Today Chris Witts is a Gloucester city councillor and former mayor, but he was once the teenage lad who witnessed the Severn Bridge disaster.
He left school at 16, with a headmaster who deemed him as good for nothing, yet Chris clearly had bucket loads of common sense, which may explain how the boy who worked on barges became Mayor of Gloucester.
And common sense has been essential, as throughout his working life, Chris has witnessed the dangers posed by the elements of fire and water.
He left Gloucester’s Central School at 16 and joined local company John Harker Ltd which ran tanker barges to Swansea bringing petrol back to Gloucester and Worcester.
“Once we left Gloucester we could be away from home for six weeks. We’d stop at Bridgwater, Cardiff and Barry,” he said.
Chris joined the four-man crew and had his own cabin aboard the tanker barge which in many ways was more comfortable than his family home back in Elmbridge.
“It had an electric fridge. My mum didn’t in our home. And it had central heating.”
But while it might have been comfortable for a 16-year-old lad, the work was certainly hard.
“We worked every day and at night. Some days we only got a couple of hours of sleep. And if I upset the skipper, his punishment was to make me stay awake for 36 hours, making me work the watch at night.
“It wouldn’t be allowed today.
“I never went to any youth clubs or anything like that. It was work, work, work. I only realised in my 20s what I had missed,” he said.
“We were only paid a basic wage, we got ‘trip money’ so my skipper liked to be away all the time.”
Chris describes his crew as ‘hard men’, although they also became lifelong friends.
“I grew up fast,” said Chris.
And he was to witness the Severn’s most famous disaster just two months after he had started working on the barges.
On the foggy night of the October 25, 1960 two tanker barges, the Arkendale H and the Wastdale were swept into the Severn Railway Bridge, at Sharpness.
Chris was aboard the Wyesdale H that night, also bound for Sharpness docks. He has clear memories of that fateful night.
“I remember seeing 17-year-old Malcolm Hart aboard the Westdale. I called out ‘Hello Malcolm’. That was the last time I saw him.
“Then there was this tremendous noise, a ‘woomph’ then I saw a great ball of fire and river was alight with burning fuel. We made a dash for Sharpness Docks.”
The impact caused two spans of the bridge to drop onto the barges which subsequently caused the cargo of petrol to ignite, setting the River Severn ablaze.
Five men lost their lives that night, including young Malcolm.
“As we sailed up the next morning we could see the smouldering wreckage. When we got to Gloucester we were given the rest of the day off. But then we just carried on as normal and it was rarely spoken about,” said Chris.
The surviving skipper of the Arkendale H, George Thompson, became Chris’ skipper and they remained friends for the next 50 years, until George’s death.
“He was like a father figure to me,” said Chris.
The Severn Bridge Disaster was not the only tragedy he witnessed. In November 1961 Chris’ barge sliced through an unlit rescue launch, working for the builders of the first Severn road bridge, and one man drowned.
And Chris had his own brush with death, when he lost his hold while climbing up the side a barge, moored in a dock, and dropped into the water. Like many barge men, he couldn’t swim.
“I was going down. I could feel my cheeks bursting and bursting,” he said.
“Then the next thing I knew I was thrashing around on the surface.
“I was so lucky, a seaman on board that ship had seen me fall and dived in to save me.
“His skipper gave him £5, my skipper gave me a telling off.
“I was so lucky that young lad happened to be there.”
After six years he left the barges, and returned to Gloucester to work at Wall’s ice cream.
“But I couldn’t stand being inside,” he said.
So in the 1970s he joined Gloucester Fire Brigade as it was known then, serving a full career of 20 years in the service.
On one occasion there was a warehouse fire – flames were coming out of the top of the building like a funnel and Chris entered the building near the top floor.
“I was crawling along through twisted metal. Then I heard this rumbling sound. I knew it was the floor above collapsing and I knew I couldn’t get back. I thought ‘I’m going to go down with all the rubble’. Then suddenly the noise stopped.”
The floor above him had held steady.
In 1993 after retiring from the fire service, he returned to the river, joining the crew on grain barges sailing from Sharpness to Tewkesbury, and then on dredgers clearing mud from the Gloucester Sharpness canal.
He’s also written about his experiences of a way of life which no longer exists, publishing several books, including Severn Bridge Disaster, written to mark its 50th anniversary, and another entitled Tales of the River Severn, which has many interesting facts about the longest river in Britain.
Then in 2000 he stood for election as city councillor representing Elmbridge, and was astounded to win.
He’s now represented the ward for 14 years, and was Mayor of Gloucester in 2009 to 2010. He’s had lunch with the Queen and been Sheriff of the city. It’s been a long journey for the boy who joined the barges more than 50 years ago.