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A Collection of Stories About the Canal at Tring by Bob Grace

Memoirs of a British Waterways Canal engineer by Edward Bell

Memoirs of a Canal Boat Builder at Tring by Harry Fennimore

John Dickinson and the Canal by Russell Horwood

Canal Reminiscences of Working for Dickinson’s in Apsley by Joe Bloor

Memoirs of a Boxmoor Man by John Mew

Memoirs of a Boatwoman by Gladys Horn

see also . . . .

(a history of the Grand Union Canal)


A Collection Of Stories
About The Canal At Tring

by Bob Grace

[Biographic notes, c.1977] Bob Grace has lived in Tring for most of his life.  He was born at Parsonage Farm, which formerly stood on the site of Bishop Wood School.  As a boy he attended the old National School at Tring.

Mr. Grace now lives a busy life in retirement.  He worked in Tring all his life and eventually joined the family’s corn and milling business which had been in existence for 250 years before it ceased in about 1977.

During the war, he was sent to study electronics and then went out to the jungles in the East to work on radar equipment.

For the last 30 years Mr Grace has been a Local Councillor and has accumulated knowledge and tries to pass it on as accurately as possible.

The Wendover Arm of The Canal

Tring’s connection with the canal is via the Wendover Arm, which is only a navigable feeder.  It was never built to take the very deep canal boats.  To publicise the canal when this stretch was first opened, they took a prize animal to Smithfield Show via the Wendover Arm.  It was brought from Cresslow between Aylesbury and Buckingham to Wendover and loaded onto a barge for its journey to London.  The story goes that it actually won the championship at Smithfield and it was extensively advertised that this was because it had been brought down by the new navigation, thereby arriving in prime condition, instead of being driven there.

One less known fact about the canal is that, before the railway came, boats used to carry passengers.  From Wendover and Aylesbury they actually ran an emigration boat.  This took people during the hungry 40s (19th century) to emigrate to Canada.  I think they went to Liverpool by canal.

The canal worked the other way too, bringing people into the area.  There was a large estate in Tring (now called Drayton Lodge), just on the Aylesbury road.  The Squire there came from the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire area and brought all his goods and some of his men down by boat.  Soldiers were conveyed by canal, also, before the railway, accompanied by their horses.

When the canal was being constructed, the story goes that a number of ancient remains were discovered; amongst these was reputed to be a gold chain and some gold sword hilts.  The landowner, Mr Sear, is supposed to have demanded the relics and melted them down before they could be removed to a national collection.

Smallpox in Tring

There is also an account of the treatment of a man for smallpox in Tring.  One of the canal labourers was taken ill with smallpox, which even in those days could be considered as a notifiable disease, and he became chargeable to the Tring parish, and therefore his expenses were put as a separate item in the Parish accounts.  These are listed as ‘Payments by Mr. T. Humphrey to attending John Turbot, a labourer on the canal with smallpox, viz:


There is no entry for the funeral expenses for John Turbot - so presumably he recovered! Beer and spirits seem to have been standard treatment for illnesses of a serious nature in those days.  All the accounts for people removed to the Pest House, which incidentally stood at Wigginton, just at the edge of the woods, show that they were filled up with beer and spirits and if they survived - they survived.

Mill Water

When the Wendover navigable feeder was dug round the contours to Wendover with the sole idea of tapping all the springs, it stopped all the water supplies to the water mills.  My ancestors were millers at that time and they had large mills at New Mill and at Tringford, just below the town, and their water supplies were cut.  They were bought out at the New Mill by the canal company before the work started but I think at the Tringford mill, and certainly at the Marsworth mill (which belonged to another family), there was disaster when the water supply was cut.  Immediately they went to law to support their claim for water rights.  The lawsuit dragged on for some time.  Also the millers of Aylesbury banded together and went to law and the result was that the canal company had to form the reservoir at Weston Turville (sometimes called Halton Reservoir, sometimes World’s End Reservoir), which people often think is to supply the canal, but actually it is below the level of the canal and it was entirely to supply the water mills.  Water was let out to the various brooks to keep the mills turning.  In fact, even today farmers can go and ask for water to be let out to water their cattle.

The Mead Family

The Marsworth Mill was a fairly large water mill.  Water mills got gradually larger as one proceeded downstream - the mill at the head was always the smallest.  Marsworth was a fair-sized mill fed by the Bulbourne and entirely cut off by the reservoirs so the canal company bought a steam mill; the very first steam mill in the neighbourhood, worked by a beam engine and let out to a family named Clark who were the millers.  This ran until the 1890s when it was bought by Messrs Meads of the Tring Wharf mills.  It then closed down and the work was concentrated at the Tring Wharf.

The Tring Wharf Mill was built by a Mr Grover who originated from Aldbury.  He first had a windmill, then a wharf, and later a lime-kiln, all directly connected with the canal.  Then the Mead family, who were warfingers, arrived.  Then they decided to go into the milling business and went into partnership with the Grovers and built the first steam mill at Tring Wharf and also began as canal carriers (they owned barges), and eventually became barge builders in quite a large way.

The Mead family’s first trade was in hay and straw which they took to the London area; they brought back the ‘London dung’ which was terrible stuff containing all manner of city waste.  It made a vast difference, however, to the farms bordering on the canal as it was unloaded straight onto their fields (this was before there was much artificial manure).  The resulting increased yield of corn in turn went back to the Mead’s mill to be ground for flour and the flour and side-products went to various districts, again by canal.

The Meads at one time had their headquarters at Tring Wharf, New Mill (now Messrs Heygates).  In addition they owned mills at Wendover, at the head of the canal feeder there, and down the canal to Hemel Hempstead where they had Piccotts End Mill and Bury Mill.  Then they spread further to Hunton Bridge where they had a mill which burnt down many years ago and on to the Watford Mill which used to stand at the end of the High Street, just before Bushey Arches, right on the High Street.  Again, mills got larger downstream, and the Watford Mill was quite a large one. Wendover Mill was a windmill - the largest one known in this area - with at least six pairs of stones, whereas three was the usual number.  The Meads also had a depot at Paddington where the canal basin is, and there they traded in hay, straw, oats and flour and on return journeys in timber etc., up the canal back to Tring or beyond. The brothers spread out, and each one established these various depots where they had their houses and their families.  They had interests at Iver, where there is a branch of the canal which used to go off through to Uxbridge, and there they had a large brickworks. In Tring you could walk round and decide which houses were built with Meads’ bricks from Iver.

One of the famous, or infamous, things about the Meads, depending on your point of view, is that they were one of the first millers to work in conjunction with bakers and to tie bakers to the mill so that they could not buy flour except through the mill.  Eventually they got to what is now known as Clarke bread, and they took Chelsea Mill in London, and that was the first mill where the roller process of flour milling was established (they brought it in from France).  Roller flour gradually ousted all stone-ground flour which is now just fashionable for health food.

The Meads became very wealthy and influential.  Some of them went into farming (some are still doing this).  The boat building business gradually grew as well and was eventually handed by the Meads to Messrs Bushell.

The Bushell Family

Above: Progress under construction at Bushell Brother's boatyard, Tring, in 1934
Below: Progress being launched.

Photos courtesy of Miss Catherine Bushell.

Joseph Bushell and his two sons Joseph and Charles, worked in partnership until 1950 when they retired.  One of the boats they made was known as Progress.  This was in about 1929 [Ed. 1934] when there was a short revival in the canal system.  Government money was put in and it was decided that instead of the ordinary narrow boat they would have a slightly larger barge and alter the canal system to take it right through from the Thames to the other river systems.  It was much larger than the ordinary narrow boat and therefore had a much larger engine, and even boasted a revolving wheel (like a ship’s wheel), instead of the barge tiller.  This boat was launched with some difficulty as boats were launched broadside on at New Mill and this required considerable skill, especially with this larger boat.  They could not put the top fittings on because it would not go under the bridges before they got it to the Warwick/Birmingham branch where it was to start work.  After the fitting had been completed, a member of the Royal family sailed it through the first locks.  I am sorry to say that, through no fault of the builders, the steering gear failed at the first attempt because it was too sluggish to control a boat going through the canal locks where they have to swing on the tiller to make the boat move sideways.  The engine was too powerful and too fast for canal work, so it all had to be modernised and by the time it was sailing the impetus had gone out of the whole affair and the Government had decided that there was another recession and no more money was available for the canals, but it was a great attempt.

The Meads at Tring Station

Returning to Tring itself - the Meads also had a wharf at Tring Station where they specialised in hay and straw work and they also maintained their Threshing Set, that is a steam engine and a threshing drum and its associated chaff cutters and crushers and so on which went round the farms and did work for contract, and of course the straw and chaff were taken back to the canal.

The people we haven’t mentioned are the actual canal carriers.  The Meads were canal carriers and, of course, had their own boats which they had built in the neighbourhood, but firms had grown up who actually specialised in nothing but canal carrying and the chief one was based at Aylesbury, and they had depots. I think they had the one at Dudswell, you can still see the building just this side of Northchurch, between the railway and the canal, there is a large building that was a stable and a granary.  This firm specialised in express carrying, boats which travelled light - just one boat with a gang of men aboard, travelling by day and night and they could do extraordinarily fast journeys.  Also, of course, there was the day-to-day carrying.  They had arrangements to pick up even small amounts of things, as a parcel service would to-day, to be delivered to Paddington Basin and from there by one of the carriers to places in London.  My grandfather and father actually used to have small quantities of seeds (grass seed, turnip seed and green kale seeds, etc.,) which were brought from specialist warehouses in the eastern counties into London, probably by the Lee navigation into London, round to the Paddington Basin by the Regent’s Canal and then picked up by these boats, and they would be dropped off at Bulbourne.  A postcard (postage one ha’penny), would arrive saying that our goods would be at Bulbourne at 9 o’clock the next morning, and they would be, there was no question about that.  In 1841, Thomas Langdon was the general carrier in this district, and from my family he used to buy a large quantity of beans to feed the barge horses.  For example, in 1841 his account to 30 December was £70 12s 0d. (£70.60), for beans and old oats, which was a large sum of money in those days.  The carriage charges that he used to make were, for example, carriage of 17 quarters of beans to London 4 shillings (20 p) a quarter, which is £3 8s 0d. (£3.40).

Mr Horwood and the Rothschild horses

Apart from the established carriers, who were taken over by bigger firms and gradually amalgamated, there were individual carriers.  The story of one of these, Mr Horwood, is very interesting.  He was a farmer at Marsworth.  This was in the days of the Rothschilds at Mentmore.  The Baron owned a great number of famous race-horses, and the local farmers of course always followed the Baron’s horses.  In about 1871 it became what was known as the “Baron’s Year” in the racing world, because his horses won all the classic races.  Mr. Horwood had the good sense to put an accumulator bet on the Baron’s horses for the season and the result was that he won enough money to build a row of cottages and to buy a pair of boats to run on the canal.  He called the boats the Plobonius and the Hannah.  The horse Plobonius had won the Derby and Hannah had won the Oaks.

Mr Horwood ran these boats and a local family became bargees on them.  Being a bargee was not a good job, it was a killing job and most of them died very young, many in tragic circumstances, from illnesses such as consumption (tuberculosis), through being wet, cold and miserable, working in all weathers and working extremely hard to load and unload the boat, and then sometimes having to walk with the horse all day and wind the locks.  Also, the health hazards were increased by the gypsy-like existence of travelling all the time.  Equally, the life was not particularly pleasant for the canal staff who lived at the lock houses and isolated pumping stations and who were as cut-off as anyone in the old days.  To give an example, there was a small pumping station at one time known as The White House on the Wendover Arm pumping solely from a spring leading into what is now the Wilstone Reservoir.  The people who lived there could only approach the White House by a winding track through the fields from Wilstone or along the towpath.  The result was that when one of the household died they would not allow the coffin to be brought across the field path because in those days it was believed that if a coffin was carried along a field path, that path became a public right of way.  Consequently there was a boating funeral.  One of the flat boats (I think they were called ‘flats’) from the works at Bulbourne was covered with ivy and flowers and the coffin was carried on it.

