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  • Writer's picturePaul Whittle

Bristol Channel 1912 - 1950


The City of York was owned by The Bristol Sand & Gravel Company being a partnership formed in 1903 between Forest of Dean coal agent George Peters and George Nurse, who was already in the stone trade. The City of York had first been registered in the Greek Island of Cephalonia and probably had a semi-diesel Bolinder type boiler. She was eventually sold to a Mr Shellabear of Plymouth where she was used for several years in the salvage business.

City of York


Built as the Lady Alice Kenlis by J&R Swan of Maryhill, in 1913 Bristol Sand & Gravel purchased the 1868 built, Boston registered Holman Sutcliffe and converted her to an aggregate dredger as such she traded until scrapped in 1932.


The company next acquired the French registered North Shields built coaster Corbeil which was added to the dredging fleet in 1916 as the demand for sand ballast for empty munitions ships sailing from Avonmouth increased. The Corbeil ended her days in the mid 1930’s at a Portsmouth breakers’ yard.

Upon his death in 1916 George Peters was succeeded by his son Frederick ‘Freddy’ Peters who was to become a significant figure in the Bristol Channel aggregate dredging trade.


1920 saw the Bristol Sand & Gravel fleet increase with the arrival of the former Hull trawler Romulus which was to continue in the aggregate dredging trade for the next forty years, finishing her time with Runcorn based Richard Able & Sons who purchased her circa 1935. The Romulus never lost her trawler profile as her as-built standing rigging was little altered over her lifetime.

One day in the early 1920’s a tug and string of barges owned by T.R. Brown & Sons was making its way up the river Avon to Bristol when it was in collision with one of the Bristol Sand & Gravel dredgers which took three weeks to repair. Brown & Sons were found responsible for the accident and were landed with a substantial claim for the dredger’s loss of earnings. Posterity has it that it was the apparent profitability demonstrated by the claim which prompted Brown & Sons to investigate aggregate dredging further.

The Cardiff based family run haulage company F. Bowles & Sons entered the sand dredging trade when they acquired the 1900 built 127grt Thomond from J.George of Milford and converted her to a sand dredger. It was said that Richard Bowles was the driving force behind British Dredging as “..the others (siblings) did not want to leave home…”.F.Bowles & Sons became a limited company in 1932 and, together with the Bristol Sand & Gravel Compamy Ltd formed the British Dredging Compamy.


Acquired by British Dredging in 1921, the 122ton ‘Clyde puffer’ Kyles was launched at the Merksworth yard of John Fullerton & Co. of Paisley on 12th March 1872. First registered in Lloyd’s Register as a flush deck lighter with an iron hull and a pitch pine deck, she was fitted with a single pitch pine mast and derrick and carried a single suit of sails. Over the next forty nine years a variety of owners traded her around the UK coast until finally acquired in 1921 by George Hamlin of the Cardiff Company Sandridge & Co., who converted her to a sand dredger. By the outbreak of WWII her dredging days had ended and in 1942, when laid up in the Glamorganshire Canal, a survey for her next owner, William Metcalfe of llfracombe, found her to be in very poor condition. A major refit in 1944 reinstated her as a ‘modern’ cargo vessel and as such she traded for a further four decades until finally acquired by the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine where, fully restored to her 1953 status, when she was converted from steam to diesel power, she may be seen today.


There were three Brown brothers Harry, Ernest and Edward, it being the practical Harry who started experimenting by anchoring a dumb steam barge on a drying sand bank in the River Severn. When the barge was high and dry on the bank men shovelled sand into buckets which were loaded aboard using the barge’s steam winch. These forty ton sand cargoes landed using tug and barge encourage Harry Brown to acquire a suction dredger and compete more equally with Bristol Sand & Gravel. This he did in 1922 with the purchase of the steam hopper Rapid from Wm Cory & Co which he converted to a suction dredger and re-named Alwin, it being the Brown family’s nick name for his brother Edward.

The twin screw Alwin had a main engine either side of her boiler and could only manage 4.5 knots which must have given problems in the very strong tides in the River Severn. Her discharging method was slow and involved men loading buckets with shovels which were swung ashore with her single derrick. On one occasion, whilst discharging at the Grove in Bristol, her derrick collapsed, fortunately with harming anybody. In spite of her limitations the Alwin continued to trade until 1960 when she was broken up at Connah’s Quay on the River Dee.

