Boats from the Basingstoke's Past[Published 1969]
This booklet is based on a series of articles written by Tony Harmsworth which appeared in the newsletter of the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society. It names and describes the many barges, narrow boats and wide boats which once worked on the Basingstoke Canal, and traces the development of the barge building business started by his grandfather, Mr. A.J. Harmsworth, at Ash Vale. Some of these old boats can still be seen today in their final resting places on the canal. They are a proud reminder of the great canal era, in which the Basingstoke played its part.
Among those to be thanked for their help in producing this booklet are members of the Harmsworth family, Mr. Alan Brown of Rickmansworth, and Mr. H.W. Stevens of Guildford.
Published by: The Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society
It is not known whether any boats were built on the Basingstoke Canal before 1917, but there have always been adequate repair facilities on the canal.
The main yard was at Frimley lock, with a large brick and timber shed and dry dock, the remains of which can still be seen to the west of the present lock house (which is not the original). The water from the dock was run off through a penstock into the pound below the lock, after the stop planks had been inserted to stop off the dock from the canal. This dock was filled with dredgings from Deepcut in 1939, but it had not been used since about 1912.
Barges also seem to have been repaired in the most unusual places: one was pulled out on the towpath at Woking (opposite the Victoria Hospital) to have a new bottom put in. It was said that one was re-built in Brittons Meadow at Ash Vale, and when a housing estate was built on the site in 1960 spikes, nails and irons etc, were found during excavation work.
When the Greywell Tunnel collapsed for the first time in about 1876, a wide boat was said to have been pulled out at Nateley and loaded on to a special trolley, taken through the lanes and re-launched at Greywell. Many teams of horses were used to pull it round, and the skipper was thought to be a Mr. Walker, the father of Bill Jalker who worked for Mr. A.J. Harmsworth in later years. There is no evidence to authenticate this legend, but it has been handed down by word of mouth for many years and there is no reason to disbelieve it.
MR. A.J. HARMSWORTH
Alexander John Harmsworth was born in 1868, the eldest son of a canal carpenter. He worked as a carter, bargeman and canal carpenter, and passed his oral examination to get his ticket as a registered lighterman, working on the canal and down to London. Later, he was made a freeman of the River Thames. In 1890 he married and lived in a houseboat moored at the land now used by the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society at Ash Vale. Life was very hard to start with, and he earned a few extra shillings by sweeping the snow off the ice for skaters during the very cold winter of 1890-91. With these and other earnings, he made enough to build some pleasure boats which he let at Ash Vale, and so started the boathouse which eventually grew to house nearly 400 pleasure craft. The wood and plaster bungalow was built in 1896, but it had a corrugated iron roof in those days. Eventually, he sold his houseboat to the canal company as a maintenance boat. He continued to work on the canal, building boats in the evenings where the boathouse now stands.
A THRIVING BUSINESS
In about 1902, A.J. Harmsworth bought his first barge, the Mabel, from Nateley. This was followed by the Nene and the Harriet, and he bought bricks from the by-then bankrupt Nateley brickfields and sold them in Ash and Frimley. Moulding sand was dug at Curzon Bridge and taken to Guildford by water for the Guildford Iron Works at Millmead.
The narrow boat Basingstoke and old barge Aldershot were then acquired, from the canal company, and at this time craft began undergoing repairs at Ash Vale. The Aldershot was pulled out and repaired on the boathouse site. Narrow boats were later repaired in Great Bottom Flash, and the remains of the slip and strapping posts can be seen today on the society's land.
The Mabel was sold to the Thames Conservancy in about 1905, and Mr. Harmsworth had the wideboat Dauntless built to order by Costains of Berkhamsted. It was launched on 6th November 1905 and proceeded to Paddington to load ashes for Woking.
The Redjacket and Bluejacket followed in 1909, also built at Berkhamsted, then the Mapledurwell and Greywell were built to order by Fellows Morton and Clayton of Uxbridge in 1912.
