I first visited the Ship’s Graveyard at Purton one morning around 18 months ago and while there I photographed what I assumed was a sunken wreck mid-channel in the Severn. Something about that sunken wreck has bothered me ever since so I decided to do a little digging to see what I could find.
Well first of all that wreckage isn’t the remains of a single ship and there is quite a history behind it. It turns out it is the wreckage we can see at low tide today belongs to two ships that collided one night in heavy fog and on a flood tide.
A bit of a giveaway to this mystery was a memorial plaque commemorating the Severn Rail Bridge Disaster, which occurred at around 10:30pm on on Tuesday 25 October 1960.
The two ships that form the mid-stream wreckage were the Arkendale H and the Wastdale H, both owned by John Harker Ltd. The Wastdale was carrying a cargo of 350 tons of petrol, the Arkendale a similar quantity of heating oil. The Arkendale H and Westdale H were part of a 16 vessel tanker convoy heading up the Severn and aiming to enter Sharpness Harbour on the late tide.
At 9.15pm, about a mile before Sharpness, they encountered a very dense fog rolling off the Berkeley bank.
Trying to find the harbour entrance while avoiding collision with other vessels, the two tankers mentioned drifted past Sharpness and found themselves half a mile upstream where the river narrows and the tide flows faster.
At about 10.20pm, their bows touched and the two vessels were immediately sucked together along their entire length. Unable to draw apart, they were spun clockwise and driven upriver by the tide where, minutes later, they collided with the 17th pier of the Severn Railway Bridge, sending it flying into the river.
The two spans supported by the pier, crashed onto the tankers below. A spark ignited the petrol that was now pouring from the damaged Wastdale and soon the whole river was a mass of flames as oil from the Arkendale added to the conflagration.
Fortunately, the last train of the day had passed over the bridge just a few minutes before the accident. It was a close run thing.
By the time the train reached Sharpness, the bridge was no longer intact. The two tankers, dragging several hundred feet of railway line were brought to a halt on a sandbank just above the bridge where they remain today.
Attempts to raise the vessels failed so they were left as a fitting memorial and in 1967 the bridge was finally dismantled and shipped away for scrap.