With the commissioning of the Alwin the Browns set up the Holms Sand & Gravel Company housed at 4 & 5 The Grove, Queen Square, Bristol, with Harry Brown as its chairman.



The first dredger named Isabel was the ketch rigged, 233gt steam ship of that name launched on 18thMay 1898 and completed in June 1898 by her builder Scott & Sons of Bowling for Liverpool’s Joseph Monks. Acquired by Alfred Tucker & Richard Griffiths in 1923, who converted her to an aggregate dredger. She arrived at Penarth Dock on 14th October 1949 to be broken up.

The Northwich Carrying Company sold their 1901 built, 211grt Alexandra to the J.Bowles in 1923 who converted her to a coal burning suction dredger. She was converted from steam and fitted with an oil fired engine in 1932 before being sold to Herbert Ashmead of Bristol in 1944. Sold again in 1948 when given the name Dianna Mary and lastly in 1954 when she was named the Penrhyn. Aged sixty four, she arrived at Troon in 17th August when she was broken up.


In 1924 the arrival of the Brown’s Alwin prompted Freddy Peters at Bristol Sand & Gravel to purchase another vessel, the Troon built Saltom which, with a cargo capacity of 300tons and a speed of 8.5kts, could deliver a cargo on alternate tides thus representing a significant improvement on any of the other ships currently in the trade. Freddy also designed a company logo for her being, on a black funnel on a white band, a circle divided vertically red and blue by an ‘S’ line. The Saltom traded until Monday 7th January 1957 when, in her 57th year, when fully loaded with 250tons of dredged material she foundered twenty feet off Baltic Wharf in Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

As she sank her crew of six leapt to safety. She settled fifteen feet into the mud of the dock and her recovery proved to be the biggest salvage operation in the port’s history. The first attempt to recover her failed when the cables fed around her parted. Eventually, with a crowd of 200 watching, she was raised using two ‘Camel’ buoyancy chambers. She was submerged to the height of her bridge and masts for 23 days. The reason for her sinking is not recorded and the incident signalled her end as she was sent to Newport that year to be broken up.

Saltholm (L) & Dunkerton (R) at Redcliffe Bristol


Following the success of the Alwin, Holms Sand & Gravel commissioned Charles Hill & Sons of Bristol to build the industry’s first purpose built aggregate dredger. Named Portway after the new riverside road linking Bristol with Avonmouth she was launched on 17th November 1926. The innovative design of the 289ton Portway saw her fitted with wing tanks for fuel oil, allowing her to double up as a bunkering barge. She also had a pump out (hydraulic discharge) facility which, it is believed, was always used with her seldom, if ever, being grab discharged whilst working the Bristol Channel.


About this time the discharge of dredgers at the company’s Bathurst Basin berth was significantly improved by the installation of a travelling electric grab crane. The importance of a ‘travelling’ crane being that the sand could be stored on different piles on the quay.

In the years ahead, Charles Hill & Sons, founders of the Bristol City Line, would build aggregate dredgers for Bristol Sand & Gravel Ltd., Norwest Sand & Ballast Co. Ltd., Civil & Marine Ltd, William Cooper & Sons Ltd, and Holms Sand & Gravel Ltd. Their Albion Dockyard yard built its last ship, the 1541gt Guinness barge Miranda Guinness, in 1976, thus ending the company’s ship building record which dated back to the 18th century.



F.Bowles & Sons added the 36.6mtr, 265grt Deloraine to their fleet in 1928. Launched at the Paisley yard of J.McArthur on 9th November 1900 she was first owned by the Deloraine Steamship Company who sold her to Heath Shipping. Founded in 1877 by Cuthbert Heath the shipping and insurance company was credited with being the first to offer insurance against burglary, Zeppelins in WWI and earthquake and hurricane insurance. She ended her days in 1956 at the breakers yard of John Cashmore whose slogan was “Everything in Iron & Steel” and which ceased trading in 1976 having broken up over 1000 ships of all shapes and sizes during the previous four years.


