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Rescued piece of Victorian history

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The Blists Hill Victorian Town museum at Ironbridge in Shropshire is a fascinating place to explore. It attracted attention in 2010 when the producers of the television series “Victorian Pharmacy” used it to recreate the scene at an everyday pharmacy of the period.

Well away from the streets featured in “Victorian Pharmacy” is one almost forgotten exhibit tucked away in a rusty corrugated iron barn in the furthest corner of the site. There, balanced on great blocks of wood, sits Spry, the only remaining example of a Severn trow.

The river Severn has been used for transport since the days of coracles and log rafts but by the 17th century cargo-carrying boats had developed into sailing barges or trows. Hundreds of such vessels carried coal, iron, hops, cider and grain upstream to sustain the Industrial Revolution and transported the finished products down to Gloucester and Bristol for export.

The largest trows were about 22m long and 5.5m beam, and capable of carrying loads of up to 100 tons. Called downstream trows, they traded across the Severn estuary — the Severn Sea as it was known. Being flat-bottomed they could ground on beaches, wait for low tide to unload their cargoes into carts, then float off as the tide came in.

The narrower and lighter upstream trows connected with the Midland canals as well as supplying the needs of Ironbridge and other riverside towns.

Spry is a downstream trow. She was built by William Hurd at Chepstow in 1894 but by then most of the traditional cargoes were already being carried by road or rail and she was used mainly to transport quarried stone from the Wye Valley to build sea defences along the shore of the Bristol Channel.

By the mid-1900s most of trows had disappeared but Spry was abandoned in the canal basin at Worcester. Her rotting hull was lifted out in 1983 and rebuilt at Blists Hill. In 1996 she was taken to Bristol for one last sail on the Severn Sea before returning to the museum, where she now sits gathering dust.

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