Chapter IX.
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“By his will, in 1750, John Sawell charged about an acre of land in Tring meadow, with 20s a year to be given to the poor parishioners.  At the time of the inclosure of that parish, an allotment of about three roods was awarded in lieu of the one acre; which allotment was afterwards taken by the Grand Junction Canal Company, when engaged in forming the Marsworth reservoir, and used for that purpose.  They pay yearly £1 to the poor in respect of this allotment.

History and Topography of Buckinghamshire, Joseph Sheahan (1862)

Ice-breaking at Marsworth, c.1930.

The southern section of the Grand Union Canal (1964).  The thick blue lines represent broad waterways. Regent’s Canal Dock is also known as Limehouse Basin.


Grand Union Canal Company route map c.1938, showing the wharves that lay between
Marsworth Toll Office (lock 45) and Uxbridge.

To the east, Marsworth is hemmed in by the West Coast Main Line while the Canal meanders around village’s western boundary:

“The Grand Junction Canal, which crosses this Parish from north to south, has given rise to much improvement in the village, and the erection of many cottages for the abode of persons in the employment of the Company of Proprietors, on its banks and near the locks.”

The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, George Lipscomb (1847)

Marsworth wharf stood at the Canal’s junction with the Aylesbury Arm.  When put up for auction at the Rose & Crown Inn at Tring in 1821, the wharf comprised:

“An excellent dwelling-house, and Grocer’s Shop, Warehouse, Stabling for 18 horses, and other convenient Buildings, brick-built and slated and in substantial repair.  The whole Let at an annual Rent of £60 and possession of which will be given at Michaelmas next.”

Bucks Chronicle, 9th September 1821

By the mid-1930s, the wharf had fallen out of commercial use and in Grand Union Canal Company advertising material of the time is described as ‘Marsworth Yard’.  By then it had probably assumed a new life as a concrete pile-making works, for following its creation in 1929 the Company commenced a major canal widening and improvement programme,  much of it centring on its newly acquired Warwick canals.  This programme, which continued up to and ― via the British Waterways Board ― following WWII., required the manufacture of tens of thousands of concrete piles for bank protection.

Marsworth Wharf during its days as a maintenance yard.
The lock-keeper's cottage on the right (beyond the horse) marks the start of the Aylesbury Arm.

Canal bank erosion was a problem even in the days of horse-drawn boats, but with the arrival of steam-power, collisions with banks and the turbulence created by powered craft began to cause significant damage to the extent that some canal companies would not permit powered craft on their waterways (thereby further assisting in the decline of our canal system).  To combat erosion, canal banks were strengthened with reinforced concrete piles, and Marsworth Yard later played host to one of the manufacturing plants.  Piles were collected from its wharf and transported to site by barge, where they were driven into place with a pile-driver and then fixed more firmly with protective steel tie bars.  Many miles of canal bank were reinforced in this way.  By the end of the 1960s, concrete piling was being phased out in favour of galvanised steel trench sheeting, and Marsworth’s piling-making works was then leased to a concrete slab manufacturer, a business that has since closed leaving the usual quandary of how to redevelop the vacant land.  Today, all that remains of the wharf’s commercial past is its former warehouse, at present a British Waterways office, and a Cowans Sheldon & Co. hand-operated crane of 1880.


From Marsworth Junction, the ascent up the northern face of the Chilterns becomes steeper, locks 39 to 45 (Marsworth top lock) being encountered in under a mile.

Double locks at Marsworth.

Lock 39 at Startops End is immediately adjacent to the former White Lion public house and the bridge (No. 132) carrying the Aston Clinton to Ivinghoe road (Lower Icknield Way) across the canal.  This bridge is one of a number that were extended during the late 1830s by the addition of a second arch, built to give access to a second lock in parallel with that existing.  The intention was to reduce queues at busy locks and, by building the parallel lock narrow (7ft as opposed to 14ft 3ins), to reduce the amount of water released from the Summit by narrowboats travelling singly.  All the locks from Marsworth to Stoke Hammond were converted in this way, but the modification eventually became redundant following the construction of increased reservoir capacity and a chain of back-pumping stations (known as the ‘Northern Engines’) along this section, while narrow boats increasingly travelled in pairs, passing through the wide locks abreast.  The parallel locks were eventually filled in leaving several double-arched canal bridges as mementos of their existence. [1]

Upper floor of the former lock keepers cottage at Marsworth, now transformed into the Bluebell Tea Room.

Adjacent to lock 39 is the Bluebell Tea Room, formerly a lock keeper’s cottage.  As such, it comprised a living room and two bedrooms at towing path level, beneath which was a kitchen, which was apparently cold and damp.  Running water was laid on, but at that time there was no gas or electricity and cooking was done on a coal-fired kitchen range.  Towards the end of the Canal’s carrying days, the cottage was inhabited by the Oakley family.  Arthur Oakley and a workmate cared for the seven locks up to Marsworth top lock, one working from 6am to 2pm when the other took over until 10pm when the flight was locked shut for the night.  Each week Arthur and his mate alternated shifts, and they had every other weekend off.

To the west of the Marsworth locks are the four Tring reservoirs.  Built and extended in stages during the first half of the 19th century, their purpose is to supplement (originally by using steam pumping) the water supply to the Tring summit [2] and to the nearby Aylesbury Arm.  Supplying the summit with sufficient water has been a problem since the Canal’s earliest days, for in addition to the effects of leakage and evaporation, every time a boat crosses some 55,000 gallons of water flows down the canal in each direction.  Dry summers have interrupted traffic at this point, sometimes for lengthy periods, the following being typical of the news reports that arose periodically (down to the present day):

“Mr. Westcar’s large oxen were intended to come from nearest point of the Grand Junction Canal to his farm, then by a barge to Paddington Wharf, but the shortness of the water on the summit at Tring, by which the public have, during this and the late summers suffered so much, prevented it, and the oxen were obliged to be driven to Two Waters wharf [Hemel Hempstead], where they were put into a barge and conveyed to Paddington.  A powerful fire-engine [3] is nearly finished, near to Tring, intended to pump up water to supply the summit level of the canal, and which will, we hope, prevent in future, the interruptions which trade has hitherto experienced from want of water, and the consequent loss to the Company of tonnage.”

The Morning Chronicle, 13th December 1802

Despite water being pumped from the reservoirs, during prolonged periods of drought the water level at the summit could not be maintained at its proper depth, resulting in the draught of heavily loaded boats having to be reduced.  This was done using of a ‘lightening boat’, a broad-beamed craft with shallow hull sides, which was double-ended to enable its rudder to be mounted at either end to avoid the need to turn it at the end of its short journey.  To reduce its draught, part of a boat’s cargo would be transferred to the lightening boat, and then transferred back when the summit had been crossed.  The lightening boat would then perform the same service for a barge crossing in the opposite direction, in effect running a shuttle service.


Marsworth top lock (No. 45) and Bulbourne Junction.  The towing path bridge crosses the Wendover Arm.
The attractive building on the right is a former toll house in front of which are two derelict side ponds . . . .

. . . . and from the opposite direction, Marsworth top lock and Jem Bates’s dry dock, built in one of the former parallel locks.

The 3½-mile Tring summit pound leads south from Marsworth top lock (No. 45); at 392ft 7½ inches above the Thames at Brentford (according to the deposited plans), it is the highest point on the Grand Junction Canal main line, although Welford pound on the ‘old’ Grand Union is some 20 feet higher.  Bates’s covered dry dock is immediately adjacent to lock 45.  This firm specialise in building and restoring wooden canal boats at their boatyard at Puttenham on the Aylesbury Arm.  Beside the dry dock entrance a signpost informs boaters that Braunston lies 54 miles to the north, and for those whose journey is through the Tring cutting to Brentford, there is a further 39 miles to travel to their destination.  To the west of the dry dock, the 6¾-mile — but mostly closed — Wendover Arm branches off, passing close to the former Marsworth toll house (Grade II-listed) before skirting the edges of Tring, Aston Clinton and Halton to terminate at the long disused Wendover Wharf, which lies a short distance from the town centre.  It is at this point that the Wendover Stream (the outflow from a natural spring at Wellhead, near St Mary's Church) enters the Arm to provide much of the water for the Tring summit.

Bulbourne Works.

