A journey down the Severn from Thomas Harral’s Picturesque Views of the River (1824) [Text only version]




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A Journey down the Severn from Thomas Harral’s Picturesque Views of the River (1824) [Text only version]


Text: Malcolm Dick


Image: Llandinam, Montgomeryshire. The engraving shows the combination of themes which recur in Thomas Harral’s description of the Severn, the combination of the grandeurs of nature with human settlement and economic activity. This quotation describing the nearby Welsh countryside illustrates these subjects:


“The Severn, combining with the rich and hilly country through which it flows, here forms a beautiful and characteristic landscape…. On the banks of the stream here, are a few scattered mills for the purpose of spinning woollen thread. The domestic manufacture of flannels, by the farmers and cottagers, extends through this vale from Llanidloes… In the descent …one unvaried expanse of smiling cultivation presents itself on either margin….”


Harral, vol I, p 22-24.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


Summary


This Journey down the Severn, selects from Harral’s material to explore the experiences of an observant early 19th traveller, following the route of the river. Using engravings based on images by Samuel lreland (d.1800) who travelled the Severn in the 1790s, Harral notes how the mountains of Wales give way to fertile soil and sheep farming, whilst the banks of the river show increasing evidence of human settlement, bridge building, industry and commerce. The route passes through growing towns, such as Montgomery, Shrewsbury and Stourport, as Harral describes local history, architecture and economic activity. Alongside the attractions of nature, he notes the contributions of landowners, engineers and entrepreneurs to the shaping of the Shropshire landscape. Women and workers are absent from his record.


Sections


  1. Introduction: the Severn Waterway

  2. Poetry and Visions of the River Severn

  3. The Severn and its Origins in Wales

  4. Newtown to Montgomery

  5. Powis Castle to Welshpool

  6. Welshpool to Shrewsbury

  7. Shrewsbury

  8. The English Bridge, Shrewsbury

  9. The Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury

  10. Atcham Bridge, Shropshire

  11. The Wrekin

  12. Buildwas Bridge and the Severn Earthquake of 1773

  13. Coalbrookdale and the Ironbridge

  14. Madeley, Broseley and Lilleshall

  15. Bridgnorth

  16. Bridgnorth’s Economy

  17. Bridgnorth Castle

  18. Quatford and the nearby Landscape

  19. Bewdley

  20. The Wyre Forest

  21. Stourport

  22. Stourport Bridge

  23. Worcester

  24. Worcester to Upton-on-Severn

  25. Tewkesbury

  26. Gloucester

  27. Gloucester’s Economy and the Severn Trade


Sources and Further Reading


Harral, Thomas, Picturesque Views of the Severn with Historical and Topographical Illustrations by Thomas Harral. The Embellishments from Designs by the late Samuel Ireland…vol.1 and vol. 2, (London, G and W B Whittaker, 1824).

Jeremiah, Josephine, The River Severn: a Pictorial History from Shrewsbury to Gloucester (Chichester, Phillimore, 1998).

Morris, Richard K, The Shropshire Severn (Shropshire Books, n.d.).

Trinder, Barrie, “The most Extraordinary District in the World” Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. An anthology of visitors’ impressions of Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale and the Shropshire coalfield, Second Edition, (Chichester, Phillimore, 1988).


1. Introduction: the Severn Waterway


Image: King Road, viewed from the entrance to the Bristol Avon, where the Lower Avon, after running through Bath and Bristol, joins the Severn and forms the Bristol Channel. This engraving shows the mixture of river traffic and ocean going ships as the Severn meets the sea.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


In 1824, a publication, Picturesque Views of the Severn, with Historical and Topographical Illustrations by Thomas Harral was published. The book, originally in two volumes was illustrated with engravings and accompanied by a detailed commentary which explored a journey from the source of the Severn in Wales, until it entered the Bristol Channel. The prints were “embellishments from designs” produced by the artist, Samuel Ireland, several years before. In some editions, the pictures are in colour. Produced for the wealthy 19th century tourist, Harral’s illustrations and text provide an account of the waterway when urban growth, commerce and industrial activity formed part of the Severn’s attractions.


