Memoirs of British Waterways Engineers
My parents lived in the lock house at Boxmoor opposite St John’s Church.  They had met at Brentford when my father was working there on the construction of the triple locks and came up to Hemel Hempstead to get married.  I think my father had lodged at one time at the end of the old flint cottages in Frogmore Crescent.  I was the first to be born in 1909, my sister was born in 1910 and then my brothers were born in 1912, 1914 and 1920.

Our home was called the Old Tollhouse but it had not been used as such since about 1848.  They used to come out of the toll office with a rod that went down and underneath the boat.  A full boat draws 3 feet 6 inches (1.6 metres) of water.  They got the weight of the boat and they worked the toll out.

The tollhouse was big with walls 18 inches (46 cm) thick at the bottom and 14 inches (36 cm) level with the towpath and 9 inches (23 cm) in the bedrooms.  We used to go down the steps, so coming from the back you could say there were three storeys because there used to be a workshop and a scullery with a pump over the sink.  The old man put down an Artesian well when I was about two years old.  Previous to that they had the well water only and one hot summer it was the canal water running into it and that’s what they were drinking.  He went down about 17 feet (5 metres) and we had wonderful soft water.  The pump was indoors under the sink and there was a copper and a baking oven for bread.  The house was built in 1832.  The old man always insisted that when they were building the canal this house was the store for their cement and things like that because the walls used to lap over about 1½ - 2 inches (5 cm), so he thought they built on the foundations of that.  We used to have water coming from the canal to flush our drains and it used to go round the back and come out below the lock into a ditch round there.

We had no gas and no electricity.  We used to burn a hell of a lot of wood.  When I think back now, I marvel at the amount of oak we used to saw up!  We got the wood from the locks when they were breaking the old gates up.  When they used to change a gate they used to break it up and it finished up in our yard.  When the house was converted from a tollhouse they bricked in the entrance from the side gate and made the living room.  Our kitchen was very big and we had a coal range.  I can think of my mother now, scrubbing away at the concrete floor in the workshop and tiled floor in the scullery.  By the time I left there in 1959 the dampness had come up and it was really wet.  At that time there was a rubble drain that went through the house and it got blocked up.  I remember the old man boxing it in with clay but the dampness still came in.  The coal cellar and the workshop were dry as a bone.

When my parents went into the tollhouse about 1908, they had paraffin oil lamps.  We’d probably have two in the living room and one in the front room.  As we progressed we used to have a swinging lamp, hanging down which gave a lot of light.  I used to see the old man shaving with candles stuck up on the mantelpiece in big brass candlesticks.  If you went downstairs you used to take a candle down, if you went up to bed you took a candle up.

We didn’t get a lot of milk but the milkman did deliver to our place sometimes.  Brooks the baker from Boxmoor delivered the bread.  He used to walk to our house because he could not drive across the moor in those days.

We used to have our coal brought down from Bryces who had a place over at Boxmoor station and they used to deliver the coal with a horse and dray if it was dry.  They couldn’t bring the coal in rainy weather.  They got their coal by train.  They used to come on the moor from what is called Station Road now.  There used to be a slipway and a gate just below Station Road bridge off the A41 road (A4251 now).  Hardings the Tentmakers were there and there’s still a building there.  They made tents and canvas for the boats.  The coal was carried by one horse.  I think my mother used to buy coal 2 tons at a time.  We used to put it in the workshop.  It would take 2 tons because there was an alcove.  You’d got to go down the stairs to fetch it.

We used to break up the balance beams which were usually pitch pine for kindling wood.  On winter nights after we’d had our tea at about 6.00 pm he’d go downstairs in the cellar and come up with 2 cwt of oak on his shoulder and sling it on a sawing horse.  Being a carpenter he took great pride in keeping his tools sharp.  He always had saws which were like pit saws.  Whenever he got a new cross cut saw he used to cut his own teeth out.  The pit saw only cuts one way and he would insist that he had that.  They only cut coming up so the bloke doesn’t get covered with sawdust.  He used to sharpen these saws.  He used all sorts of tools, adzes and things like that.