About half a mile south of Marsworth top lock the Canal passes the architecturally appealing British Waterways depot.  Lock gates for the GJC were first constructed at Paddington, but in 1847 it was decided it would be less expensive if they were built nearer to where they were needed, so a manufacturing works was set up at Bulbourne.  The workshops shown above, which date from 1882, are probably to a design by Hubert Thomas (1839-1916), the Grand Junction Canal Company’s long-serving civil engineer and later General Manager.  They comprised a . . . .

• sawyer’s shop, where timber was planed to size and drilled to take bolts and pegs;
• carpenter’s shop, where wooden lock gates were assembled;
• blacksmith’s forge and fitting shop, for metal work; and
• fabrication shop, were composite lock gates were manufactured together with such components as handrails, metal balance beams, paddles and rods.

The buildings are of yellow brick with arched windows, the site’s most prominent feature being the imposing Italianate water tower capped with an ornate spire and weather vane shown above.

Bulbourne Works.

A steam engine was used to raise water from a borehole in the yard into a tank in the tower, which acted as a reservoir for the boilers of the two steam engines that drove the workshop machinery.  The workshops were aligned to take power from the steam-powered main drive shaft, but in 1893 mechanical shaft and belt propulsion was replaced by electric power:

The Engineering Works of the Grand Union Canal Company at Bulbourne near New Mill, Tring, are about to be fitted up with complete electric plant for the supply of both lighting and power.  It is at these works that the major portion of the locks gates and other heavy appliances necessary for the Grand Junction Canal are manufactured.  The works are very advantageously situated on the bank of the Canal, and possess every facility for the transport of timber, iron, coal and all materials required, as well as of the various constructions to their several destinations when completed.

The Bucks Herald, 19th August 1893.

In its day, the depot was the main lock gate construction site for the south of England.  Wooden lock gates − which last typically for 25 years − were manufactured from unseasoned oak, which to prevent splitting was kept damp by storage in a large water-filled hopper.  In 2004, British Waterways transferred this work to their workshops at Bradley and Stanley Ferry, and although they retain an office at Bulbourne, most of the site is now used as a forge by a local artist-blacksmith.  At the time of writing, the former manager’s house, a Victorian gem (just visible, left background above), is empty and slowly falling into rack and ruin.  There are proposals to redevelop the site − including refurbishments, conversions and new buildings − for housing.

For the next 3 miles, the Canal continues southwards across the ridge of the Chiltern Hills, about half this distance lying in the heavily wooded Tring cutting. [4] Dug by hand to any average depth of 30ft, the cutting was a significant piece of engineering for its time.  The summit pound follows the southerly course of the River Bulbourne, which originally rose at Bulbourne Head, a spring-fed lake that lay a short distance to the east of the present-day hamlet of Bulbourne ― the position of Bulbourne Head remains clearly visible on satellite maps, and the noticeable widening of the Canal just to the south of Bulbourne bridge (No. 133) marks the lake’s western extremity.

Tring Cutting, looking south from bridge No. 134.


The former wharfinger’s house and office, Pendley Wharf.

In addition to the service wharf at Bulbourne, there were three other wharfs along the Summit (possibly more), although little is known about them.  Pendley Wharf was part of the Pendley Estate.  It lay just to the north of Station Road bridge (No. 135), the site being marked today by the attractive white-painted cottage that served as the wharfinger’s home and office.  In its day, Pendley wharf was used to ship consignments of hay and straw to London, from where it received the usual cargoes of manure in return and probably bricks, for the Mead family who leased the wharf owned canal boats and also had business interests in the brickfields at Iver.  In its last years the wharf is believed to have played host to a saw mill.

History has left two brief references to the bridge that crosses Tring cutting at this point (No. 135).  The present road bridge is of modern construction, but its predecessor earned a dangerous reputation on account of a very sharp turn in the road in its approach to the bridge:

“Edward Craddock Knight, a prominent businessman of Tring . . . was riding in a trap with Mrs Knight when the reins caught on the pony’s blinker. The animal being fresh bolted and Mr Knight couldn’t stop it.  They reached the canal bridge at right angles and the trap dashed against the low wall.  Mr & Mrs Knight were thrown over the bridge.  Mrs Knight struck the bank and rebounded into the canal.  Mr Knight was hurled across the canal onto the towpath and died within a minute or two of a fractured skull.  At the moment of impact he was standing up trying to pull up the horse.”

Bucks Herald, 24th May, 1890

The author of the next reference appears to have paused on his way to Redbourn to let his imagination run riot:

“It is half an-hour’s walk from the town to the railway station at Tring.  After passing the sign post on the Berkhampstead (sic.) road, a long descent, shaded by many trees on the southern side, leads me once again to the towing path of the Grand Junction Canal.  Here, however, the scene is not like that of the usual canal side, but far more picturesque.  I have passed through a little gateway near the bridge, and scrambled down a most precipitous path to the water side, where —

“By the margin, willow-veil’d,
 Slide the heavy barges trail’d,
 By slow horses;”

where the steep banks on either side are covered with birch and larch and beech, and where wild roses, growing on the very edge of the water, strew it continually with their pink petals, now falling fast.  The waters of this canal are in many places clear as a running stream; but the barge that passed just now, parting the masses of floating weed as it went, has left in its wake a muddy turmoil.”

Highways and Byways in Hertfordshire, Herbert W. Tomkins (1902)

At Newground, about half a mile to the south of the Station Road canal bridge, is a substantial canal wharf, long out of use, which once served a number of large corrugated iron warehouses to its rear. Now the premises of Solgar, an American Vitamin and Herb distributor, the complex was one of a number of ‘buffer depots’ built for the Ministry of Food at strategic points throughout the country — usually beside a railway or canal —  to store emergency stocks of food for distribution during WWII, a role that continued into the 1950s. Canal boats worked to the depot carrying such commodities as imported flour and maize. [5]

The former Ministry of Food wharf on Beggars Lane, Tring.

New Ground wharf lay just to the south of New Ground Road Bridge (No. 136).  It probably served the nearby village of Aldbury as a typical country wharf (hay and straw out, manure and coal in).  It was at Aldbury in 1795 where, according to the Tring vestry minutes, a church service held by Aldbury’s dissenters in a barn was interrupted when “. . . . a ganger over the navvies who were constructing the Canal, procured a duck and hunted it with dogs” in the full view of a congregation who were receiving their Sunday sermon.  The preacher admonished the duck hunter thus: “As the dog hunt the duck so the Devil would hunt W ― (the ganger) if he died with his soul in its present state”.  Hunting a duck with dogs was an alternative pastime to cock fighting and one that lives on in the public house name ‘The Dog and Duck’.



The Bridgewater Monument.

Slightly to the east of Aldbury lies the Ashridge Estate, once the seat of the Duke of Bridgewater.  In 1803, the Tring vestry minutes record the Duke’s passing.  His Grace’s fortune having being spent constructing the Bridgewater Canal, the family seat, Ashridge House ― according to the vestry minutes ― fell into “decay to such an extent that in places the roof had become open to the sky”.  The entry goes on to record that at the time of his death, the Duke’s canal revenues had made him a very wealthy man and that he intended to rebuild Ashridge House on a very grand scale, had death not intervened.  Ashridge House, as it stands today, was built between 1808 and 1825 by the architect James Wyatt.  In 1832, the ‘father of inland navigation’ was commemorated with the erection of the nearby Bridgewater Monument, a 108ft tower built overlooking the Grand Junction Canal.

The Tring summit ends at Cowroast lock, the odd name of which is believed to be a corruption of ‘Cow Rest’, a relic from the days when herds of cattle were driven through the Tring Gap to market in London.  John Hassell observed that the spot was:

“. . . most erroneously named . . . Here we saw herds of cows grazing, and observed a fresh drove of sucklers with their calves coming up to remain for the night, and we found, upon enquiry, that this inn [The Cowroast Inn] was one of the regular stations for the drovers halting their cattle for refreshment; hence I should suppose, the proper name is the Cow Rest, or resting place of those animals, for along the road, and all the way through the breeding and grazing parts of Bucks, Bedfordshire, and Northamptonshire, there is a perpetual supply of cows passing to the capital . . .”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell

A pair of L. B. Faulkner narrow boats, southbound at Cow Roast lock.  The nearer is carrying coal.
The telegraph poles make a nice contrast with this earlier era of human innovation.