The Bridgewater Connection

In the case of the people from the White House, they were buried at Drayton Church, a short distance along the Wendover Arm of the canal.  Marsworth was the boat peoples’ church for this neighbourhood because the top lock at Marsworth was the focal point where the barges were weighed and measured when they came through for their tolls and the Bulbourne Works was the headquarters of the canal works’ staff‘, and therefore many retired and lived in the Marsworth area and eventually were buried at Marsworth Church, and this attracted the boating families.  The boats could not go as near to the church at Marsworth as they could at Drayton.  The coffin was unloaded below the bridge in Marsworth village and carried up through the village and all the people in the village who had canal connections used to follow on foot to the churchyard and pay their last respects.

As you pass along the Tring summit of the canal, looking up towards the Ivinghoe and Ashridge hills, you see the top of the Bridgewater monument and people are apt to think that Bridgewater was the person who built what was then the Grand Junction Canal.  Actually he died before the canal came through Tring, but the engineers who started the canal were, of course, under his control and did have connections with Ashridge.  The then agent to the Bridgewaters at Ashridge was a Mr Gilbert, whose brother was agent for the Earl of Bridgewater at his estates near Newcastle-under-Lyne, where the plans were made for the first Bridgewater canal leading out towards Manchester to take the Earl’s coal from Worsley.  One local young man from Tring, through the friendship of Mr Gilbert, got a job at Trentham on the estate of the Earl of Gower, who was a relation by marriage to the Earl of Bridgewater and they worked in conjunction, both putting up money for the canal project.  The young man from Tring worked for a time, helping with drawings and measurements, under Mr Brindley who was the great self-taught canal architect.

There was not a hotel at Tring Station in those days near the canal.  That was built on the coming of the railway by the Brown family, under the aegis of the great Lord Lonsdale, (the ‘yellow duke’), who built the Royal Hotel at Tring Station, as a hunting box.  He would come down by train from London and hunt for the day whenever he wished.

Another great landowner who had the Pendley estate at that time was Count de Harcourt and the Royal Hotel at Tring Station was at one time called the Harcourt Arms, but he left because of the canal.  Before the canal came the Bulbourne streams which rose at the Tring Summit (one running down the Gade Valley and joining up with the Gade at Hemel Hempstead; the other running northwards and becoming the head waters of the river Thames), provided excellent trout fishing.  When the canal was built the Count said it had spoiled his fishing and he would leave his estate.  This was bought in later years by the Williams’ family, the well-known member of this family being Mr Dorian Williams (died 1979), the famous show jumping broadcaster.

Health Inspectors

Returning to the subject of the health of the boat people, this became a matter of national concern and an Act of Parliament was brought in that all canal boats must be inspected and checked for their ‘canal worthiness’, and for the health of their crew.  This fell under the duties of an Urban District Council where the boats were registered and in Tring in 1933 there were 76 boats on the Tring Register, 11 of which were motorboats.  In 1937 there were 100 boats on the Tring Register, of which 17 were motorboats.  This caused quite a lot of trouble to the Surveyor of the Urban District Council, who was also the Health Inspector, and Inspector of Canal Boats, for which he received an extra salary which I believe was something like one shilling per boat inspected.  He was always complaining that he was never able to inspect any of these boats because he could only inspect them if they were actually tied up in the Tring area for the day and if he had been notified of that fact.  This meant that when he had to give his return at the end of the year for the number of boats inspected, it was always much less than the authorities required and the result was that threatening letters came from the Ministry of Health saying that Tring had not done its duty in inspecting canal boats.  The boats became registered in Tring because they had been built or repaired at Messrs Bushells’ yard.  Along the top of the cabin usually, in white lettering on black paint, could be seen the words ‘Registered at Tring No .....’ so that each boat could be easily identified as to whom was responsible for inspection.

Water Rates and Rights

The canal and local councils were always at loggerheads about drainage.  Drainage from the roads going into the canal was a nuisance at times, but sometimes they were glad of it.  However, it always caused friction.  Also the coming of the canal brought in the first industrial rates.  An agricultural parish, like Marsworth, suddenly brought in a windfall in rateable value, which was paid over the years until the decline of the canals with the coming of the railway.  Various schemes were then made to ease the rates on the canal and the adjoining wards.  Tring eventually went to law with the old Grand Junction Canal Company over the question of water rate and water rights.  The case dragged on for some years and the only people who benefitted from it were the legal authorities and eventually the two sides had to reach an agreement to call it a day.

With the coming of the great reservoirs to Tring, they were not constructed in their present form in the first instance.  First of all they were just ‘heads’ - the Ashwell Head at Wilstone and the Bulbourne Head at Marsworth, which were dammed up and small pumping engines put in to pump direct into the Wendover navigable feeder, one pump being halfway between the main arm and New Mill and the other pump being at the White House, above Wilstone reservoir.  These were the first engines of the neighbourhood and the men who came to work them were, of course, engineers, the first to come into this part of the world.

The engines were vacuum engines, which meant that they worked on very little steam pressure (about 5 psi, I think), from very simple boilers.  The engine was activated by the weight of the pump bucket drawing up the piston and the piston cylinder being filled with steam from this boiler, then a jet of water was squirted in condensing the steam.  The vacuum then formed drew up the bucket and brought up the water to the canal level.  These two engines were extremely inefficient, even by the standards of those days, and they were soon replaced by engines put in at the Tringford station.  These were two great beam engines.

Beam engine at Tringford pumping station.

Mr. Jonathan Woodhouse

The engineers who came to work the machines brought their associated tradesmen with them; blacksmiths, iron-founders, bricklayers, well-sinkers and so on.  They mostly came from the Midlands to Tring and made their homes here.  One of the families was named Woodhouse and Mr Jonathan Woodhouse was the first engineer to establish the great engines in the Tringford Pumping Station.  One of these pumped from a depth of about 80 feet (24 metres) from the Wilstone Reservoir and the other one something like 40 to 50 feet from the Little Tring and what we call Startops Reservoir.  When I was a boy I used to go and watch the last great beam engine working - it ran at 13 strokes a minute and lifted a ton of water at each stroke - and it was very thrilling to stand at the water outlet and see it come up in a great gush (there was no continuous flow as there is with modem pumps). Sometimes fish would come up with the water - this was not a rotary pump it was merely a pump with what was known as ‘clacks’ in it, i.e., little trapdoors that opened when the bucket went down and shut when it began to lift, so quite a large fish could be caught in the bucket, and we were always watching as boys to see if we could catch one.  Some very brave boys who got inside actually rode up and down on the great beam but I never had pluck enough for that.  The old engine was offered to the Science Museum when it came to the end of its life (it was still working perfectly), but the Museum had not got enough room for it.

No doubt there are some descendants of the Woodhouse family still in the area, but I don’t know anyone of that name now in the town.  Not only did they work for the canal company, but gradually some of them left the canal company and became engineers in their own right in the district, fitting the very first engines in flour mills and then in sawmills and other local industries.  It is interesting to remember that before the canal came there wasn’t an engine known anywhere, and, of course, the canal also brought the coal to drive these engines (which they consumed in vast amounts).  The coal came from the Nuneaton area and the boats did it as a regular run, they didn’t bother to load back, they went back empty as fast as they could to fetch another load.  The men would stand in the hold and throw the coal up into wheelbarrows and the women would stand on the planks and wheel the barrows into the yard - tons of coal in each load.

The Mew Family

The Mew family have worked on the canal for many, many, years (all very skilled tradesmen), and in their spare time they used to make little model engines similar to the ones they were working.

When there was a dry time on the canal, the water had to be pumped back to the Tring Summit and they had a set of engines known as the Northern Engines, and this was so engineered that the water could be pumped back from as far as Leighton Buzzard to the Tring Summit by this relay of engines all pumping away so that the same lock of water was never wasted.  You might wonder how the water got to Tringford pumping station from the reservoirs.  This itself was a great engineering feat because they drove culverts through from Wilstone reservoir under the hill which surrounds it to Tringford through the chalk by tunnelling - the men working on their hands and knees to clear the very hard chalk at that depth.  There was no brick lining or anything like that, they just dug the chalk tunnel through to Tringford.  At the present day (1979), the tunnel from Startops End reservoir has collapsed underneath the Tringford reservoir and they are spending thousands of pounds trying to repair it, but the old original tunnel from Wilstone is still there, and it must be something like well over 100 feet (30 metres) deep at its deepest point and it was all done by men on their hands and knees.  Years ago at Bulbourne works you could still see the special corduroy trousers that were issued to these men.  They were extremely heavy and thick so that they could work on their knees, and they were so stiff that an ordinary person could not manage to get into them.

Bulbourne Works in its heyday.

Lock gates were made at the Bulbourne Works.  These days they have much machinery but in the beginning the whole work was done by pitsaw which was terribly hard work.  Trees were cut down and sawn up to make the lock gates and the sills for the gates and so on, which were all extremely heavy pieces of timber.


Memoirs of a British Waterways
Canal Engineer
by Edward Bell

I was born in Canal Street, Hopwood, Heywood, Lancashire, during March 1902.  As a small boy I often went to a nearby bridge over a branch of the Rochdale Canal which served the cotton-spinning town of Heywood and saw the smoke spiralling upwards from 21 factory chimneys.  I little thought that I would ever become a canal man as I always wanted to be a motor engineer.

My mother came from Tring and so after the death of my father’s parents we came south to live here in November 1913.  Previously I had been several times to Tring on holidays spent with members of my mother’s family, all of whom were employed by the Rothschild Estate and I can well remember walking down to Startops End Reservoir where I was privileged to see King Edward VII and his friend Lord Rothschild enjoying an afternoon of duck shooting.

Outbreak of War

In the spring of 1914 my twin brother and I joined the First Tring Troop of Boy Scouts and we were camping near the Bridgewater Memorial at Ashridge when the First World War broke out.  As my brother and I were due to go to Berkhamsted School in September, and had a longer holiday than other members of the troop, we were chosen for duty at the Pitstone Rifle Range near Folly Farm (where soldiers did final rifle training before going over to France) to carry any messages to and fro from the nearest telephone situated at that time in the ofiice of W. N. Meads Flour Mill, New Mill, Tring.

During my scouting days I came to know and love the Chiltern Hills and I collected knowledge of the roads, footpaths, the arable or pasture land, numbers of cattle, sheep, pigs, etc., on the many farms in this area, with the object of obtaining my King’s Scout badge, but unfortunately by the time I had obtained all the necessary data an examiner could not be found, so many men having gone to the war.

When I left Berkhamsted School in the summer of 1916, it was intended that I should start my working life at the Fiat Motor Car Works, Wembley, as my father knew the Manager, but he advised that I should try to get general experience in a small garage as the Fiat Works was turned over to munitions and I would be stuck at a lathe turning out shell cases for the duration of the war.  I therefore became an apprentice in a small garage paying a £15 premium for three years’ training at a weekly wage of one shilling, increased at the end of the first year to 1s 6d.  During 1917 petrol was no longer available for private motoring and I was reduced to mending bicycle punctures and unable to gain the training I desired.

Chilly Start to Canal World

It seemed fated that I was to be a canal man when I secured a position as assistant to the overseer of the then Middle District (from Lock 22 Fenny Stratford to Lock 46 Cowroast) of the Grand Junction Canal at the princely sum of 15s per week on Monday, 8 January 1918.  The canal was frozen over and so on my second day I was asked if I would like to join the iceboat crew who were to break the 6½ miles of canal from my office at Marsworth to the canal basin at Walton Street, Aylesbury, and I was quickly introduced to the exciting work of ice-breaking.  During my early years with the Grand Junction Company I went out on many occasions with the ice breaking crews and once we had as many as 15 horses stretched out along the towing-path to provide the motive power, with 24 men on board the iceboat to rock the craft from side to side breaking the way through pack-ice up to 9 inches (23 cm) thick.  In those days there was no unemployment benefit for the boat people who were always eager to follow the iceboat and would oflen assist with their own horses when we were in difficulty.  I soon learned to love the outdoor life on the waterway and was very thrilled when I became sufficiently skilled to steer one of the 70 feet (21.5 metres) long maintenance narrow boats up the flight of seven locks between Marsworth and Bulbourne, as the short pounds between these locks were very difficult to navigate.

Floods and erosion

The first major catastrophe I remember occurred in November 1918, when the large brick culvert under the canal at Chelmscote, three locks north of Leighton Buzzard burst, flooding the surrounding farmland until the escaping canal water could reach the nearby river Ouzel.  Gangs worked in shifts by day and night, and commercial boats were moving again along a restricted width of waterway after being held up for three days.  Owing to the shortage of labour towards the end of the war soldiers from a labour battalion were used for this work to augment the canal staff.