The American stock market crash on October 29th 1929 signalled the start of ‘The Great Depression’ and ironically the continued expansion of Bristol’s sand dredging trade with the launching of the 44meter long steam ship Durdham at Ailsa Shipbuilding Company’s Troon shipyard for Bristol Sand & Gravel on 17th January 1930. The Durdham, named after a Bristol beauty spot, traded successfully until sunk by a magnetic mine on 27th July 1940 off Laverlock Point on the Glamorgan coast, just 53 years after Marconi sent the first radio message from the Point to Flatholm Island some three miles away. Eight crew members perished in the explosion.


It would appear that the depression years presented particular commercial opportunities for the Bristol aggregate dredging trade with regard to competitively priced new building, conversions and company acquisitions as the industry continued to develop and expand.

In 1930 Holms Sand & Gravel converted the Newcastle built coal burning, steam driven coaster Jolly Marie to a suction dredger with a cargo capacity of 300tons and re-named her Sandholm. As well as being discharged by shore grab, the 1920 built Sandholm was the first aggregate dredger to have a hydraulic discharge capability allowing the saturated sand to be pumped ashore. Holms Sand’s berths at Bridgewater Docks and Bathurst Basin in Bristol could both receive the Sandholm’s hydraulically discharged cargoes.

Thirty years later, in 1960, the Sandholm was nearly lost when, outward bound, she ran aground on the River Avon’s Horseshoe Bend in thick fog. The crew struggled ashore though thick mud as their ship took a 20degree list on the falling tide. With her crew back on board, she refloated on the following tide and was towed away to have her badly damaged rudder repaired. The Sandholm ended her days in 1962 at Millom, Cumbria where she was broken up by William Thomas & Co.



1932 saw the formation of the first company named British Dredging which company was to become a major player in the industry for the next four decades. With his roots in his Cardiff haulage business, which was started in 1896, F.W.Bowles began hauling sea dredged aggregates in the 1920’s and set up British Dredging in order to manage a number of small independent operators of aggregate dredgers. Such operators included were would be William Holway’s Lyndale, A.H.Tucker’s Isabel, Arthur Sessions’s Sandale and George Hamlin’s Kyles. In 1962 F.Bowles & Sons & Bristol Sand & Gravel Co Ltd merged and assumed the name British Dredging Co Ltd. Bristol Sand & Gravel Co Ltd emerged again in 1978 when T.R.Brown & British Dredging formed a joint venture with the name. Eight years later the joint venture was sold to Southampton’s ARC Marine Ltd.


Kyles National Historic Ships UK

The single ship owner William Holway was only in the sand trade from 1932 until 1935 when he sold the 1901 built Lyndale and his sand dredging interests to Arthur Sessions and Sons. Launched on 9th November 1901 for D.McEwan of Greenock George Brown’s at Greenock yard, the 138gt Eisa was purchased and renamed by Holway in 1912 but not converted to a dredger until 1932. Sold to Sessions in 1935 and lastly to Ilfracombe based W.R.Metcalf in 1946 she was broken up in the late 1950’s.

1932 also saw the arrival of South Wales Sand & Gravel’s 1918 built ss Glen Helen. The Glen Helen was to be sold on to the Tay Sand Company in 1962 which they sent to the breakers at Inverkeithing on 2nd December 1966. Based in Victoria Buildings, Victoria Street, Swansea, South Wales Sand & Gravel Co. Ltd. was formed by the brothers Arthur and Llewellyn Bevan who already owned the Swansea shipping agency C. Shepherd & Co so were well placed to know that the new Bristol Channel aggregate dredging trade was one to become part of. The company was eventually sold to Tarmac Plc and became part of the United Marine Dredging Ltd when UMD was formed in 1987.

GLEN HELEN working the River Dee

An account of the conversion of the Glen Helen from general cargo coaster to a suction aggregate dredger gives an insight into some of the work required:-

A tank was constructed in part of the original hold from the hatch openings to the floor. The sides sloped slightly outwards so that stability was maintained when loaded. At the rear of the tank was a cofferdam with holes in it, backed by thick cocoa matting, which allowed water to drain into the rear of the hold where it was removed by the ship’s bilge or general service pumps. Wash ports and trunkings were fitted from the top of the hold overboard to allow excess water to drain overboard. The steam driven sand pump was mounted in the forward part of the hold on the floor in front of the cargo hold. This was connected to the dredge pipe on the starboard side of the vessel, which was lowered into the water using the ship’s steam winch rigged to a shortened derrick. The pump outlet came through plating on the forward part of the hold into a screen box and chute in front of the outlet, which could have the size of mesh changed according to requirements. The gravel or sand that was too large to pass through the screen was diverted overboard down a chute on the port side, whilst the desired cargo carried straight on down the main chute into the cargo hold.