South of Cowroast, the Canal continues to follow the original course of the Bulbourne, then, at Hemel Hempstead, of the Gade, of which the Bulbourne forms a tributary.  Both rivers powered numerous water mills.  When the Canal was built the Bulbourne and the Gade were diverted into it, with excess water being returned to the original river beds across overflow weirs set into the canal bank.  During its early years, this extraction of water for the Canal was to bring the Company into conflict with the water millers, particularly with the paper manufacturer John Dickinson.

“John Dickinson thought it would be interesting to become an astronomer, and built an observatory at Abbot’s Hill in which he had a fine telescope set up. When it was ready he entered it by himself to observe the moon. He twisted the instrument about and aimed all over the sky, but could see nothing. Swearing loudly, he left the observatory and never entered it again. He had in fact omitted to take the cap off the telescope.”

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955


John Dickinson (1782-1869),
inventor, paper manufacturer and
Fellow of the Royal Society

Heavy traffic on the Canal resulted in more lockage water flowing down it than had been anticipated, leaving insufficient to return to the rivers for the use of Dickinson’s paper mills at Apsley; and, to exacerbate the problem, that section of the Canal also wasted water through leakage.  Dickinson’s complaint was not merely about insufficient water to power the mill wheel, but insufficient water to support the pulping process.  The 1793 Act required Company to build a reservoir to compensate the water millers on these rivers for any loss of water to the Canal ― expressed in the legal English of its time, the gist of the relevant section reads:

“That before Brooks, Streams, Rivulets, Waters, Water-Courses, or Springs, which now supply the Rivers or Streams of Gade, or Colne, or the Berkhempstead River called Bulborne . . . . shall be taken or used, for the Use or Supply of the said intended Canal . . . . be diminished by Means thereof, the said Commissioners shall, and are hereby authorized and required, to set out some Place or Places, as near to the Line of the said intended Canal . . . . as they shall judge most proper and convenient, a Piece or Pieces of Land, for the making and forming a Reservoir or Reservoirs, for collecting Flood-Waters sufficient to supply such Rivers, Streams, and Cuts, with a Quantity of Water, equal at least to what shall be taken . . . . for the Use or Supply of the said intended Canal . . . .”

Grand Junction Canal Act, 1793 (pp31-32)

― in other words the Company had by some means to put back, for the use of the millers, the water it took out.  But the reservoir was not built and the long-running litigation that resulted led not only to Dickinson being awarded damages, but the Company being obliged to re-route the Canal at Apsley to reduce the leakage. [6]

An artists impression of Nash Mills, dated 1859.

As originally built, the Canal at this point followed a separate course to the Gade, from above Apsley Mills to below Nash Mills, where it rejoined the river after passing through a series of locks; the deviation changed the course of the Canal to that of the river.  This required a further Act, which received the royal assent on 17th March 1818, and the deviation opened that year:

“Dickinson had contracted to carry out the brickwork for the new canal, and supervised it himself.  He and a workman named Marks had a violent quarrel over where a marking-post should be set in the ground.  They came to blows, and Dickinson was well and truly beaten in the fight.  The next day the workman expected to get the sack; instead Dickinson gave him half a crown and later made him sub-foreman at Batchworth.”

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955

The damages awarded to Dickinson must have been substantial, for in 1816 the Board withheld the half-yearly dividend with the explanation that (among other expenditure) the Company “had to pay heavy damages unexpectedly awarded to Messrs. Dickinson and Longman, for a subtraction of water from their mills on the Rivers Gade and Bulbourne, between the years 1809 and 1815”.  At the time of Hassell’s visit to Cowroast lock, this conflict with the paper manufacturer (not to be the last) had recently been settled:

“On the right of the road at the Cow Roast, a lane leads to the navigation, at the distance of about a hundred yards; there are two cottages on the banks of the canal, which are called Water-gauge Houses, one of which is inhabited by a servant of the Grand Junction Company, the other is occupied by a person placed there by the Duke of Northumberland. [7] Both of these persons keep an accurate account of the height of the water at all hours of the day, and also at the times of different boats passing the locks.

A deficiency in what is termed the river stream, or back water, for supplying the bed of the River Bulbourne, which turns the wheels of the paper mills upon that river, occasioned a protracted litigation between the Company and Messrs Longman and Dickinson, who ultimately obtained damages against the company.”

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell

Other than curing the leakage, the Apsley deviation was to prove of benefit to Dickinson’s business in another way, for the Canal now passed immediately adjacent to his mills, thereby providing a ready transport link to other of his canal-side factories and depots in London, and to the London docks.  However, Dickinson wished to have stronger control over the water resources of the Bulbourne and Gade valleys and with this end in mind he applied, in 1821, to have himself appointed an officer of the Grand Junction Canal Company.  His application having failed, his wife duly confided to her diary:

“My Father . . . told us the Superintendent situation is to be vested in the Select Committee so Mr. D.’s prospect has failed, a thing we neither of us much regret.”

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955

Trouble between Dickinson and the Company over the water supply to his factories led to further litigation in 1851.  Three years previously, the Company had sunk a borehole adjacent to Cowroast lock from which it extracted water for the Tring summit.  Because chalk is porous, it absorbs rainwater, in effect forming an underground reservoir or aquifer that at Cowroast is maintained by a layer of non-porous clay beneath it.  Originally ― it was alleged ― this water found its way into the Bulbourne, then flowed down the river valley to Dickinson’s mills.  After the new borehole had been dug, it was observed that the level of water in a nearby well fell when it was being pumped.  This caused Dickinson to apply for an injunction to restrain the Company from extracting water that he felt would otherwise be available for the use of his mills.  The court directed the eminent civil engineer William Cubitt (1785-1861) to investigate.  By taking careful measurements in the Bulbourne when water was being extracted from the borehole, Cubitt was able to demonstrate that the river level did in fact fall at these times.  Dickinson, having been granted a perpetual injunction against the Company, informed his sister that:

“This is not only a triumph, but a most important relief from anxiety, because the costs on our side only have run up to £1700 and upwards, and the [Canal] Company’s are at least as much.  This is the second lesson I have given that rascally Company, and I should think it is the last time that I shall have to fight them”.

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955

But Cubitt’s method appears to have been flawed, for some years later during a period of drought that left the millers short of river water, the Company was still able to pump water from their Cowroast borehole, thus proving that their water came from another source.  The injunction was set aside by mutual consent, since when the Cowroast borehole (plus another since added at Northchurch) has been of great service in supplying the Tring summit during dry periods.

Canal scene at Dudswell lock (No. 48).
The rollers just visible behind the horse’s harness prevent the towing rope from chafing.

From Cowroast, the Canal commences its 35-mile descent along the valleys of the Bulbourne, Gade, Colne and Brent to its destination at Brentford, and in the course of its journey negotiates 57 locks.  The first section of the descent is comparatively steep, with 33 locks encountered in the 15 miles to Watford.  The first is at the hamlet of Dudswell, which in 1798 was severed by the new waterway.  Here, a prominent feature of the canal scene is ‘Mill House’, which has an interesting history linked to the Canal.

The Company built Mill House to stable 20 boat horses, with an adjacent cottage for a keeper, and leased it to Pickfords, who at the time had an extensive canal carrying business.  Their overnight fly-boat services operated to strict timetables, which required fresh boat-horses to be available at points along their routes.  It is estimated that during the course of the day up to 40 boatmen would exchange their horses at Dudswell.

Boat horses were sometimes beautifully decorated.  Their harnesses were fitted with small brightly-painted rollers (just visible in the photograph above) through which the tow rope ran to prevent it causing chafing injuries, and in summer they wore decorative cotton covers over their ears as protection against the irritating flies.  When hauling a barge, a boat-horse would often have a metal bucket (its feed tin) left over its mouth to prevent it stopping to graze on the towing path, for should it stop, the momentum of the loaded barge was likely to pull the horse into the canal; the same outcome could also result from the tow line snapping.  Thus, at points along the canal bank there were steps into the water to allow horses to be recovered ― a few still exist.  The horse’s feed tin, in common with everything else associated with a canal barge ― drinking water can, wash basin, cabin stool, headlamp, bucket, the walls inside the cabin, the built-in furniture and doors  ―  was brightly painted with pictures and posies.

