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Pride of the Thames

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Winter 2018

Christopher M. Jones

Chris M. Jones reveals the story behind two well-known and often reproduced 1870s engravings of a narrowboat on the Upper Thames

A landscape depiction of the boat appeared two years earlier in the Art Journal of 1873. This is not only a reverse view showing the boat moving to the left, but also has some slightly different details. The name is shown with two intermediate words in lower case, and is probably more accurate too as that layout makes the boat painter’s job easier. Also, the boat woman has a more pensive expression on her face as if she is about to negotiate a tight manoeuvre.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Among the earliest and most attractive images of a narrowboat and its steerer are the two engravings shown here, depicting a horse-drawn boat on the upper Thames. The earliest appeared in the Art Journal in 1873 titled ‘The Pride of the Thames’, while the other, viewed from the right (starboard) side of the boat, was published as a frontispiece in the book, Life on the Upper Thames, by H.R. Robertson in 1875. Both were drawn by the author and were engraved by W.J. Palmer.

The image is typical of how Victorians perceived and idealised the landscape, and the ordinary working folk that inhabited it. Nevertheless, they make up part of a small number of waterway scenes from the 19th century that seem to accurately record the lines and decorative features of canal boats without resorting to an excessive amount of artistic licence.

This is not to say that Pride of the Thames has escaped alteration though. It is particularly noticeable in the way the boat’s name, painted on the top strake, has been extended forward to make it more readable from the artist’s position, relative to the angle of the boat. Also, H.R. Robertson freely admits in the text of his book that the landscape backgrounds of his drawings were chosen as an accessory to convey characteristic upper Thames scenery, without any intention to depict actual locations. However, it is obvious that H. R. Robertson has drawn a real boat, just as he has based the boat girl on a real person, which is reflected in his remarks in the book that she has a “complexion of the dark but clear red and brown, that the open air and sun have had their own way with”.

The frontispiece to Life on the Upper Thames shows Pride of the Thames in all her glory on a breezy summer day with a pretty young woman at the helm.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Another point of interest is the decoration, depicted on the cabin sides, especially the landscape scenes. Robertson described this as faithfully copied and said the panel showed “a river in which the water makes no attempt to find its own level, one side of the stream appearing many feet higher than the other. The tree might stagger a botanist, but the whole serves its first purpose as a cheerful decoration, which our more pretentious art so frequently misses.” He added, “The exterior decoration of these boats is noticeable, and evinces the pride taken in their appearance by the owners, who repaint them with the gayest colours as often as they can afford to do so.”

The boat and its owners

Unlike many other artist-drawn images, Pride of the Thames was a real boat and some brief details survive of her existence. She was owned by boatman Enock Redman of the Thameside village of Benson, situated some 21½miles downriver from the junction with the Oxford Canal, and was weighed for the purposes of toll collection on the Kennet & Avon Canal on 28th April 1873.

Details about Enock’s life are scarce. He was born at Melksham in Wiltshire, a town at the western end of the Wilts & Berks Canal, and was baptised there on 18th October 1818, son of Jeremiah and Ruth. They were not a boating family as Jeremiah was a clothier, and selling clothing and drapery were occupations that later generations of the Redman family continued for many years. Enock had a brother, John, who also became a boatman and a coal merchant at 30Fisher Row, Oxford. John married Mary Ashley, daughter of Thomas Ashley, an owner-boatman working on the Thames and South Midlands canals. The same Ashley family were very well known on the Oxford Canal and River Thames and their name appears again later in this article.

Before Enock bought Pride of the Thames, he worked for William Shuttleworth Clarke, who lived and worked from the village of Benson. Clarke was a coal, salt and hay merchant and corn factor, and owned two narrowboats, Maria and Ada Mary. The former was built in 1851; the latter in 1845.

Enock steered at least one of his boats, as shown on the night of 7th April 1861, during the national census. He was on board Ada Mary at the terminus of the Ashby Canal at Moira Colliery. His mate was George Porter who was over 20 years his junior.

There were some attractive vignettes in Robertson’s Life on the Upper Thames, including this scene of two barge horses with their driver taking it easy. Perhaps the barge is running light. In the days of fly-boating it was a necessity for small boys to be horse drivers and ride on the back of the boat horse as it was impossible to keep up.

An unusual sight of a horse shelter liberally supplied with straw for bedding.

Another W.J. Palmer engraving, based on one of Robertson’s drawings. This shows a lock being prepared for a boat that is stacked with hay on its way upstream to one of the riverside towns, or perhaps Oxford. As hay was a light load, it could be carried high above the gunwales, and there were no low bridges on the route to impede progress. The steerer would stand on the cabin roof and use an upturned tiller so he could see ahead over the load.

