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Berkshire Family Historian
March 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2002 Contents

People of the Kennet and Avon Canal

Clive Hackford

The Kennet and Avon Canal (Navigation) was a part of a revolutionary new era and we know from contemporary reports that it cut a visible scar across southern England as it provided the inland waterway link between the two major ports of Bristol and London. It ran from High Bridge in Reading to Hanham Mills at Bristol, via Newbury and Bath. From Hanham Lock to High Bridge, Reading is 87fi miles which, with the River Thames, provides a corridor for family migration.

The Company Minute Book shows that by 1823 toll receipts had reached a trading plateau. By that time the Kennet and Avon Canal Company (K&ACC) owned two wharves at Reading and Bradford-on-Avon, six at Bath and others at Aldermaston, Newbury, Hungerford, Froxfield, Great Bedwyn, Pewsey, Semington, and Hilperton. In 1823 amongst the Company's direct employees was an engineer who was paid 300, with a house, and 31 lock keepers who received 10s 6d a week plus a cottage. There were also a number of other workers including 26 labourers, 12 carpenters, a blacksmith, two pump men and a mason.

The tonnage and toll receipts reached a peak around 1840 as a result of carrying railway construction materials but serious competition from the railway companies soon eroded the financial returns of the Company. At this time salaries were also reduced and dividends fell. The Great Western Railway took over the canal in 1852. But the 1823 figures show the extent of employment by the Canal Company at that time although it does not indicate the extent of canal business.

Throughout the country there had always been a preference by some families to travel with and to live on board the boats. There were many factors influencing such a decision but it was a practice which became more commonplace as competition with the railways developed and incomes dropped. Families, including very young children could be used as unpaid crew. Documentary evidence of this happening to any extent on the K&A remains elusive.

The canal is a 'broad' canal, where the locks could accommodate both barges and narrow boats. The K&A Minute Book also defines a wide boat' that the Company called a 'mule' at ioft (3m) wide. Most of the supporting evidence uncovered to date for families living on board is photographic from later years. The photographs show families present on both wide boats and narrow boats. The huge 'Newbury' barges 109ft (33m) long and 17ft (5.2m) in the beam and carrying 120 tons worked the Thames and the Kennet up to Newbury but needed eight to 12 horses to haul against the river current, worked by at least six men; definitely at that time a male preserve. So an ethos of male prominence was handed down, reinforced later by K&ACC rules defining the number of men to crew the 'fly boats' providing the five day through service with from Bristol to London. In 1844 the Company ruled that each barge or pair of boats working 'fly' (fast service with navigational priority) must be crewed by a captain and four men; also that each single boat must be crewed by a captain and three men.

Narrow boot ‘Caroline’ at lock 29 at the bottom of Caen Hill

Some families did travel with the boats, mostly the narrow boats and wide boats in the 'slow' trade. This is evidenced by the photographs of the narrow boat Caroline owned by William Escott of Seend captured at the bottom of Caen Hill, Devizes c.1897 and the photograph of the wide boat Perseverance owned by Bill Chivers (formerly by Henry Bright) and captured

Wide boat 'Perserverance' photographed in 1913

unloading round timber beside a log cutting operation at Thames Side at Reading in 1913. Henry Bright and Bill Chivers operated from Newbury, both on the Kennet and on the Thames. Typically the boats were crewed by men but this did include father and son teams. The late Tom Hams and his father, George, both worked as barge men for Robbins, Lane and Pinniger (RL&P), established in 1812 as boat builders, traders and sawmill owners at Honeystreet. Tom claimed that his father earned 12S a week as captain of the barge Unity. Towards the end of the nineteenth century this was below the national average for this work but if a captain did not have to pay for his crew or stabling for the horse and had housing provided, then it could have been a reasonable income. During his later years shortly before his death, George worked the Unity to bring sand, ballast and cement from London to aid in the construction of the National Defence line of gun emplacements and tank obstacles which followed the Canal across southern England during the Second World War. During this time he worked a 15-hour day, sleeping on board at night. George also spent a large part of his life carrying tin plate boxes from RL&P to Bristol for South Wales and returning from Avonmouth with deal boards and scantlings. Alec Huntley who lived beside the canal remembered timber stamped with exotic sounding names such as Archangel, Murmansk, Bergen and Oslo. RL&P also ran a fertiliser factory at Honeystreet and Tom used to take the Unity to Avonmouth to pick up carboys of acid using two horses to haul the laden barge back up the Avon and on to Honeystreet because the GWR considered the cargo too hazardous to carry by rail. But only one horse was needed to return the empty carboys, so two days

'Unity' entering the eastern portal of Bruce Tunnel at Savernake as both horses are led over the top

after the barge departed the second horse would be walked to Woodborough station to catch the train for Bristol and meet up with the barge.

