One hundred years ago George William Gleed steered the last ever barge through Sapperton tunnel. His grandson George Gleed spoke to Charlotte Shepherd about that last journey.

WHEN Sapperton tunnel was opened in 1789 it was the longest tunnel ever dug in England, at 3,817 yards, and provided a key link in the Thames and Severn Canal.

Indeed, it was deemed so important that King George III himself made a trip to Sapperton to visit the site.

George William Gleed from Chalford was a “bargee” (a person in charge of a barge) through the tunnel, working for Smart’s barges for 30 years.

“My grandfather spent virtually a lifetime on the canal. Sometimes he would go through the tunnel twice a week,” said Mr Gleed.

But it was on May 11 1911 that he entered the history books as the last man to make the journey on a barge through the tunnel.

“He had collected timber from Cirencester and needed to get it to Stroud,” said Mr Gleed.

However on arriving at Coates he discovered that the Sapperton tunnel had already closed down. “They had to restart the pumps so that granddad could get through,” he explained.

When the tunnel was operational “legging” was the method used to get the barges through. This involved two men laying on the barge and pushing against the sides of the tunnel walls. Using a pole was frowned upon in case it damaged the canal bed.

“Granddad had no choice but to pole his way through that day. It was not allowed but no one else was going to use the tunnel after him so it didn’t matter,” explained Mr Gleed.

Mr Gleed’s own father, also called George, was also present on that day. “My father led the pony over the top to meet him at the other end at Sapperton,” said Mr Gleed. His father was 15-years old at the time.

Others may have tried to get through the tunnel since, but Mr Gleed is certain that his grandfather retains the honour of making the last trip on a barge. “It is in the realms of possibility that someone may have gone through on a raft or canoe after this but granddad definitely took the last barge through,” he said.

Attempts to open up the tunnel as part of a wider canal restoration project are, Mr Gleed believes, misguided. “It is a haven for wildlife and should be left alone,” he said.