The Severn rises in Wales and enters the sea via the Bristol Channel. At two hundred and twenty miles is the longest river in Britain. The name emerged from several possible roots. In Welsh, the river was called Hafren or Queen of Rivers. The British word, Sabi or Sabrin denotes muddiness or cloudiness and the Romans, deriving the name from this source, called the river Sabrina. In old maps the Severn is called Seavren, probably from Se-havren, the prefix being a reference in Welsh to the hissing sound made by streams. The word Saefyrne is first recorded as a label for the river in 706 AD (Harral, vol.1, p 3). Whatever the origins of the name, the Severn has played an important role in the history of Britain and the Midlands region.


For centuries, the river has been an agent of economic growth. As a liquid motorway, the Severn transported imports and exports to and from the interior of Britain, coastal ports and the wider world. By the 18th century it was intimately connected with the development of industry along its route. Without the Severn trade, coal, iron and other mineral resources would have been more difficult to exploit. Pastoral and arable farming flourished in the fertile and well-watered river valley. The Severn became an artery connecting central Wales, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire with the national and global economies.


In other respects the waterway was important. The high ground, through which the river ran, provided suitable locations for castles and settlements, as at Bridgnorth. One example of a town which developed at fords where the river could be crossed or where bridges were built was Bewdley. Shrewsbury emerged because the meandering river provided a good location for defence.

2. Poetry and Visions of the River Severn


Image: Ruins of Montgomery Castle from the Severn. This is one of the most picturesque of Harral’s views, a portrayal which is consistent with Milton’s pastoral vision of the river in Comus.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


Visitors to the river were entranced by its beauty. John Milton in his masque, Comus, which was first performed at Shropshire’s Ludlow Castle in 1634, personified the Severn in verse:


There is a gentle nymph not farre from hence

That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream,

Sabrina is her name, a virgin pure….

Made goddesse of the river; still she retaines

Her maiden gentlenesse, and oft at eve

Visits the heards along the twilight meadows;

Helping all urchin blasts and ill lucke signes

That the shrewd medling ele delights to make,

Which she with precious violed liquors heals;

For which the shepheards at their festivalls

Caroll her goodnesse lowd in rusticke layes,

And throw sweet garland wreaths into her streame

Of pancies, pinks, and gaudie daffadills.


John Milton, Comus, a Masque (1637 edition).


In 1785, the Severn attracted another visitor, Anna Seward. Her poem, Colebrook Dale

transformed Milton’s pastoral vision into a scene of industrial rape:


Scene of superfluous grace, and wasted bloom,

O, violated Colebrook! in an hour,

To beauty unpropitious and to song,

The Genius of thy shades…

Slumbers! – while tribes fuliginous invade

The soft, romantic, consecrated scenes;

Haunt of the wood-nymph, who with airy step,

In times long vanish’d, through thy pathless groves

Rang’d; - while the pearly-wristed Naiads lean’d,

Braiding their light locks o’er thy crystal flood,

Shadowy and smooth. What, though to vulgar eye

Invisible, yet oft the lucid gaze

Of the rapt Bard, in every dell and glade

Beheld them wander; - saw, from the clear wave

Emerging, all the watry sisters rise,

Weaving the aqueous lily, and the flag,

In wreaths fantastic, for the tresses bright

Of amber-hair’d SABRINA. – Now we view

Their fresh, their fragrant, and their silent reign

Usurpt by Cyclops; - hear, in mingled tones,

Shout their throng’d barge, their pond’rous engines clang

Through thy coy dales; while red the countless fires,

With umber’d flames, bicker on all thy hills,

Dark’ning the Summer’s sun with columns large

Of thick, sulphureous smoke, which spread, like palls,

That screen the dead, upon the sylvan robe

Of thy aspiring rocks; pollute thy gales,

And stain thy glassy waters.


Anna Seward, Colebrook Dale, c. 1785 (see the website and Digital Library for a full version of the poem).


Seward’s poem is important; it was one of the first commentaries on the polluting effects of industry upon landscape at a time when the application of technology and the exploitation of nature were generally portrayed as progress. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden for example, celebrates industrial achievement in verse. In time the Severn became a tourist attraction, not just for what remained of its natural beauties, but for its record of industrial activity. Harral’s Picturesque Views... describes the factories, forges and foundries along the river’s bank. His description of Coalbrookdale, based on Samuel Ireland’s words, presents an awesome picture of the industrial energy of the place. Elsewhere his picture of industry is more factual.