They pulled a lock gate to pieces about ten years ago in 1969 probably at Apsley, and out fell a shiny ha’penny stamped with the old man’s name and dated 1892.  It must have been the first mortise he did when he was probably about 15.  He was an apprentice carpenter, as were his father and grandfather before him.  I think, at one time, he lived at Wigginton and then he was apprenticed to Bulbourne Workshop.  At that time they probably had steam drills with the old belt driven by a steam engine.

My grandfather was a lighterman called Brooks.  When he was about 22 he lost his leg on the Thames when a rope accidentally pulled it off.

The chap who took my father’s job was Arthur Young who lived down at Apsley Mill lock where the depot is.

I got married in 1961 and we lived in Winifred Road.  I didn’t worry too much about the canal then.  I realise it was a crime really when British Waterways decided in 1963 not to run their boats anymore.

The Lengthsman

For 20-25 years, my father was a foreman.  His canal lengths stretched from Dudswell down to Lock 80 at Rickmansworth.  He used to go along and say, “All right, we want this hedge cut”.  As a lengthsman he was responsible for the maintenance of the towpath, lock gates, brickwork, hedgerows and bridges.  They used to cut the hedges quite regularly.  They had no mechanical tools.  They had billhooks on a long handle and slashed the hedges down.  He used to have to organise towpath repairs and also if there was a leak coming down through the canal they used to puddle it in with clay because that is how the canal was made.  If they got a big leak they used to drive piles in all the way round and shut the water off and then put the clay in.  They used to have a big heavy weight on a pole and bash the clay in.  If it was too bad then they used to build a brick or concrete wall.

Lock Maintenance

When they used to repair the top pair of gates of a lock, they didn’t have to pump any water out.  They used to drop the planks down and work there.  If they’d got to do the bottom pair of gates the water had got to be pumped out.  In the middle of the lock was a sump, a drain hole.  At the end of the lock was another sump.  In those days they used to have one of the long narrow boats with a traction engine on it, which used to drive a big pump.  The pump’s pipe was a tremendous size and they used to drop it into the sump.  When they got stoppage time in August because it was light in the morning, the stoker had got to get this engine started by 4.00 am because the old man used to start work at 6.00 am.  They worked until 9.00 pm because it was summer.

Ice Breaking

In the winter they had ice-breaking to do.  The old man used to steer the boat and they would pick up any odd bods who were around because the canal boats were tied up.  He used to get perhaps 14 men on this boat and they used to rock it and there would be as many as 7 canal horses pulling the boat.  They’d have them galloping along the towpath.  I think there was one occasion, the old man told me when the ice was so thick that his work boat just held up on the ice, spinning all over the place.  There was a particular work boat they used to use for this job.  It used to be strengthened underneath and there were planks on the top but normally they could use a trading boat or short boat.  When the ice was broken up the old man used to say, “I’ve cleared it for you, get moving”.  This was so that the movement of the boats would keep the water moving freely.

In the winter of 1962 I think the canal was frozen over for 11 weeks.  It was a very bad winter indeed.

Bathing at Boxmoor before Churchills

When they made the canal they puddled it with clay and that’s how two big holes were left on Boxmoor, behind St John’s Church.  These were turned into swimming pools, one was called the “private” and the other the “public”.  You didn’t have to pay to get in to the public pool.  Only boys or men went in there in the nude.  I learnt to swim over there and we never worried about costumes.  It had frogs, tadpoles and fish in it.  Only the moormen were in charge.  There was a fence round it and they built concrete walls round it but it still had a muddy bottom.  The water used to come in over a grating but it never kept anything out.  Along the right-hand side near the canal there were laurel bushes and earth.  Lots of the lads used to use that area as toilets so they used to run along through it and jump in the water.  I got scarlet fever at 16.  One or two people had scarlet fever and diphtheria but nothing like typhoid.

The private part cost 3s 6d (17½p) a year.  It had a wooden fence round it.  On certain nights women only used it.  In the dividing wall there were all little peep holes.  People wore clothing in the private pool.  I had a key and used to go in there.  A lot of the lads used to climb over the fence. The moormen used to catch them and chuck them out.