This notice on the Regents Canal records another cause of horses entering the water.

In the late 1840s Pickfords gave up canal carrying in favour of the railways, following which the Dudswell premises were taken over by the Company’s newly formed Carrying Establishment which used the building until 1876, when they too withdrew from the business.  The next tenant was Albert Mead, a member of the extensive Tring-based family who ran Tring Flour Mill and the canal wharf at Gamnel Bridge.  The Meads also operated a small fleet of barges and had extensive business interests on the canal at Paddington Basin.  Albert Mead’s tenure at Dudswell lasted until the 1890s, after which the building became the Dudswell Hay and Corn Stores, a milling and mixing business that received consignments of grain from local farmers, which were processed on the premises and then offered for sale in various forms including animal feed.  During the 20th century, the Dudswell Mill passed through a number of hands and uses, eventually becoming a warehouse until, in 1986, it assumed the residential role it fulfils today.

A short distance to the south, the Canal reaches Northchurch where a British Waterways borehole is located from which water can be back-pumped to the Tring summit using equipment installed upstream at Dudswell and Cowroast locks.


Approaching the Port of Berkhamsted from the south.

Stoppage at Berkhamsted, Buck Herald, 1st March 1890.

To the south of Northchurch, the Canal flows into the ‘Port of Berkhamsted’, or perhaps the former port, for of the eight working wharfs that once served the town none now remain. [8] The section of the Canal through Berkhamsted was opened in 1798.  Castle Wharf, between Ravens Lane and Castle Street, became the centre of the town’s canal trade and it was this area that became known as ‘The Port’.  The town’s commerce then grew rapidly due to this quicker and cheaper means of transporting the usual bulk consignments of coal, grain, building materials and manure.  Wharves, timber yards, breweries, boat-building, and later a chemical works, and all the people associated with these industries flourished as a result.  Ironically, the waterway was later to carry some of the materials used in the construction of the London & Birmingham Railway, which following its opening in 1838 captured much of the Canal’s business leading to a decline in its fortunes.

Among the new businesses that the Canal brought to Berkhamsted was boat-building.  In 1799, the firm of Peacock & Willetts established a boat-building business on the canal bank at Castle Wharf.  Their first craft, owned by William Butler, was launched in 1801 and registered the following year in the Company’s Gauging Register.  Named Berkhamsted Castle after the ruined Norman castle that stands nearby, she was the conventional length for a narrow boat ― 70 ft ― but at 14ft she had twice the beam, making her a river barge. [9] Gauging records show that she drew 12 inches of water light and 49 inches when loaded to 65 tons.  When inspected she had on board “one Fire Stove, one Pump, One Anchor and Cable, two Warps (or Hawsers), one pair of Oars, three Sets, and two Planks”

The Berkhamsted Castle was the first of 60 boats to be built in Berkhamsted over the next 125 years.  In 1826, the boatyard was acquired by John Hatton, a boat builder, who appears in local trade directories for at least the next 55 years.  A further change of ownership came in 1882, when the yard was acquired by William Edmund Costin, later trading as W. E. Costin Ltd.  Again, trade directories record that he was a boat builder and coal merchant, who traded at Berkhamsted for almost 30 years in premises described as “dock, shed and yard, house and water house”.  Costins built many of the boats for the Aylesbury-based canal carrier John Landon & Co. (later taken over by A. Harvey-Taylor).  They were named after towns in the South of England: Benfleet, Fulham, Blackwall, Erith, Guildford, Purfleet, Richmond and Westminster; the last of the fleet, the Hythe was launched in June 1909.  Other large customers included the canal carrier L. B. Faulkner of Linslade, who commissioned the Vulture, Buzzard, Falcon, The Swan, Cygnet, Dauntless, and White City.  The list goes on, with clients as far away as Birmingham — the Bourne, Chess, Dane, Danube, Dart, Don, Dove, Isis, and Wear were built for the canal carrier, Thomas Clayton Ltd.  Shortly before the boatyard closed, boats constructed for carrying crude tar were built for Fellows, Morton & Clayton.  All these vessels were launched down the company’s slipway sideways on, with the opposite bank being sand-bagged.

A wide boat being launched broadside on, this at Bushell Brother’s boatyard at Tring.

Boat-building ceased in Berkhamsted in 1910, and the premises were then taken over by William Key & Sons, timber merchants, who became established after supplying fencing for the London & Birmingham Railway.  The final owner, Bridgewater Boats, refurbished the old warehouse as a modern dwelling and started a canal boat hire company catering for the leisure industry.  This business closed in 2002 and the boatyard site is scheduled for redevelopment.

Berkhamsted Gas Works ― Canal to the left, West Coast Main Line to the right.

Castle Wharf also serviced ‘The Great Berkhamsted Gas, Light & Coke Company’.  Set up in 1849 to provide street lighting, the original gasworks was built at the junction of Water Lane and the Wilderness.  Its deliveries of coal were by canal, via Castle Wharf, the gas company despatching crude tar products to the London area in return.  In 1906 the gas works moved to the triangle of land between the Canal and the railway line east of Billet Lane, coal then being delivered via a short access line from the railway sidings.  Both gas works are long gone, but a surviving memento of the first is ‘Adelbert House’ in Mill Lane, once the home and office of the Berkhamsted Gas, Light and Coke Company’s manager.

In 1990, East & Son of Gossoms End, Berkhamsted, celebrated the founding of the firm by Job East 150 years earlier. They have made a variety of timber products including lock gates. Here gates have been loaded by crane from premises into Prince and princess. The firm supplied 100 head gates and 102 tail gates for the New Hatton Locks in the 1930s.
 The gas holders of Berkhamsted Gas Light & Coke Co. are those in the background.

The largest commercial operation in Berkhamsted to use the Canal was the chemical business of Cooper, McDougall & Robertson, manufacturers of sheep dip.  This business was started by William Cooper, a veterinary surgeon, who arrived in the town during the early 1840s with very little to his name.  He began to search for a formulation that would combat scab in sheep, a type of mange caused by the sheep scab mite and a condition for which there was then no cure.  By the early 1850s Cooper had developed an effective remedy comprising arsenic and sulphur, and began its manufacture.  So successful was the product that business grew and with it the factory premises, which eventually included a wharf where barges discharged their loads of sulphur, arsenic and coal, and loaded cases of powdered sheep dip for transportation to the London docks.

In 1959, Cooper, McDougall & Robertson was acquired by the Wellcome Foundation, and then in 1992 the French company Roussel acquired the business and its Berkhamsted site.  Having cost a fortune of detoxify, the former industrial premises was sold and redeveloped for housing.



Boxmoor Wharf to let: an advertisement from 1815

To the south of Berkhamsted, the Canal continues its descent through Winkwell to Boxmoor, following closely the course of the River Bulbourne.  Boxmoor Wharf was built by the ‘Box Moor Trustees’ with the proceeds of the sale (in 1799) of common land at Boxmoor to the Grand Junction Canal Company, the wharf’s income going towards the relief of the poor at Hemel Hempstead and Bovingdon. [10]  Later in the century, the wharf became associated with the import of wines and spirits:

“The best known of the lessees in the 19th century was Mr. Balderson, who took over the lease in 1856.  Henry Balderson was a notable figure in the town; he was a dealer in coal, coke, stone, corn, and timber.  He was probably better known nationally as an importer of wines and spirits, especially for his port and Olde Stone Jar Whiskey.  The former came in from Oporto in great barrels, brought down from London by canal and then bottled at the Wharf.  The boats were called Mildred and Ellen.  His son, Robert Henry, joined the firm in 1890.  There is no further record of the name after 1926/7, when it is believed that the business went into liquidation.”

The Book of Boxmoor, Hands and Davis (1994)

Boxmoor Wharf and dock during Baldersons tenure.

The wharf was taken over in 1947 by Rose’s of St Albans, who were expanding their lime juice and lime oil refining business . . . .

“The unprocessed lime juice arrived by ship at London’s docks and the casks were transported by barge down the canal to Boxmoor.  Here the juice was stored in huge oak vats, each holding up to 12,000 gallons.  After a time, the clear green-gold juice was drawn off, filtered and sweetened with pure sugar.  It was finally bottled at St Albans.”

