Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
In 1891 Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell made a literary tour of the Thames. They saw the river at the zenith of its popularity, and portrayed the scene in a work called The Stream of Pleasure.
Their description of the prospect at Molesey Lock is well worth recalling. 'At Moulsey Lock on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday you find everything that goes to make a regatta but the races. It is the headquarters of that carnival on the river which begins with June, is at its height in midsummer, and ends only with October. Not even in the July fetes on the Grand Canal in Venice is there livelier movement, more graceful grouping, or brighter colour. There may be gayer voices and louder laughter, for the English take their pleasure quietly. But I do not believe that men in their every-day amusements can show a more beautiful pageant anywhere. In the lock the water never rose nor fell without carrying with it as many boats as could find a place upon its surface. At the slide, where there are two rollers for the boats going up and two for those going down, there was always parties embarking and disembarking, men in flannels pulling and pushing canoes and skiffs. Far along the long cut, boats were always waiting for the lock gates to open. And on the gates, and on both banks, and above the slide, sat rows of lookers-on, as if at a play; and the beautiful rich green of the trees, the white and coloured dresses, the really pretty women and the strong athletic men, casting gay reflections in the water, made a picture ever to be remembered. However far we went, when we came back to the lock, it was only to find the same crowd, to hear the same endless grating of boats over the rollers, the same slow paddling out through the gates, the same fall of the water over the weir, and above all the other sounds, the monotonous cries of 'Tow you up to Sunbury, Shepperton, Weybridge, Windsor'. All the long Sunday afternoon the numbers of boats and people never lessened, though the scene was ever varying. And when the sun sank below Moulsey Hurst there was still the same crowd in the lock, there were still the rows of figures sitting on the banks; the men and horses on the road, the stray cycler riding towards Thames Ditton — and now, however, but so many silhouettes cut out against the strong light'.
It will be remembered that in Three Men in a Boat it was whilst passing through Molesey Lock that Harris recounted his harrowing experience in Hampton Court maze. Jerome K. Jerome's little frolic was first published in 1889. 'It is', he records, 'Boulter's not even excepted, the busiest lock on the river. I have stood and watched it sometimes, when you could not see any water at all, but only a brilliant tangle of bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-coloured parasols, and silken rugs, and cloaks, and streaming ribbons, and dainty whites; when looking down into the lock from the quay, you might fancy it was a huge box into which flowers of every hue and shade had been thrown pell-mell, and lay piled up in a rainbow heap, that covered every corner'.
Even that sober and erudite historian of Hampton Court, Ernest Law, who wrote a three volumed history of the Palace, was moved to write romantically of Molesey Lock: 'All day long on a Sunday, through Molesey Lock, just above the bridge, ceaseless streams, literally of hundreds of pleasure boats, each with their merry part of holiday makers, pass; while upon the banks, stroll throngs of young people, not perked out in "Sunday-go-to-meeting best", but men rationally dressed in easy shooting suits of flannels, and girls in neat and pretty lawn tennis or boating costumes'.
Reduced to the language of cold statistics, we learn from the Surrey Comet that, on the day of Molesey Regatta in 1895, no less than four thousand boats, one hundred and twelve launches, and eight barges passed through the lock, besides which, almost one thousand three hundred tickets were issued for boats proceeding over the rollers. What a day's work for the lock-keeper and his assistants.
It is doubtful if such spectacles will ever again return to the river; nevertheless, on a fine summer weekend, people still gather to lean on the rails, fascinated by the operation of the locks and sluices, and by the manoeuvres of the vessels as they enter and leave the basin. The scene, however, is very different from that observed by the Pennells. Muscular power has given pride of place to machinery. The operation of the lock is now controlled by electricity, and boats propelled by motors are far more in evidence, skiffs and dinghies almost non-existent. And alas, the gay summer frocks of the girls are now most likely to have given way to a pair of old jeans, and the bright blazers of the men to a tee shirt. Parasols and boaters have vanished, perhaps for ever.
Before the coming of railways the only economic method of conveying heavy goods was by water. Most of the country's commerce was therefore carried by sea or river, and later by canal. The Thames, quite naturally, was one of the chief highways for trade. A regular and extensive traffic of barges laden with goods such as coal, bricks, manufactured goods and the like, travelled up the river, towed by horses or gangs of men. They returned with timber, grain, vegetables and farm produce.