Honeystreet was an important trading point on the K&A with virtually the whole village owned by RL&P who also provided housing for their workers. With such rural stability it is not surprising that families did not migrate but enjoyed stability for more than a century.

Boats trading beyond the K&A Canal and the Thames were almost certainly narrow boats as both the Wilts and Berks Canal (W&B) and the Oxford Canal were narrow, the locks being only 7 feet (2.1m) wide. It is likely that family migration was more likely to follow the narrow boat trade.

Jack James is pictured sitting on the roof of his narrow boat, Jack, a horse drawn butty, with his wife standing in the doorway to the cabin, a photograph taken at Kennet Side in Reading in 1923. Family living on board is indicated by the care of the cabin paintwork and the polished brass rings of the chimney of the range. As on all narrow boats the cabin space would have been 8ft 6ins (2.6m) long and 6ft 6ins (2m) wide. Accommodation would have comprised the cooking range on the left as one entered down the steps, a side bench on the right, a floor to roof cupboard with a drop down table on the left beyond the range and then a bed folding down from the left to cross the boat at the bulkhead. Coal was kept under the steps and fresh water in a can or barrel on the roof. The GWR did not permit steam or motor driven boats

Jack James' boat 'Jack' at Kennet Side, Reading 1913

without special permission as they were said to travel too fast and cause bank wash but these craft did have one extra luxury; a bucket in the engine room provided toilet facilities.

Jack James was in partnership with Bill Chivers and Jack Garner in a company called Thames Transport. During the 19305 the business went bankrupt and Jack moved to the Oxford Canal where he traded coal to Oxford for a number of years. He then converted the boat for more spacious residential use and lived on it with his wife on the Trill Mill Stream at Oxford. He later joined the newly formed Grand Union Carrying Company as a skipper, where he earned enough capital to buy a house at Stoke Bruerne and become the lock keeper there. This is just one example of events leading to a family's migration following the waterways. Huntley and Palmers' biscuit factory at Reading transported their products by water, thus reducing breakages. The logo from a late nineteenth century biscuit wrapper shows a couple crewing a narrow boat (see front cover illustration). Coal for the factory was brought down from the Midlands by Barlow's boats via the Oxford Canal and the Thames to the factory on the K&A at Reading. These would probably have been family boats, on journeys of such distance.

But families did work wide boats and barges on the K&A and the Thames. The photograph of wide boats above Newbury Lock c.1920 shows the outer wide boat nearest the lock has a fore cabin as well as the main cabin at the stern. This would provide sleeping accommodation for up to two extra people, usually children, and is such a rarity on a wide boat on the K&A that it could be the Perseverance already referred to and attributed to Bill Chivers. It is known that Chivers traded on the Kennet and on the Thames to London, part of his general trading being to carry the products of Simonds' brewery from Reading to London for export.

Accommodation in a wide boat was simply more spacious than the narrow boat with a cabin up to 9fl ft (2.9m) wide. The Kennet barges at 13ft loins (4.2m) in the beam had markedly different accommodation. The cabin was below the stern deck

Above Newbury lock c. 1920

with access via a deck level companionway from the bulkhead. This had a lift off hatch and as one descended the steps the stove or range was on the right. Seats and bunks were diagonally on either side with cupboards and a drop table at the stern. The helmsman stood on a platform in front of the cabin with quite a long tiller.

In the same Newbury photograph the part sunken wide boat is the then redundant Defiance owned by another well-known Berkshire trader J T Ferris who was the last of a family of canal traders. The Defiance had a payload of 6o tons and until 1919 carried grain from the Hungerford area to mills at Burghfield, Aldermaston and Newbury.

Yet another Newbury trading family was H Dolton & Son Ltd., corn merchants. With their wide boat Betty carrying 60 tons and with a narrow boat (c. 30 tons) they carried grain from all points as far west as Wootton Rivers, delivering to mills on the Kennet with some trade on the Thames until 1915.

Full consideration of the people of the K&A Canal would go beyond the few examples which space has allowed and to do full justice to the subject would include disciplines other than boat people. But as a closing note it is important to mention the lockkeepers/lengthsmen and to select just one example. The census of 1891 shows that David Mizen, son of Robert Mizen, occupied the lock cottage at the top of the Bath flight of locks. His eldest brother, Emanuel, was listed as a canal labourer at this time and Robert lived there in the later stages of his life. Subsequently Great Western records show that the family had started to spread along the canal and the name reappears further east at Seend. The lock keepers did not necessarily work the locks for the boatmen but had responsibilities for maintenance and possibly inspection of a section of canal. They kept logs and reports for the company or the engineering workshops. The lock keepers were the eyes and ears of the canal and knew probably better than anyone all the latest news.


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updated 28th May 2002