The Role of the Moorman

The moorman was appointed by Boxmoor Trust.  He was a bloke called Edwards who used to wear a bowler hat which showed his official status.  He had a little sweetshop where the railway bridge goes over Boxmoor Station, in a little cottage there.  A lot of 17-20 year old lads used to gather in there on Sunday afternoon playing cards.  The Moorman was responsible for many more cattle than today because they hadn’t got TB tested herds then.  It was his responsibility to make sure that they got round to different grazing areas.  He had a helper and they used to move the cows from one moor to the other.  They grazed cows near the church opposite the tollhouse.  That field was all buttercups.  I remember when they started up cricket again in about 1920.  The Royal Artillery, who had taken over Boxmoor Hall, wouldn’t let the cricketers cut the out field.  You can imagine the hard hitting!  I used to fetch the balls out of my garden.  The next year they did cut it.  Unfortunately the cattle used to come down there so the groundsman before the Saturday match (they didn’t used to play on Sundays) came round and cleaned up all the cowpats.  Blow me down, just before the match, another herd would come down!

The cricket ground had a chain around it.  If the moorman caught you with a bike on their land there was trouble.

Two Waters Road

Down by what we used to call the ‘highbridge’ or ‘humpback bridge’ (rebuilt in 1935), near the Whip and Collar (Indian Restaurant in 1990s) there was a house which used to be just where the electricity sub-station is now, just off the road by the council nurseries.  A man called Burgess lived there and he used to let row boats out and that’s where I learnt to row for about 1s (5p) an hour.  There was a swing bridge just below there but they back-filled it after the building of the new town.  The river used to go down to Two Waters Mill there and I can recall that my old grandfather said he remembered coming up there.  I can remember that they opened the swing bridge for a big dredger and it went round to the old wooden bridge where the railway used to be.  It got as far as there and they dredged that out because the boats used to go down to Two Waters Mill.  I can never remember seeing a boat going down there in my time but the swing bridge could be opened.  They had another swing bridge up the gravel pits just before the Three Horseshoes, at Winkwell.  The boats used to go in there and fetch the gravel out in the 1930s.

Canal Dredging

I remember them dredging the canal out.  They used big hoppers or iron boats.  They had a team of men who used to dig the mud out, put it in barrows and run up planks into these boats that’s why the allotment grounds were all mud.  The last lot they tipped was down at the meadow just beyond the nurseries.  There used to be some blokes laying around, waiting for casual work and they unloaded the coal boats before they got mechanical things for Dickinson’s and Frogmore.  My father used a lot of the pubs, so he said, “If you want it, I’ve got a mudding job for you”.  He used to collect these men up and they used to tie sacking round their trousers.  They worked in pairs. They used to have to run up planks, ceiling height and they got a shilling (5 p) a ton.  That was good money.  The hoppers held 45 tons.  If there were six or seven of them they could probably fill it in a day.

August - Work or Pleasure

Every August they used to shut the canal for a week, if we wanted a new pair of gates in our lock at Boxmoor or a new pair of gates further down.  August Bank Holiday Monday was one of those times when the boat people used to tie up anyway.  They would shut the canal down for a week between our lock and the Albion, at Durrants Hill, Apsley, and you’d probably see about 14 or 15 pairs of boats tied up.

The old landlord at the Albion clapped his hands with glee.  They used to have the stables there, just out in the back bit of garden.  Old Bunning, the blacksmith, used to be over near the Old Salmon public house opposite Dickinson’s card department entrance.  The boat people used to take the horses into the yard and he used to shoe them there.  (My father used to take all his pickaxes and crowbars to old Frank Bunning and he used to do all of them up for him.)

Public Relations

The old man used to know everyone because he visited all the pubs in his section of the canal.  He cycled back and forth along his stretch.  He used to go up to Dudswell in later life - this was after the war - to see some men working up there or see what wanted doing.  When he came back it was 10.00 am and he’d got to pass all the pubs in Berkhamsted which he didn’t pass and then he’d get down to The Three Horseshoes, at Winkwell and he used to go in there.  That was a little pub, which used to sell sweets and, quite likely, boots and shoes.  It was also a stabling place for the boat horses.  Then he’d got to pass The Fishery and he’d never pass the Fishery.  He’d get home about midday and it was time for his local, so he went in there and then off to bed.  Opening hours were 10.00 am until 2.00 pm on six days a week and 12.00 noon until 2.00 pm on Sunday.