L. Rose & Co.

What was known to boatmen as the ‘barrel run’ took ― on a clear run ― about 12 hours from Brentford to Boxmoor Wharf.  Rose’s was one of the last companies to use the waterway commercially, ceasing their canal operations in 1981.  The site is now occupied by a B&Q DIY store.

Boxmoor Wharf in its limejuice days.  By this date the dock had been filled in.

Another canal-side business based at Boxmoor was Foster’s Saw Mill, which stood on the site of the present day River Park Gardens.  A mill had stood at Boxmoor since the 18th century, when it was originally a shoe-heel and clog factory, powered by a water-wheel driven by the River Bulbourne which ran through the premises.  This was later replaced with a steam engine.  In 1930, the mill was taken over by the firm J. W. Ward of Bourne End.  Many local people were employed there in the preparation and supply of timber for building, fencing, joinery and even musical instruments.  The mill burnt down in 1967.


Narrow boats at Apsley Mill. The butty on the left (Kate) is loading finished products, probably for London.  The two on the right appear to be loaded with raw materials for pulping.  In 1890 Fellows, Morton and Clayton contracted to operate the Dickinson inter-mill service.  In 1897 they had replaced horse-drawn boats with the steamers Countess and Princess together with the butties Maud and May; they were replaced, in 1910, with Alice and Kate.

At Two Waters, the River Gade flows into the Canal just above Boxmoor Wharf.  From this point to Rickmansworth the history of the Canal becomes closely associated with that of paper manufacturing:

TWO WATERS, a village in Herts, two miles S.S.W. from Hemel Hempstead, is pleasantly situated at the union of the river Gade with Bulbourne Brook and adjoining the Grand Junction Canal . . . . and in the village is the elegant little cottage of Henry Fourdrinier Esq.  Two Waters, and its vicinity, have long been noted for the number of paper mills erected on the sides of the stream; but that belonging to Mr. Fourdrinier is more particularly worthy of notice, for containing the invention of manufacturing paper by machinery.  By this machine, and appendant apparatus, every part of the process is conducted without the intervention of manual labour; and it cannot fail of exciting surprise in the spectator, on beholding the rag first washed, then beaten or reduced to pulp; and, lastly, conducted through pipes to the reservoir of the machine, which constantly feeds itself, and, in a very few seconds, produces a paper so perfect in all its parts, that it is wound off upon a reel, exactly like a web of cloth.”

A Pocket Companion for the tour of London and its Environs (1811)

A short distance to the south, the Canal begins its journey past the sites of the former John Dickinson paper mills.  In 1819, Hassell described Apsley Mill as:

“. . . .occupying a large space of ground, and rather resembling a village than a manufactory . . . . Such of our readers who have never seen the process of manufacturing this useful article, will be highly gratified in visiting a paper mill.  The machinery of this mill is entirely worked by steam, from the washing of the rags to the keeping of the pulp in a state of motion, while taken into the mould from whence it is placed between flannels until it sets; and afterwards it is pressed, dried and sorted for the market”.

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell

The paper-making process is indeed of interest and today is demonstrated for the benefit visitors to the ‘Paper Trail’ Museum at Frogmore Paper Mill, Apsley.  Other than the Museum, little now remains of the site as Hassell saw it, for following company acquisitions and closures during the 1990s the former Dickinson paper mills received the attention of the residential property developer.

Irascible though he was, John Dickinson was no fool [11] and he and the Company were to have a close business relationship over many years, hostile at times, but overall to their mutual benefit.  Originally the firm owned its canal boats, but in 1890 the canal carrier Fellows, Morton and Clayton contracted to operate Dickinson’s inter-mill service. [12] FMC replaced Dickinson’s horse-drawn boats first, with steamers, and then in 1927 with motor boats.  These were used to convey the firm’s products to London, with return cargoes of raw materials such as waste paper, rags, esparto grass, wood pulp, chemicals and china clay.  Following their conversion from water to steam power, large quantities of coal were also shipped to the mills from the Warwickshire coal fields.  During the 1870s and 80s:

“Coal came by boat.  At Nash Mills it had to be wheeled from the wharf on the canal, over the Mill Head Bridge and down the garden path on to the tip, a run of from eighty to one hundred feet.  A gang of six men was made up to wheel in the sixty tons from two boats, the pay being 4d. per ton and thirty-six pints of beer (drawn from two barrels kept on the premises), this working out to about 4s. plus six pints per man.  The other mills allowed beer for this work but were less generous in quantity.”

The Endless Web, Dame Joan Evans, 1955

Among its many exhibits the Paper Trail Museum displays a “Register of boats and coal arrival 7/1933 to 26/6/1942” at Apsley Mill, which records pairs of narrowboats delivering around 53 tons of coal every two to three days:

“Most of the coal-boat skippers were Number Ones ― working owners, whose wives and families were the crew.  They all lived aboard, in the tiny cabins of the leading and towed ‘butty’ boat, the round trip from Warwickshire taking ten to twelve days. . . . It was 1927 before the first Number One acquired a motor-driven boat and cut the round trip time to four days.”

Canal Memories, pub. Dacorum Heritage Trust (1999)


Discharging coal at Apsley Mill.  The Dickinson paper mills in the Apsley area closed in 1999, and the land has since been redeveloped.  Nash Mill was sold to the Sappi Group and continued to make paper until 2006, when it too closed.

During the 1960s the paper mills switched to oil-fired boilers and coal deliveries ceased.

Just south of Apsley the canal passes the former site of Nash Mills, another of Dickinson’s paper mills.  During the construction of the London & Birmingham Railway, the artist John Cooke Bourne made a series of sketches of the railway under construction that included an illustration of Robert Stephenson’s fine skew railway bridge, which crosses the Canal near to this point.  It is near the location of this bridge that the southern end of the 1818 deviation returns to the course of the original Canal.

Nash Mills Railway Bridge and the Grand Junction Canal, by John Cooke Bourne.


Continuing south of Nash Mills railway bridge, the Canal reaches Kings Langley and the site of Toovey’s Flour Mill.  A mill stood here on the River Gade long before the Canal arrived to pass close by.  Following a dispute with Thomas Toovey, the miller, over water rights, the Company bought his mill and leased it back to him.  The family-run business kept pace with technical developments, installing, in 1894, steam power and the new ‘roller’ milling process by which grain is ground by a succession of steel rollers (rather than with traditional millstones) in a gradual reduction process, a system that continues in use today.  The firm maintained its own wharf and canal boats, which carried imported grain from Brentford to the Kings Langley mill.  Records show that the Tring boat-builder Bushell Brothers constructed a pair of horse-drawn ‘wide boats’ (11 ft beam), the Langley and the Betty, for Toovey in 1916.

‘Golden Spray’ was Toovey’s top grade flour and a canal boat registered in 1922 in the name of T. W. Toovey carried that name.  The firm continued in business until 1978 when it went into voluntary liquidation.  The machinery was then sold by auction and the mill demolished.

The board for’ard of the cabin proudly proclaims the Langley to be a product of Bushell Brother’s, Tring Dockyard, where she is pictured. Bushell’s received a repeat order in 1922, which resulted in the ‘Golden Spray’.  Both were wide boats.

Photo: meophamman

A short distance to the south of Toovey’s Mill stood the factory of A. Wander Ltd., manufacturers of the malted dairy drink ‘Ovaltine’.  Ovaltine ― formerly ‘Ovomaltine’, from ovum, Latin for egg, and malt, originally its main ingredients ― was created in the 1860s by Dr George Wander, a Swiss chemist, to exploit the nutritional value of malted barley.  Its success was such that the product was marketed internationally.

Discharging coal at the Ovaltine factory

The manufacture of Ovaltine commenced at Kings Langley on a small scale in 1913.  Sales grew and a much larger factory, the fine façade of which remains, was built on the site between 1924 and 1929.  Erected by C. Miskin and Sons of St Albans, oddly, the architect of this art deco masterpiece is unknown.  To ensure that supplies kept pace with the company’s growing demand for barley, eggs and milk, two nearby farms were bought to provide Ovaltine’s natural ingredients.  Known as the ‘Model Poultry’ and ‘Dairy’ farms, they were rebuilt in precise imitation of the farm that King Louis XVI of France built for Queen Marie Antoinette, and featured regularly in the firm’s advertising to promote their drink’s wholesome qualities.