At the beginning of the First World War, barge carrying was a thriving and growing business. The Glendower was added to the fleet in 1915, preceeded by the narrow boats Tipton, Tunstall, Netherton and Soho. The wide boats Northern and Southern were bought from Paddington Borough Council in 1915, and in 1916 the Reliance was bought from Wm. Stevens at Guildford. Trade boomed during the war, with the canal run by the Inland Water Transport and Docks Executive, for whom Mr. Harmsworth undertook canal and barge repairs. The government had several boats working to and from Aldershot Camp during the war. The canal carried coal to Woking Gas Works; ashes to Slocock's Nursery; timber to Woking; sand, gravel, manure, hay, straw, military stores, flour and round timber down to London.
It began in 1918 with the Rosaline. All barges were built on the Boathouse side of the canal at Ash Vale (except the Basingstoke in 1932) and the repairs were done on the other side - where the society has its land. This was because it was easier to chain winches down to the trees for winching out operations. It had been found difficult to get suitable anchorages for pulling out on the boathouse side, where the pleasure boat business was doing a roaring trade.
The Tug Shamrock was built at Ash Vale in 1920. It was launched without any machinery installed, and was taken to Staines for fitting out. Cast iron billets had to be loaded aboard to get the head down, as the hull floated too high to get under the bridges.
Barges were built at Ash Vale at roughly one-year intervals. They were two main types: Reso's and Addn's (meaning residential boats accommodating two people and odd barges with no accommodation used on day work). Most had transom sterns and would load 75-80 tons on the Thames, carrying 50 tons to Woking. They were built of English oak with Columbian pine bottoms.
The construction was to Mr. A.J. Harmsworth's personal design and embodied many features which his experience had shown to be sound practice giving strength and long service. They were all moulded chine (i.e. two turn-up planks), which made the barge easier to steer in the confined channel of the canal. The bottoms were 2-1/2" thick pine, with 1" deal sheathing inside. The chines were 3" oak, and the sides 2" oak with •§-" oak sheathing inside. The frames were 4" x 4" oak, and the crooks were 4" x 7" and the floor timers were 5" x 5". They were all 72ft 6 in. long and 13ft. 10-1/2" wide, but the height in the side varied between 5ft and 6ft. The distinguishing marks were the almost straight stems, booby hutch cabins with 12" thick wash boards for'ard and 9" wash boards aft. Most had iron bollards, one on each quarter.
The large, corrugated iron barge building shed was built at Ash Vale about 1925 and it was inside this that the barge's bottom was laid out. The bottom planks were put down and the deal sheathing nailed across, then the floor timbers were spiked down. After this, the stem and stern posts were erected, followed by the knees, timberheads and crooks. Next the two turn-up planks were fitted and the sides planked up, steaming where necessary. Once this was completed, the gun-whales, coamings and decks were on, the flooring in the hold was put in (false floor) and the fitting out done. After painting and tarring the barge was ready for launching.
Some water used to be pumped in for a few days prior to the launch to swell up the bottom planks, then the whole thing was jacked up and the skids placed underneath and greased. On the day of the launch, the barge was lowered until it just rested on the top of the skids, and before the jacks could be removed two struts - one at the head, one at the stern - were put under and the whole weight of the barge was taken on these. A man then stood at the head and one at the stern each with a large iron bar, and at the count of three the struts were simultaneously knocked out and the barge then dropped right down on to the skids and slid into the water broadside on. During the barge building activities at Ash Vale, not one barge stuck on the slip or sank.
A narrow boat once stuck on the slip at Great Bottom Flash and nearly caused disaster. Mr. Arthur Harmsworth was walking round in front of the boat to try and see what had happened when the boat started to slide. Seeing the danger, he threw himself between the skids and the boat went over the top of him to execute a perfect launch.
After launching, the new barges were taken across the canal and the rudders were fitted by dropping them on with a chain from a tree branch, this chain can still be seen. Fitting out was then completed, hatches fitted, tarpaulins put on etc., and the yard staff usually helped after launching by the boat's new skipper. When everything was completed, the barge was taken down the canal to start work. It took 4-6 men 3-1/2 months to build a barge. The cost per barge in 1932 was £900.
All the Harmsworth boats were painted with Venetian red gunwales, coamings, decks and cabin tops. The washboards, bitheads, cabin sides etc. were mid-Brunswick green. The transom was vermillion, with gold leaf lettering picked out in Prussian Blue, with the same colouring for the lettering on the washboards. All the barges and some of the narrow boats had a Cambridge blue band round the head, from below the outwhale to above the top rubbing band.
