for French wine to be transported along the river, one barge was suitably called Friend!

Lydbrook was an important Wye trade site; barges were towed from there to Hereford in just 2 days. Hereford was cut off from coal from Wales and relied on Forest coal, this was delivered to several wharves including Teague’s Wharf, Lydbrook on the horse-drawn tramway – now gone. Before 1800, Forest coal was delivered as far up as Glasbury, despite the shallow waters. Soon the delivery of coal from South Wales on the tramways took over.