One of my first tasks was to assist in taking cross-sections of the canal to try to assess the amount of bank erosion which had taken place since the canal was constructed and in later years I was able to repeat this and obtain a comparison between the speed of erosion in the days of horse-drawn craft and the more rapid deterioration of banks and towing-path dry-stone walling when self-propelled craft had been operating for a number of years.

Tring Summit

One of the major difficulties confronting the engineers responsible for constructing the Grand Junction Canal over the 100 miles between Braunston near Rugby and the River Thames at Brentford was the task of taking the waterway over the Chiltern Hills at a point just to the east of Tring.  This they decided to do in an open cutting along the length between Lock 45 Bulbourne and Lock 46 Cowroast, which we now call the Tring Summit level.  It is 391 feet (119 metres) above sea level when there is a depth of 5 feet (1.5 metres) of water on the lock head sills at either end.

A pair of A. Harvey-Taylor narrowboats in the steep-sided Tring Cutting.

My first memories of Tring Summit were of the deep concrete walling being constructed along the towing path side on the bend just south of Bridge 135 near Tring Station.  Sections of towpath were side stacked with hand driven timber piling and the resulting enclosure pumped dry so that excavation could be carried out for the concrete-filled trench to form the foundation for the massive concrete wall.  This was extremely hard manual work and was later to be superseded by reinforced concrete sheet piling driven by a 7 cwt (355 kg) cast iron monkey hoisted up and down the pile-driving frame by means of a mechanical winch.  During these later piling works considerable difficulty was experienced in Tring Summit because halved tree trunks had been laid in the bed of the canal across the waterway at intervals with timber piles at each end of the tree to prevent the toe of the high offside bank from encroaching into the waterway.

Vital Water Supplies and Management

Originally this Tring Summit level was continuous through from Cowroast Lock 46 to Lock 45.  The vital necessity was a sufficient water supply to maintain such a long level.  This came from surface springs feeding into the millstream at Wendover, also from underground spring water tapped by an artesian well and conveyed to the canal at Wendover Wharf where the millstream supply also entered the waterway.  Unfortunately considerable trouble was experienced owing to leakage of water from the Wendover Arm of the canal and around 1904 to solve the problem the Arm was closed.  The canal bed between Drayton Beauchamp and Little Tring was excavated, in about 1914, to take a line of 18 inches (48 cm) diameter earthenware pipes to conduct the Wendover water supply into Tringford Reservoir.  Only the length between the Main Line and Tringford Pumping Station remained navigable and the canal bed from Drayton Beauchamp to Wendover became a water course, which needed to be kept free from weed growth to allow the maximum supply to reach the Tring Reservoirs.

The supply of water from the Chiltern Hills at Wendover and other sources was so vital to maintaining the Tring Summit Level that gauges were provided at all points where a supply entered the canal or any of the reservoirs.  A record of weekly readings was kept in order to calculate the total amount of inflow as against the quantity used by boats passing over the Summit Level.  Each pair of boats passing over the Summit would require at least two locks of water and a standard lock was estimated to hold 56,000 gallons (254,600 litres).

I enjoyed cycling around the Tring area on occasions with the Waterman and for many years I kept these records, becoming fully acquainted with the very complicated water supply system.  With the exception of the Tring feeder which receives its water supply from the Miswell Ponds via Dundale Spinney to the Silkmill Pond in Brook Street and then flows direct into the Tring Summit just west of Gamnel Bridge, all water other than actual rainfall into the canal and the drainage from the high banks of both the canal and railway cuttings, had to be lifted into the Summit Level by the various pumps at Tringford Pumping Station.  When I joined the Canal Company the old beam engine was still operating at Well No. 3, but diesel plant had been installed in 1911 to generate electricity for pumps in Wells Nos. 1 and 2.  The old beam engine dated 1803 was replaced by vertical spindle pumps in 1927, and these were driven by electricity supplied direct from the mains.  Quite recently the 100 hp and 50 hp diesel engines have been removed and now the whole pumping station is electrically operated from a comprehensive switchboard with mains supply.  Also in 1945 automatic float control pumps were installed in a small separate pumphouse alongside the Wendover Arm pipe discharge chamber, to lift the supply continuously to the Summit Level - the small or large pump operating in relation to the quantity of water flowing through the pipeline.  In the event of power cuts or any emergency the water could still be diverted into the reservoir.

From Grand Junction to Grand Union produced improvements

During 1929 an amalgamation of several canals took place to form the Grand Union Canal System and a big development scheme was started so that during the next few years much concrete walling was constructed and many long lengths of sheet concrete piling driven, for which in this area I was largely responsible.

Hand-excavating trenches to repair walling to prevent leakage.

In earlier years, efforts to prevent leakage from the waterway had usually been by hand-excavating of trenches in the towing path until the inflow of water could be found and then sealing up the trench with puddled clay, tramped down by the workmen treading the clay in their very heavy leather thigh boots.  It was often very difficult to determine where the leakage took place as the inflow was frequently a long way from where the outlet showed on adjoining land.  I mentioned that some water was supplied to Tring Summit by drainage of the adjoining railway cutting from along the track into a large brick culvert entering the canal on the towpath side just south of Bridge 134 called Marshcroft and I was privileged to walk through this heading during the drought of 1934, at a time when we were desperately short of water and our Tring reservoirs were almost completely empty.  The reservoir beds looked like crazy paving from the pattern of the cracks in the dried mud.  In order not to have to retrace our steps through the long heading between the railway and canal the waterman and I climbed the high railway bank and I remember feeling very scared as an express train thundered along the track below us.

This is a good point at which to record that the reservoirs are connected to the wells in Tringford Pumping Station by underground chalk headings along which the water flows to give the same level in the Pumping Station Well as that of the particular reservoir being pumped from at the time.  When the rains came to refill the reservoirs after the drought in 1934 a portion of the length under the Tringford reservoir collapsed and we had to construct a coffer dam around the affected part to carry out repairs.  This gave me the only opportunity I ever had during my 49 years of service of inspecting a section of this heading, the route of which ran from the deepest part of Startops End reservoir, then under Tringford reservoir to the Pumping Station, and I am therefore able to vouch for the fact that the heading is cut out of the chalk with no brickwork lining to give support, and by keeping my head well down I could walk along at shoulder height.

In addition to the large brick culvert from the railway cutting south of Bridge 134, there is another drainage supply from the railway at Pitstone Green Bridge near the Tunnel Cement Works.  A smaller brick culvert goes under the fields surrounding Whiting Hill finally to discharge into the canal on the offside above Lock 40 in the Marsworth Flight of Seven Locks.  This culvert became very silted up and in the late 1920s we had to trace the line of the culvert and break down into it at intervals in order to extract the accumulation of silt by means of a metal tube scoop pulled along the culvert by wire rope connected to a hand-operated winch.

At about this time the artesian well-heading at Wendover was becoming seriously choked with tree roots which had pierced the brickwork in search of water.  The roots had formed into what looked like fibre-matting and after breaking through at intervals during the period when there was a minimum of water flowing along the heading, workmen armed with shortened scythe blades crawled along to cut the matted roots which were passed back to be hauled to the surface at the various openings.  Talking of trees, it was found necessary at times to cut down the shrubs and thin out the heavy timber on the high Summit banks to reduce the weight, because after a winter of severe frost slips might otherwise occur.

Rainfall was gauged at each end of the Tring Summit and from the records kept between 1866 and my retirement in 1967 the minimum rainfall to have been recorded was 16 inches (40 cm) in one year and the maximum 42 inches (106 cm); the average being 27 inches (68.5 cm) per annum, and I can recollect exceptionally dry times in 1921, 1934, the middle 40s and 1959.  During the first three of these dry times lockage water was used over and over again, by pumping at a series of small stations north of the Tring reservoirs from Lock 33 Marsworth to Lock 22 Fenny Stratford.  Thinking of these exceptionally dry periods reminds me that an iron lightener was kept at Lock 45 Tring Summit when I first joined the Canal Company in order to take off some of the load from boats which otherwise would be unable to navigate across the Summit when the water level was low.

Red Tape

During the first few years of my service the Summit was kept open day and night, but later it became too expensive to retain the number of lock-keepers and toll office staff for round-the-clock duty.  Just before 1918 the workmen had changed from 60 hours to 48 hours per week and one of the men who lived at Marsworth told me that if they were working at the Aylesbury end of the branch canal he would have to get up early enough to walk along the towing path to be on the job at 6 am, and then walk home again after 6 p.m., for 18s per week.  An additional war bonus was, however, being paid and so I had to write out the weekly sheets using black ink for the usual wage and red ink in a separate column for the war bonus.  There was no telephone in the office nor a typewriter and I remember seeing an old-fashioned letterpress among the office equipment.

Game for Sport

The Rothschild Estate held the sporting rights to the reservoirs and ducks were still bred to provide the targets for occasional shoots at the appropriate season of the year.  The ducks were reared on Marsworth reservoir and the small reservoir at Wilstone.  Later when the reservoirs became a Nature Reserve and a permanent warden was in charge, I was interested to learn from him that at differing water levels certain types of birds would come to the reservoirs and he often asked if we could keep the reservoir at a special level to encourage a rare type of bird.  For example, when the reservoirs were full, diver birds came and at low levels those birds which revelled in the muddy reservoir bed would be more in evidence.  Our waterways emblem was the Kingfisher and I often saw one flying around the Marsworth depot and one day as I looked out of my office window, I got a glimpse of a Kingfisher with a fish in its mouth, perched on the deck of a maintenance boat.

Inspections were a pleasure

During my early years on the canal I rode many miles along the towing paths on my bicycle carrying out inspections or taking orders to the various gangs and on special occasions would take the train from Tring to Bletchley, then walk from Lock 22 Fenny Stratford to Leighton Buzzard or even back to Marsworth, the latter being a distance of some 16 miles (26 km).  Another very interesting inspection walk was along the Wendover Arm, then by train to Aylesbury and a walk back to Marsworth along the Aylesbury Arm.  Certain lengths of canal were let to various angling clubs and I well remember as I was cycling along the Aylesbury Arm one very hot summer day seeing two fishing rods lying across the towing path but no sign of any fishermen.  As I got closer to the rods I noticed that both floats were under water and then I discovered the fishermen fast asleep in the shade of the towing path hedge quite unaware of their success.  I stepped carefully over the rods without disturbing their owners and I often wonder what they said to each other on awakening.

When I joined the Grand Junction Canal Company years ago I was told that I would not be considered a real canal man until I had fallen into the waterway, and this I successfully accomplished during April 1922 by taking a header over the handlebars of a borrowed bicycle into Marsworth near my office, and I am glad to record that it was the only time I suffered such a fate.  I may add that I remember the postman doing something similar at Lock 45 Marsworth and seeing the many letters from his saturated postbag being carefully dried in the Toll Office at that lock.

Routine Changes and Promotion in World War 2

Soon after World War 2 broke out it was considered advisable, in case of possible invasion, to patrol the Marsworth Seven Locks at night and so when my turn came I would cycle from my home in Tring to our Bulbourne Workshop during the late evening to get what sleep I could on a mattress in the sitting-room of the storekeeper’s house.  He would wake me if necessary in time to start our spell of duty at 2 am until 4 am and we would walk together to Lock 39 Startops End and rest there a while on the form outside the White Lion before returning to Bulbourne.  One early morning I thoughtlessly leaned my rifle against the wall of the pub, and when it fell to the ground I was amazed how quickly the landlord opened the window of the bedroom to find out what made the noise.  Fortunately, we were hidden by the small penthouse roofing over the taproom window so were not discovered.  On many nights we were horrified by being able to see from Bulbourne Canal Bridge the glow in the sky from the bombing on London, but the only scare we ourselves had was the dark shape of an enemy bomber as it passed in front of the moon after a raid in the Midlands.  A very large bomb fell on the offside bank in Tring Summit just north of Bridge 135 making a deep hole about 70 feet (21 metres) in diameter and deposited three large trees roots downwards into the canal.  Fortunately a steam dredger was working not far away and with assistance from the Royal Engineers the waterway was soon cleared so that traffic could proceed normally.

This bomb damage reminds me that I was too young to be called-up during the First World War of 1914-18.  As part of the vital transport organisation of the country we were a reserved occupation during the 1939-45 War.  For purposes of economy, staff changes took place and for a number of years I dealt with office administration for which my outside experience stood me in good stead.