The canal-side location of Wander’s factory allowed the coal needed to fire its boilers to be delivered direct from the Warwickshire collieries, narrowboats completing the 10 to 14 day round trip in a continuous circuit.  In 1925, the firm introduced its own fleet of boats, the first pair, the motorboat Albert and the butty Georgette, entering service in January 1926.  At its peak, the Ovaltine fleet totalled seven pairs of narrowboats, but by 1954 it had reduced to 3 pairs and contractors were increasingly delivering the coal.  Eventually the company switched to oil, the last delivery of coal being made in April 1959.  In 2002, production of Ovaltine was transferred to Switzerland by its then owners Novartis and the factory was sold for residential development, which was described in the advertising as “Luxury apartments and stylish townhouses on a popular Art Deco development with historic charm”.

Both Toovey and Ovaltine made use of the Kings Langley section of the Canal towards the end of its commercial life, but in its early days the Canal served a much more agrarian society, as was recorded by Arthur Young, an eighteenth century writer on agriculture:

“Mr. Newman Hatley, a considerable farmer at King’s Langley, has opened a trade upon the canal, in order to give him a greater command of manure for his farm.  I was solicitous to know at what expense a barge could be kept constantly in employment: he favoured me with the following particulars.

“The barges carry 60 tons; and their construction costs £262-10s.  They are navigated by a bargeman and his boy, and one other man, with three horses: the bargeman and boy cost £2-12s-6d. a week; the man 17s.  A voyage takes ten days; locks and dues on a load of manure amount to £5.  Hay pays three farthings a mile per ton; the distance extends 25 miles.  Corn and other goods, 1½d.  I was informed, that a barge-load of night-soil
[13] and sweepings of streets, in a compost, costs at London £12.”

The Agriculture of Hertfordshire, Arthur Young (1804)


To the south of Kings Langley, the canal passes under the M25 viaduct to reach lock 74, adjacent to which is the former ‘Lady Capel’s Wharf’, a name that stems from the Capel family, earls of Essex.  In 1546 Henry VIII granted the Manor of Cassiobury to Sir Richard Morrison, who, with his son Charles, built a large house and extensive gardens.  In 1627 Charles’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Arthur Capel (1610-1649) and the estate passed into the Capel family.  At the Restoration, King Charles II made Arthur Capel 1st Earl of Essex.

A river barge at Hunton Bridge ― an early colour photograph (Vivex) from the 1930s.

The 4th Earl, William Anne (sic.) Capell (1732-99), was one of the noblemen on the Grand Junction Canal Company’s board, and at his insistence the Canal was widened and landscaped where it passed through his estate.  The name ‘Lady Capel’ persists, although the wharf, which was a mile or so north of the present park, is long gone.  It was here that large shipments of coal were landed due to a monopoly enforced by the early Canal Acts, which barred coal from being conveyed any further south.  The 1793 Act makes clear the harsh penalties awaiting any boat owner intent on breaking the monopoly:

“. . . . the conveying of Coals from the Collieries of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, by the said intended Canal, to the City of London, may be detrimental to the Coasting Trade of this Kingdom, by diminishing the Consumption of Coals brought to the Port of London by Coasting Vessels; be it therefore enacted, That no Coal, or Culm, or Cinders burnt from Coal or Culm, which shall pass along the said intended Canal and Collateral Cuts, or any Part thereof, shall be conveyed nearer to the City of London than the Mouth of the intended Tunnel at Langley Bury, in the County of Hertford, by any Barge, Boat, or other Vessel, on Pain of Forfeiture of every such Barge, Boat, or Vessel, and of all such Coal, Culm, or Cinders, as shall be on board the same, and also on pain of forfeiting the Sum of Fifty Pounds by the Owner or Owners of every such Barge, Boat, or Vessel . . . .”

Grand Junction Canal Act, 1793

In the event the Canal did not follow its intended path through the “Tunnel at Langley Bury”, and the boundary of the coal monopoly was transferred to the north-eastern edge of Grove Park, which is where Lady Capel’s Wharf was located. [14] The monopoly was later relaxed to permit the transit of 50,000 tons, a weight limit that was later removed, but subject to the payment of ‘coal duty’ ― which in 1831 was £1-1s per ton ― and Lady Capel’s Wharf became the nearest point at which coal for Watford could be offloaded without payment of the duty.  Officials were stationed at the boundary marker to collect the duty and to record the tonnage that passed.

Coal duty was introduced in the 17th century [15] as one of a range of duties levied on some types of goods entering the Port of London and certain surrounding areas.  The proceeds were used to help finance rebuilding following the Great Fire of London (1666).  Buildings damaged or destroyed in the fire that benefitted from the duty included Saint Paul’s Cathedral and many of the City’s churches, the Guildhall, the City’s markets and Newgate Prison.  Eventually numerous of the Capital’s public works and causes came to be funded in this way such as (in the 19th century) the construction of the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, Northumberland Avenue, Hyde Park Corner and the northern and southern outfall sewers (which were largely responsible for wiping out cholera in London).  When, in 1861, the area for the coal duty was altered to coincide with the Metropolitan Police District, the coal duty boundary was transferred to Stocker’s Lock near Rickmansworth.  Coal duty was eventually abolished in 1890.


At the north-eastern edge of Grove Park, the line followed by the Canal today lies to the east of that authorised originally by Parliament.  The intention had been to cross the River Gade on an aqueduct near to Kings Langley and then to drive a tunnel through the high ground behind Langleybury House, then to pass down the western side of the Gade Valley and descend into Rickmansworth through a flight of locks.  It is possible that this route was influenced by a wish to avoid confrontation with the influential owners of the Langleybury, Grove and Cassiobury estates that lay in the river valley, then the domains of Sir John Filmer and the Earls of Clarendon and of Essex respectively.  But equally, driving a tunnel at that time was, as Braunston and especially Blisworth were to demonstrate, an engineering challenge fraught with risk.  The alternative line down the eastern side of the Gade Valley would not only avoid the need for the aqueduct and tunnel, but take the Canal nearer to Watford.  At the General Assembly of November 1797 ―  with the experience of tunnelling at Blisworth by then before them ― the Committee explained the change of line in the Gade Valley, stating simply that “the importance of avoiding a tunnel, few will now dispute”.  [16] And none did.

The intended line of the Canal ran down the western side of the River Gade
Valley ― the line taken followed the Gade, shown at the centre of the map

A contract to drive the Langleybury tunnel having already been let, the Company Chairman, William Praed, entered into negotiations to purchase land for the deviation that is followed today.  Writing some years after the event, Arthur Young had this to say:

“The proprietors of the navigation proposed to tunnel under Crossley-hill, but the Earl of Essex, actuated by motives of patriotism becoming his high rank, and consonant with his philanthropy, agreed that the navigation should pass through his park, which it accordingly does; great expense in tunnelling was thus saved to the proprietors, and of freight in course to the public.”

General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, Arthur Young (1804)

. . . . and John Hassell was also to join in the kowtowing:

”Ready permission was granted by the present Earl of Clarendon, and the late Earl of Essex, to allow this great national undertaking to pass through their respective parks; and when we find the opposition that the Duke of Bridgewater was continually receiving, from parties, through whose premises he was unavoidably often obliged to pass his navigable canals, it must stand as a monumental record, and example of the urbanity and amor patriæ, these distinguished noblemen exhibited for the weal of their country.” [17]

A Tour of the Grand Junction Canal in 1819, John Hassell

No doubt these patriotic landowners received adequate financial compensation; in fact the Earl of Essex held out for a better price, which he received.  Their Lordships did, however, insist on clauses in the Act that authorised the altered route, to stipulate that the sections of canal that ran through their domains be made as attractive as possible.  And so they were and now form a delightful walk.

Cassio Wharf, at the southern end of Cassiobury Park, was the nearest wharf to Watford; today the site is occupied by a marina.  A branch canal into Watford and onwards to St. Albans was in fact authorised by Parliament in 1795, but in the cold light of day ― despite much agitation from the citizens of both towns ― it must have appeared to the Company that the costs of building and maintaining the Watford/Saint Albans branch outweighed its likely benefits:

”An act passed for another canal from St. Albans, to join the Grand Junction below Cassiobury-park; but for want of power to raise £17,000 by subscriptions, nothing has yet been done towards carrying it into execution.”