While new barges were being built, older ones had to be repaired and sometimes rebuilt. It was quite usual in the 1920s for one to be built and two or three to be repaired in one year.
For repair, the boats had to be pulled out and this was done by floating the boat up to the end of the skids. Then three lines were put round, one each at the head, middle and stern. These lines were steel hausers about 5/8" diameter and were connected to three crab winches operated by two men to each winch. The boat or barge was then pulled out sideways up the skids. One of these winches can still be seen on the society's land at Ash Vale.
The last barge to be repaired at Ash Vale was the Perseverance in 1947. It was launched in March of that year, and passed down the canal to Woking just after Easter. It locked through the 14 locks (Frimley to Brookwood) in 2-1/2 hours.
The canal was sold on 1st March 1949 and the barge business was sold later that year. So ended the era of commercial navigation on the Basingstoke Canal - an era which had begun in 1792.
Boats 1 and 2
NETHERTON, SOHO and TUNSTALL (Boats 3, 4 and 5)
Access: The Woodham Flight can best be reached from Sheerwater Road Bridge (Sheerwater Road links Woodham Lane and the Old Woking Road near West Byfleet, Surrey). An alternative is to park at Monument Road bridge, Woking, and walk east along the towpath for about 3-1/2 miles when the flight of locks will be reached.
Mr. A.J. Harmsworth. and Mr. Dick Cobb, the boat's new skipper, brought the Glendower down to Reading and so to Weybridge via the Thames. On its first trip, a freight of sleepers were loaded at Sheerwater, more were put on at Weybridge from a lightening boat and the Glendower went into the Regents Canal Dock with 91 tons on board for transshipment to France.
In 1930, the barge sank and went to Ash Vale for repair. The original rails, washboards and tack pins were removed and replaced with bollards. Part of the bottom was also renewed.
The Glendower sank again after the last war outside the Surrey Commercial Dock. It was patched up and moored above the stable lock at Woodham. The New Basingstoke Canal Company moved it to its present position above Arthur's Bridge, Woking, in about 1950.
Access: Park near Arthur's Bridge (near the village of Horsell, off Goldsworth Road, Woking) and walk westwards along the towpath for 10O yards.
The Redjacket and Bluejacket were barges of almost identical design. Redjacket was 13 ft. 2 in. wide by 72 ft. 6 in. long and 5 ft 2 in. high in the side. Bluejacket was the same length, but 13 ft. 6 in. wide and 5 ft. 1 in. high in the side. They were built by the same yard, Redjacket in about 1909 with Bluejacket following two years later in 1911.
Both craft would carry 70 tons of coal under hatches below Weybridge and they carried 50 tons of round timber down from Crookham in the first world war.
The Redjacket was built at the Ash Vale Barge Yard in the late 1920s and the Bluejacket underwent extensive repairs at a yard in Brentford. In 1940, Redjacket was sold to carry explosives up the River Lee to Waltham Abbey explosive works, and was lost in an air raid while so employed.
Bluejacket was laid up in 1938 and was moved to a mooring below Goldsworth Locks where it is now derelict.
Access: Park as for the Glendower, near Arthur's Bridge, but walk west along towpath for 400 yards.
Little is known about them, but they are thought to be the Maudie and Ada, owned by Nateley Brickworks and offered for sale between 1906 and 1907. They were bought by a man from Richmond, who collected them from Nateley with his wife and children. The family, living in the cabins, began bow-hauling the boats down the canal. Maintenance work was being done on the bottom lock of the fourteen, so they waited above the lock. But while they waited, the family contacted diptheria.
The children were taken to an isolation hospital in Guildford and the parents left the boats. They never returned, leaving tolls and dues unpaid. The boats were moored in the flash, and later sank.
Access: Park clear of the A324 road bridge, Brookwood. The boats can be seen just above lock Number 15, near the bridge.
