The Ghost Barge of Ironbridge

I don’t think there is a place quite like Ironbridge. That whole area is very special to me and serves as an indelible symbol of home, and family. You see, I grew up just up the gorge in Madeley- it’s a place I endlessly explored, loved, and in its cemeteries my ancestors lie. Here history is intrinsic to the landscape, and you can still see its influence on the gorge- the remains of blast furnaces, iron and industry lie in the shadows of the eponymous iron bridge, which has dominated the landscape since 1778. But beyond the iron bridge there is a quieter history, of poachers, ghosts, folklore and coracle-men and the Devil of course (it is Shropshire after all) and this to me is the most exciting part. I want to uncover ordinary people, and the stories and events that would have shaped their understanding of the land. With the amount of history attached to the area, there is understandably a number of ghost stories associated with Ironbridge, and its surrounding villages. I want to discuss a ghost story which has fascinated me since I was a child, it’s haunting and tragic and perhaps gives us insight into the societal scars left on the area after a lifechanging event, but we will discuss that in due time. I want to tell you the story of the Ghost Barge of Ironbridge.

The River Severn winds through the whole of the county like a snake, and I think my veins follow that same path- or at least my mind does, for it often thinks about life on its banks.  The River Severn was a goddess once, or so I’ve been told, known as Sabrina, or Hafren in Welsh, but now it’s the domain of the ghost barge- which is one of my favourite hauntings.  This ghostly vessel is frequently reported (one of my grandfathers was reputed to have seen it once, whilst walking home from the foundry he worked at) and is almost always a full apparition. It first appears not too far from the Ironbridge, and presents as a long, dark ship, but not largely different from any open topped boat. At its helm, a tall figure stands, often described as wearing old fashioned clothes, or a dark cloak. It sails slowly down the river, and as it gets closer, its cargo is revealed. The ghost barge is often witnessed from the Ironbridge- which gives you a great vantage point to see what it is carrying. It’s believed that on the barge, is row upon row of corpses, piled high. This is obviously a very macabre and shocking sight, but almost as soon as the corpses are noticed, the barge shimmers, and disappears from view.

However, Ironbridge is not the only area the ghost barge is reported, for many have recounted similar instances down the river in Jackfield. Here there have been sightings of a ghostly barge tethered to the riverbed. Accompanying the boat is the bargeman from before, now stood on the riverbed- as if waiting, alongside rows of corpses. I believe these two hauntings are related, and we’ve simply re-joined the bargeman at the end of his journey.

This story is chilling, and certainly a unique haunting, but it’s the history behind the story which makes it all of the more poignant. Indeed, it is thought that the tale of the ghost barge dates back to the plague of the 1660’s, which ripped through the county. The symptoms of such were horrible, beginning with a fever or chill, and culminating with nausea, headaches, delirium, and painful, pus-filled buboes, which- if burst would give a 50/50 chance of survival. The plague of the 1660s hit Shropshire particularly hard. Though records are incomplete it is a fair estimate to suggest that Shropshire lost around 15% of its population in an 18-month period. It is believed that the ghostly barge that sails down the river Severn is in fact a plague boat. Until the advent of rail, the River Severn was the main source of transport through Shropshire and to the wider world, it was used as a means of transporting goods, and in the time of the plague, boats sailed down the river full of the dead. These boats would transport the dead to vast plague pits, in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease.

Interestingly, Jackfield was the location for several plague pits, so such vessels would have followed this route. Due to the nature of plague itself, unless immune the bargemen would often succumb to the plague. One can only imagine the psychological effects of such a job, especially in small communities. Conceivably those who worked on these floating charnel houses would have been transporting friends, neighbours or even loved ones to their final resting place. You don’t forget that kind of experience, and they would have carried the ghosts of what they’d seen with them until the end of their lives.

It would be easy to say that the ghost of the plague barge is still journeying down the river, and that at its helm is a bargeman who succumbed to such a terrible illness, that this apparition has basis in genuine paranormal phenomena, and perhaps it does- there are certainly more modern accounts of the haunting. However, I don’t think that does justice to the story. If we look at what this haunting represents, we can understand the deep scars an event like the plague would have left on a community like Ironbridge and its wider area, which would have been smaller than it is today. As I said earlier, Shropshire was believed to have lost around 15% of its population during this outbreak, and that would have been devastating. I cannot help but think what my life would be like- if 15% of the people I know were no longer there anymore.  In small, tight knit rural communities, it would be hard to find someone who hadn’t been touched by plague. It’s important to stress that people living during a plague would have been under profound emotional stress and trauma, and their losses would have been felt deeply. Similarly, it would have been very hard to know someone you loved had been robbed their lives, and a decent burial during an era of such fierce Christianity.  Thus, I believe this collective experience, and collective grief could influence the prevalence of such hauntings.

Furthermore, due to the close proximity to the River Severn, the plague would have felt like an ever-present feature of life in Ironbridge, as they watched the boats fill up and follow the river to Jackfield. Their presence would have made it very hard to escape the events unfolding. Even when the boats left the rivers, and the communities recovered, the collective memory of those times would have been repeated and remembered beyond the lives of those who experienced them. People don’t want to forget the past, especially such a lifechanging event as a pandemic, and so as each person’s story, and experience was told, the plague barge sailed again. Often in folklore there is a kernel of truth, an event or fact that has developed, and become a folktale, and I believe this is what’s happened here, I believe that the ghost barge haunts the River Severn because the story was repeated enough times to become a haunting, that memories of an event such as plague deserve to be remembered.


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