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Benbow Brothers Timber Ltd

Working in the Community

About the “Spry”

Severn Trow "Spry" under sail
The Severn Trow “Spry” under sail.
Photo courtesy Dave Bushell of I.A.Recordings

Along the River Severn since the 1400s a class of flat-bottomed merchantile vessel were used to transport all manner of goods up and down the length of the river, these vessels were called “Trows” (to rhyme with “Crow” not “Cow”). Having the same root as “trough” as the earliest of these vessels were nothing more than hollowed logs.

In 1894 the last of the Trows was launched, part of the merchantile fleet of Chepstowe Stone Merchant William Davies, the Trow was named “Spry” and she was sailed as a Trow until 1912. In 1913 she was converted into a “Ketch” a two masted fishing vessel. In the 1930s she was described as a barge, having had her masts cut down. In the 1950s she entered the Diglis Canal Basin near Worcester and was converted into the half-sunken base of a workshop.

In the 1970s she was rediscovered and the Upper Severn Navigational Trust (who are now called The Spry Trust) in conjunction with the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust decided to try an conserve and rebuild her. She was lifted from the Basin bottom and transported by road for preservation and repair. However when the timbers were dry it was discovered that she was too badly damaged to repair.

In 1986 contemporary Master Shipwright Alan Williams calculated the amount of timber required for a reconstruction. The original Spry was constructed from Oak, Pitch Pine and Elm, but by the 1980s Dutch Elm disease had made using Elm impossible and due to changes in forestry and markets the price of Pitch Pine would be prohibitive. Therefore it was decided that the new Spry would be constructed from Traditional Oak and Larch which was easily obtainable in Shropshire at that time. In the end it was calculated that 28 oaks, 41 larches and 13 Douglas fir trees would be required. Most of these trees were donated free to the Trust by local land owners. It was then that they required felling and haulage services.

Crane loading a timber lorry
Figure 21: Oak being loaded onto lorry trailer. Photo reproduced from “The Rebuilding of the Severn Trow Spr

At this time Benbow Brothers were known as a round timber merchants, as well as having qualified fellers, we had access to the large HGVs and the cranes required for tushing and hauling the huge logs to the sawmills. We were approached and agreed to complete the contract. Felling the trees and transporting them to the two timber mills in north and south Shropshire. The donated trees were scattered almost randomly across the county, so the team would often have to negotiate winding country lanes and large estate drives with the articulated lorry and Tractor Crane. Also many of these trees had never been cultivated for felling and so were often positioned upon hillsides and were rarely regular in shape or spread.

It was a difficult job with large difficult to fell trees, with heavy limbs that could be shaped to the required curved frame. Trees that once felled and sawn into logs, were then difficult to extract from the site. All of which was accomplished by a team of two men to reduce costs to the Trust.

It was hard and quite dangerous work as some of the logs were beyond the lifting limits of the crane we were using at the time, and so traditional log moving methods such as Tushing and “bunny-hopping” where the crane’s own mass is used to assist in tushing the log were employed. The details of these can be read about in “The Rebuilding of the Severn Trow Spry” by C.S. Johnson (ISBN 0-9526137-0-0) which you can purchase from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum or online from a number of booksellers.

Logs on lorry
Figure 22: “Dismembered Elephants” ready for transporting to the saw mill. Photo reproduced from “The Rebuilding of the Severn Trow Spry”

You can see in the “Dismembered Elephants” photograph the large sizes and unusual shapes of the logs required for the reconstruction. Trees from all across the West Midlands and Central Wales were harvested in this way. Brought by our expert drivers through narrow gates, up hill, down dale and along narrow winding and mud soaked lanes to be turned slowly but surely into a sailing vessel. In 1996 the “Spry” reconstruction was completed. She was transported to Avonmouth and fitted-out with sail.

The “Spry” last of the Severn Trow was filmed under sail on the 28th May 1997 off Avonmouth, Bristol, by I.A. Recordings, a film company specialising in Industrial Archaelogy. They also took several photographs one of which we have reproduced here with their permission. To find out more about Industrial Archaelogy or purchase from a number of films available, visit their website.

Since that time “Spry” has been kept in a display shed at Blist’s Hill open air museum, there is a hope that she will soon sail once again. You can contact the Ironbridge Gorge Museum for details of how you can visit the “Spry” or make enquiries about when she will sail again.

Benbow Brothers take pride in all our work whether large or small, private, corporate or governmental. You don’t have to be building a sailing ship to appreciate our professionalism and expertise. If you have any questions about how we can assist you with your treecare needs, please contact us by email, telephone, fax or post.