Abstract: Enterprise on the River Severn, 1750–1950: A Linear Entrepreneurial Community?

Richard Coopey


This paper will examine a variant of the theme of networks, clusters, and districts in business history in looking at the interrelationships of entrepreneurs, businesses, labour and product markets and other contextual economic factors along Britain's major arterial waterway. It will explore the connectivity of the river economy and test the notion of the river as a linear cluster or district with a definable economic integrity. In addition to tracing the importance of the river itself as a economic entity, exploring riparian rights, changing patterns of trade and industry generated by the river, the paper will examine the historic relationship among ports on the Severn, notably Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, and Bewdley. The upstream ports and their economic hinterland have a complex economic history, but serve at various times to link the industrial heartlands of Britain to the global economy through the port of Bristol, which operated as one of the major, trans-Atlantic shipping ports from the eighteenth century onward. Two case studies, one from the nineteenth century and the one from the twentieth, are instructive in delineating and gauging the ambitions and effectiveness of the river communities. The first revolves around a series of schemes aimed at rationalising the river through a series of capital-intensive civil engineering programmes, effectively turning several inland ports into ports capable of taking ocean-going traffic. The second major development was the formation of the River Severn Development Association in the interwar period, which aimed to construct a new industrial district, perhaps a proto TVA for Britain. In both cases the nature of the economy is revealed, allowing the business historian to get a good sense of the entrepreneurial community, its strengths and weaknesses.