I was fascinated by the classical-style houses alongside some of the bridges on the stretch of canal between Purton and Fretherne which I ran and cycled along during our stay in Slimbridge. It seemed clear that they had once housed the bridge-keepers who opened the swing bridges to let boats pass, but why were they all built like mini Greek temples?
At first glance they appear identical, but looking more closely each is presented differently and in varying states of repair, as you can see in the photos above. Groups of clay figures on the porch of the Cambridge house caught my eye,
as did the garden ornaments at Purton.
There are eight bridge houses in total, but I only saw four of them during my visit.
If you want to know more, some information on the canal and bridge houses follows.
The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal connects Gloucester docks with the River Severn at Sharpness. It was built to enable sea-going vessels avoid a dangerous section of the River Severn between Sharpness and Gloucester. At 16 miles long, 86 1/2 feet wide and 18 feet deep the canal was the largest in the world when it was completed in 1827.
Trading goods were imported into Gloucester from all over the world, with sailing ships towed along the canal firstly by horses and later by tugs. Barges distributed the goods further inland using the Severn and the network of Midland canals. The empty ships often took on coal in South Wales as their return cargo.
Changes in shipping and distribution led to the development of the docks at Sharpness and the decline of Gloucester docks as a working port. The canal finally ceased to be used for trade in the 1980s and is now only used by pleasure boats. Today barges and canal boats are moored along the canal, many seem to be permanent homes.
The bridge houses
Originally 16 wooden half-span swing bridges crossed the canal each with a bridge keeper to operate it. To maintain the canal’s competitiveness during the 1840s the bridges needed to be opened at night to enable ships to catch the tides at Sharpness. Bridge keepers had to live at the bridges and at eight of the bridges houses had to be specially built for them.
Each of the eight houses has the same front facade featuring Doric columns and pediment though their design at the rear varies and some, such as Purton, have had later extensions. It is not known why the houses were built in this distinctive classical-style. One theory is that canal company engineer William Clegram was responsible, modelling them on the newly built gatehouse of nearby Hatherley Manor, his wife’s family home. Thomas Telford was consultant engineer during the later stages of the canal project but doesn’t appear to have been involved in the design of the houses.
Today the houses are in private ownership and the bridges are all single-span and made of metal. They are hand or mechanically operated from functional bridge boxes.
Splatt bridge opening for the canal boat Mansard to pass through.
For more information see:
‘The classical bridge houses on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal’ by Hugh Conway-Jones
reprinted from Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal for 1994, pp. 3-8
Canal and River Trust
Gloucester & Sharpness Canal bridges page