No Favours

When I was working at Dickinson’s I was a bit cheesed off, so I kept on to him about getting me a job on the canal as a carpenter.  I was about 15 or 16 at the time.  He came home one day and he didn’t go to bed.  He said, “Come down the yard” and he gave me a piece of pitch pine 5 inches (12.7 cm) square.  He made a mark on the square and said, “Here, saw that off”.  He gave me a good sharp saw.  Anyway I sawed it off and he put this set square on again, “⅛ off”, he said.  I’d failed the test, so that was it.

Canal Traffic at Boxmoor

I remember there used to be a lot of horse traffic and noise but we were used to it.  There were always lots of arguments about using the locks and you could hear people shouting and yelling.  I’ve seen many fights going on between people going up the canal.  A chap would come in and he’d send his lock wheeler up ahead and draw the water off before the boat got there even though there was a boat ahead of him.  That caused trouble!  Just before the war they put the lock distance poles up, and if you were past that, it was your lock.  This post saved a lot of arguments.  I’ve seen as many as 50 pairs of boats in one day go through our lock.

Fellows, Morton and Clayton were the big boys of the canal.  Bucks Barges, who used to have barges on the Thames, also used to come up through Boxmoor.  Then there were the odd people who owned their own pairs of boats and who had probably got a house on land at Startopsend, Marsworth.

Fellows, Morton and Clayton, I can well remember, used to have steamboats.  You can imagine fitting a boiler into a little cabin, they used to burn coke and they were very, very quiet.  It meant more labour because you had to have the stoker looking after the engine and two on your boat.


All the boats used to be painted and decorated attractively.  The water cans always used to be painted.  No one would think of putting a plain galvanised iron can on board.  The headlights were paraffin oil lamps and they were smashing great things.  They had a magnifying glass in the front.  They were just like ordinary paraffin lamps but with chimneys and they were all brass.

The boats used to carry all sorts of stuff.  In London when they had a lot of horses, dung boats used to come up through Boxmoor.  They’d have a lock wheeler who’d knock at our door saying, “Missus, there’s a dung boat coming up.  Shut the windows up”.  In the summer time they’d have all the flies following them.  They used to bring up a lot of soot too.  Londoners had no gas fires then. They’d got market gardens in Bedfordshire that used to use the soot on the land, same as they used the manure.

Balderson’s Wharf (B&Q car park since 1980s)

Balderson’s Wharf used to have coal.  Boats would bring it to him.  He’d be a depot and sell it.  He used to trade in coal and cask wine before Roses came.  A lot of the wharf was filled in when Roses came.  Just at the side of where used to be what we called the tin can factory.  They used to make the milk churns and the little half pint oval cans.  They did soldering there.  They were approached from the one-way street, which went up to Corner Hall.  Also between there and Balderson’s used to be a gully with water in it.  It used to go under the canal in the coal bit and come out where they’ve built the overflow now, just below the Whip and Collar bridge (Indian Restaurant K in 1990s).

Lavers Woodyard

Lavers Woodyard used to have a lot of timber brought by canal and so did Fosters Sawmills (now site of River Park Flats).  Sometimes they used to have them in logs and they used to saw their own up.  Keyes at Berkhamsted just below the station bridge, used to have a lot of timber.  They also used to bring these big barges up, which could only go as far as Berkhamsted drawn by one shire horse.  They were long and full width of the lock.  They used to come up with 45 tons on.  If they’d gone any further they would have had to go across Tring Summit.  Tring Summit has always got to be kept up to a depth of 3½ feet (91 cm) but these barges used to take a bit more than that so they would have dragged on the bottom.  I should say the depth of the canal in the middle is about 5 feet (1.5 metres) and when it was dredged regularly the big boats which were 14 feet (4.25 metres) wide had no trouble in passing.  Coopers, Berkhamsted, used to have arsenic and sulphur brought up by the big horse-drawn boats.

Cadbury’s boat used to come down, full of sacks of cocoa beans.  We used to give the boatman coal, wood and paraffin oil and he used to give us cocoa beans.  My old grandfather used to crush them up and boil them in a big iron saucepan, an acquired taste I think.  It was real cocoa, you had lots of cocoa butter on the top of it and it was really strong.