General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, Arthur Young (1804)

Plans for the 2-mile Watford Arm show that it would have departed the main line in the vicinity of Croxley (lock 79) to terminate in a basin to the north of the site now occupied by Bushy Station.  Barnes surveyed the 9-mile extension to St. Albans in 1792.  This he planned to commence from the vicinity of the Watford basin, then, following the course of the rivers Colne and Ver (sections of each being canalised), would terminate in a basin in the Ver valley about 1-mile to the south-east of St. Albans Abbey.

In passing it is worth mentioning that other proposed branches for which Acts were not obtained were to Chesham, Dunstable and Hemel Hempstead.  The 1-mile branch canal to Daventry was authorised by Parliament, but not proceeded with; it is still discussed today, as is a once-mooted branch from the locality of Fenny Stratford to Bedford.  In none of these cases does the business case appear to have been sufficiently robust to justify the costs of overcoming resistance from landowners and of construction.


Croxley Mill

At the southern end of the Gade Valley the Canal reaches Croxley and further territory once occupied by John Dickinson’s paper-making empire.  In 1830, Dickinson opened a canal-side paper mill  on Common Moor, which by 1838 was producing 14 tons of paper a week.  Papermaking was eventually transferred to Croxley Mill from Apsley and Home Park (Nash Mill continued to manufacture specialist papers) and by 1894 weekly output at Croxley had risen to 140 tons.

Croxley mill was mostly steam-powered, the coal to fire its furnaces being transported by canal.  Writing in 1896, Lewis Evans [18] gives an interesting description of the factory’s coal deliveries:

“The actual buildings of the mill cover an area of about 24,000 square yards, or nearly five acres.  The power for driving the machinery is almost entirely derived from steam engines . . . .The coal shed occupies an area of 200 ft. by 50 ft., and is capable of holding 4,000 tons of coal . . . . The coal is unloaded from boats on the Grand Junction Canal by a kind of dredging machine, which delivers it to an endless chain-conveyor running in a trough along the top of the shed.  There are gratings in the bottom of this trough through which the small coal can drop, the lumps which are too big for the mechanical stokers passing on to the other end of the shed.  The chain returns along the shed in an underground tunnel, the coal for the boilers dropping on to it through openings in the floor, and so being carried along for delivery to a second chain, which conveys it over the mill-tail to the chimney, where it is elevated to a third chain passing along the top of the boiler-house.  This chain distributes the coal down chutes to feed the mechanical stokers on the boilers, the ashes and clinkers being carried out of the house by the returning chain.”

The Firm of John Dickinson & Co. Ltd., Lewis Evans (1896)

Croxley Mill depended largely on the Canal not only of supplies of coal from the Midlands, but for its but raw materials brought up from the London Docks by barges and lighters and for the export of its finished products:

“Though the mills were all established before the age of railways, Mr. Dickinson with his usual forethought chose for his enterprise a locality provided with excellent water-carriage, and though the London and North Western Railway now passes close to three of the mills, and one of its branch lines near to the other, water-carriage is still found to be the cheaper and cleaner, so that the greater part of the traffic of all the mills is even now carried on by means of the GJC, on which there are quite a fleet of boats employed in bringing coal and materials to the mills, and in taking away paper and stationery.  These boats each carry about twenty-five tons at a time, and every evening paper leaves the mills by them, and is delivered in London next morning at six at the company’s warehouse, Irongate Wharf, Paddington.”

The Firm of John Dickinson & Co. Ltd., Lewis Evans (1896)

But progress gradually overtook the leisurely pace of canal transport.  In 1937, articulated lorries took over the Apsley to London run to collect esparto grass [19] and wood-pulp from the docks, while the inter-mill barge service ceased in 1947.  Coal deliveries by canal continued until 1970, when Croxley switched to oil firing.

A Commer articulated truck in John Dickinson livery pictured at Tring Dockyard where Bushell Brothers
had built the bodywork.


Owing to the heavy rain, the water has overflowed the banks of the river Colne and Gade, so that the meadows in the neighbourhood of Watford and Rickmansworth are completely covered, and a great quantity of hay is washed away. A barge belonging to Mr. Moses Robinson, of Birmingham, was driven on the bank of the Grand Junction canal, about a quarter of a mile from the town of Rickmansworth, on Friday morning, and instantly went to the bottom. It was loaded with iron bedsteads. A woman and two children very narrowly escaped a watery grave.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 3rd July, 1824

Rickmansworth stands at the confluence of the rivers Gade, Chess (which flows into the town from Chesham to the north), Colne (which flows into the town from Watford) and the Grand Junction Canal, which, in 1796, arrived from the south to establish a link with the Thames at Brentford.  Local businesses soon began to use the Canal, especially when a short branch was constructed to a wharf just off the town centre.  A century later, Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Rickmansworth as a small town with:

 “. . . . a railway station, a banking office, a good inn, a timbered market house on pillars, a church, Baptist and Wesleyan chapels, an endowed school with £24 a year, alms-houses with £10, other charities £32, an extensive brewery, a silk mill, four paper mills, cattle fairs on 20 July and 24 Nov., and a fair on the Saturday before the third Monday of Sept.”

Waterways (shaded) at Rickmansworth c.1870.

The railway, brewery and the paper mills referred to all benefitted from links to the Canal, as did a bakery and, later, a boatyard.

The railway was the Watford & Rickmansworth Railway.  Opened in 1862, the line was never profitable and even less so when, following the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway in 1887, the town was connected directly with London. [20] Electrification in 1927 didn’t ensure the line’s future; it closed to passengers in 1952 and to freight in 1967.  The railway’s Rickmansworth terminus and goods yard, which was located opposite the parish church, included a freight interchange siding with the Canal.

Salter’s brewery met with more success than the railway.  The Salter family’s connection with brewing dates from the 17th Century, but it was only when Stephen Salter took over the business in 1750 that it began to grow.  His nephew, who succeeded him, paid for the River Chess to be made navigable for some 500 yards to the firm’s brewery and maltings.  Opened in 1804, Salter’s Cut [21] joins the Canal through a lock adjacent to Batchworth Lock.  Its main traffic was barrels of beer for Uxbridge with the empties in return, although grain for malting and coal were probably landed there as well.  Besides serving the brewery, the cut also served Town Wharf, the Rickmansworth gas works and a gravel pit (Sabey’s Pool). [22]

In 1820, a short section of the River Colne  just to the south of Batchworth Lock was also canalised and used to convey shipments to Batchworth Mill.  The mill was used originally to spin cotton, its machinery being powered by a waterwheel driven by the river.  Following the Canal’s arrival, there began a long-running dispute over water levels at Batchworth.  In 1809, the Company bought the mill to obtain its water rights before selling it on, ex water rights.  In 1818, the mill was bought by John Dickinson and converted to a ‘half-stuff’ mill, one in which rags and other materials were prepared for turning into pulp at Dickinson’s other mills, the output being transported to them by canal.  But it seems that the disputes over water continued until 1825, when a stone obelisk was erected in a pond to act as a water gauge, the Company being liable for compensation should the water level fall below a mark on the gauge.  The obelisk, which still stands, records the agreement made between the Company, John Dickinson and R. Williams of Moor Park, who was the landowner.  In 1886, following the expansion of Croxley Mill (which by then covered 16 acres), the smaller Dickinson mills became redundant and Batchworth rag mill was sold and later demolished, the cut to the mill being filled in 1906 when the London Road was widened.

John Hassell’s sketch of Batchworth locks and mill c.1819.  Salters Cut departs under the bridge on the left.
The mill was demolished in the early years of the 20th century.

It is unusual to find a bakery served by its own canal, albeit of a mere 300 yards in length, but such was the case at Rickmansworth.  Taylor’s Cut ran from a point just below Batchworth Bridge to a wharf situated in the grounds of ‘The Bury’, the principal manor house of the medieval manor of Rickmansworth.  In 1843 The Bury was bought by John Taylor, a coal and coke merchant who developed interests in flour, grain and baking.  Taylor built a cut, which passed in front of the manor and nearby stable block to a wharf.  Here, he unloaded barges, their cargoes being stored in parts of the manor house that he put to use as a warehouse ― unsurprisingly, the premises are reported to have deteriorated seriously by the time of his death in 1868.

