Canal Memories

A request in the April 2009 Village News from Professor Timothy Peters regarding information on the Wendover Arm and the Woodhouse family, caused me to look through some old articles about the Grand Junction Canal.

I came across some memoirs written by Edward Bell, a Tring man born in 1902, about his career as a British Waterways Canal Engineer, and I thought that present-day readers would be interested to see some extracts from his writings.

He relates that his first childhood memory of the canal was when his father walked him and his twin brother down to the reservoirs to see King Edward VII and Lord Rothschild enjoying an afternoon of duck shooting. Then, as now, the Rothschilds owned the sporting rights over this area, and in those Edwardian days his lordship often entertained his weekend house party guests by offering sport preceeded by a lavish luncheon, prepared by his chef in a hunting lodge overlooking the water.

Edward Bell
Edward Bell

In 1918 Edward Bell secured a position as Assistant to the Overseer of the Middle District of the GJC (from lock 22 Fenny Stratford to lock 46 Cowroast) at a wage of 15s. per week. But this was thought to be a good amount for a very young man, considering the 18s. earned by lock-keepers and toll office staff. After 1918, it is true that their hours were reduced from 60 to 48 but, even so, one Marsworth man recalled that if he was working at the Aylesbury end of the branch canal he had to be up early enough to be on the job at 6 a.m. and then walk home again after 6 p.m.

On his second day at work, Edward was asked to join the iceboat crew who were to break the six and a half miles from his office in Marsworth to the canal basin in Walton Street, Aylesbury. He was to learn that this was a frequent occurrence in the winters of those days, when up to 15 horses were needed to haul the boat. The crew of 24 men boarded the iceboat to rock the craft from side to side to break ice which could be up to 9 inches thick. In the era before unemployment benefit for the boat people, they were often eager to follow the iceboat and would assist the task with their own horses.

As time time went, Edward learned how to steer one of the 70 ft. long maintenance boats up the flight of seven locks between Marsworth and Bulbourne, a tricky job as the short pounds between these locks were difficult to navigate. Many of his other duties he carried out using peddle power, and greatly

enjoyed cycling around the Tring area. Edward relished his work and became fully acquainted with the complicated underground water supply system. All water, other than rainfall into the canal and drainage from the banks of the canal and railway cuttings, had to be lifted into the Tring Summit by the various pumps at Tringford Pumping Station. When Edward joined the company, the old beam engine was still operating at Well No 3, but even at that early date, a diesel plant was used to generate electricity for the pumps in Well Nos. 1 and 2.

A major change came in 1929 when the amalgamation of several canals took place to form the Grand Union Canal system. Edward’s job in the big development scheme included involvement with the construction of much concrete walling and driving many long lengths of sheet concrete piling.

As with any job, things did not always go smoothly and a few years later the exceptionally dry summer weather resulted in extreme drought. The local canals were desparately short of water and Tring reservoirs were almost empty; the reservoir beds resembled crazy paving from the pattern of cracks in the dried mud. Part of Edward’s inspections at this time involved walking (or rather crouching along) the underground chalk headings which connect the reservoirs to the Tringford Pumping Station. When the rains came to refill the reservoirs, a portion of the length under the Tringford Reservoir collapsed, and a coffer dam had to be constructed in order to carry out repairs.

This gave Edward the only opportunity in his 49 years of service to inspect a section of this heading, the route of which ran from the deepest part of Startops End Reservoir, then under the Tringford Reservoir to the Pumping Station. He was able to vouch for the fact that the heading is cut out of the chalk with no brickwork lining to give support – an amazing feat carried out by the old-time navvies of over 200 years before, working on their knees and hacking away with pickaxes.

Article appeared in the Village News June 2009 page 14 By Wendy Austin

This article is an extract from previous issue of the Village News. Any mention to events in the article have probably long since passed and are for information only.

Village News June 2009

Other articles from this issue...

2 Comments on “Canal Memories”

  • Bryan Kelsall


    My name is Bryan Kelsall

    I am putting together a short story about my Grandfather and Great-grandfather who were both named James Street and were both head gamekeepers for the Rothschild’s at Tring Reservoirs between 1873 and 1926 I know they organized Shooting at Wilstone reservoir for Edward Prince of Wales in 1897, and I know King Edward VII was shooting at Tring Park in 1905 but this article implies that may be in 1905 a young 3 year old Edward Bell saw King Edward VII when he visited the reservoirs some time after 1902?

    Do you know of anything else that might confirm that Edward VII visited the reservoirs between 1901 and 1910?


    Bryan Kelsall

    • TRH Team


      Hi Bryan, unfortunately the article appeared in a 2009 issue of the village news so i’m not sure there would be any additional information from there as it was so long ago. I will leave your comment up as others may read this and have additional information.

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