Thames river ballast was brought aboard by hand using a spoon dredger, and taken by boats, such as Pride of the Thames, to Oxford or other places for road surfacing. The large punt-shaped vessel was held in place in the current by poles lashed to the sides, with the lower end of each one fitted with a pointed iron head called a ryepeck, which was thrust into the riverbed to provide a stable support. This could be lifted and repositioned when needed.

The Weedons

Downriver from Benson Wharf was Cleeve, near the town of Goring. Here, local farmer Mark Taylor had built an artificial manure works and bone mills in 1848, and William Shuttleworth Clarke handled his transport needs. In about 1867, two brothers, Francis Hedges Weedon and George Washington Weedon, acquired the farm and manure works from Mark Taylor, and about the same time they also took over the coal business and boats of William Shuttleworth Clarke. Enock Redman then started working for Francis and George Weedon, henceforth trading as Weedon Brothers of Goring.

The Weedons probably set up their business using family wealth, as their mother had been a landowner. Because their coal supplies originated in the Midlands, they applied for a toll credit account with the Oxford Canal Company, which was granted on 11th April 1868 after successfully producing references from customers.

Initially it seems Weedons brought coal to both Benson and Cleeve wharves, the former for normal retail purposes, the latter for the manure works. But there were problems right from the start as a recent increase in tolls by the Oxford Canal Company threatened the Thames trade.

Following that, coal supplies were only carried by water to Benson Wharf, and Weedons’ works at Cleeve was supplied by rail to Goring station then carted the rest of the way by road.

Weedons quickly expanded their coal merchants side of its business with depots at Wallingford, Watlington and Goring railway stations, which were later expanded to other towns in the area. A series of manure depots was also set up at various places in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Later, the company even had its own brick and tile works which operated up until World War I.

Benson Wharf remained the only destination for Weedons’ coal traffic, which was situated on the offside bank just over 300 yards upstream from Benson Lock. Weedons did not have a monopoly of the Benson trade as at least one other coal merchant was based at the wharf in the 1870s, that being the old-established business of James Tubb.

In 1871, Enock became an ownerboatman with the building of Pride of the Thames at Banbury Dock, a site rented from the Oxford Canal Company by William Chard. He was a coal merchant based at Market Place, Banbury. Chard took over the dockyard from boat-builder Benjamin Roberts at Christmas 1863, on condition he also used it for the convenience of other carriers. Chard owned several boatsand also started trading as a canal carrier for local firms, for which he was granted a toll credit account with the Oxford Canal on 27th June 1866. By 1871, William Chard employed Benjamin Roberts’ sons, Rhodes and Edwin Roberts, as boat-builders, and also John Redman, Enock’s nephew. They all lived in Factory Street, Banbury, near the dock. As previously mentioned, John Redman’s father was a coal merchant and boatman based at Oxford, and his son trained as a boat-builder in the city. The main boatbuilding dock at Oxford was against Walton Ford, later Walton Well Road, which crossed the canal over a swingbridge. John then married and was working at Banbury at the time Enock had Pride of the Thames built.

Pride of the Thames construction

The boat measured 71ft 6in long by 7ft ½in wide with a maximum carrying capacity of 35 tons. Like so many other narrow canal boats built then, she had her bottom planks positioned lengthways, contrary to the more familiar practice in the 20th century of constructing boats with bottom planks laid across the beam.

Why this practice of longitudinal bottom planking was used is unclear, as early plans of narrowboats on the BCN and Coventry Canal in the late 18th century show that bottom planking, laid across the beam, was in common usage by then. Perhaps it was a hangover from the construction of fly-boats that were built with barrel-sides, and because the longitudinal side planks were pinned to the curved knees, they may have continued beyond where the chines were normally positioned to form bottom planks.

Pride of the Thames was also built with four cross beams with three stands, instead of the three cross beams and two stands more usually seen on Midlands canal boats. The former was a common feature of Severn longboats and may indicate that she had some physical attributes of boats that regularly worked on rivers. Enock worked her on the Thames and she had both a canal towing line and separate river line when weighed in 1873. On the Thames these boats were known as ‘Wussers’, and were commonly seen on canals connecting with the Thames, such as the Wilts & Berks, Kennet & Avon, Thames & Severn and Oxford.