Barges might carry up to two hundred tons of merchandise per load and would require perhaps ten or twelve horses or upwards of fifty men to haul them upstream against the current. Many local men found work with the barges, both as boatmen and as manual haulers, or 'halers' a they were called. It was hard, exhausting labour and those employed were rough, tough men, who enjoyed a not too enviable reputation in the towns and villages along the river bank. In the early part of the seventeenth century Parliament passed several Acts in order to stop them from working on Sundays. An ordinance of 1641 enacted that 'noe person or persons shall use imploy or travell upon the Lords day with any Boate Wherry Lighter or Barge — upon paine that any person soe offending shall forfeit and lose the summe of five shillings for every such offence'. In 1662 a bargeman from East Molesey named William Bromfield was brought before the quarter sessions and charged that on 16 March, being Sunday, he did 'Sayle in his barge' from East Molesey to London, and did work, in evil example, against the statute, and against the peace.
The general expansion of national prosperity at the end of the eighteenth century gave considerable impetus to trade. In 1776 as much as 9,176 tons of goods reached Molesey from London. This was practically as much as that landed at Ditton, Walton and Sunbury put together (all at that time larger places than Molesey), so it would appear that these goods were not all destined for this locality, but probably off-shipped here for eventual onward transport to other places by road.
Although this method of conveyance was to modern eyes cumbersome, slow, costly, and at times dangerous, the alternative of land carriage, over the ill-made, ill-maintained, and ill-protected highways, with the attendant high risks and high insurance rates, was even more so.
Carriage by river, of course, was also beset by its own drawbacks — too little water at times, too much at others. With no weirs, there was virtually no control over the fickle flow at all. The river meandered at will. In some places it would crawl slowly over wide and shallow shoals; at others it would be narrow, deep and fast. At times of abundance the capricious water would overflow, cut a new channel and never return to its old bed at all. This in fact is how the aits, which form such a delightful feature of the river, came to be formed, and explains why parts of Surrey are to be found on the north bank and vice versa. For, although the river changed, the parish and county boundaries stayed in the centre of the old course. Under these adverse conditions river trade was a risky enterprise.
Zachary Allnut, the Secretary to the Thames Commissioners, in 1805, in a plea for something to be done to improve the state of the river asserted: 'the navigation upwards is attended at times with great difficulty, delay, expense, and danger'. The trouble seems mainly to have stemmed from the fact that after heavy rains, when there was an excessive downward flow, the barges being pulled upstream could not compete against the flood of water. Besides which, as Allnut further explains: 'The stream is so strong and violent; the fall or declivity of the water, removes the gravel at the bottom and sides of the river to partial places and creates shoals and obstructions to such an extent that in low water times, and in summer seasons, the navigation is for some months impassable for deep laden barges either upwards or downwards'.
It was these places, where the water was so shallow that barges sometimes had to wait for weeks at a time for enough depth in which to float, which were the main causes of complaint. With the expansion of river trade, and the extensive loss which the watermen sustained by this enforced inactivity, increasing pressure was brought to bear on the authorities for improvements to be made.
The Thames was one of the Royal rivers. From earliest known records the general jurisdiction over it, together with riparian profits, were a Crown prerogative. Richard I, to help restore the Royal coffers, depleted by his Middle Eastern adventures, vested the rights and revenues of the river in the City of London, in return for one thousand five hundred marks. This grant was confirmed by several later monarchs. The Lord Mayor and Corporation of London thereby held this responsibility with varying amounts of success and failure, until the Thames Conservancy was formed in 1857.
Some attempts to build weirs across the river, to hold back the stream and give sufficient depth of water, were made in certain bad places in the upper reaches. They were, however, mainly elementally wooden structures of stakes placed in the ground with planks laid across them to form a dam. Their weakness lay in the fact that they were only passable for vessels by removing some of the planks to form an aperture through which a flash of the pent-up water then flowed, on which a craft could ride fairly easily when going downstream, or with difficulty hauled upstream. This was known as a 'flash lock'. Obviously, the fall of these weirs and the depth of water which could be built up was limited. Negotiating them was an extremely hazardous operation. Each time it was done a large volume of water was lost. If too long a time was spent on the manoeuvre, so much water was let out that the level about was considerably reduced, and if it was done too often, the virtue of having a weir there at all was as good as nullified. Because of this, no weirs had been constructed below Staines, where the river was wider and the stream more violent.
The introduction of pound locks drastically altered the situation. The pound lock was simply a basin with gates at either end, into which vessels could be drawn and raised or lowered to the alternate level, easily, safely and with practically no waste of water. Weirs could now be made higher, giving greater depth of water above; the flow down the river could much more readily be controlled. Pound locks were said (like so many other things) to have been the invention of Leonardo da Vinci. In order to take full advantage of natural facilities they were usually placed between an existing island and the mainland.