When we were nationalised at the beginning of 1948, it became apparent that there was a real need for standardisation in all phases of canal maintenance.  Methods of reporting progress of work, fluctuations of water supply, damage to canal property, etc., as sent in by the many different canal companies comprising the nationalised waterways varied so much that it was decided to set up a training centre at our Bulbourne Office to ensure a standard procedure for the whole country.  I was thus able to be a useful member of the training staff and found the work of tremendous interest, especially meeting canal personnel from all over England, Scotland and Wales: four of whom at a time came to spend a month at our training centre.  Wisely it was considered that outdoor workers of this type would resent being cooped up in an ofiice every day and I was therefore privileged to drive them around to inspect any important work being carried out during their stay at Bulbourne.  This naturally increased my own knowledge and value to the organisation, and promotion quickly followed. I became an Assistant District Inspector and very soon afterwards was given charge of the Watford District as it was then called (a sixty-mile length of main line waterway from Lock 21 Cosgrove to Lock 101 Brentford, including the branch canals, Northampton, Buckingham Arm (no longer navigable), the Aylesbury and Wendover Arms at Tring and the Slough and Paddington Arms (in the London Area).

When the waterways were nationalised the canal system was based on the four great rivers - the Mersey in the north-west, Humber in the north-east, Severn in the south-west and the Thames in the south-east.  The country was divided into four divisions operated respectively from Liverpool, Leeds, Gloucester and London.  Each division was sub-divided into districts, hence my title of District Inspector, and my particular area was split up into sections so that I had five Section Inspectors to assist me.  During my outings with the men who attended the Training Centre I was asked to take colour pictures of the various works we inspected, and about which students wrote their individual reports to the approved standardised pattern, so that Headquarters would be better able to understand what they tried to convey on paper.  The colour pictures proved very useful indeed at the Training Centre, and as it was so much easier to distinguish the different materials being used, such as iron, wood, concrete, etc., by their respective colour, had a great advantage over the previously used black and white slides.  I little thought that my photographic efforts during the last ten years of my canal service would result in my further promotion to becoming an Inspector of the London area and the supervisor of some 160 miles of waterway, including the various branches.

Toll Offices and Gauges

Toll Offices were situated at strategic points to gauge the loaded craft and this was done with a calibrated rod floating inside a copper tube which had a side-bracket enabling the gauging tube to be held on the gunwale of the boat at four different points to obtain an average of the number of dry inches of the craft above water level.  Each commercial craft was weighed and registered before coming into service and a record sheet kept at the Toll Office giving the dry inches for every 5 cwt (254 kg) of cargo on a particular craft.  A normal load for a pair of narrow boats being 27½ tons on the motor boat and 30 tons on the butty boat.  I often assisted the Toll clerk by gauging loaded boats, coming south from the Midland collieries or the Leighton Buzzard sand-pits, which travelled down the Arm to unload at Aylesbury, and for this purpose a spare gauging rod was kept in my office at Marsworth.  It is no longer necessary to gauge boats in this way as cargoes are accurately measured when loading and the tonnage calculated accepted by the receiver at the unloading point.

Ladies to the Rescue

During World War II many young society ladies helped by forming crews to run commercial craft from London to the Midlands and back again on weekdays.  They would often come into my office on a Friday afternoon after mooring their craft safely at Bulbourne for the weekend and telephone friends to make appointments for two days’ relaxation before continuing their very arduous spell of war work, especially during the winter months.  I know from experience what it means to handle wet ropes in icy cold weather using the strapping stumps to check boats which are entering the lock at too fast a speed.  One of these young ladies wrote a very interesting book about her experiences and I remember seeing another, whose loaded craft sank as it drew alongside Bulbourne works because the cargo had slipped, diving down into the flooded cabin to rescue as many of her belongings as possible before they were seriously damaged by canal water.

Working boats to pleasure boats

Reverting to my early years with the canal company I am reminded of the time when Messrs Bushell Bros had their boat building yard alongside the Wendover Arm of the canal near Gamnel Bridge and how fascinating it was to watch the construction of a wooden narrow boat from the forming of the timber framework to its covering with long lengths of thick oak planking bent to shape, by steaming, for the bow and stern of the craft, and finally to see the skilled craftsman painting from memory the colourful and attractive roses’ and castles’ design on the insides of the cabin doors etc.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry when steel-hulled boats of deeper draught superseded these wonderful examples of the boat-builders’ art.  Nowadays as I pay occasional visits to the waterway at Bulbourne in my capacity as the Chairman of the Tring Branch of the British Waterways Old Comrades Association to make arrangements for our quarterly meetings or the annual coach outing, I am astonished at the variety of pleasure craft which come over the Tring Summit Level, and regret that the commercial narrow boats I knew so well are rarely to be seen.  It is possible that I do not recognise some boats which have been converted into pleasure craft by the addition of cabin space along the whole length of the boat, and which now ply up and down the waterway as holiday cruisers.  Others have been cut in half and turned into four-berth cabin cruisers ideally suited to survive the turbulence of water as locks are being rapidly filled.

Where does the water go?

Thinking again of the vital water supply provided by the Chiltern Hills, one may wonder what happens to it after it has served its purpose for canal traffic.  South of Tring Summit and via the Aylesbury Arm the water finds its way by overflow weirs and streams down to the River Thames and the same applies just north of the Marsworth Seven Locks.  From Lock 34 Seabrook to the 11 mile-long Fenny Pound until one reaches the next high level, surplus water finds its way by the rivers Ouzel, Great Ouse, Nene, etc., to discharge into the sea at the Wash on the east coast.

Changes in Gates

I am probably one of the few canal supervisors who has witnessed the replacement of lock gates, because normally the life of these gates is forty years or more.  At Leighton Buzzard I was privileged to see a semi-solid pair of gates replaced by the more modem type of framed gate and I learnt that the canal was constructed originally with gates which were completely solid.  As a maintenance inspector I was not directly concerned with the making of lock-gates but with their installation when necessary.  However, during my early years of service seeing carpenters at Bulbourne Workshop using the various hand tools to form the mortise and tenon joints in the oak timber, but now this work is done by electrical machinery.

Looking back

During my long service on the waterway so many interesting experiences came my way, some of them both worrying and alarming, such as further burst culverts, occasional sunken boats holding up other canal traffic, but I could not have wished for a more interesting and varied occupation during which so many changes took place in the waterway transport system.


Memoirs of a Tring Canal Boat Builder
by Harry Fennimore

When I was about 15 years old I worked in an office which I hated it, so I left.  Then I had no job at all.  One day I was walking down the towpath kicking at the stones, when one of these flew up and hit a man on the shin!  This man turned out to be old Mr. Bushell - he was very cross with me and started to tell me off.  He asked me where I worked and when I told him that I had no job, he suggested that I should go and work for him, so that is how I became involved in canals and boat building.

Advertisement for Bushells Boat Builders showing 'Progress' on the canal.

I worked for Charlie and Joe Bushell, the brothers, whom we called by their first names, but the old man we had to call the Boss because he liked that.  He had been the boss, and so we had to fuss round him a bit and keep him happy.  On the whole they were pretty good to us.  There was no such thing as strikes or trouble of that sort, we just did our work which we were paid to do, and didn’t expect anything else.  But they were good to us in many ways - they gave us blocks of wood for the fire and things like that.

All In a Day’s Work

A typical day at Bushell’s Boatyard would start at 6 am, and in the winter it was very dark then.  We would go home to breakfast at 8 am, to a blazing fire, bacon and eggs, etc., and then we were reluctant to go back to work again, as we had to work in the snow and the ice with no protection whatever.  We liked to get into the blacksmith’s shop, it was hard work but we were warm in there because of the blacksmith’s fire.  Mostly though we were out in the open and it might be snowing or hailing and all we could do was work very hard to keep warm!  Essentially building boats was an outdoor job, and the comfort of the workers was not a consideration in those days.

When the building of a boat was started it was built on a platform (the stocks), and we would have to move these big elm bottoms about, 3 inches (7.6 cm) thick and over 7 feet (2 metres) long.  They were laid so that the ends hung over longer than necessary and they were cut to shape afterwards.  Carrying this wood around kept us warm, but it still was not very nice with rain and snow dripping down one’s neck, and it was impossible to do the work in gloves.

Dinner time was 12 until 1.00 pm.  Although we had so much timber to move about, there was very little machinery to help us.  We did have a bob-truck which was just two big cartwheels and an axle and a long beam of wood with a chain on the end of it.  We hooked the chain around a piece of timber, pulled down on the long shaft to lift it clear of the ground, and then ran with it!

The darker side of being a boat builder

The worst time was in the winter when it got dark at about 4 pm (there was no British Summer Time then).  Then we used to have some nasty jobs to do - we had to straighten bent nails for use again (they were very expensive then).  The problem was that we had to work two hours in darkness.  One thing we did was to make pointed pegs to fill the holes left in the boats where the plates had been removed.  We did this work inside by candlelight and by the light of flare-lamps.  These were made of a round container, with a point running down from it and a burner on the end.  We used to heat the end of the burner in the blacksmith’s forge and then turn the oil on and it used to flare up because it was coming down to a hot burner.  We used to stick candles between three nails driven through a piece of wood about the size of a book.

Another job we had to do on these dark evenings was to clean out the gas engine which drove the circular saw and the bandsaw.  We just used to creep about with the candles doing all the boring jobs and it was very miserable.  Sometimes we would go and do work in the boss’s house, anything just to kill the time.  We had to work until 12 noon on Saturdays, and we weren’t paid for any holidays at all, not even Christmas day.  I earned two pence (old money) more an hour than the other chaps because I painted castles and flowers on the boats.  When I left I was earning 1s 9d (8½p) per hour (our rises came in ha’pennies, never more, and sometimes I have even known of a farthing rise).  So when I was married and left there I was earning about £3 a week, and that was for about 65 hours.


Metal plates were put on the fore (front) ends of the boats to protect them from knocks and, in the winter, ice.  These plates were about as thick as a piece of cardboard, about 2 feet (60 cm) long and about 15 inches (38 cm) wide, and they were put on starting at the end nearest the stern (back), and then overlapping so that when they rubbed along they were not torn off.  This meant nailing one edge, and then nailing through two where they overlapped.  Underneath, to make it watertight we used to put ‘chalico’.  This was a mixture of horse manure and tar boiled for hours in a large cauldron like a witch’s cauldron.  We spread it all over the part of the boat that was going to be covered with plates and then on top of that we put a sheet of felt.  When we nailed the plates on, as we hit the nails with the hammer this chalico would squirt out all over our faces and then we had to wash in paraffin.

On top of the plates were guards, average 12 feet (3.5 metres) long, and they came round on the top edge of the boat and then the next one not quite so far, and the next one not so far as that, and they were nailed with huge spikes and they were ‘rubbing guards’.  At the stem (front) of the boat, there was a huge piece of wood for the planks to go into, and also a ‘stem bar’ which was a big length of iron that was ‘splayed out’ at the end.  This was done by heating it until it was white hot and then splayed with a big sledge hammer until it looked like a pancake.  This was nailed on to the top of the deck over and down the stem post and under the boat where it was splayed out again.  This bar graduated from about ½ inch (12 mm) thickness to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) where it took all the blows.

Not All Work and No Play

The men I worked with were all big strong men, and to relieve the boredom, or to compensate for the bad weather conditions, we amused ourselves by having contests to see who could pick up the heaviest piece of wood or something like that.  I was not very big, but like my father also, I had very strong arms, and could lift two 56 lb (25.4 kg) weights that we used to weigh the corn, right over my head.  During the summertime, seldom a day passed without someone going into the canal - pushed in I mean, not falling!  To get from the dockyard to the mill there was an obstruction (a chimney), and to get round there was a narrow ledge, one brick wide, but there was an iron rail to hold on to and swing round the chimney. We would catch hold of this iron bar and swing round onto the other side with no trouble at all.  However, one day one old chap slipped and he was hanging down on the bar with his feet just above the water. Of course, we did not help him (you did not do things like that), so we went and rapped his fingers until he fell into the canal! He swam across the canal to the towpath and went home; we didn’t see him again all day!

At the yard we kept an old punt which we used to go round the boats when we were working on them.  Well, there was this old hunchback chap at the yard (who taught me an awful lot about boats as he was a lovely workman) and he had to write the name on the end of a boat, so he had to go out on this punt to do it.  He didn’t like going in the punt.  He untied the punt to go round to the other side of the boat he was painting and it started to drift away.  He was hanging onto the boat with his hands and his feet were in the punt, which was getting further and further away.  He was shouting for help and although he was very old and a bit crippled, we still waited a little to see a bit of fiun.  We caught him just before he fell in.  He never went in the punt again!