Photographs of loaded boats working on the Thames are very rare, so this image is especially important. The view is looking due south with the breasted-up pair passing Iffley Corn Mill, situated behind the trees, having just left Iffley Lock. The horse and driver are just visible beyond the chimney pipe of the right-hand craft. The boats appear to be carrying carboys stacked on top of one another – the nearest boat has its side cloths up. This was a bulky, light load and both craft have plenty of freeboard. Weedon Brothers used acid in their artificial manure production process and the load could be for its works at Cleeve. Compare this scene with the engravings depicting Pride of the Thames to see the characteristic Upper Thames landscape.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Narrow canal boats started working on the Thames after the opening of the private Duke’s Cut, leading from the Oxford Canal, from August 1789. A barge lock connecting the Oxford Canal with a Thames backwater opened in 1796 and gave a second access point for canal boats to trade along the river. The Thames & Severn Canal opened into the Thames in 1789 but it is likely this was barge traffic as coal from the South Staffordshire coalfield was transhipped into barges at Stourport for delivery in Gloucestershire. In this engraving, published in June 1821, a loaded narrowboat is on the Thames below Osney Lock, Oxford, completed in 1790. Christopher M. Jones Collection

This image shows a typical ‘Wusser’ boat underway on the Thames, loaded with house coal. Note the raised bulwarks or washboards around the fore-deck, similar to river barges. This adaptation is believed to have been fitted to allow boats to navigate flash-locks when it was being hauled against a head of water. Also, note the removable iron pins sticking out of the top of the washboards, which were used for lashing ryepecks against the boat sides after being thrust into the riverbed. This enabled the boat to be moored against the sloping riverbank when loading or unloading. Most of the wharves on the river were private and many had no built-up landing to moor against. A long set-pole with a forked end is lying on the fore-end in the old established manner to fend off obstructions and to be used like a boat shaft when needed. The boat is being towed from the bank using an extension mast and block to keep clear of overgrown banks. Christopher M. Jones Collection

One way some horse-boats maintained steerage control on the Thames was by fitting a rudder extension to increase the surface area of the blade. Close examination of one such fitting, shown in an old photograph from the 1890s, has enabled this model to be made to demonstrate its use. When the boat is running light, the extension blade (coloured grey) hangs in this down position under its own weight and is held in place by an iron bracket hinged at either end. Christopher M. Jones Collection

When the boat is fully loaded the wooden extension blade raises itself under its own natural buoyancy to the up position shown – the iron bracket being hinged at either end allows this to happen and keeps the blade in position. With the extension blade now raised, this helps the steerer to maintain steerage in running water. This model was tested in water and raised itself as shown. Not revealed in the source information is a way to lock the blade in the down position when the boat is loaded, otherwise it would foul the cill or gates on a canal. When working a pair of horse-drawn boats, only the butty was fitted this way. Christopher M. Jones Collection

Coal trade downturn

The 1870s was not a good time for the coal trade on the Thames, which was rapidly declining for a number of reasons. Rail competition was beginning to bite, even though many firms still preferred waterborne transport due to the congestion on the railway system, where trucks could be delayed for days. Also, there was the rough treatment their coal received during train journeys.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, merchants often bought coal in large blocks, which were hand-loaded into boats at the colliery wharf. At journey’s end they were neatly stacked on the merchant’s pitch like large black bricks, then later broken into smaller sizes to suit their customers’ personal requirements. Using boats created less wastage, referred to as ‘dead slack’, which was an important factor with house coal sales as it was considered largely unsaleable at that time.

Nevertheless, problems persisted on the Thames, such as floods and low water levels, which restricted traffic movements and caused long delays, on top of which were excessive tolls compared to those on artificial and better maintained waterways like the Oxford Canal.

The geographical position of the upper Thames was such that coal imported into the area from severalsources could compete more or less equally with each other on price, so for some customers it was the quality of coal that was the deciding factor. These sources included Somerset coal, loaded on the Somerset Coal Canal then conveyed via the Kennet & Avon to Reading, or by the Wilts & Berks route to Abingdon. Sea coal was transported from the North East of England into the port of London, and then navigated upriver. Coal also came from the Forest of Dean and was taken via the Stroudwater and Thames & Severn canals eastward, or along the Wilts & Berks Canal.

However, a great deal of coal also came from the Midlands and was taken south onto the Thames via the Coventry and Oxford. Much of the coal was from Moira Colliery, situated at the head of the Ashby Canal in Leicestershire. Another type of coal suited to industrial use was from Wyken Colliery on the Oxford Canal, about 2 miles south of Hawkesbury Junction. Some more particular and affluent customers preferred a variety: ‘Moira for the kitchen and Newcastle for the house’, it was said. It was not unusual for the steerers to be given loading orders for coal from the Midlands collieries on one trip and then receive instructions to load on the Somerset Coal Canal for the next.