In 1774 the Corportion of London obtained Parliamentary sanction to embark upon a series of improvements to the navigation, upon which they expended £10,000. In order to recoup this money and to bring in revenue for maintenance, a further Act was passed which permitted them to purchase the tolls which the various riparian owners throughout the river charged for allowing barges to be towed along the banks, and to commute them for one consolidated levy based on distance travelled and tonnage carried. Thus the rate from London was:
The opening years of the nineteenth century witnessed a flurry of activity. In September 1801 it was stated: 'that there is not sufficient water in the River to admit the Barges to pass in the lower part of the Navigation laden more than 3ft. in depth and that several Barges have lately been stopp'd in the Shallows about Laleham, Kingston, Hampton and Walton'. John Rennie, the celebrated engineer and designer of Old Walton Bridge, made a survey of the Thames and suggested certain improvements. He reported (amongst other things) that the river was particularly shallow by Platts Ait, which was borne out by another survey conducted by Zachary Allnut, which showed the depth there normally to be no more than 3ft 1in at the maximum. Rennie proposed that the passage on the Middlesex side of the island be stopped up by a weir and the Surrey channel dredged and a lock constructed. Apparently part of this suggestion was acted on, for in 1803, in an attempt to scour the main channel, it was reported that 'a weir in length 100 yards had been raised to divert part of the water of the back stream into the canal on the Surrey side.'
Alternatively Rennie suggested: 'In case it should be found, on an examination, that it would be easier and more certain to avoid this part of the river, a very favourable opportunity offers of making one or two side-cuts from above Sunbury Flats to near Hampton Court Bridge — A single cut, of somewhat less than three miles long, with a lock of six feet six, would completely avoid all this bad part of the navigation, and perhaps would cost less money than the other.' Apparently the latter scheme was the more favoured by the City Corporation, who became for a time canal-building enthusiasts. In 1807 they attempted to raise a Bill in Parliament to give them power to construct a certain number of waterways 'for the purpose of avoiding the places where the navigation of the said River is most obstructed.' At Molesey they proposed a cut starting by Platts Ait, bisecting the Hurst and running alongside Hurst Road, across Bridge Road and Cigarette Island, to rejoin the Thames again opposite Hampton Court Palace. For some reason, probably the opposition of the landlords, the Bill never materialised. Meanwhile the City seemed to have had a change of heart and to have come to the conclusion that they could never solve the problem without building weirs and pound locks.
In 1810 they introduced another Bill, which eventually passed into law and permitted them to build four locks — Chertsey, Shepperton, Sunbury and Teddington. The preamble recited that 'the navigation of the said River is still greatly obstructed and retarded, especially in dry seasons, by Shoals and Banks of Earth, Sand and Gravel, forming thereon, whereby a sufficient Depth of Water cannot be maintained', but went on that by the construction of these locks the 'Difficulties and Delays may be prevented.'
However, they soon realised that this scheme alone could not raise the water high enough above the shallows opposite Hampton Church and by Platts Ait. Therefore another Act was obtained to make, complete, and maintain another Pound Lock on the South West Side of the said River Thames, in the Parish of East Molesey, in the county of Surrey above the North West Side of Hampton Court Bridge, to be also navigable for Barges, Boats, and other Vessels, and which said lock shall be called Moulsey Lock — by which Means the Objects intended to be effected by the last recited Act will be further facilitated and more effectively promoted'.
Although Royal assent was given on 20 April 1812, construction work was not started for another two years, probably because the City was anxious for the four other locks authorised by the 1810 Act to be finished and fully commissioned before proceeding with Molesey. The lock was completed and traffic first allowed through on 9 August 1815.
It was one hundred and sixty-eight feet long and thirty feet wide, with a fall of six feet, and was constructed of wooden piles. A water-colour, now preserved in the British Library, shows the weir in 1827. It proves that it, too, was built of wood and by modern standards rather crude, having wooden panels with handles, rather like large paddles, which could be placed in position or removed at will to control the amount of water to flow downstream. At the same time a lockhouse was erected for the accommodation of the lock-keeper. The house is depicted in another water-colour in the same collection in the British Library, also dated 1827. It was Italianate in style, very similar in appearance to the one still in existence near Sunbury Lock. A plaque with the coat of arms of the City of London and the date 1815 was displayed at the apex of the forward gable. Down the centre of the front of the house was a panel on which was a table of the tolls chargeable on all classes of vessels using the lock, together with a list of navigation rules, and the words 'MOULSEY LOCK'. The present author can just remember (he was barely seven years old when this house was demolished) looking at these words and being extremely amused at what seemed to young eyes highly unorthodox spelling. On either side of the house was a wall with gates leading to the rear, where there were probably stables, for it must be remembered that barges were still horse-drawn when the lock was built, and most lock-keepers augmented their not too liberal stipend by using their premises as change-houses.
