The navigation of the ‘Middle Severn’ as it is often called, was always a challenge, but centuries of use by Severn Trows or local barges of a range of sizes was enabled by navigation works of the simpler kind. These consisted of ‘barge gutters’ and rush and board ‘fish’ weirs either side of islands, some of which were natural enough, but others had been created for the purpose, which just required managing. Barges would be sailed and hauled up, and floated down – probably bearing some considerable wear and tear in the process, but in a similar manner to those on the Thames, where ‘flash locks’ with a single gate would hold up enough water to enable the next reach to be navigated. The use of sail on the Severn was often of benefit when going upstream, due to the prevailing wind being in the right direction at least as far as Bridgnorth – but it was only regarded as assistance, as gangs of bow hauliers would usually be expected to keep the vessel in the right direction for much of the ‘inland’ river, as well as ‘haul’ against the current. The mast however, was always provided – as with narrow boats, the best towing position is from a mast amidships at the ‘pivot point’ of the boat, and was also useful of course for a ‘derrick’ or simple crane for handling cargo.
Of course the main requirement was enough water. Up to Victorian times this was usually available – only drought or flood would hamper the management of trade at least as far upstream as Shrewsbury, via Bewdley, Bridgnorth, Coalport and Ironbridge, and vessels would go down as far as Stourport, Worcester, Upton, Tewkesbury and Gloucester, according to cargo. In those days, transhipment to vessels of a different size was quite common, wages for local workers being no hindrance in the basic economic conditions of the day. Abstraction of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use increased throughout the 19th century, reducing water levels to a minimum for a greater proportion of the year, and by the early 20th century navigation with barges was impossible to manage with any reliability. The last up-river trow left Arley quarry in 1907.
A solid concrete weir was built at Shrewsbury in 1909 to keep water level at a nominal height for pleasure boating (i.e. punts and skiffs) around the loop of the river enclosing the town, particularly by Shrewsbury School Rowing tradition, and also enjoyed by local people for a stroll, or ‘promenade’. A lock was promised at that time for the passage of larger boats, but was never carried out – a neglect for which Shrewsbury Town Council has never been forgiven! This prevented any further trade on the river in that area, and also of course limited the use of any larger craft to an isolated pound. (A fashionable place, Shrewsbury, reminiscent of Richmond on Thames, which did the same thing – but significantly with a moveable weir and a lock, thus providing for relief in times of flood, and navigation at all times).
Downriver, weirs and locks had been built on the tidal section in the 19th century to enable continuous navigation on the lower Severn between Gloucester and Stourport. (Tides extended to above Worcester before 1845). This reach saw larger classes of barge in use, further isolating any traffic possibilities higher upstream. Perhaps the most advanced and useful trade carried in this section being the oil depot deliveries during the middle forty years of the 20th century. Alas, there is now little transport by water on the Severn – except the occasional aggregate carried by Taylors for Cemex below Upton on Severn, and some passenger barges, which come up-river to Stourport, and isolated examples there and at Ironbridge and Shrewsbury.