Other cargoes

As well as transporting coal for Weedons, Enock also carried sulphuric acid in carboys from Birmingham to Cleeve Wharf, near to the lock. Carboys were large glass bottles made for carrying corrosive liquids and were enclosed inside a wire basket packed with straw to protect them. This was a traffic the railways preferred not to carry due to the amount of breakages that occurred. Weedon Brothers then combined the sulphuric acid with the organic phosphate materials to create superphosphate manures. Shortly after establishing themselves at Benson Wharf, Weedons also created a manure depot there that provided a certain amount of backloading of their finished product.

Other cargoes included flints, gravel and river ballast, which were taken to Oxford. This was dredged up from the riverbed to remove scours and deepen the navigation, and was used for road paving by the highway boards. The City of Oxford had the right to dredge the river 3 miles above and below the city, and claim the ballast for its own use. The corporation took over canal wharves at Jericho near Isis Lock in 1870 to store its road-building materials.

Boaters

Because Weedons’ boats were also engaged in carrying acid and other materials, outside boatman contractors or boat-owners were hired when needed to transport coal. Coal merchant Edward Thomas Ashley of Pangbourne Wharf was one.

This vignette of a ‘wusser’ underway also appears in the background behind Pride of the Thames in the Art Journal. The bowed configuration of the top planks was typical in the 1870s and made walking from the cabin roof to the fore-deck much easier than the later configuration seen in the 20th century of straight top planks leading to a cratch on the forward beam.

Enock Redman was not the only owner-boatman that worked for Weedons. Another was William Miller, who, like Enock, had previously worked for William Shuttleworth Clarke at Benson Wharf, steering one of his boats. His background is unclear but he was certainly working on the river as a boat boy or ‘chap’ when he was a teenager in the 1850s, eventually becoming a boatman for Clarke.

Just like Enock, in time William bought his own boat named Alice Sophia, and was recorded in the Oxford Canal Boat Register in March 1879. He worked her as a single boat and eventually sold her to Weedons in July 1888, but bought her back just over a year later.

Another steerer for Weedons was John Bowen Dash of Oxford. He bought his own boat Martha in October 1887, named after his wife, and worked her until his death in 1896.

William Miller and his mate Thomas Short then worked in partnership with John’s widow Martha, who captained her late husband’s boat until William died suddenly in March 1899. Martha Dash took over the late William’s boat and with Thomas Short steering, continued working the pair until 1900 then left the cut to get married to a shunter at Moira Colliery. From early in the 20th century, Weedons mainly employed ownerboatman Matthew Townsend ofAbingdon on its coal traffic to Benson Wharf. One of his first boats was Martha, bought from Martha Dash and registered in his name at Banbury in September 1901; his other craft was Ellen.

By 1910, Matthew’s boats were Dorothy and Water Lily, which he worked until after World War I with his son Alfred, who then took over ownership. They frequently loaded coal at Griff Colliery, although there were occasional visits to Wyken Colliery, usually completing two trips per month. In the 1920s Exhall and Pooley Hall collieries were used.

Dorothy was sold in about November 1922 to George Tooley of Banbury Dock, and replaced with a second-hand boat from the yard named Banbury Cross, which Matthew renamed Dorothy in 1923. Alfred Townsend worked them with his nephew Wilfred until late 1927, then gave up working for Weedons as the company wanted to cut the haulage rate and he found it no longer paid him to do the work. From that point on it seems Weedons no longer used water transport, as only a few boatmen at the time had the skills to handle horsedrawn boats on the river. It was said that Alfred Townsend used an ex-War Department tug to tow his boats on the Thames stretch of the trip, which was moored at Oxford when his boats were on the Oxford and Coventry canals.

One question that remains unanswered is the identity of the young boat girl steering Pride ofthe Thames. The last census before Enock’s death was 1871 and he was aboard an unnamed ‘barge’ at Lower Wharf, Wallingford, described as an unmarried 53-year-old. He was with his mate, 19-year-old Richard Hunt from Abingdon. The boat girl may never have been actually on Enock’s boat, of course. It could be that H.R. Robertson drew her, and thought she looked better on Pride of the Thames to complete the composition.

No information survives of the fate of Pride of the Thames. Enock Redman was shown to be living at Upper Fisher Row, Oxford, when he died early in 1879. He was buried at St Thomas’s Church, Oxford, on 12th January and no record remains of a boat of that name thereafter. Given it was only eight years old, it would have been sold to another owner, but who that was and the boat’s subsequent name, assuming it was changed, we may never know.

Acknowledgement

Thank you to boat families historian Lorna York.

Pride of the Thames regularly travelled northbound as a single boat to load coal in the Midlands colliery district. A scene like this, of the boat descending Napton Locks, would have been very familiar to Enock Redman. This view, taken before World War I, shows a single horsedrawn boat running light on a summer’s day. Note the tidy and well-kept appearance of the canal, which was the norm then. Waterways Archive