FOR more than half a century, Worcester was home to the UK’s largest inland oil port.

Built alongside the Severn at Diglis, the complex eventually comprised 18 huge storage tanks, both vertical and horizontal, containing all Shell and BP grades of petrol, diesel, aviation turbine fuel, burning oil and vaporising oil. It was enough to give a chief fire officer nightmares.

In fact the local fire brigade carried out regular training exercises in case the balloon, and just about everything else, went up.

With the river to act as a water-born pipeline, Shell originally built a depot on the site in 1926. The idea was to bring fuel up the Severn from the refineries at Llandarcy, near Swansea by petroleum barges, store it at Worcester and distribute across the industrial West Midlands in a fleet of lorry tankers.

However,  growing demand for transport and industrial fuel after the Second World War meant Diglis soon exceeded capacity and the facility had a major expansion in 1956.

More land was added to the original site to cover seven acres and as well as increased handling and storage facilities, a canteen and kitchen, washrooms and drying rooms were added with Shell proudly claiming the Worcester installation was “one of the largest and best equipped in Britain”.

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There were two main companies in the tanker trade, John Harker Limited and Regent Oil.

The Severn was just like a floating pipeline and seven days a week loaded tankers could be seen carrying this liquid gold.

Harker barges were large, 140ft long and 22ft wide, the maximum size to fit into Worcester Lock, and were crewed by four men, with the ability to carry 450 tons, well over 125,000 gallons.

They were sea-going barges, having to make the rough voyage down the Bristol Channel to Swansea to load their cargo. The crewmen had to be skilled at seamanship and river work, the two being quite different.

While in the Bristol Channel they were navigating a busy waterway, sharing it with ocean-going freighters, tankers and coasters. A knowledge of the tides, currents and marker buoys a must.

Yet, once back in the safety of the ship canal to Gloucester and on up the river to Worcester they were bargemen again. This time a knowledge of navigating a difficult and narrow river in times of flood and low water levels important.

The deep-sea crewman thought Harker men were thick bargees, while those on narrow boats thought the opposite.

Therefore Harker men became a breed of men like no other on the waterway. Their job was hard, away from home for days, sometimes weeks, enduring severe storms in the channel, tossed around like a cork in a bath, before the calm monotony of the inland stretches.

But all this came to an end in the early 1990s, when Worcester’s inland oil port finally closed down. Ten years later the land was sold for housing and up rose the Diglis Basin development.