Following the completion of the drainage plan at the end of the 18th century ideas were formulated to provide Highbridge with a wharf. Originally the land belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral who were responsible for the sea wall repairs up until this time. The River Brue with landing facilities at Highbridge had provided the Abbey and town of Glastonbury with a convenient link to the sea. Trade in corn, fish and wine, was carried by ships to this point and continued on boats up the river. Highbridge had been ideally situated to make the most of its position, having a navigable river.
A wharf together with the Glastonbury Canal had opened as early as 1833. Then in 1842 the Bristol and Exeter Railway had arrived with a station at Highbridge and some twelve years later the Somerset Central Railway arrived from Glastonbury. It was in 1854 that contracts were given to J & C Rigby to construct berths to enable the unloading of goods. At the new wharf, land was purchased to permit the enlargement of the Somerset Central Railway’s sidings. The wharf was taking shape and by about 1858 the area was being further developed, the old Road Bridge, from which the town got its name –“Highbridge”, was at the head of the wharf. Under the three-arched bridge flowed the course of what was left of the original River Brue where there was a sea lock. The course of the river now flowed under a new road bridge and through the “new drain” at the end of which was a new Clyce, this controlled the flow of water off the levels.
In 1860 the Burnham tidal harbour was incorporated for the purpose of converting part of the River Brue into a tidal harbour. Up until now the harbour at Highbridge had come under the control of the Port of Bridgwater. According to Kelly’s Directory in 1872/5/9 the timber yard and saw mill of Cuthbert Ritson were most extensive and had caused a great increase in work for the accommodation of the employees.
Throughout the early days much remedial work was carried out between the harbour and canal, the lock gates, wharf wall, etc. all required attention. Also, with the increase in harbour usage the wharf and sidings available had to be extended, plus the purchase of additional cranes.
One major problem was the silting up of the wharf area; this was the cause of prolonged correspondence with the owners of the wharf and the various users. The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway had become responsible for the canal and wharf areas and had inherited all the problems. The increasing quantities of mud caused the Company and its ‘customers’ untold grief. Drainage of and the controlling of water on the levels had been the responsibility of the Commissioners of Sewers, following the Drainage Act in 1877 the Somerset Drainage Commissioners were to take over and the two (S & D.J.R. and S.D.C.) did not get on. The Act required that the wharf/harbour must be kept clear of silt, many methods were suggested and used but to no avail, the mud kept returning; in 1910 a company removed thirty truck loads of mud in one week.
It has been recorded that for some reasons unknown the New River had been cut four feet deeper than the existing River Brue. This had caused the wharf to silt up much more quickly because the flow of water passing through the wharf entrance caused eddying and thus the mud had not dispersed.
As late as October 1947, the Burnham Gazette & Highbridge Express reported that a ship had to be re-directed due to serious silting problems. The case of a ship destined for Bridgwater, which was re-directed to Bristol, as it could not berth at Highbridge wharf owing to silt deposit. The vessel was stated to be of approximately 600 registered tonnes. It was resolved that the Town Clerk be requested to communicate with the London Midland & Scottish Railway Co. drawing attention to the serious effect which occurrences such as these had upon the port and upon traders and urge them to arrange for the wharf to be cleaned. That he also communicates the facts to any other authority that might be powered to take action on the matter.
One of the earliest ships at the wharf was the “Julia” a wooden ketch of 69 tons (1873 – 1904). A regular vessel at the dockside and the last ship built for the Highbridge coastal trade was the “S.S. Radstock” (190 tons, built in 1925 by J. Crighton & Co. Ltd., Saltney, Cheshire.) At its height around 1910 the wharf was a busy place with its shipping and railway sidings.