THE ROBIN (Number 10)
It was sold by tender in 1920 and bought by Mr. A.J. Harmsworth. The cabin was taken off and the boat was put into service as a lightening craft, working between Weybridge and Woking carrying timber and coal. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Robin was moored in Mytchett Lake and used as an anti-invasion obstacle. It was moved to its present position in 1945.
Access: Walk upstream (southwards) from Mytchett lake, or downstream (north) from Ash Vale Boathouse (near Ash Vale Station).
It was owned by Edward Jones & Son of Brentford, who built the sides up to 5 ft. During the timber season, it was hired by A.J. Harmsworth & Sons for carrying timber to Guildford and Woking.
Mr. A.J. Harmsworth bought the Stanley in 1930. It was taken to Ash Vale for a complete overhaul and was used to work into London and up to Woking. In 1938 it became waterlogged while towing up the Thames loaded with timber. The deck had shrunk in the sun and water seeped in. It was run ashore at Battersea and used afterwards as a lightening boat to Woking.
In 1940 the Stanley was moored in Mytchett Lake as an anti-invasion obstacle. It was moored in Angler's Flash after the war, and eventually sank.
Access: As for Robin (Number 10).
The narrow boat Basingstoke, now sunk in Greatbottom Flash, is believed to have been built at Appledore in North Devon. It is not known whether it was built for, or was later acquired by, the Woking, Aldershot and Basingstoke Canal Navigation Company, but it was certainly owned by them in the 1880s.
The Nateley Brick and Tile Company bought the boat in about 1898 and it was used to carry bricks to Ash Wharf and to Basingstoke and other wharves along the canal. When the brickworks ceased operations in 1906-7, the Basingstoke was bought by Mr. A.J. Harmsworth and was used by his company to carry sand, round timber and coal, mostly as a lightening boat.
The Basingstoke was used by Mr. Harmsworth during his attempt to navigate the full length of the canal and so delay abandonment of the western end in November-December 1913.
After the First World War, the Basingstoke was used regularly transporting lightened coal from barges at Weybridge up to Woking gas works on day work. In 1933 it was taken to Ash Vale, and its iron frames were removed and used in the construction of the barge Brookwood, which was launched in 1934. The remains were left in their present position.
Access: The Basingstoke can best be seen from the land rented by the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society at Ash Vale Barge Yard, adjacent to Ash Vale Station.
The two narrow boats lying outside of the remains of the Basingstoke in Great Bottom Flash, Ash Vale, are a matched pair - Mapledurwell and Greywell. They were built by Fellows Morton and Clayton Ltd. at Uxbridge for Mr. A.J. Harmsworth in 1912 and were of a unique design, having rails, washboards and a windlass for'ard and straight stems. This was done to afford better protection when towing up and down the tidal Thames to and from London Docks. The rest of the construction was to standard narrow boat design, with cabins, and they were 72 ft. 6 in. long and 7 ft. wide.
They were worked by Mr. Sam Seymour for many years, carrying flour from Weybridge to Aldershot, round timber from Crookham to London and general military stores during the First World War.
Until the mid-1930s they carried coal to Wokings then the cabins were removed and they were used as lightening boats on day work from Weybridge to Guildford with timber, and to Woking with coal. When war broke out in 1939 they were taken to Ash Vale and moored in the flash as anti-invasion obstacles. After the war, they were moved to their present positions and allowed to sink.
The old punt on the outside of these boats is the dredging punt Mudlark, used for many years to dredge the Woking end of the canal and for ice-breaking.
Access: As for Number 12, the Basingstoke.
Very little is known about the steam narrow boat Seagull, which now lies sunk and decaying in the old brickfields arm at Nately.
The first record of the Seagull is in a ledger entry which states that a narrow boat, Seagull, Reg. No. 231 towing a butty called Waterlily, Reg. No. 230 passed through Brentford Locks on 5th May 1896. The boat was owned by Francis Ashby of Heston Mill, Hounslow.
Interesting as this is, there is no evidence to show that this boat was the one now lying at Nately. It was thought that the boat last worked on the River Wey before coming on the Basinstoke Canal. It was found that a steam narrow boat named Seagull, towing a butty, used to work to Unsted Mill, near Godalming, which was a flour mill owned by a Francis Ashby. This boat was sold to the Nateley Brick and Tile Company in late 1896 or early 1897, so there is a link. The boat worked for the brickworks until 1906, but the fate of the butty is not known. There is an entry in the Frimley Lock Ledger, dated 29th September 1900: "Seagull, from River Wey to Frimley with ballast 12 MLS 20 tons at 11-1/2d. per ton".