They seemed to rely on me to do some things which other people wouldn’t do.  When we launched a boat - sideways down into the canal - it was held in the first place with chains round some big posts and it was on two big baulks of timber with a railway line down the top of each one so that it could slide down into the water when the chains were released.  If the chains were released and the boat went ‘chains and all’ into the water, the chains had to be recovered - so they said “Harry, go round the other side and lift those chains ofl”.  Well, the boat was there, waiting ready to go with nothing holding it.  Of course, I went round the other side, unhooked both chains and just as I was about to walk away the boat started to move.  I was on the canal side so I just grabbed the top of the boat and went down in the water with it.  It creates a terrific splash when 72 feet (22 metres) of boat hits the water sideways - in fact it had dug the towpath away where we launched these boats, as the water washed over the towpath and into the field behind.  My mates never expected to see me again, but I clung to the boat - it was just fun!

Overhaul Time

Although there was usually one boat on the stocks, we did have boats which came to be recaulked and repaired. We used to make sure the boats were waterproofed by caulking the gaps between the planks and where they were joined lengthwise. To do this we used ‘oakum’. The oakum was like a girl’s plait as it came off the ball and we could hammer it in the gaps and then coat the whole thing with pitch which we would make by boiling tar, We had an ordinary mop and a bucketful of pitch, and
we would give the boat a couple of coats and it would dry all hard and glossy.

The boat people stayed in a ‘change boat’ (one kept at the yard specially for this purpose). When the boat arrived at the yard for recaulking with the family aboard, the cabin would be absolutely alive with bed bugs which were nasty things - they looked like ladybirds. When the boat family moved into the change boat we closed all the apertures up in the cabin with wet sacks, then we put a tin full of brimstone in the stove, this sent off choking yellow poisonous fumes when it was burning. We used to set it alight by heating a lump of iron in the blacksmith’s fire and then lifting the wet sack on the hatch and dropped the hot iron into the tin of brimstone and then quickly dropping the wet sack back over the hatch. After a day and a night the cabin was swept out and a shovelful of dead bugs, mice and other creatures was disposed of. The boat people were really very, very clean, although people did not think so, but when they picked up a cargo there were more bugs in the cargo, so they did not stay free of them for long after stoving.

A Horse’s Life

The yard that I worked for was taken over from a yard that had all wide boats and they used to take all the hay and corn up to Paddington because at Paddington there was a big fleet of horses in stables and then they used to bring the manure from the stables back again - and that was all they did.  Anybody who took a boat up could leave their horse up there, have another one to bring the boat back and then pick their horse up the next time they went there, refreshed and well fed and looked after.  Unfortunately barge horses did get injured sometimes.  At each lock the towpath goes down at a sharp angle because the level of the canal drops, and when the horse was pulling the boat with a boatline, straining to get it out of the lock (once a barge was moving it was easy), the line very often snapped, and because the horse was pulling with all its might it ended up in the canal.  If you look at the side of the main canal, every so often you will see some shallow steps, about a yard wide, going down the side of the towpath into the water and these were put there specifically to get the horses out of the canal when they fell in.  These steps were built against each lock, as it was accepted that the horses fell in and however good the line was, it gradually got chafed in use and eventually broke.

The barge-horses used to have a food tin, like a nosebag, with a strap, and this tin would be painted like the barges with roses and other typical barge patterns, and the horse would feed as it was pulling the barge.  Along the traces on the horse’s harness, they would thread small knobs, like cotton reels, and each one was painted a different colour - everything they owned had to be painted in some way.  In the summer the horses had what looked like mittens put over their ears to keep the flies off.

One day I went down to fetch a boat with a horse that belonged to the miller next door (William Mead) and he sent one of his men with me.  This man was not familiar with horses or boats.  The boat was at the bottom of a very steep bank, about 5 or 6 feet (2 metres) deep, and I hooked the boatline on the boat and then on the horse.  I told this man to stand on the canalside of the horse and keep its head over towards the hedge.  I then got in the boat ready to steer it.  Well, this horse wasn’t used to boats and it pulled the slack line up that laid on the path and then, of course, it suddenly went tight.  The man was on the hedge side of the horse because he was frightened and when the horse felt the sudden tug of the line it threw its back feet round and went ‘wallop’ down the steep bank into the water on its back.  It was a beautiful, very big horse, and I had to get in the canal, unharness it and walk it up the canal until I got to a place where it was low enough at the bank to get it out.  They put it in a stable lined with straw and made specially warm (called the hospital) because it was shivering with cold.  They gave it brandy and bran mash, but it caught pneumonia, and it died the next day.  In those days a horse like that was worth about £400.

Boat building is not all plain sailing

We used to turn out narrowboats like sausages from a sausage machine!  There was a frame made of posts set in the ground, standing up about 20 inches (50 cm) from the ground and then there were big, hefty pieces of timber round it so that it was roughly the shape of the boat.  We laid elm planks, 3 inches (7 cm) thick and 15 inches (38 cm) wide, and more than the full width of the boat.  These elm bottoms were already cut and we got them from Easts at Berkhamsted but the planks that followed up came in the raw state with the bark round the edges, 14 inches (4.5 cm) thick, 14 inches (35.5 cm) wide and 30 feet (9 metres) long.  The details for making a boat are very complicated, but that was how we started off.

The narrow boat (or monkey boat) was the one that was mostly built and used, but we did build one boat which was twice the width of the normal boat, and it was called the Progress.  The designers said that it was the boat to beat all boats and they were going to have big fleets of them.  It was 14 feet (4.2 metres) wide instead of 7 feet (2.1 metres) and it had special decking over it with hatches and a big beam right down the centre of the boat, above the height of the boat, and tarpaulins laid over, so that it was like a ship really.  After we had built it, it was taken to a place called Hatton to open a new flight of locks.  The Duke of Kent was at Hatton and we had to go there and put seats out with the names of all the important people who were going down in the boat and lay a red carpet and make all the preparations.  We had a rehearsal and one of my bosses took the part of the Duke of Kent.  The next day was the real thing with champagne and everything, but we weren’t there that day so we did not have any champagne.  Unfortunately, the people who designed Progress did not take into account the fact that two boats of her size could not pass anywhere on the canal, so more like her were never built, and she ended her days as a mud boat on the River Thames.

At the yard we also built other boats.  We built a big tug during the war, which could pull as many as ten 100-ton barges behind it.  It was called Bess and it was so huge that we did not build it on a frame, but on the ground.  It was 72 feet (22 metres) long and 14 feet (4.2 metres) wide.  We had to build a half-section of it first, from fore to aft (lengthways), full size!  We built it with what we called ‘harpings’ which were much like outsize plaster laths (thin strips of wood), exactly as the finished boat would be, and this was then used to take measurements from as guides in building the actual boat.  This was because although narrow boats could be produced with ease as so many were made, something as unusual and large as this posed more of a problem.  When it was launched all the schoolchildren had half a day’s holiday to watch the launch and it just wallowed down in the mud at the bottom of the canal and all the schoolchildren hung on to a rope and helped to pull it out of the mud again.  As there were no engines or boilers in it at this stage the nose of the tug stuck up in the air, so sand was put in the nose to weight it down, and it was such a big boat that it took 20 tons of sand.  They had to bring the nose down to get the tug under the bridge to get it down onto the main canal.  It was towed along by horses and when they got to Winkwell they had to take the strips of wood ofi the sides and take the Swing Bridge off as well, to get the thing through.  Later, though, the engine and boiler were taken out and it was converted to diesel.

We also made Rothchild’s fishing punts - dozens of them.  They were just a flat boat and across the middle was a tank, and they used to put the fish they caught in this tank.  In the sides of this tank were holes so that the water from the reservoir filled the tank.  They used to catch perch, roach, pike and so on.  I used to go down with my old boss and row him round to catch pike, etc.  He used to trail his line behind the boat and every time he caught a fish I used to have to get on my bike and bring it up home to show to the rest of the chaps.

From Horse Power to the Engine

One day a boatman came to the yard with a butty boat and he wanted it altered into a motor boat.  We had to build another cabin on it for the engine and a chap came over from Holland to put the engine in.  I helped him to do it as he only had one arm.  I must explain that these engines went round at 300 rpm and they had a long lever that went right back to the steering compartment.  When you wanted to reverse the engine and propeller and stop the boat you slowed the engine down to its minimum revolutions and then pulled the lever and let it go.  Then hopefully the engine itself (not a gearbox) went round the other way.  Well, this Dutch engineer had been shown how to do this on shore, but had no proper lesson on the canal.  Well, he took this boat off with the new engine and when he got down to the bottom of the arm the main canal crossed it at right angles, with a concrete wall the other side.  He pulled the lever, but forgot to slow the engine first, so nothing happened at all and the boat shot straight across the main canal and hit a boat made of iron which was going along the main canal.  The impact dented the side of this boat right in so that it touched the other side, but if it had not been there he would have smashed right into the concrete wall and completely demolished his boat.  As it was we had to build another fore-end on it!  The boat people messed about with their engines, and they always had bits to spare when they had finished, but the engines always seemed to go - they were sturdy old engines.

There were steam engines first, they were lovely old engines - very quiet.  Then there were ‘semi-diesels’ which had to be pre-heated.  They had a bulb on them and this had to be heated up with a blow-lamp to start with and then it kept going with its own heat - they were very crude old things.  Then there were the more modem diesel engines and these started just like a car.

For many years there was a Crossley gas engine at Bushell’s yard and that drove all the machines (a bandsaw for cutting round comers and a circular saw).  It had a long belt to drive the circular saw which went through a hole in the side of the building that the engine was in and then went 30 feet (10.5 metres) down to the circular saw.  Most people used to put the belt on when the engine was stationary but that made the engine hard to turn to start, so I used to throw the belt on when the engine was running.  One day a ragged piece of the belt caught in my jumper and it took me through the hole: I was knocked and bruised, but not badly hurt.  Later electric motors were fitted individually to each machine and I used to do all the electrical work, this would have been in about 1920.  We had this big hand drill and everyone else was frightened of it, so I used to use it as I was used to electrical work.  One day I was on the top of a cabin on a boat drilling a hole through it and the drill caught in a nail or something like that - swung round - and threw me right off the top of the cabin into the water!  The drill broke off like a carrot!

Bulbourne Yard

The Bulbourne yard was the maintenance yard for the length of the canal from near Rugby to Bulls Bridge at Brentford, which was a long stretch.  They used to make lock gates, the ironwork for the lock gates and did all general maintenance on the canal itself.  When the lock gates were made (they weighed about 3 tons each), they were dropped into deep, narrow tanks full of creosote which would then soak right through the wood.  That is why lock gates never rot.  The huge piece of wood, usually oak, that went on top of the gate and overhung the towpath for about 15 feet (4.5 metres) was called the balance.  If the water on the top side of the gate was only one inch deeper than in the lock, then the gate could not be opened.  The boat people found a way of hooking their boatline on to the gate, then to the mast of the boat and then back to the gate, in such a way that when the horse started off the rope went through this sort of pulley system and opened the gates.  The boss of the Bulbourne Works lived in a house by the yard with a lovely garden.  One of their blacksmiths (his name was Buckingham), made a lily out of iron; it was a real work of art is it is difficult to beat iron out as thin as a lily leaf.  There was no welding then, so joining the tiny stems together just by heating the metal and then beating them together when they were white hot without breaking them off, really took some doing.  This lily still stands outside the house at Bulbourne now, and it was made about 40 years ago.  There were two or three blacksmiths at Bulbourne as there is a lot of ironwork in a lock.

Castles & Roses

Another job done from Bulbourne was the repairing of paddles, which lift up to let the water in and out of the locks, or into the side locks.  These were wound with a windlass which the boat people would stick through their broad belts (worn by both men and women), when they walked along ahead of the boats to get the lock ready.  When we built the boats, we had to fit the inside with all the furniture as well, and this would all be painted with the traditional castles and roses.  The boat people would not have accepted pictures of anything else, they always insisted on the traditional castles and roses.  I learned by watching the older men do these pictures and copying what they did, and then I took it over and did that sort of thing and the sign writing on the boats.

