A longer version of a 2020 Trow article by Martin Bryan
As roadworks were underway to recreate the Stroudwater Canal across the Bristol Road roundabout, research in Gloucestershire Archives revealed details of a dramatic accident that occurred at the lock adjoining the original bridge almost one hundred years earlier .
At 5.30pm on Thursday 4th January 1923, motor boat Alfreda was approaching the lock carrying 30 tons of coal from Sharpness for coal merchant E T Ward & Son at Dudbridge Wharf, towing the similarly loaded butty Dorothy. As Captain Stanley Gardiner put the bow of Alfreda under the arch of the bridge, he could not see in the darkness whether the lock was ready for him to enter. He claimed later that his motor boat stopped before the lower gates, but he also admitted that the butty continued until it bumped into the stern of the motor boat, pushing it against the gates. He claimed it was only a gentle push, but it was enough for the gates to give way. At the same time, it so happened that narrowboat Trial, owned by James Smart of Chalford and captained by Harry Gardiner, was preparing to leave the top of the lock, and when the gates failed, Trial was swept out with all of the water, cascading into Alfreda and sinking it.
Mr G F Cook, who was walking nearby when the crash happened, reported what he saw and heard to Mr Snape, the canal manager, with the following semi-literate letter: “As I was walking Down the Canal bank on Thursday the 4 of Jan about 5-40 I was about 100 yards from Whitminster Lock I heard a smash and the lock gates falling down when I got down there I said to Harry Gardiner what is the matter hear he said the Motor Boat as knock the gates … it was dark I could … see what looked like … of the gates on the boat bow I said to Stanley Gardiner what was you thinking about to run up into gates like that he said I did not hit them very hard the Motor Boat was sinking then Harry Gardiner said our Boat the trial came down out of the full lock I said to him as it hurt your boat he said no I don't think so I said alright I will go back to John White [at Pike Lock] and get him to go up to Mr Snape and report it when I got back to Whitminster the Motor Boat was under water I ask Harry Gardiner if the trial was leaking he said she was not I could see there could be nothing done that night so I went home."
The following morning, canal manager Percy Snape visited the site with two committee members and reported to the Chairman, J Margetson in London, that the Trial “was within six inches of the level of the pound above when the Alfreda crashed into the gates and the water in the lock lowered and took the boat (Trial) through the gates into the pound below”. The Stroudwater Company and E T Ward & Sons both immediately disclaimed responsibility for the accident, but within days letters were received from traders stating that they would be making claims for loss of business or extra expenses.
At a Special Committee Meeting held on 10th January, the five members present approved the making of a new set of gates and authorised the sending of letters to traders denying any liability for the stoppage, which was then expected to last six weeks. Mr Bradley, Superintendent of the Severn Commission, was to be asked in to examine the scene to assess damage to the lock, and a letter sent to the owner of Alfreda saying that the canal company would hold him responsible for the costs
The Clerk had already informed the Sharpness Dock Company that the necessary lowering of the pound below the lock needed to recover the sunk boat and fit the new lock gates might affect the supply of water to their canal from the River Frome. This led to a series of discussions with the Dock Company's engineer, Mr Cullis, as to the necessity of damming the pound before lowering the water level at the lock so as to avoid damage to the aqueduct near Whitminster weir. As the River Frome was in flood, it was feared that the amount of water passing through the culvert under the aqueduct, for which there were no plans, could be enough to break through if the aqueduct was emptied. It was not until 1st February that it was agreed that a dam would be necessary. The original estimate for the dam was £50, but when its position had to be changed to avoid the bed of the old River Frome, the final cost of damming the canal was £185, though £20 of this was later refunded by the Dock Company. But even when the dam was in place, heavy rain filled the lowered canal, and it was not until the Dock Company loaned the Stroudwater a heavy duty pump on March 4th that the canal could be drained after two days of pumping.
The lower set of lock gates were destroyed in the accident. The new gates were delivered on 12th February and lowered into the lock two days later, but they could not be fitted until the canal had been emptied by the pump. By now traders were pressing for the canal to reopen, with Abdela & Mitchell being particularly keen for reopening on the 10th March so they could get one of the boats they had built at Brimscombe down to Newport in time for shipping on the 12th. But it was not until 12th March that the canal could be reopened to traffic and the Ministry of Transport informed that the repairs had been completed almost ten weeks after the original accident.
The total cost of the repairs was reported as £781 15s, though this included £225 for loss of trading, based on 1922 trade. The lock gates cost just under £200 to make, to which was added £112 to remove old gates and fit the new ones. Clearing and reclaying the emptied canal cost £44.
The report of the assessor, Mr Bradley, sent on the 20th February, found that “the Gate on the North side (or off side) had been struck with considerable force… about 18 inches from the Mitre of the Gates. This had the effect of bursting the Gates open for a certain distance and, considering the fall in the Lock at the time of the accident at about 8 feet, the resulting back pressure was too much for the Gates to stand and they were carried away.” He estimated the cost of new gates as £217. With regard to the question of how long the gates would have lasted, he stated that “considering the defective Heel Post on the gate on the Tow Path side and the defective Head and Mitre on the opposite Gate, I consider that in about five years from now these matters would have to be attended to and with the general worn condition of the Gates it would then be necessary to have them replaced by new ones”.
A meeting between Mr R T Ward, representing the owners of Alfreda, E T Ward & Son Ltd, and the Chairman of the Stroudwater Company took place on March 28th to discuss who was responsible for the costs. This elicited a response from Ward on 16th April claiming that “the disaster was entirely due to the condition of the gates”. They claimed that the fact that the stern of Alfreda was not damaged by its ramming by Dorothy proved that their collision could not have been heavy. They pointed out that a pair of gates should last 50 years, but the assessor thought the gates had only 5 years life left in them, so they should only have to pay one tenth of the cost of making and fixing the gates. A request was made for a further meeting with the Chairman.
At the 18th April Committee Meeting it was decided that no further interview could take place until Ward removed his counter claim for the sinking of the Alfreda. The Committee decided that a fairer assessment of costs would be £403 19s, calculated by reducing the loss to trade by 25% and only charging part of the cost of making and fitting the gates. Ward still refused to withdraw their claim before discussing the matter in an amicable way.
By 16th May the Committee had decided that the dispute was unlikely to be settled amicably and that it should be put in the hands of the Company’s solicitors, Little & Bloxam of Stroud. Ward appointed Eustace Roberts of Worcester as their solicitors. Eventually the two solicitors discussed a compromise. Ward offered to pay £100 and the Company asked for £200. Eventually, in July, Ward paid £100 to the Company and £21 to Little & Bloxam to cover the legal expenses.