Exactly 100 years ago, the Trent Navigation Company obtained an Act authorising construction of locks on their river, in an attempt to ensure a draught of 6ft throughout. The scheme was based on a survey by Sir Edward Leader Williams, which proposed additional locks at Cromwell, Hazelford, Gunthorpe, Stoke Bardolph and Holme. Work began in 1909 at Cromwell, the river’s tidal limit. The 188ft x 30ft lock and adjacent weir were completed by mid-1911, allowing four Trent-sized barges (82ft 6in x 14ft 6in) – or a tug and three barges – to pass in one penning. The First World War then intervened and construction of the other locks was not completed until 1926.
These photographs were taken on 7th September 1911 when Cromwell Lock was newly opened to traffic.
Little John and Tow
Little John, built by Yarrows on the Clyde in 1902, was specially designed to operate in shallow water. It had a locomotive-style boiler, the top of which with its dome steam collector can be seen above the gunwales. Twin propellers were mounted in tunnels to give protection from grounding. Even so, in 1921 and 1922 there were periodswhen it could not operate owing to low water, which gave further impetus to completing the lock construction scheme.
The tug lies at the head of the lock near the concrete wall, above which are fresh banks of dredged material; today these are pleasantly grassed with picnic tables and barbecues. Towards the lock lie heaps of timber, possibly the remains of shuttering for the concrete. The building with two chimneys above the fore-end of the third boat in the tow may be a single-storey lock cottage.
One of the tug hands is keeping an eye on the very substantial towing line which the mate of the leading keel is in the process of taking aboard and securing. The skipper of this keel is at the tiller, lining the vessel up with the tug, whilst a woman sits on the stern rail. The tow is already made fast on the second keel. Both these vessels are very lightly loaded with hatches covered, suggesting that they have made the passage up the Humber but are prepared to negotiate the shallows of the Trent.
The third vessel is a shallower-sided Upper Trent boat, with the towline secured to the keel ahead. It seems to have an awkwardly shaped cargo covered with loose tarpaulins. On theforedeck the mate uses a long shaft or stower to keep the two boats apart whilst they wait for the tug to go ahead. All this has been made easier by the river being low, and the absence of the often fierce draw of the weir (out of shot to the right).
The lock’s top gates stand open with another Trent boat in the chamber, but it seems too far astern to be intending to join Little John’s tow.
Below the Lock
On the left of the right-hand photograph is the weir, which had an adjustable sluice near the lock, and boat ramps with rollers for small craft. It was substantially rebuilt in the early 1950s. A small launch is moored awkwardly at the tail of the island and, just below the open lock gates, two Trent boats are tied up, perhaps awaiting a tow down river. On the lock island is a small steam crane and a bowler-hatted foreman or lock keeper.
His counterpart stands on the right, in front of another steam crane running on a temporary railway track. The rest of the lockside is stacked with materials, including a large supply of piles. Several contractors’ huts hide all but the chimneys of what may be the lock house A horse stands at the downstream end of the lock wall but it is hard to tell if it is geared for towing river craft or carts. It may be one of the last competitors with the steam tugs, since the Trent towpath was still in use at this time. Alongside the horse is a train of contractors’ wagons, emptied of their last load of spoil and left tipped over to avoid collecting rainwater.
The long curved wall in the foreground was later straightened to ease the approach for larger motor barges. An extra set of gates was added at the end of the high walls in 1935, allowing craft to use the lock as a staircase to get over the original bottom sill at times of low water. It was only a limited success, and further alterations were made, allowing the use of the fulllength of the double chamber as a single lock. Barge mooring dolphins, later provided with floating pontoon moorings for waiting pleasure craft, were built in the 1950s, close to where this photograph was taken from.
George Antcliffe, Cromwell lock-keeper 1953–59, recalled:
“They built that lock house and never made a road to it. We had to go across fields and no doctor would visit. There was no electricity and no running water. We got our water from a well until they found it was so polluted that we were told not to use it even for washing. Eventually both water and electricity were laid on but the lock was kept in pitch darkness and barge crews had to use torches at night. Tankers running between Saltend and Colwick passed at all hours of the day and night and it wasn’t until a skipper of one of them was drowned in the lock at 2am one Christmas Eve that lighting was installed.
“That lower lock was never a success. Locking vessels through the pair was always a slow backbreaking process and, when the locks were at their busiest, I’ve known tankers wait outside for longer than it took them to come up from Hull. In 1960, the lower lock was incorporated into the main chamber, producing one large lock 436ft x 30ft and, a few years later, it was mechanised.”