I did quite a lot of work in the Bulbourne yard, including painting names on boats - names like Three Brothers, The Roger, and Golden Spray, which was the loveliest boat we ever built. We built it for Tooveys of Kings Langley, Com Merchants, and it was built and painted as well as any boat could be. I painted the name ‘T.W. Toovey, Kings Langley’, all in gold leaf The Golden Spray was not a narrow boat, however, it was 14 feet (4.26 metres) wide instead of 7 feet (2.13 metres) wide. There were two boats, the Golden Spray and the Langley, and they were the pride of the canal. I don’t know what happened to them - I suppose they either fell to pieces or became mud boats on the river (that was where a lot of boats ended up).

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 (11ft beam).

The cabin top we used to grain and down the centre we would paint a strip about 12 inches (30 cm) wide with diamonds - always the same colours - blue, yellow, green, white and red, repeated all the way along. Inside the cabin the whole idea was to ‘grain’ it. Everything had a coat of ochre colour, then you add raw sienna very thin and then after a moment or two you would mark graining on with a comb. The panels which were not grained had pictures on. In fact I have even painted traditional patterns on cabin floors!

Boat Life

Some of the boat people kept cats and dogs. Between the fore cabin and the living cabin at the rear of the boat, there was the ‘stowage’ where the cargo was put.  In one comer would be the dog’s kennel, boarded round so that the cargo could not fall on it, and when the boat was empty the dog would have the run of the stowage, all the way along the boat.  In the wet weather cloths would be put over planks, hanging down over the side of the boat, to keep the cargo dry, and it was really cosy in there.  When the boat was travelling, sometimes the dog would get off the boat and run along to the next lock and wait for the boat to come along again.  Sometimes the dog would sit on the cabin top, but if it did, they would put a cord or a leather strap round its collar to stop it if it fell down the side - instead of going into the canal it hung down the side on its strap until they could pull it back again.  They kept the dogs as pets mainly, although a dog might catch an occasional rat!

Inside the boats there was no sanitation, except maybe a chamber pot which would be emptied straight over the side anyway!  For washing they had a bowl (metal and traditionally painted), which would hold about 1½ gallons (7 litres) and this would be used for everything else as well, such as peeling the potatoes!  When this was not in use it would be hung up in the cabin, so the bottom of it was decorated as well and the inside of it was plain white.

They were also very proud of their china which they would use to decorate the cabin.  These plates were made of real bone china and they looked just like lace, with holes right through them.  The ‘old’ boat people - the women - wore lace hats, and the lace trailed down their backs - well, it was crochet, they did it themselves.

Then there were gangplanks: along the length of the boat were about four beams which went across the boat (thwartwise we called it), and dropped into slots on the inside of the boat.  They had stands dropped through these slots in the beam and they had diamonds and fancy patterns painted on as well.  Over the top of those from the deckboard at the fore end (the boat people called it a ‘cratch’), this gangplank, about 11 inches (28 cm) wide and about 1½ inches (4 cm) thick, came from a slot in the cratch, cut so that it fitted round the mast, (which was also decorated with diamonds), and then along from stand to stand until it curved down to the cabin top and ended up on the cabin block (a block about 10 inches (25 cm) deep and about 12 inches (30 cm) wide and 3 inches (7.5 cm) thick which stood on the end of the cabin).  This block had castles and landscapes painted on it, facing the position of the cabin.

Along the side of the boat were waterproof cloths, held down with a strip all the way round the side of the boat.  This strip of wood is called the gunwale.  These sidecloths were about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and we used to oil them to keep them supple.  They had cords on one side and rings on the other.  The cord went over the top of the gangplank and down through the cloth on the other side so the sidecloths were pulled up, over the side of the boat for 2 feet (60 cm), tight over the top of the gangplanks.  Over the top of these were the topcloths.  They went on the gangplanks and dropped down over the sidecloths making the whole thing perfectly watertight.  This was particularly necessary with coal and wheat as they were liable to spontaneous combustion if they got wet.

Ovaltine Boats

The Ovaltine Company had six pairs of boats - six motor boats and six butty boats.  They travelled in pairs and it would take a week for one pair to reach the collieries in the north as their average speed was not more than four miles an hour.  As there were six pairs of boats, the coal was delivered more or less continuously to the Ovaltine factory as the boats plied back and forth.  The Ovaltine were very proud of their boats and put no limit on money spent on the decoration of the boats so long as they looked nicer than other people’s.

They also chose their boat people for cleanliness and nice manners, as the boats acted as an advertisement for the company.  I used to put 16 bunches of flowers and 14 castles on a pair of Ovaltine boats, and diamonds galore, plus practically anything that the boat people asked for.  I also used to write ‘Ovaltine’ in letters about 10 inches (25 cm) high along the cabin side, exactly as it is written on the Ovaltine tin.  It was written in orange on dark blue.  Underneath it had ‘A Wander & Co Ltd, Manufacturing Chemists, Kings Langley’.

Tugs Take Over From Legs

At Blisworth Tunnel, which is a mile and a quarter long, they used to ‘leg’ the boats through, but then we built the tugs.  There used to be perhaps half a dozen boats or pairs of boats at one end of the tunnel.  The horses and crew would go over the top and just one man would stay on the boat.  The tugs, Pilot and Hasty were the names of two of them, were built so that they were only 2 or 3 inches (7.5 cm) narrower than the tunnel itself so that they could not possibly go off course.  They would hook about half-a-dozen of the boats behind and the tug driver would get his engine revving at the right speed and then step off it and let it go on through the tunnel with no one at all on board.  At the other end his mate would be ready waiting to step on to the tug and bring it to a halt when it appeared.

World War II

During the war I saw hundreds of ‘dumb’ boats - these had no accommodation at all, not even a cabin.  They were used in the war effort for carrying vital supplies, and we used to caulk them and coat them with tar.

The biggest boat we built, (apart from the tug), was called the Tiny, and the first load it had was a load of 12 inches (30 cm) naval shells, all stacked up like milk chums!  Also during the war we converted the float from a seaplane into a boat and put an engine in it!  We did all sorts of jobs like that during the war.

The Wheels Take Over

As the boats became used less we started building lorries, first as a side-line, but it grew in importance.  We also painted them and put the advertisements on them.  Finally, Bushell’s Boatyard closed down simply because the two bosses had reached retiring age, in about 1952.


John Dickinson and the Canal
by Russell Horwood

“The practice of our trade is to deliver our paper at all considerable places to which there is an easy access by canal or other water carriage, or by railway carriage.  We do not undertake to send anything by wagons or the ordinary land conveyance.”

The speaker was John Dickinson, the year 1838 and he was giving evidence before the Post Office Commission which led two years later to the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage and the first postage stamps.

Before the diesel lorry, before even the railway, there was the canal - the Grand Junction Canal, opened in 1800 when John Dickinson was still an apprentice and it was clearly a powerful influence on his choice of Apsley as a mill site. He used it to transport his rags and raw materials from the mills of Lancashire and from the Continent, his coal from the Warwickshire mines. and his finished wares to
customers countrywide. It was an unhurried mode of transport. Between trips from Apsley to Nash the mill boatman even had time to scythe the guv’nor’s lawn.

New developments were around the corner. By 1837 the railway was open from London to Birmingham, with local stations only a mile or two from his four mills, and he had new and faster links with his customers. But the canal remained a major mode of transport, bringing coal for the steam-driven mill engines from the Midland pits and rags for the pulpers from city and docks. It was 1911 before the company invested in any of the newfangled motor vans.

Joe Bloor well remembers the barges. He is not really Joe, but John, but his father was Joe and inevitably John became Young Joe, and the name stuck. For that matter, they were not really barges, but narrow-boats - at least, those that brought in the coal and shipped out the finished goods.

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.

Between them the pairs of boats carried 60 tons of coal and for transporting it the skipper-owner received the princely sum of £21, out of which he had to pay heavy towing dues through each tunnel en route, canal tolls, feed and stable the horses and settle blacksmiths’ bills, as well as feed and clothe his family. It was 1927 before the first Number One acquired a motor-driven boat and cut the round trip time to four days.

Joe and his family were not involved in this traffic but he has clear recollections of the two pairs of narrowboats which plied between the Hertfordshire mills and the company’s London depot at Irongate Wharf, Paddington. The lead boat of the first pair, Vulcan and Viceroy, was steam-driven; the second pair, Jackal and Jaguar, were propelled by the more economical diesel engine, which produced
that evocative pop-pop-pop exhaust sound.

The powered boat carried 15 tons of freight, the butty 20 tons, and both had living quarters for the crew. They were loaded with considerable care, because of the buffeting which occurred in the locks as the water rushed in and out; heavy things like books, pads and pasteboard went into the lead boat and lighter freight like envelopes in the butty. Space was left in the second boat for other consignments to be added en route at Nash, Home Park and Croxley.

Docking at dawn

At about 3 pm the pair left Apsley, reaching Croxley Mills by 6.30 pm and chugging on through the night to dock at Paddington by dawn. There the boats were hastily unloaded and the products conveyed by horse-drawn van to the company’s Sumner Street warehouse in south-east London or direct to customers in the City and West End. Next-day service is no new thing.

Jack Legge, who retired from Tottenham Traffic in the late 1970s, started work in 1923 as a van boy at Paddington. From 6 am until 7.30 each morning before breakfast and before going out on the van, he helped unload the two mill boats. Occasionally, when one of the four regular drivers was away, he took over the reins. He remembers one horse on the Oxford Circus run which would dig in its heels outside Buzzards the confectioners and resolutely refuse to budge until its driver, Mr. Clark, bought it two-penn’orth (½ p) of stale cakes.

Three years later the horse gave way to solid-tyred chain-driven 6 ton Halford lorries and although he was still van boy he occasionally had a chance to take over the wheel.  You did not need any L-plates in those days - just a strong arm and a well-cushioned seat.

Back at Apsley, Progress was ploughing its way back and forth along the canal between the four neighbouring mills.  Built in 1900, the barge Progress was wider than the standard narrow-boat and capable of carrying 35 tons in its hold.  Loading at the Apsley mill head, a basin between the Power House and the main road (now submerged beneath concrete and new development), it carried stationery, export packing cases and oddments like re-sharpened guillotine knives to the other mills, returning with paper and board supplies for Apsley.  One member of the two-man crew steered and tended the controls, the other cycled ahead along the towpath to flood the locks.

Joe Bloor never crewed for Progress, although he was travelling aboard her even before his first birthday, for his father and his grandfather before him were boatmen for Dickinson’s.  When the time came for him to start working full time, Joe helped man the other three Apsley-based boats - Basildon, Nash and Shendish - which were used to transport waste to the nearby Frogmore Mill and to Nash.

Sometimes, on the shallow stretch to Frogmore, the propeller would foul the bed of the canal and Joe and his companion would have to pull the load to its destination at the end of a rope.  For every fourth boat they manhandled in this way they got a bonus of sixpence (2½ p) apiece - enough in those days, reflects Joe, “to buy two halves of beer and ten Du Mauriers”.

Strawboard and timber from the London docks also came up the canal to Apsley in a wide horse-drawn barge, capable of carrying 50 tons, and had to be loaded low to clear the hump-back bridges.

By 1937 new articulated lorries had ousted the narrow boats on the Apsley to London run.  The inter-mill barge Progress remained in service until 1949 and although the coal-boats continued deliveries into the 1960s, in the end they could not compete with the speed, capacity and quick turn-round of high-sided road tipper trucks.

Not all the water-borne freight went by canal, of course.  Talking to the Post Office investigators in 1838, John Dickinson revealed that he was sending paper consignments up the coast to Edinburgh “by smack”.  Up until the mid-1930s we were shipping supplies to customers in Scotland and on the north-east coast via London docks and steamship companies with proud names like The Dundee, Perth & London Shipping Co, Tyne Tees Shipping and the Aberdeen Steamship Co.  Back by the same routes came paper from Scottish mills for the machines at Apsley.


Canal Reminiscences of Working for
Dickinson’s in Apsley
by Joe Bloor

I am known as Joe and I used to work for Dickinson’s.  I was born in 1920 and I live at 3 Shendish Edge, Apsley.  My father, Joe, born in 1886 worked on the boats.  Before him, his father also worked on the boats and his name was Joseph as well.  He was born in 1854.