The first lock-keeper was a man named John Nash, formerly a butcher in the City of London. However, fate decreed that Nash was not to enjoy the situation for long. In June 1820 he took time off to watch the races on Molesey Hurst and, haplessly getting into the path of one of the racehorses, was run down and killed.
The keepers originally received a salary of thirty-two shillings a week, but through the years this was several times reduced until in 1854, owing, it was said, to the loss of trade due to the coming of the railways, the job was advertised at eighteen shillings. For that the keeper had to be available, or pay an assistant, to pass boats through the lock both day and night. Their lot, nevertheless, was not entirely a monotonous round of opening and shutting gates and raising and lowering water. The busy river traffic coming and going inevitably brought diversions, amusing and dramatic, lighthearted and tragic. A number of tales have found their way into official archives, where they may be found hidden among other more prosaic chronicles. The lock-keepers also found time to augment their earnings by other means, and not always in the most honest fashion. In 1829 the then keeper was discharged after casks of ale and cheeses mysteriously disappeared from barges as they passed their way through Molesey Lock.
As boating became more and more the pastime of ordinary people — people who had little or no experience of the river or of the hazards it held — so the number of accidents around the lock increased, bringing more trouble to the overburdened keepers especially from boaters venturing their craft too near to the ever-rushing, ever-sucking maelstrom of the weir stream. Almost every year during the hey-day of river life the local newspapers record at least one fatal occurrence at Molesey weir, and in 1877 it was announced that a man was to be stationed in a boat above the lock at busy times to warn oarsmen away. Mishaps still occurred.
Another misadventure occasioned by unskilled hands was caused by tying the boat up too tightly and forgetting to allow for the water's rise or fall. In the early days, as pleasure boats paid no toll, those in charge were expected to operate the lock themselves, not an easy task for those unused to it. One incident which happened in the 1830s illuminates the official attitude towards this kind of traffic.
Two childrens' maids and their charges, who were being taken on a trip by a man, were proceeding through the lock. The man closed the gates and was attending to the sluices but, as the water fell, the boat, which he had tied up without sufficient length of loose rope, upended. Only after a desperate struggle were the frantic nursemaids able to throw the children onto the bank and clamber ashore themselves. Although complaint was made to the City authorities that no assistance had been offered by the lock-keeper, the argument was made that the keeper was not responsible for working the lock for any vessel under three tons.
As the balance between commercial and non-commercial traffic shifted, due to changing methods of transport and the economic forces of the mid-nineteenth century, the attitude of the Corporation was forced to change with it. Barges became fewer as river trade gave way to the competition of the new-fangled iron railways and macadamised roads. Leisure time increased, first for the new middle classes and later for all, and the vogue of taking pleasure on the Thames became increasingly the fashion of the day. A select committee was appointed to report on the preservation of the river, which declared that 'the ancient employment of the Thames as the waterway of a considerable commerce has dwindled to an almost insignificant point, whilst the pleasure traffic on the river, in consequence of the conversion afforded by the railways, and of the ever-increasing tendency of the great population of the Metropolis to seek on the river exercise and recreation, has in the inverse ratio increased; and it has grown to such dimensions on holidays, and, indeed, throughout the summer months, as to render some legislation with a view to preserve the character of the river as a place of free but reasonable recreation and enjoyment'.
In view of the loss of tolls from the decline of the barges and to maintain the navigation, new sources of revenue were demanded. Therefore, in September 1866 the Thames Conservators, who had taken the river over from the City of London Corporation, extended tolls to include pleasure boats. Rates were fixed at boats with one pair of oars 6d, with two pairs of oars 1s, steamers 2s, and houseboats 2s 6d.
As the boats now paid duty, lock-keepers were obliged to assist in their passage through the lock, and were forbidden to accept gratuities for so doing, which they had been allowed if they helped when no toll was charged. In spite of this, in July 1869 David Phillips, the Molesey lock-keeper, was reprimanded by the Conservancy for asking for tips from the owners of pleasure craft.
In 1871, in order to reduce the multitude of rowing boats, punts, skiffs, and the like, which cluttered up the lock at busy times, roller slides were added above the main basin. This greatly facilitated the passage of little boats from one level of water to the other, and without the tedium of having to proceed through the lock itself, which was thereby left free for larger vessels, bringing about a considerable saving in time and patience for both types of craft.
