The Hunt for the Stonehouse Hulks – Part I
by Paul Barnett
Throughout my time researching Purton and its wonderful collection of maritime relics, I have been constantly reminded of the abandonment and sad destruction by fire of two barges in a canal-side field, a stone’s throw from the Horse Trough junction at Stonehouse, on the B4008. I therefore set aside a few days during the summer of 2019, to attempt to track down these long since departed relics and unravel the story of how they came to be a well-known feature, near this inland Gloucestershire town.
To help in this, I assembled a respected team of specialists, those being Cotswold Canal Trust member and long-term friend and mentor, Tony Jones, and Cotswold Heritage and Detecting Society Chairman (CHADS) and fellow Friend of Purton, David Smith, who brought along his detecting equipment.
So, with the sun on our backs, we struck out to Harper’s Field, spade in hand.
Of course, it would be mightily foolhardy for anyone engaged in this type of activity, not to obtain the express permission and support of the landowner first and thereafter narrow one’s search by conducting a desk-based investigation. That being the case, I would wish to acknowledge the fantastic resource of downloadable maps on the internet site Know Your Place http://www.kypwest.org.uk/. Those not aware of this great resource will be astounded by both the content and ease at which researcher can track back through the history of a selected parcel of land by using a variety of base and comparison maps which clearly detail the development of a region.
In the case of Harper’s Field, I found the comparison map dated 1898 to 1939 to be of great use in both stripping back vegetation whilst detailing existing structures, field boundaries and possible canal slips.
Armed with this information I delved into my photographic archive, containing the immensely rare Grahame Farr collection of some 28500 negatives and 5000 photographs of South West maritime scenes dating back to the 1930s. This photographic collection forms part of his extensive maritime archive. Known for his meticulous record keeping, Grahame’s index card system is held in such high regard that it has been on permanent deposit at the country’s principle maritime collection at Greenwich Maritime Museum. As always – Grahame did not disappoint!
From these fantastic images, one is not only made aware of the scale of the vessels but is clearly advised of their identities. Further, by comparing and contrasting the historic map information and distinct features contained on the periphery of the photographic images, one is able to tease even more information pertaining to approximate distances to noticeable features such as buildings, treelines and dog-legged field boundary.
From these features one is further able to plot proposed vessel locations or at the very least narrow the search.
Following several hours of ground truthing* and item recovery, the team reconvened to sup an ale and discuss their bounty. Tony’s great knowledge of boat building and fixtures and fittings proved invaluable and left us in no doubt that what had been recovered were fixings that had at one time been incorporated in a pair of relatively large timber vessels.
It was at this time that I showed the group the following image, gleaned from another wonderful electronic resource entitled Britain from Above https://britainfromabove.org.uk/ From this 1937 image we can clearly see both vessels in their final resting place, just prior to being consumed totally by fire for the metal fixings that each had contained. All the more surprising that we managed to find as much as we did in Harper’s Field – what the scrap man didn’t get.
Discover Perseverance’s and Ila’s history, Part II – coming soon!
*”Ground-truthing”: in archaeology, the practice of visiting sites on foot in order to verify data gained by remote-sensing technologies.