Bristol Sand & Gravel ordered a new ship from Ailsa Shipbuilders which was launched in 1934 thus replacing the Holman Sutcliffe which had been scrapped two years before. The new ship was the 505gt steam driven Dunkerton, which reportedly went on to make more money for Bristol Sand & Gravel than any of their other dredgers. She last sailed from Bristol Sand & Gravel’s Redcliffe wharf on 3rd February 1966 to Newport, where she was broken up. The Dunkerton was designed to take coal to the Channel Islands and return with a cargo of sand in her two cargo holds. In 1958 she underwent major refurbishment including the fitting of radar and the construction of an enclosed wheelhouse. This last being a reminder that most, if not all, of the early aggregate dredgers had their conning and dredging positions open to the elements. One of her uses was to take 12 day-tripping passengers for a day out from Cumberland Basin, perhaps the only aggregate dredger to be used as a passenger ship.

DUNKERTON loading a 'screened' cargo through a 'boiling box' which separated sand and stone

DUNKERTON discharging at (Hotwell'sWharf in Bristol?)


Further north 1935 saw the UK’s west coast aggregate dredging trade expand with the arrival in Liverpool Bay of the 1879 Glasgow built coal fired ss Monsaldale acquired by Runcorn based Richard Abel & Sons which company was incorporated in 1903, Richard Abel & Sons remained in aggregate dredging until Hoveringham Gravels Ltd acquired the company in the mid 1960’s. The grab dredger Monsaldale started life based in Hull as a hopper barge No1 with the North Eastern Railway Company and traded as an aggregate dredger until she was broken up at Preston in 1967. It is thought that the Monsaldale’s sister ship, the similarly coal fired ss Bretherdale, ex-hopper barge No2, was also acquired by Abel at the same time. Both these dredgers had a single crane positioned forward to load Abel barges, some of which were towed out by company tugs. They also both had the facility to hydraulically discharge into barges by way of a discharge pipe on their port sides.


The Bretherdale sank off New Brighton on 5th May 1955. The crew of the nearby company tug Richard Abel saw what was happening and came alongside and took the six crew off, who abandoned ship without getting their feet wet. Coincidently, the skipper of the Bretherdale, Frank Atkins, was rescued by his brother Louis who was in command of the Richard Abel.


All the Abel fleet discharged in Liverpool’s Canning Dock, adjacent to the company’s head office was, at Collingwood Dock and Birkenhead Docks. Some of the company’s ships used Number 8 Dock in Manchester and later Pomona Dock when William Coopers vacated it. The Rossendale was the only Abel dredger to discharge in the West Bank Dock but the Hoveringham I and II called there when Hoveringham acquired the company. When she sailed from West Bank Dock on 28th October 1970 the Rossendale was the last commercial ship to do so.


Rossendale en route the the breakers ???


The second Isabel arrived in the Bristol Channel in 1937 having been acquired by Arthur Sessions & Son who converted and traded her as a suction dredger until broken up at Newport in 1952. Built in Rotterdam as the 237gt Mies for Dutch owners in 1918 she was sold to Walford Lines in 1920 and to George Binding in 1932 who traded her under the name of Evlyn B until sold to Sessions.


Following the scrapping of the Corbeil by Bristol Sand & Gravel and in the wake of the Government’s encouragement of an extensive nation wide house building programme, in 1938 Freddy Peters purchased a bigger ship, the 425ton steam driven Garth. She was converted to a suction dredger and traded very successfully until, on 27th November 1946, she fouled the anchor chain of a large ship anchored off Portishead, which collision sprang some of her shell plating and caused her to founder.


