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The unlikely story of Brimscombe’s boatyard

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Historian and author Guy Ellis recounts the history of the boatyard at Brimscombe Port.

From the earliest times the Nile has fascinated explorers and geographers because it flooded in summer and not as expected in winter. The cause of this phenomenon was subject to a wide range of theories from the plausible to the downright wacky. One being that the seas to the south of the known world surged through underground fissures and up the Nile. The first European to record seeing the source of this great river was a Jesuit Missionary father Pedro Paez, who was taken there in 1618 by the Emperor Susenyos of Ethiopia.

It was always known that there were two sources of The Nile. The White Nile from somewhere near the great lakes of central Africa and the Blue Nile in the upper reaches of Ethiopia. The Royal Geographic Society began to identify and map these rivers in the mid-19th century. A time known as ‘The Scramble for Africa’, when European countries rushed to colonise the continent. Intrepid pioneers set out on expeditions to explore, document and patriotically lay claim to their ‘finds’ on behalf of their respective countries.

Built in sections for export was a popular advertising slogan for steamboat builders. Here the 42-foot Kenia lies ready to be export to Lake Nyanza in Central Africa in 1895. The Heritage Steamboat Trust

Travel to the upper Nile and attempts to sail the full length was somewhat fashionable. Wealthy American big game hunter William Northrop McMillan was the first westerner to try to navigate the length of the Blue Nile.  The plan for his 1904 expedition, was to take a boat and two supply barges down the river toward the Sudan and meet up with the other part of the expedition making their way up the river from Khartoum.  This part of the exploration was headed by Norwegian Burchard Heinrich Jessen who set out in the 39-foot steel steamboat Adis Ababa completed at Brimscombe Port on 27 January 1903.

Unfortunately, McMillan’s supply boats were lost in a treacherous gorge within a few miles of the start and his party returned to the start point. On hearing about this Jessen, who had made good progress, turned the little steamboat around and returned to Khartoum.

An old canal warehouse building was converted to provide a home for the Brimscombe Polytechnic. It was then used as a secondary school until 1962, after which it was demolished, and a new factory was built in its place. Prince Albert Collection

Small steamboats had been built by Edwin Clarke & Co since 1884 at Hope Mills, Brimscombe, and across the canal at the Canal Iron Works.  At the time steamboats were considered a luxury item by the wealthy, as essential by explorers and small businesses in remote areas of the world and an efficient and modern technology by ferry companies.

Boats were constructed in either pine, double teak, steel, or iron. A basic 21-foot open boat in pine cost £105, if built of teak £125 and £120 for steel. A further £325 would be charged if the buyer selected an aft cabin or saloon. The largest open boat offered was 75-foot long and cost £1,460, while the same hull in teak with a rear cabin carried a £3,100 price tag.

Magnificent passenger boats plied the Thames acting as small ferries or for sight-seeing. Two of these are still running services on the Thames. Specialist vessels were constructed to be taken apart and shipped in sections to some far-flung corners of the world. From the landing port, the sections were taken by carts and at times by hand across rough tracks and virgin bush, to some river or lake where they were reassembled.  Three of the Slater Thames ferry boats were sold to the Tigris and Euphrates Steam Navigation Company to serve as ambulances during the First World War, ending their days with Iraqi operators.

This was also an age of great change. Although the Great Western Railway serviced Stroud from 1845, it was the arrival of the Midland Railway Company in 1867, and its sidings directly at the mills that saw the canal operators lose trade.  Coupled with the terminal decline in the cloth industry, the demise of canal transport was inevitable. It was no longer viable to maintain the infrastructure and to save money there was a proposal to close the Sapperton Tunnel. In a letter dated 4 December 1894 Clark wrote to the authorities objecting to this closure. He pointed out that he had based his company at Brimscombe because it gave him direct access to London via the Tunnel and closing this route would increase his costs. He gave an example of the extra costs he would suffer noting that the delivery of a boat to Oxford would normally take two days at a cost of £5, while the alternative route via Bristol would cost £20 and take six days.

Sadly, Edwin Clark died in 1896. The business ran for another four years, delivering eight boats before a resolution was passed to wind it up.  For the last 18 months of the company’s existence, the premises had been rented to Isaac J Abdela & Co who on dissolution took over the company and its business.

The new company was incorporated as Isaac J Abdela & Mitchell Ltd and applied for a patent for its design of a hull with in built air tanks, advertised as being virtually unsinkable. Within a year eight of these boats had been built and sold, as well as a large 73-foot steamer with two cabins and an upper deck, destined for the Amazon river.

Only the Adis Abeda was launched in 1903, but by 1905 production reached 17 boats, most of which it seems were sent to Brazil. In 1909 and 1910, 33 boats were delivered from Brimscombe and a further 13 at a new yard established at Queensferry Wales.  Some tugs and fire floats were built  for use on the canals and harbours, four of which survive today.

Notably the tug Addie served in both World Wars and post-war worked as a Bristol Channel tug until 1947. She was then bought by British Waterways and worked until 1968 when she was sold out of service to a private buyer. Converted as a long-range pleasure yacht she was recently sold in good condition.

Brazil’s rubber trade collapsed in 1912 when it was undercut by suppliers in the Far East and as a result only three boats were constructed in 1913. During the war, several lighters and four Admiralty harbour launches were supplied.

Brimscombe Port after boat building had ceased. The Boat Weighing Machine was located between the small island and the building on the left. Prince Albert Collection

The failure of speculative purchase of some seaplanes and poor investments in the steel market were compounded by a fire that destroyed the insured Hope Mill works. In 1925 the company was wound up. For the next three years attempts were made to resurrect the boat building business, during which time a further six vessels were launched

The canals were closed in 1934 and the port basin filled in. There were to be no more steamboats from Stroud.

Images courtesy of The Heritage Steamboat Trust http://www.steamboattrust.org.uk/ and the Prince Albert Collection

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