John Blands’ timber mills, which were adjacent to the wharf, were busy unloading Russian timber ships. The timber was raised from the holds to a platform where men “Timber Runners” with shoulder pads, carried it across the railway sidings along planks and into the timber yard. Mr. Fred Luke recalled in 1989 “It was hard, unremitting toil, in summer you would be running with sweat soon after starting work. Two beer boys would trot to the local pub for beer, with some men drinking twelve pints a day”. The men ‘ran’ their load up timber “skids” and slid it off their shoulders onto a growing pile of lumber. The men had to be nimble, as the skids used to whip under their feet and they needed to dance to the bounce or be thrown off. Pay was good – £6.00 per week. (In 1930’s) The last timber vessel to make use of the wharf was the “Jola” in June 1948.
Private sidings at the wharf during the 1920’s included those of John Bland & Co. (Timber), Highbridge Anthracite Fuel Works Ltd., Norris Siding (Coal) and Willetts Cake Mills.
Ships were loaded and unloaded by steam cranes, there being two types – Winch and Hydraulic. Their carriages ran on broad gauge (7ft. 0 1/4in.) rails that gave more stability than the standard gauge (4ft. 81/2 in.)
At one time Highbridge Wharf was yielding good profits on the exchange of cargoes between South Wales and other Bristol Channel ports, in fact the services were maintained until 1933. Outgoing boats carried dairy and other Somerset products and ships brought back coal, both for domestic use and for the railways, hundred of tons of rails for the extension of railway systems in the West were landed and despatched from Highbridge. The little trading ships continued to do their cross Channel journeys from Highbridge Wharf; there was the gallant “Julia” which the Somerset & Dorset bought in 1873 and which was in service for over forty years mostly bringing rails and coal from Newport. “Julia” was replaced by a new “Julia” in 1904; in one year the old “Julia” and the “Alpha” had brought over 7,960 tons of rails between them.
However, the shipping interests of the Somerset and Dorset were wound up and all vessels were disposed of by 1934. The wharf continued to be in use, but things changed in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Suddenly there was an increase in imports, mostly coal plus some foodstuffs and stone for road making. There were times when the wharf was quite busy, boats arrived from Scandinavia loaded with timber, and there was the local sail and steam traffic.
Later parts of the wharf were taken over by the American Army for the storage of war materials, particularly the large grey concrete building once used by the Eclipse Fuel Co. and later the Anthracite Fuel Works. Unfortunately, although the wharf had been kept active, lack of maintenance brought back the old ‘silt’ problems. These were to remain and the indications are that it was an insurmountable problem. The tug “Rexford” was used to keep the wharf from silting up, but when this was finally scrapped in 1950 the wharf ceased to be available for private mooring in 1964.
The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway had signal (Box ‘C’) that controlled the level crossing in Church Street in the town, the branch line to the right went to Burnham, and the left branch went to the wharf. This was convenient to Highbridge Cattle Market; the market that originated in 1851 covered an area behind the “Highbridge Hotel” roughly where it is today.
Wharf facilities included a weighbridge and house, Willett & Son had a corn and cake feed mill and store with stables attached, near the town end of the wharf. Rail traffic ceased to use the wharf from November 1964 with the wharf line closing in March 1965. By the 1970’s buildings had been abandoned, some had stood idle for years.
In 1990 plans were being considered which called for the Dunball Wharf to be moved to Highbridge, Sedgemoor District Council had set aside a sum of money to cover a feasibility study. A project under consideration at the time called for the creation of a barrage at Dunball, but the scheme came to no avail.
Mr Fred Wiltshire, who lived in Bertha Terrace became Berthing Master and retired in 1947 at the age of 70 after over 47 years working at the wharf recalled at the time “When I first started at the wharf it was a busy place and we had plenty to do. Ships came from all parts with coal, timber and general cargoes. Some came from as far away as Liverpool; I have often seen eighteen ships berthed there. We did plenty of work in the war too, mostly with coal, tons and tons were brought over to be stacked in different parts of the South West”.