I remember the Ovaltine used to have 14 of their own boats.  Being as they were a food factory the boats were spotless with gleaming paintwork inside and outside.  They only used to go up and down, once a week.  They used to go up empty to the collieries to bring the coal down.  These wooden boats were all built at Walkers at Rickmansworth.

Care of Canal Children

I remember one family.  The mother who was large and a bit scruffy had about five or six little kids.  The boats going up would warn her that there was an inspector at our lock so she’d keep two kids perhaps, and send the rest all round the roads.  She used to wet the flannel in the canal and wipe their faces.  The health inspector would ask her if they were the only children she had and she replied, “Yes, sir”.  He could have reported her for uncleanliness or he could have told her to mend her ways!  She would pick the children up further along the canal and carry on as before.  If the boats were tied up for any length of time for some reason or other then the children could go to the local school and they’d got to accept them.  I think in Paddington or Brentford they had a school of their own.

Childhood Memories

I went to Two Waters School.  When I was older I used to cut across the back moor and over the railway unless I got caught and the times I’ve had the cane for that.  The Headmaster used to give me the cane.  I should have used the A41 (now the A4251).  If I was a bit late I used to cut across the moor and creep up the railway bank.  I went from the junior school to what we used to call the old school next door.  The school had a tower and a bell.  I stayed until I was 14.

In about 1916 when I was about 7 and when a blizzard was blowing, they were giving away half a pound of margarine up at the International Store in the High Street, in the Old Town, my mother sent me out to go there.  There was a queue.  Coming back I was frozen, I can always remember.  I was a little tiny skinny bloke.

In about 1919, there was an explosion at Two Waters Mill or Tot Mill as we used to call it where Masters Yard was in the Two Waters Road (heavy duty contracting equipment in 1990s).  During the war they had a scheme going to produce paraffin oil.  They used to get it out of all the greasy rags from industry and steam them so that the grease and liquor would run off.  Apparently something happened and there was an explosion during the day.  I was in the class at Two Waters School in the senior school, I think it was standard three.  All the windows came in and flames came up.  At that time we had an aircraft gun on Boxmoor Common and I thought it was that had gone off.  We looked out and saw the flames.  There were two houses in Two Waters Road blown down, on the opposite side, the tall brick chimney like Frogmore’s used to have, that swayed but never came down.  A lot of the timber finished up in our yard and we made a fence with it.  It belonged to the canal company and the ground rent was the canal people’s.  Years later they took this chimney down, brick by brick.  They stored them in the British Waterways Yard, at Apsley.  They used these bricks for repairs.  The explosion blew the roofs off two or three houses in Two Waters Road.  They didn’t repair the nearby homes instead they just pulled them down.

The Cottage Next Door

Next door there used to be another old cottage on the side towards Boxmoor way.  This cottage must have been about 200 years older than the lockhouse.  I think it was a pub.  I think I was about 14 when the people got out of there so it would be about the mid 1920s.  The people that lived there had a little watercress bed and their drinking water was only river water.  When they’d got violent rains they used to come and get water from us.  I was only short, and yet I used to have to duck down to get into their doorway.  It had an upstairs and it had a wall in front but it was so low down it must have been damp.  When they pulled it down in about 1925 we went in there and there were several layers of lino on the floor.

Farewell to the Tollhouse

My father had died in 1949 and my mother died in 1959 aged 82.  I stayed on there at a nominal rent for a while.  Before my mother died they put electricity in, from a cable down the canal so we had electric light and an electric kettle and that was very good.

I left the tollhouse in 1959.  The canal people made a new bathroom in there.  They put an 80 gallon water tank in the roof with a motor on the pump so that it automatically filled the tank.  They built the kitchen up to the living room level with the towpath and installed an electric stove and electric fires.  A young married carpenter and his wife lived there for about two years and then they moved down to the next lock house towards Apsley just beyond Frogmore.

The house then remained empty because British Waterways said that they wanted it for a workman.  Three weeks later vandals got in.  They smashed the bath up, the pump, everything.  They threw all the slates off the roof and started a little fire, so they had to pull it down!  A sad ending for my home of 50 years.