Some of the people with small boats sought to escape paying the lock tolls, and save time as well, by lifting their craft out of the river, carrying it along the towing path, and depositing it back on the water on the other side. Some even went so far as to pull them over the weir - a perilous practice. In fact, as the law then stood, this was perfectly legal, as the Act only demanded a duty from those who actually passed through the lock. By the 1870s the Conservators were losing so much revenue by this stratagem that they had a special clause written into their Act of 1878, by which craft paid the toll 'for passing through, by, or over a lock.' Thereafter, this type of evasion seems to have been stopped.
Throughout its life the lock was continually improved, as engineering techniques themselves improved and better methods of construction were discovered. In the early 1850s, owing to the anticipated lowering of the water in the reach below the lock, due to the construction of the intakes of the waterworks at Long Ditton, it was considered advisable to dredge the river and lower the depth of the lock. These works were completed during 1853. The weir, which had fallen into a dilapidated condition, was rebuilt in 1859. During 1882 it was again rebuilt, as part of the remedial works necessitated by the great flood of 1877. This time two large portions of Ash Island were purchased and dredged away, the spoil being spread over the rest of the island to raise its level. The tail of the island was cut away to enable the weir to be lengthened, thereby facilitating an increase in the flow over it, and enabling the flood water to get away more quickly, at the same time lessening the danger to passing boats. Several fatal accidents had occurred due to the narrowness of the channel and the rapid stream, which drew small boats towards the weir.
On 2 June 1906 the lock was reopened, after a complete reconstruction lasting some nine months and costing £14,000. Its length had been increased to two hundred and sixty- eight feet, making it the largest on the Thames after Teddington.
During 1915, due to heavy rains, the water rose and fell several times in the Lower Thames Valley, causing considerable flooding. A large breach was formed in the lock island between the weir and the lock. Temporary protective measures were taken immediately, but the continuous high level of the water caused the damage to extend, with the result that a portion of the concrete retaining wall of the tumbling bay fell in. Before putting permanent repairs in hand, the Conservators mooted an interesting idea. They suggested constructing a small lock on the site of the breach, instead of filling it in, which would be used by single vessels, thereby reducing the delay caused by opening the big lock and also reducing the amount of water wasted in times of drought. They offered to undertake the work if the Metropolitan Water Board would contribute half the cost. To this the Board agreed, but the Local Government Board insisted that the work should be postponed until after the war. As, however, the repair of the damage required immediate attention, the proposal was abandoned, and steps taken to permanently fill in the breach.
Also during the First War, defects in the fabric of the lockhouse became apparent. In 1915 the Conservancy carried out some repair work, but it became obvious that major improvements would be necessary. Total collapse of the building was prevented by shoring up the sides with timber, but complete rebuilding was considered essential. As soon as practical after the War, a plot of land adjacent was obtained and the present house was built, and first occupied in 1926.
Like many other establishments, the lock underwent adaptations to survive the perils of the 1939-45 War. The Petroleum Board had set up an oil installation just above Sunbury Lock, to save incoming tankers the hazard of running the gauntlet of German guns along the French coast to the London Docks. They discharged their precious cargo at Avonmouth, whence a pipe-line was laid direct to the Thames, where the fuel was stored in subterranean tanks before being pumped into barges to be taken on to London. It is estimated that, during an average day, about fifty of these barges, fully loaded, passed through the lock on their way to the metropolis. Had one of them sprung a leak, or been attacked by enemy aircraft, a whole sheet of highly flammable liquid would have spread over the water and collected around the lock. As a precautionary measure, therefore, the vulnerable wooden gates were entirely sheeted over with thick steel plates, and special fire-fighting apparatus was housed nearby.
In 1959 the lock was completely restored and modernised, with electric controls for the gates. The passage of vessels was restricted to three days a week to facilitate this.
Before leaving the lock and continuing our ramble up the towpath, perhaps we can spare a moment to recall a few lines from a poem written by a lady named Eliza F. Manning, and published in 1886 in a volume called Delightful Thames. The poem, A legend of Moulsey Lock, is not particularly well-written, and its subject — the fickleness of the fair sex — is a trite theme; nevertheless it re-emphasises the part the river played in Victorian recreation:
'A Legend of Moulsey Lock
But alas! the fitfulness of passion — the path of young love never did run smooth. The 'best of the day' turns out to be very short indeed. The lovers quarrel, she espies another:
'That intolerable dandy, young captain Furneaux,
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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