My grandfather was working on the boats, and as far as I gather, he bought two pairs of boats of his own and got people to work on them.  They were named Lillian and Lizzie.  He used to fetch coal down for Dickinson’s.  I think he started working for Fellows, Morton and Clayton when they lived at Uxbridge and then they moved to a house on the lock at Nash Mills and from there they went to St Albans Road, then 2 Kent’s Avenue, then 15 Weymouth Street.  My grandfather was on a six months contract for Dickinson’s.  He supplied the horse and the man that worked for him and Dickinson’s supplied the boats.  When my grandfather died in 1916, my father was actually working in the yard at Dickinson’s.  They had him up into the oflice and said, “Would you take your father’s job on?”  “No”, he said.  “He can’t make it pay and I can’t make it pay not for the money you spend”.  So they said to my dad, “How much do you want‘?”  My dad said a price and didn’t think they’d pay it.  So anyway they paid it and my dad had to pay my grandmother for the horses.  All the other horses and boats were sold privately, so that my grandmother could live, because there was no assistance.  My grandmother never worked on the boats, she lived in the house.  There were a lot of people lived in the houses.

Youngsters could leave school at 14 and could go and work for Dickinson’s.  If they weren’t satisfactory at the age of 16 they were sacked.  They would say there was no work, because they could go and get another person from school and they didn’t have to pay stamps.  That’s how Dickinson’s was run.

My brother worked in Apsley Mills and got sacked when he was 16.  Then he worked at the bakers up at Bovingdon, Ernie Smiths, after which he went painting and decorating.  After that he went and worked at Frogmore, shift work.

Horse-drawn boats

When I was a boy they used to be all horse-drawn boats.  Sometimes the horses would fall in the cut but you’d get them out.  You’d got your places to do this.  The horses would pull the boat along and say for instance you came to Dolittle Bridge, you’d got to unhook him, he’d go over the bridge and then you’d got to go under the bridge yourself with just enough room for you to walk and then come over with the line and hook it on again.  Some would have two horses. Some would have a pony and a big horse and some would have two old mules.  You wouldn’t change your own horse, only those on contracts such as my granddad was, I don’t really know who owned the boats or the horses but I should imagine it was Fellows, Morton and Clayton.  They had a lot of old horses years ago because they changed their horses and gave them a rest.  These other people who had only just got the two horses, used to work them all the time.  You’d stop and give the horse a rest where the stables were and put the horse in for the night.  Then you’d go and have a beer in the pub.  There were stables at “The Wooden Box”, which is a nickname for Albion Hill.  There was the Old Salmon, opposite Apsley Mills.  The barge people used to put their horses in there and that used to stable about four.

I remember when the canal was frozen over, I saw a bloke so blind drunk he took his horse across the ice.  The ice stood him and the horse which he took into the Albion.

Bushell’s Boatyard

You used to take your boat to Bushell’s Boatyard to get it docked.  They built Roger for Harvey Taylors.  He had Arthur Ray working it.  Actually it was the last working boat on the canal that used to fetch coal down to the jam hole and used to do a load of sand down.  The jam hole is Southall.  Everybody’s got nicknames for it.

Dickinson’s only owned the Lord Nelson and Progress and waste-carrying boats that were used locally.  All the boats were on contract and mostly from London.  Bucks Barges were the people that fetched the raw products in and the coal down.

The Canal at Nash Mills

In the picture of the Lord Nelson you see my grandfather and his brother who worked on the boat and this is the boat that ran between Apsley Mills, Nash Mills, Home Park, Croxley and into Paddington, Paddington Basin as they called it, and then back.  When the steamer came along about 1927 they finished with the horse boat and my father started working for Dickinson’s at Apsley Mills.

The Canal at Croxley Mill

Until 1970, when it became oil fired, Croxley needed more coal than they did at Apsley Mills.  Therefore, when it used to be privately owned and privately run, they used to have more private boats there.  The sheds that you can see are the grass sheds and wood pulp sheds where they used to unload the barges that came from London.  The coal grab is a new one from when I first knew it as a boy.  The loading bay was further up towards Watford; this end is the end near Rickmansworth and the loading place for the paper and the London boats and my dad’s boats was up the end of the mill where the end of the product was.

Apsley Mills (South Bay) was always known as the south end when the lorries started coming but I know it as the bottom mill head.  This bay was covered over in approximately 1932.  All these boats shifted waste materials round the top yard.  In those days they used to cart the waste in bags, that’s why the salvage department as we call it now used to get called the “bag house”.  Then they got two balers and they baled it up into 5 or 6 cwt (305 kg) bales and lowered them into the boat.

The Kate had a butty as well and was fully loaded with paper for a trip to the Paddington Depot.  Bad loading meant there would be gaps called ratholes or old linnets.  If you made a rathole when you were loading as a boy, the old foreman would be round there shouting, “Enough rats in this boat ain’t there?”  You used to have to load it up and get as much on as you could.

The funnels above Kate took the fumes up from the old steam boats.  This wharf was closed in the 1950s because the boats no longer brought coal into Apsley.

Private families, privately owned boats

They used to consist of two Lane brothers, two Ambridge Brothers, Brays, Carters, Wards, Humphries and Hales.  Hales ran to Apsley Mills with the coal from Athelstone, up in the Midlands and different collieries.  Nash Mills had coal boats running in there regular, owned by Sammy Barlow, or S. E. Barlow.  Home Park had regular contracts with Cole and Lane.  At Croxley Mills they used to have Faulkners, S. E. Barlow and sometimes Harvey and Taylors would run in.  There used to be two pairs of Fellows, Morton and Clayton boats, one ran one day into London and the other would run another day.  From Apsley Mills, at approximately 3.30 pm they’d go to Nash Mills and pick up, go to Home Park and pick up, finish picking up at Croxley and then go off into London and arrive in Wharfdale Road at Kings Cross about 5.00 in the morning.  It was always the same kind of load, envelopes and books.  The first cargo going into London was the export stuff.  I don’t know the date when they first started running into London.  All I know is that my granddad did it before 1916 with horses, and they used to change horses four times going from Apsley Mills to London.  He used to do the same and pick up at all John Dickinson’s places.  What used to come back out of London was a load of waste paper for Nash Mills which Fellows, Morton and Clayton fetched out.  The waste paper came from the waste depots in London, such as Robert Hutton’s in Lime Street and the Thames Waste Board.  It used to come into Kings Cross by horse and cart and they’d transfer it over into Dickinson’s who would load it and go back down to Nash Mills.

All Fellows, Morton and Clayton motor boats used to be named after animals - Dolphin, Bison, Greyhound, Jaguar and Jackal which were the last two contract boats used to run for Dickinson’s.

Moving down to Croxley Mills, they used to have all the wood pulp, esparto grass and rags fetched out of London.  They used that to manufacture paper.  They made all different sorts of paper, water lined ones, Basildon Bond paper and art paper.  Like everything else, the barges died off out of London by 1937 when they fetched wood pulp and esparto grass in lorries.  This is how the canals all finished.

####They did try to improve the transport run from London, cutting out one man, on a boat they called the Progress but being it was just one boat on its own, a wide boat, it didn’t work out.

The chaps used to come up, drop off what they’d got for Croxley and then go to Home Park, if they’d got a bit for in there they’d drop that off. That would probably be on the motor, but the waste paper would be on what they call the butty which was towed. They’d come up to Nash Mills, leave the butty at Nash Mills, to be unloaded and when it was empty one man would pull the empty boat to Apsley Mills by himself. I did it thousands of times. You put the rope round your shoulders and then pull the boat, approximately a quarter of a mile. Once the boat’s going its all right. Same as coming down loaded, like I used to do the waste, you got flushes of water from the lock which used to help you. Sometimes we used to hook on to the end of a boat and pull us up to the lock, that’s what I did myself 1936 - 1939. They used to pay me 10s 6d (52½p) a week when I started, every six months you’d get a rise. The pension scheme started up in 1926, in my father’s time and all the people that worked in Dickinson’s paid so much. I used to earn 16s (80p) a week and I used to pay 1s 6d (7½ p) a week for my pension.


Ovaltine used to have just ordinary coal boats. I have known a Bucks barge pull in there and load up with Ovaltine.

Rusks for export, that’s before the war. They made them there. The Ovaltine boats themselves never carried any food, only coal going backwards and forwards to the collieries in the Midlands but I don’t know where. The Ovaltine boats were blue with gold writing. There’s one that runs about nowadays. There were eight pairs of boats to fetch the coal to supply all the heating for Ovaltine.

Toovey’s flour mill

Toovey’s flour mill used to have two pairs of wide boats. The mill was demolished recently (1979) and they’re building houses there now. They used to fetch grain. I don’t know what grain it was, whether it was for flour or chicken grain. They fetched about 80 tons of grain a week from London.

The British Paper Company at Frogmore

They had two pair of boats running in there which used to have horses. The boats were privately owned, just the same as those that came to Apsley Mills.

Coopers at Berkhamsted

Coopers at Berkhamsted used to use Bucks Barges as well for sheep dip. They did probably get unloaded at Apsley Mills and then carry on to Berkhamsted, pick a load of sheep dip up and take it back to Brentford. They wouldn’t do it every time they came to Nash Mills or Apsley Mills.

Other wharves

Occasionally, before the war, Lavers would have a load of timber in at the wharf. Years ago before that I remember fetching a load of coal into the Fishery Wharf. Mr. Thorn used to own that. There was always a wharf along there because occasionally sometime or other Fosters would have a load of what we called foreign timber in - that’s like tree trunks before it was cut up. There were timber sheds along there. The barges can’t go any further than Tring. When you get above Tring they become single locks for some distance then they start up double again. You can only go up the Aylesbury arm with a single boat.

The End of an Era

In the 1930s the Grand Union Canal Company built many new boats and a lot of people packed up their own boats and went and worked for them. A lot of people had worked for Fellows, Morton and Clayton but even they were taken over by the Grand Union. That’s the way it carried on and then in the end they even phased the Grand Union boats out altogether by about 1955/6. No-one took them over they just sort of called them in and made them redundant. There were a load of people who worked on them and it was a terrible shock.


Memoirs of a Boxmoor Man
by John Mew

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.


Memoirs of a Boatwoman
by Gladys Horn

Mrs. Gladys Horn lived in the Lock Cottage beside the Rising Sun at Berkhamsted.  I was born in Birmingham and I can remember there being a lot of children in the family - fifteen of us.  Unfortunately, when I was about eight my Dad died - we were at Leicester at the time.  My oldest sister was nineteen and then my next sister was eighteen and then there was a sister of nine because Mum had lost five between us, and I was eight.  I think my Mum found it very hard without a man because when you’ve got a pair of boats (these were Fellows, Morton & Clayton, I’m going back a bit now), and they had motors which were particularly difficult to start - well, a lady just couldn’t do it so there had to be a man on a pair of boats, with that sort of engine.  So I remember my oldest sister’s boyfriend came with us.  I think he was with us for about three months and then he left us.  Then my other sister’s boyfriend came with us and he was with us for about thirteen months until my Mum got married again.  She had another child after she got married.

Mostly we travelled from Brentford in Middlesex to Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and we carried anything - food, tomatoes, sugar, dates, HP Sauce, children’s toys, big rolls of paper - anything.  At Brentford you loaded up.  We carried a lot of aluminium and ‘spouter’ (that’s zinc but we always used to call it ‘spouter’), and that used to go to Birmingham.  We did not stop again, except for the nights, until we got to Birmingham, and we never collected any goods on the way.  I don’t remember how long this used to take when my parents were in charge, but my husband and I could go from Brentford to Birmingham in 36 hours non-stop.  We used to do it to try and beat each other’s record, just for fun, although we were on piece-work and did not get paid until we had finished the journey, both ways, so the quicker we did the journey the quicker we got paid anyway.  Later on, before the company closed, they did pay bonus money as well.

When I was about thirteen, Fellows, Morton & Clayton finished, and then they all joined in with British Waterways and that wasn’t so nice because when we worked for Fellows, Morton & Clayton we could go everywhere - Ellesmere Port, Wolverhampton, all round the Black Country and Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham - but we lost a lot of that, I don’t know why.  There were northern boats on the canals of the north, and we seemed to keep to our own areas after that.

On a lot of the other canals the locks were narrow, with room for only one boat instead of two which slowed things down.  We went through these locks when we took wheat from Brentford to Wellingborough, Northampton.  We went on a private river and when we got to Northampton the last lock was a little lock and we had to go to a big house on the riverside and collect the key to unlock the locks.  They were a completely different style of lock, too, called guillotine gates.  The wheat went straight to the flourmill and it was sucked out of the barge.  Anything you lost in there went straight up there as well with the wheat, so you had to be careful.