3. The Severn and its Origins in Wales


Image: Near Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire. One of the small Welsh towns on the river, Llanidloes was a market town, river crossing and centre for wool production.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“The Severn, anciently regarded as the queen of British rivers, is the most rapid stream of our island; and, for the length of course, for majesty of aspect, for extensive advantages afforded by her fertilising waters to agriculture and commerce, she justly ranks as second only to the Thames.


In compensation…for the absence of regal dwellings, of the peaceful abodes of science and the arts, the banks of the Severn are occupied by noble and venerable cities – by towns, rich and flourishing in commerce – by splendid mansions of the great and wealthy – by the modest, yet lovely retreats of ease and refinement; mouldering remains of many a hollowed pile, and dilapidated towers of many a baronial castle….


This interesting river, which, in its progress to the sea, is said to be increased in the volume of its waters by no fewer than forty tributary streams, rises at a place called Maes Hafren, amidst extensive moors, in the high, wild and, and morassy tracks of Plynlimmon. The circumjacent scenery presents a singular combination of the wild the grand, and the beautiful.


Proceeding to the summit of Plynlimmon, the sides of its acclivities, as well as the adjacent hills, are destitute of wood; the barren steeps presenting one expanse of cheerless solitude. Here and there a wretched farm, or cottage divested of inhabitants, peeps forth. These desert tracks may be justly termed the region of sheep-walks; where…the numerous flocks, driven from distant places to feed on the summer herbage in these exposed pastures, are heard to bleat at the close of day. Thus every cottage throughout the vale is merely a winter habitation….


The soil of these mountainous districts consists chiefly of maiden turf, which the officious had of cultivation has never yet approached; the pasturage affording nutriment to sheep, goats, black cattle, and herds of merlins, or diminutive wild horses, commonly called Welch ponies.


Winding, in an east-south-eastern direction, through a chain of stupendous hills, the Severn pursues its precipitous course over large craggy stones, which occasionally produce falls of considerable magnitude; particularly in the rainy seasons, when the rude hand of winter, combining with the tremendous rush and roar of waters, gives birth to scenery so wild and terrific, so majestic and sublime, as would excite the imagination…by the time it reaches Llanidloes, the expanse of its waters has acquired a considerable increase.


This little market town…is seated on the right bank of the Severn. Its name derives from Saint Idloes to whom the little church is dedicated….The chief articles of trade are wool and yarn: the latter is manufactured to a considerable extent by young country women, and sent to Welch Pool, once a fortnight, for sale. Over the Severn…is an old wooden bridge, much decayed; but as the river, though of considerable width, is shallow, and generally fordable here, it is used only in winter, at the time of floods. Near the town are several extensive sheep walks; and in the neighbourhood is an excellent quarry of coarse slate.”


Harral, vol.1, p 1-2, 6-19.


4. Newtown to Montgomery


Image: Newtown, Montgomeryshire. Newtown and Montgomery were larger than Llanidloes, but also combined industrial activity in a rural setting


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“(Newtown) is a large, irregular market-town…Lying in a beautiful valley of meadow and pasture, it is bounded on each side of the stream by moderately rising hills, most of which are mantled with wood.


Here is the chief manufactory of Welch flannels, the weaving and spinning of which are carried on in several buildings in and next to the town….Nothing can divest the mountain-sheep of the country of the fineness of their fleece, which is of short staple, and admirably adapted to the purpose.


From Newtown, the Montgomery canal accompanies the Severn for many miles. Much business is transacted on it, in the conveyance of lime, coal, slate and timber.


Although Montgomery is the county town, it was, no further back than the year 1756, little more than a village in extent….Formerly it contained only about two hundred timber–and-plaister dwellings, forming a single street; but the houses are now chiefly of brick, roofed with slate: altogether its appearance is remarkably clean and neat, and around the market-place it is not without some pretension to elegance. The circumjacent scenery indicates fertility of soil; and, from the number of pretty cottages of a superior class, which occupy the most agreeable spots in the environs, it may be said to possess considerable attractions for persons of moderate fortune, fond of good society, and of the inexpensive enjoyments of life. The process of tanning is carried on to some extent in this town; but its general traffic is not considerable. Here, however are five annual fairs for horses, sheep, and horned cattle.


The surrounding country is luxuriantly rich in meadow and corn land; and the views, in every direction, are extensively and beautifully diversified."


Harral, vol.1, p 24-28, 38-57.

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