The 407gt ss Hartford was launched 0n 15th February 1912 at the J.P.Rennoldson South Shield yard for Northwick Carrying Company. She was acquired by W.A.Watson in 1925 who sold her to the Cement Marketing Company of London two years later. F.T.Everard & Sons Ltd acquired her in 1936 and sold her on to F.Bowles & Sons in 1937. Bowles converted her to an aggregate dredger in February 1939 before selling her to Seaborne Aggregates Ltd of Marchwood on Southampton Water in 1950 who re-named her Seaborne Alpha, under which name she traded until, in March 1966, she was sold to Metcalf Marine Salvage Co Ltd of Southampton and broken up.

South Wales Sand & Gravel purchased their Glen Helen’s sister ship, the 1921 Mary Aston II, converting and renaming her Glen Spray in 1939. Built by Crabtree & Co of Great Yarmouth and also previously named Broswell and Halladale, the 312 ton Glen Spray was finally broken up in 1964 at Passage West, County Cork.

British Dredging’s fleet was added to in 1939 when F.Bowles & Sons Ltd acquired the Rookwood from W.France, Fenwick & Co. Ltd. and converted her to an aggregate dredger. She was later renamed Sand Martin when sold to South Coast Sand & Ballast Co Ltd, a Burness Shipping company, in 1951. Built at Henry Robb’s Leith shipyard where The Royal Yacht Britannia is now berthed, Sand Martin traded until she was broken up in 1974 at Passage West, Ireland by Haulbowline Industries Ltd.

Sand Martin


Named Springburn when acquired by F.Bowles & Sons in 1947 the 472 ton ex cargo ship now renamed Sunfold was the next conversion to be added to the Bristol Channel based aggregate dredging fleet in 1948. 15 years later, she arrived at Swansea on 10th May to be broken up. In an earlier life, on 18th May 1941, the Eskburn was damaged by German bombing when on passage off Blyth. Next day she was towed into the Tyne for repairs. Launched at Swan Hunter’s Wigham Richardson’s Sunderland yard on 7th May 1917 for owners Pile & Company with the name Northwick she was named Eskburn in 1926 by owners Coombes Marshall & Co. Ltd. in 1926 which name she retained when owned by W.G James in 1929 and British Isles Coasters in 1938. Her named changed to Springburn in 1946 when owned by Efford Shipping Co. Ltd.


South Wales Sand & Gravel purchased the ss Belford from Tyne-Tees Shipping Co in 1948 and traded her as the Glen Foam until 22nd October 1963 when she arrived in Briton Ferry for breaking up. Although launched in January as ss Mickleham for John Harrison of London at the Newcastle yard of J & D Morris Ltd, her keel was first laid down under the name War Arun and she first traded under the name Jolly Laura when purchased by Walford Lines all in the same year, 1920.

War Arun / Glen Foam was a World War I “standard ship type C1”.During the 1914-18 war, over nine million gross tons of British ships were lost due to enemy action. These losses reached a peak in the three months ending June 1917 when over 1.4 million gross tons were sunk.

However, at the end of 1916 a Shipping Controller was appointed by the British Government with wide powers to provide and maintain an effective supply of shipping. An extensive shipbuilding programme was started and it was decided that ships would be of a simple design and standardised as far as possible with hulls and engines. Orders were also placed for ships in the United States through the Cunard Steamship Co and a considerable number built in Canada. In the Far East, orders were placed for steamers built in Japan and also with British shipyards in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

All these vessels were given names prefixed with WAR, but just after the United States entered the war in 1917, they requisitioned all ships being built and only a few were delivered bearing their original intended names. Many of these cancelled names were re-allocated to British built ships. After the Armistice in 1918, many of the standard ships being built were sold to shipping companies and completed to their owners' specifications. Excluding orders to United States shipyards, 821 ships were ordered. 416 were completed to Government order, 279 were sold to private companies before completion and the remaining orders were cancelled. Fourteen of these ships were lost in WWI, but they were lost in large numbers during WWII.


Amongst the more exotic vessels which were engaged in the early days of aggregate dredging was the 1945 built ex L.C.T. [Probably the Mark 8 LCT-4005 a Mark 8. Landing Craft Tank] owned by Channel Sand & Ballast. Converted in Holland, the 70meters long, triple screwed, steam & motor Sandmoor operated out of Swansea from 1948. Channel Sand & Ballast later became Channel Builders Merchants and the 851grt Sandmoor was broken up in 1964.

