(click to select)
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
by Russell Horwood
Reminiscences of Working for Dickinson’s in Apsley
by Joe Bloor
Memoirs of a
by John Mew
Memoirs of a
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
The Wendover Arm of The
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.
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
Progress under construction at Bushell Brother's boatyard, Tring, in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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!
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
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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