Before leaving Rickmansworth, one further business should be mentioned, that of W. H. Walker and Brothers, which besides trading in timber, building materials, coal and coke, also ran a boat building and repair yard.  The firm were based at Frogmore Wharf, now the site of a Tesco supermarket.  During its years in operation (1905-64), the boatyard became one of the canal network’s most successful builders, launching 212 new boats and repairing over 600 others.  Walkers specialised in wooden construction, [23] building boats for, among others, the canal carriers Fellows Morton and Clayton and the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, and for the manufacturing firms of Cadbury of Bourneville and Wander (Ovaltine) of Kings Langley.

Batchworth Lock and the entrance to Salter’s Cut on the left (a nice little tea shop exists in between). 



The Stocker’s house and the London Coal Duty marker.

“House. 1861-2. Built for the City of London Corporation as a residence for its Collector of the Coal Dues on the Grand Junction Canal.  Stock brick.  Shallow hipped slate roof.  3 bays.  Tall 2 storey front with steps up to central entrance with a panelled door and rectangular fanlight all in a rebated reveal.  Large glazing bar sashes in reveals.”

Grade II listing ― English National Heritage description (extract) of Stocker’s House.

South of Rickmansworth, below bridge 175, stands Stocker’s House, built in 1861 for the Collector of Coal Duties when the boundary was relocated from its original position at The Grove near Watford.  This splendid Victorian dwelling suggests that considerable status was attached to the Collector’s role.  The actual point at which duty became payable is designated by ― in the words of English Heritage ― a “City of London Coal Duty Marker. 1861. Cast by H. Grissell, Regents Canal Ironworks.  Cast-iron square pier, one and a half metres high, painted white”.  Both marker and house are Grade II listed monuments.

Black Jack’s lock (No. 85) and watermill (now a guesthouse) lie a couple of miles further south.  The story behind the name is that the mill and lock were named after a black slave who was bought and sold with the land.  With his donkey and cart, Black Jack delivered to its customers the flour ground in the mill.

Nearby, at West Hyde, is Troy Cut, a 1,000-yard branch off the canal built to serve Troy Mill.  When milling ceased, the cut was used to ship sand and gravel from nearby pits, now worked out.  Indeed, the section of the Canal between Rickmansworth and Denham is lined with numerous worked-out gravel pits, now flooded and the haunt of wildlife, fishermen and the occasional marina.  And it was in one such pit, during the 1950s, that the British Transport Commission, who then ran the canal network, scuttled many redundant narrow boats. . . .

. . . . an extract from the Inland Waterways Bulletin for December, 1959, tells the story:

“We have more information about the sinking of narrow boats in Harefield Flash . . . . Further investigation has disclosed that not six boats have been sunk, but twenty-four. None of these appear to have been offered for sale; though a firm of carriers inform us that they might have purchased several, and the demand for converted narrow boats is now so great that, for better or for worse, almost any craft that will float at all, can be sold. British Waterways themselves keep a list of applicants for boats suited to conversion. Instead of offering the boats for sale, British Waterways apparently paid the owners of the water where the sinkings took place, a substantial sum, in the same way that payment is made for the privilege of using land as a rubbish dump; and that they paid also for a breach to be made, and later repaired, in a dyke, 20’ wide and 3’ high, which separates the subsidiary flash (normally an isolated lake), from the main flash, which is accessible from the canal. The boats were towed through this temporary channel, and then sunk right across the subsidiary flash, like the fleet at Scapa Flow. Finally, all these operations appear to have been carried out at a week-end, on overtime. One can perhaps surmise why.”

Recent research suggests that over 50 boats share this watery resting place including Daisy, once owned by the Aylesbury canal carrier, A. Harvey-Taylor.


[Chapter X.]




Two parallel locks remain, although not used as such.  That at Stoke Bruerne houses a museum exhibit, a boat-weighing machine, and that at Marsworth top lock is now a dry dock.


In both cases provided mainly by spring water collected along the Wendover Arm; from land drainage (such as that from the adjacent railway cutting); from the (purified) outflow from Tring Sewage Works; and from a borehole at Cowroast.


In that age, the term “fire engine” referred to a steam-powered pumping engine.  That referred to here is the Newcomen pumping engine that once stood at Whitehouses on the Wendover Arm, which raised water from Wilstone reservoir.  The site is currently (2012) being excavated by a team of industrial archaeologists.


Not to be confused with its nearby neighbour, the railway cutting, built by Robert Stephenson some 40 years later.


In her account of canal life ― among Tales from the Old Inland Waterways, David & Charles, 1998 ― Gladys Horne recalled that short trips carrying cargoes of maize from the London Docks to the Cowroast buffer store during the 1950s were poorly paid.  Trips to Birmingham were more lucrative.


See Thomas Telford.


The Duke of Northumberland owned mills downstream of Cowley on the Colne.  He was concerned that his water could be diverted onto the Paddington Arm to supply the Grand Junction Waterworks in London.  An Act of 1812 designed to monitor the amount of water being taken by the canal, led to men being stationed at Cowley and at Cowroast to monitor boat numbers and their destinations and to run water into the river at Cowley according to the number of lockfuls lost to the canal.  The cottages at both places have similar architectural features.  The construction of Aldenham Reservoir near Elstree (believed to have been dug by French prisoners of war between 1795 and 1797) is also linked to these disputes.


The most prominent of these seen today faces the railway just to the north of Berkhamsted station.  This was the wharf of Knowles and Sons, once an animal feed mill but now residential property.


Although the Canal had been built as a broad canal, in regular use Berkhamsted was the northerly limit of wide boat and barge operation.


Although the 1793 Act gave the GJCC the right of compulsory purchase of land for the passage of the Canal, due to doubts about the legal status of the sale of common land by a board of trustees as opposed to an individual, the parties felt it necessary to ratify the transaction in the Boxmoor Act, 1809.


John Dickinson (1782-1869) set up as a stationer in the City of London in 1804, by which time he was already experimenting with improving the existing paper-making process, the ‘Fourdrinier patent’.  In 1809, he developed a patent process for machine-made paper utilising an ‘endless web’.  From this time right up to 1855 he took out dozens of patents, and many of the pioneering discoveries of papermaking were his.

 In 1809, Dickinson purchased Apsley Mill to manufacture his own paper, and in order to finance the venture he went into partnership with George Longman (1773-1822) of the famous publishing family, the business becoming ‘Longman and Dickinson’.  The active interest in the business by the Longmans and the Dickinsons ceased in the 1870s.  In 1886 the Company was incorporated as ‘John Dickinson and Company Limited’.


At one time or another, Dickinson’s had canal-side mills and wharfs at Home Park (Kings Langley), Croxley, Batchworth, Two Waters and Frogmore, and in London at the Paddington and City Road basins.


A euphemism for human excrement, collected nightly from cesspools, privies, etc. and used as a fertiliser.


A similar restriction prohibited coal being conveyed below Reading from the Oxford Canal.


The re-building Acts of 1667 and 1670, and later Acts.


The additional expense in altering the line of the canal was compensated for by Parliament approving an extra two-pence per ton toll “for all articles passing on the line of the deviation”.


Forty years later the London and Birmingham Railway Company met with a different response; due to the then owners of Grove and Cassiobury estates refusing to allow the railway to cross their land, Stephenson was obliged to route his railway to the east of the Gade Valley, thus having to construct the long Watford railway tunnel.


Then General Manager of John Dickinson & Co. Ltd., later Chairman.

A paper-making material imported from Spain and North Africa.


To add to the railway’s troubles, suffragettes burnt down its station at Croxley Green in 1913.


Also known variously as the Rickmansworth Arm and the Gasworks Arm.


Town Wharf was a short branch off Salter’s Cut, long since filled in ― it appears at the top of the map, right of centre.  Sabey’s Wharf  ― in 1902, Messrs H. W. Sabey & Co. excavated Batchworth Meadows for gravel, which was brought out by canal.  The lake thus formed became known as Sabey’s Pool and was entered from Salter’s Cut through a lock.  The Pool is now used for fishing.


 To construct a standard narrow boat required, on average, 8 oaks and one elm.