The order for the LCT 4005 was placed on 7th April 1944, her keel was laid down on 5th June 1945 and she was launched on 18th December 1945 so she was too late to see service in WWII.

The British would produce one more large LCT design, the 225-foot LCT Mark 8, similar to the American LSM, in 1944. Intended for service in the Pacific and Far East, it carried eight heavy tanks or 350 tons of cargo and had accommodation for 50 fully armed troops plus a crew of 22. One hundred and eighty-six Mk.8s were ordered; however, when the war ended, most were cancelled and scrapped, or sold directly into civilian service. Only 31 entered service with the Royal Navy. Twelve were later transferred to the British Army; these were initially operated by the Royal Army Service Corps, then by the Royal Corps of Transport. Between 1958 and 1966, the other 19 ships were transferred to foreign navies or civilian companies, converted for other uses, or otherwise disposed

A Government White Paper in 1948, containing plans and directives for the construction & building industries, gave encouragement to the developing aggregate dredging industry and signalled an expansion of the trade. Around this time the issuing of dredging licences was tightened up with the appointment of a part time Government Commissioner.


The second dredger named Isabel was purchased and converted by the newly formed Isabel Steamship Company in 1949. Launched as the 287gt cargo ship Collin by A. Jeffrey & Co at Alloa in April 1915 for the coal merchants and ship owners Howden brothers of Larne she was sold to Dundee’s Tay Sand & Gravel Company in 1964. She traded in the Tay’s sand trade until she sank when alongside in Dundee on Christmas Eve 1965. It is thought that Newport Sand & Gravel Co. registered the owner of the Isabel as being owned Isabel Shipping Co. so as to restrict Newport's liability


In 1950 Imogen Steamship Co. Ltd purchased and converted the 1927 built ssVivonia from Great Yarmouth Shipping Co. Ltd. who had re-named her Lynn Trader. Renamed Imogen and converted to a 326gt aggregate dredger she traded in the Bristol Channel until her owners were acquired by Western Dredgers of Newport in 1964 who promptly sent her to Passage West on 1st June for breaking up the same year.

Holm Sand & Gravel saw their next new building launched at the Charles Hill yard on 26th January 1950 which contained a number of innovations that would be copied by the wider industry. The ssSteep Holm had a dredge pipe slide carriage arrangement, a high speed enclosed dredge pump and improved grader. On 2nd October 1968 the Steep Holm was wrecked on the Tusker Rock her crew being rescued by Mumbles lifeboat which was reported thus:-

“….1968 Bronze Medal to Coxswain Lionel Derek Scott and an additional monetary award to him and each of the lifeboat crew for the rescue of seven crew members of the sand dredger Steep Holm which grounded on Tusker Rock in a fresh west-south-westerly wind with a moderate to rough sea. Six of the Steep Holm crew were rescued from life-rafts after which the lifeboat returned to the casualty for the master. As he jumped aboard the lifeboat, the vessel was caught by heavy sea and he fell between Steep Holm and the lifeboat. Fortunately the Second Coxswain and another member of the crew were able to grab him before he fell into the water and he was pulled aboard unhurt…”

1950 also saw the arrival of Bristol Sand & Gravel’s 891grt Camerton. Named after a local mining village, the oil fired Camerton had a diesel driven cargo pump and was the optimum size to reach the company’s Dundas Wharf in Bristol’s Floating Harbour which her 1000ton cargo capacity allowed her to do exclusively. Sold to Greek owners in 1973 she was sent to the breakers at Lavrion, Greece on 27th April of the following year.

One-time Captain with Bristol Sand & Gravel, Peter Tambling, recalls his experience of dredging the Bristol Channel in the 1960’s

When sucking off the Bristol Channel sand banks, you could either load “Bungum”, fine sand, pure sand, Grade A sand course sand or stone depending where you were amongst the sand ridges. We used our own marks as there was no radar but just a hand lead line. If you lay up channel of a ridge it was sand, back past the ridge it was Grade A and close to Flatholm Island there were stone patches. Running a tide from Bristol to the banks off the Firefly Buoy at Portishead gave cargoes of Bungum which was extremely fine and dangerous to load due to the shifting of the cargo as it settled. Many times I had to lift the overflow slides (spillways) to correct a list which caused half the cargo to return from whence it came….”

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