Mr. Wiltshire was berthing Master for 21 years, he had started as a goods porter with the railway that owned the wharf, and then became a driver in connection with shunting wagons by horses. Horses were used for shunting until the Second World War years. Local men who were young lads at the time, recall happy times helping with the horses. Fred was once asked if it was not time he retired; he replied that he had stayed on after the war because things had got into “a bit of a muddle”. He said, “The place’ll stop when I go”. Little did he realise, that what was said as a joke, proved to be the case, as the wharf closed shortly after his retirement.
Incidentally, the large grey building, known by some as the “Winkle” lay derelict again after the war and became a challenge to local lads with ‘mountaineering’ tendencies. One lad, upon being caught by his father climbing into the uppermost reaches of the building and being duly admonished – “Don’t let me catch you up there again my lad, it is dangerous” was surprised by the reply “I saw your initials up there at the top, Dad”.
THE HIGHBRIDGE SEAFARER
Mr. A.E. Buncombe was a man who loved the sea; he had a powerful frame and a ruddy complexion and was for years, a familiar sight in Highbridge. He used to be seen every day sat on a bench outside his home, wearing an engineer’s suit of well pressed blue, a sailor’s cap and observing life as it passed by 24 Church Street. Albert was born in December 1871 and his affection for the sea began, when, as a lad of sixteen, he used to travel across the Bristol Channel to Wales in one of the canvas sided boats known as ‘Trows’. A ‘Trow’ used to carry up to 150 tons of coal, and he sailed in and out of the busy port of Highbridge regularly.
He joined the Royal Navy when he was twenty-one and in 1899 sailed from China in the four funnelled cruiser HMS ‘Powerful’ to take part in the war in South Africa. A year was spent sailing between Durban and Simonstown performing duties which helped the army in the problems it was experiencing inland. One of his memories was transporting 800 Dutch prisoners of war to St Helena where Napoleon spent some years.
At the outbreak of the Great War, being a member of the fleet reserves, he was recalled to the navy and posted to a cruiser H.M.S. Talbot. An exciting experience was sailing up the Gallipolli Peninsula during the campaign against the Turks, his ship also covered the East coast of Africa that was at the time, occupied by Germany and the Royal Navy carried out many activities including sailing to Dar-es-Saalem. In 1918 he was paid off but was not going to leave the sea; buying his own tug, which he named the ‘Rexford’ and that tug with its master sailed the local waters up until 1948. Big timber boats used to anchor out in Bridgwater Bay and Alfred’s tug used to guide them to the Fairway buoy and see they were brought safely up river to Bridgwater, Dunball or Highbridge. Mr. Buncombe was the engineer of his tug so he used to hire pilots to undertake the navigation; they included the late Fred King and a well-known man from Burnham, Mr. Albert Woodward.
The last job the ‘Rexford’ and its master performed was bringing in and out the last ship to come to Highbridge the Phoenix. Mr. Buncombe retired soon after and then spent his days chatting to old friends and watching the world go by, happy to talk about events that have passed, plus those of the present. He was a man of strong independent views and a typical old British ‘Seadog’ a man from this great seafaring nation. Albert Buncombe died on 14th August. 1956.
KIMBERS BOAT YARD
The Highbridge wharf was approached through, what was called the River Brue Channel. When the tide was high this area provided anchorage for a number of cargo ships, waiting loading or unloading.In this area, Mr. Harold John Kimber, or ‘Kim’ had established a boat building and repair yard in 1927 it was in part previously called the Clyce Wharf.
Many small boats were built, including some for the Admiralty, particularly during World War II. A local lad John Meader, upon leaving school, took up a six-year apprenticeship in December 1949 at the boatyard and remembers being involved in the repair of boats for the Admiralty, Lloyds and R.N.L.I. They also built private boats and although being a small family owned business it carried out a wide variety of work, in the early days, it was mainly timber and woodcraft. Fibre Glass, which was soon to become a much-used media in boat construction, was not, as yet, used in boat building.
One of the largest yachts built at the yard was “Fresh Breeze” designed by Uffa Fox a leading boat designer, the yacht being for a Mr. Morrell of Porlock Weir.