We used to bring coal to Dickinson’s as they used to have all their coal by boat at one time.  We brought the coal from Warwickshire to Apsley, Nash Mills, Home Park, Frogmore and Croxley Green.  They used to have a big elevator which they dropped in the boat and it would push the boat right down until the water almost came in.  I remember one time when my dog ran up in the elevator and they had to stop it and wait for my dog to come down again.  That was after the big frost in 1962 - they finished that year, the boats did, but we didn’t finish straight away because we had a job carrying concrete piles to anywhere they wanted them.  We did not come to the Lock Cottage until 1966.  We used to go everywhere on the canals with those concrete piles.

We used to go up the River Lee a lot, which is beautiful, beautiful countryside, once you get past Enfield - we used to like that.  People (holidaymakers), get as far as Enfield nowadays and all they have seen is factories and foundries and they say as they come through the lock, “Oh, we have been there and we don’t like it”, and my husband asks them how far they have been up and when they say they have been as far as Enfield he tells them to go on past Enfield and that is where they will find the countryside.

I would like to hire a boat and go back round the Birmingham canals for a holiday, because people tell us that they have altered so much.  When we used to go round there years ago there was a set of locks called Saltley and the grease used to run off the side of them into the boat.  You only had to just touch them and your hands were filthy.  We often wonder whether they have cleaned it up now a lot of factories have closed and new laws have been made.  There has always been a lot of rubbish thrown in these canals and the water used to be deadly - an uncle of mine slipped in and he was only in the water a few minutes before he was rescued, but when they took him to hospital they were told he was dead as soon as he hit the water because he was poisoned not drowned.  Nowadays you see people sitting along the canals fishing so it must be better.

You remember on the news a bit back (pre-1979) about that tunnel that collapsed?  That’s up to the Cadbury’s Chocolate factory.  We used to go up there to get a load of chocolate on the boat - brown roughish stuff called ‘crumb’ which is used to make the chocolate - and we used to take it to their other factory.  At Cadburys when you had loaded your chocolate they used to give you a list to go to their factory and you used to bring cartons of it back, such as Easter Eggs and chocolates.  You got so sick of chocolate.  I think that is what they used to do it for!  That was the only cargo that was watched by police on your travels, security police, and you never knew where they were.  Somebody might come up and talk to you and you had to be careful because it could be one of the security police but there again it might not be.  The police would also be there watching when we unloaded it into the ships at Limehouse Docks.

When I was little my parents couldn’t afford to buy me chocolate - now I’m free to go out and buy it I don’t want it!  My mum used to give us all a ha’penny each to spend on sweets.  She used to stock up the boat with food before we started a trip, but there were shops all the way up the canal where you could nip off and get a loaf of bread or some sugar.  I remember that a boatman and woman would always have their bottle of beer.  They would go into a pub at night and have a drink, but they always used to bring that bottle of beer back with them.  There was a shop at Rickmansworth, and then the next one was Durrants Hill, Apsley, then Fishery at Hemel Hempstead, and then there was a little one just below the Rising Sun in Berkhamsted.  The old lady there used to be very nice and even if she had a shop full of customers she would know where we had come from and would stop and serve us.  She always used to say, “They are in a hurry, they are always in a hurry.”  The next shop was Marsworth, near Tring - it was called ‘The Ship’, a pub and a shop (or it used to be), its just a shop now.  There were a few shops at Leighton Buzzard, and there was a lock there so we could dash in while they went through the lock.  The next lock was Fenny Stratford which was a pub and a shop all in one so the men didn’t mind that, they could have a pint while we did the shopping.

There used to be a nurse, Sister Ward her name was, they called her the boat people’s nurse, and if you were ill you could nip out and she would give you a bottle of medicine and if she thought you were too ill to carry on she used to get in trouble with the bosses for stopping you.  I remember she stopped us once as I had had a cinder from the fire down my Wellington boot and had a badly burned foot.

I think the children were more disciplined in those days, I should be more strict with my son, as my parents were with me.  On the boats, if you had steak the little children were not allowed to have any, they could only have their bread dipped in the gravy, and the children would have to wait until all the adults had had sufficient tea, and then they were allowed to drink what was left in the pot.  The pots were Measham and originally people did use them, but as time went on they became so rare that people were frightened to use them.  I never owned one, but I wish I had, but I did own a lot of valuable stuff.  But I was so silly, I was so glad to leave our boat and come and live here that I sold everything for about 30 shillings (£1.50) - everything I had.  You know the plates that they used to hang up in the boats with the holes round the edge - ribbon plates - I had about a hundred of them and I sold them all to a lady in a pleasure boat at the Cow Roast for 30 shillings (£1.50), and all my brass.  Now you can go on the markets and you can see them, they want about £7 each.  The only things we have now belonging to the boats are the painted stools - we’ve got three of those.  They were bought for me, for birthdays, by my husband when he was in the army.  My husband has made one or two but he can’t do the painting.  He makes them and then gives them to other people to paint, he wasn’t brought up on the canal.  I know how to do it, but I haven’t got the patience.  We thought that Fellows, Morton and Clayton’s roses were beautiful, but there is a dockyard where I think they are still doing them, on the Cheshire canal; well their roses look as if they have just been picked, they are so beautiful; we always said that their painting was the best.  There was only one man on British Waterways that could do that painting and now he lives at Leicester.  He only did it very rarely, as he only did it for himself.  We liked to have all our things painted when we were on the boats - our watercans, our mopsticks, everything.  We didn’t have anything special in the design to show that it was ours, but you could always recognise your own cans.  When we made a stop, all the men would take the cans and go to fetch the water.  They would be gone hours, chatting to each other with all the cans lined up in a row, but each man would pick his own up even though they were all painted with the same design.

Measham Teapot

We always had two big watercans on the butty boat.  The mop handle used to be painted with all different coloured twists and the motor boat, she used to have one little can - that was a standby and was always kept full.  Sometimes when my husband started off I used to forget to fill the watercans.  I used to have to shout to him as hard as I could, because in the long pounds which were about 13 miles, we used to put the boats on a long rope which made it easier for the one on the butty boat to steer, well out of the wash of the boat in front.  I used to shout to him that I had no water, and he used to put a watercan out on a bridge, and then as I went past I had to grab hold of it. l used to make sure I didn’t miss it, he used to grumble so if he had to stop and go back for it!  When it was tea-time he used to put his white tea-caddy out on a bridge and I used to pick it up and then when I had got it ready, as there were only two of us, I used to shout and tell him it was ready, and he used to hook the big long line off and wait until I floated up alongside him and then I handed him his tea.  I used to have to get the tea ready while I was steering, going down two steps into the cabin of the boat.  I used to put the boat right, get it level, then pop down and do something and then pop out, and just as you popped out it was probably just going off course - and he never used to ease for me; he would go full belt, and he used to expect me to do it and carry on just the same.  A lot of people would get all the food ready and leave all the washing up until night, but I even used to do the washing while steering.

Until recently we didn’t have launderettes and we used to have a dolly and tub.  I still have mine, you can’t get them now.  It is round and it has square holes cut in it, and a T handle on top.  I don’t think you could get them in the London area, even then, but they were two-a-penny round Coventry.  When we used to do our washing on the boats, we used to have a fire bucket with a boiler that fitted in the top, and dolly and tub with a mangle over the top.  We used to ‘bash’ away at the clothes while they were bubbling and boiling.  That was the worst thing on the boats - in the winter doing the washing.

We used to hang a horse’s tail on the back of the boat because it was supposed to bring good luck.  A man from Banbury gave one to me because the Oxford people used to do this more than anybody else - they really believed that it would bring luck.  It wasn’t just anybody who could cure them.  They used to hang them up for days and days in the fore end of the boats, with salt on them, and it used to take about six months before they were ready.  Eventually mine was rotted by sewer water in the canal.  Some used to plait the horse’s tail and tie a ribbon on it.  People were very proud of their boats.

In my Dad’s time they had steamers and they would carry coal and coke and yet every man always used to wear white cords and he was always clean.  The ladies used to wear long skirts with frills on them up to the knee, and always a white apron with a carefully ironed bow which stood right out so it was perfect.  The skirts would be black, or red/white, blue/white and black/white check, but never green/white as that was considered unlucky, and they would never wear green on their heads.  They would never wear a coat.  Instead they wore a great big black shawl, huge as a blanket it would be, three-cornered and thrown round the shoulders or over the head and fixed with a big safety pin.  I don’t know how they managed in the long skirt and shawl, I wore trousers and I had enough trouble getting round the boat.

When the boats were horse-drawn, the horses would keep going as long as they could hear someone walking behind them, so the older hands always used to tie a clog behind their horse so it would think there was a man walking behind.

As the boat was being loaded, there would be a checker who would check the load going into the boat with a gauging stick.  They used to be very accurate with this, as these boats had to pay their own tolls, and you paid by the tonnage you had got on.  The boats were always weighed, and then after so many years they had to go back and be weighed again, especially the wooden ones because they got water-logged.  My dad had a wooden boat actually built for him (she was beautiful) and when they weighed her she had 32 tons weight on her and after about five years she went back again and it was as much as they could do to get 28 tons on her, she had waterlogged that much.

The painting (or ‘docking’ as a boatman would say), would be done about every three years on steel boats and every two years for wooden ones.  But when we came to work for British Waterways they used to call you for a repaint every year, actually I think the paint wasn’t so good.  Also they used to put transfers on the side of the boat whereas Fellows, Morton & Clayton’s were always hand painted, they would never have used transfers on their boats.

When the canals were frozen over years ago, they would break the ice with a special boat with rings all the way along the side of it, (like the rings you tie up to), and they would go to farms and borrow eight, nine or even twenty horses to pull this boat through the ice and they would have lots of men rocking the boat and as it rocked it would crack the ice.

There used to be two sorts of Fellows, Morton & Clayton boats - pairs of boats called ‘butties’ with one family only, and what we called ‘ockers’ which used to be one family on a motorboat, but they were expected to work all through the night.  They never used to carry coal or anything dirty - just general goods.  They would load up at City Basin - Fellows, Morton & Clayton had one of their depots there - and they would finish loading at 5 o’clock at night and they used to have to get going: unlike a pair of boats which could stay there the night and leave what time they liked the next morning.  The ocker boats only ran from Birmingham to City Basin, they never used to go outside, round the Black Country like we used to.

We were busiest during the war carrying everything you could think of - bicycle wheels and soldiers clothes.  Our boat was used for tank duties once.  We came to a lock where there was a bridge and the soldiers put this dummy bridge across our boats and used them as floats.  My dad said to the man “What are you doing that for - I’m in a hurry - why can’t you use the bridge?”  He said to my dad “The bridge isn’t there - it has been bombed”, so my father said, “It stands there”.  He couldn’t understand that it was a manoeuvre and that they were pretending that the bridge had been bombed.  That wasn’t very far from here, down Leighton Buzzard way.  On the northern canals, the surrounding country was mostly farmland, and during the war we used to see a lot of prisoners working on the land.  My Mum always used to save half a loaf of bread to give to them when they came asking for bread.  As long as you had a little bit of bread to give them they were satisfied and they would go away.  The prisoners were very clever with their hands and they used to make rings out of three-penny pieces - nearly everybody on the boats had a ring that the prisoners had made.

During the war there was a lady called Kitty who was a trainer on the boats.  She used to train other ladies because they had a lot of lady drivers during the war.  The canals were so much busier during the war, and there were fewer men to train, so they trained the ladies.  Only one stopped on the boats after the war and she married a boatman.

In my time there was just one school, at Brentford, which wasn’t a boat school but it would take boat children in.  I think I went about one afternoon and that was it - but many children did manage to get a lot of schooling.  Towards the end, as British Waterways took over all the canals, in Birmingham they had a hostel built and children could stay there - by then I was married with children of my own.

During the big frost of 1962 we were all frozen-in at Coventry.  That was the last load we did - we did not even know that Fellows, Morton & Clayton were finished.  We were there when the news came through over the phone to the office - it was all so upsetting.  We feel sad even now - we miss all getting together.  We sit here now in the cottage, but if we were on a boat, nine times out of ten there would always be about five families together.  We would talk together, go to the pub, and the women used to go and do their shopping together.  At night-time we would go out and talk to each other or perhaps shout from one boat to another, but now we sit in here all evening and we often talk about how it used to be.