At a sale of Nateley boats, the Seagull was not sold and it laid and rotted in the brickworks arm. It was 70 ft. long, 7 ft, wide, loaded 20 tons and had a compound engine with about 5 in. and 7 in. bores. It had a counter stern and, so I am told, was similar in appearance to the old Fellows Morton and Clayton steamers.
Access: The land adjoining the brickworks arm is now privately owned, and permission to look at the Seagull should be obtained from the house by the brickworks arm. To reach the arm, park by Nateley Church and walk down the gravel track, almost opposite the old bridge.
The Aldershot was bought by Mr. A.T. Harmsworth in 1949, renamed the Basing and traded on the Wey and Thames until 1960, when it was sold to become a houseboat. It can now be seen sunk below Walsham Lock on the River Wey.
The Basingstoke is also now a houseboat above Pyrford Lock.
The Alexander was bought by Mr. A.T. Harmsworth and renamed the Greywell, and worked on the Wey and Thames until 1954. It was sold to the Weybridge Mariners Club at Weybridge in 1959 and it is still used as their floating club house at Weybridge Marine Yard.
The Brookwood was turned into a houseboat and was moored on the River Thames at Tilehurst, Reading, but has now been moved.
The Madeline became a houseboat and was moored until about 1956 below New Haw Lock on the River Wey. It was later broken up.
The Gwendolene is now a houseboat moored at Berkhamsted above the Rising Sun Locks on the Grand Union Canal.
The Ariel 1 was bought by Mr. A.T. Harmsworth in 1949 and was renamed Fleet. It was used until Mr. Harmsworth ceased operating in 1966 and was the last Basingstoke barge at work. It was handed over to Wm. Stevens & Sons of Guildford in 1966, ceased work in and is now used as a floating hotel at Berkhamsted.
The whereabouts of all the others are unknown, but most were sold to Messrs. Tough & Henderson of Teddington and were later broken up.
The best year for trade on the canal in recent times was 1935, when 31,577 tons was carried up to Woking. Coal was charged at 3d. per ton to Woking.
The following extracts from the Woodham Locks Ledger illustrate the use to which the canal was put for carrying purposes:
Passages up the canal - October 2nd, 1923
Autumn, 1923 - Number of passages up and down Woodham Locks
B. The following worked on the canal from 1896 to 1900:
All the boats in "A" were still at work in 1896, as well as those mentioned above, but the boats in section "B" were either sunk, broken up or had left the canal by 1912.
In 1949, trading on the canal ceased. These were the last barges to make the passage upto Woking:
March 9th, 1949: The Gwendoline carried 13 standards of timber from the SS "Seaboard Star", Surrey Docks, to Spantons Timber Yard, Chertsey Road Bridge Wharf. The load was approximately 32-1/2 tons, and she drew 31 inches of water.
March l4th, 1949; The Perseverance, with 12-1/2 standards of timber from the "Seaboard Star", Surrey Docks to Spantons. Load: 31 tons; draft 30 inches.
June 27th 1949: The Wilfred, 14 standards of timber from SS "Salvas", Surrey Docks to Spantons. Load: 35 tons; draft: 33 inches.
June 27th 1949: The Gwendoline, 20 standards of timber from SS "Salvas", Surrey Docks to Spantons. Load: 50 tons, draft: 3ft 4inches.
OTHER PUBLICATIONS IN THIS SERIES
Walks Along the Basingstoke Canal, by David Gerry. A collection of rambles along the canal towpath, public footpaths, bridleways and country lanes exploring some of the lovely countryside through which the canal passes. There are short rambles and long ones, and circular ones for those who like rambling by car. Price: 20p plus 7p postage.
Waterside Inns of the Basingstoke, by Jon Talbot, Historical details of the Canal's public houses, together with an account of the services offered today. Price: 20p plus 7p postage.
The Natural History of the Basingstoke Canal, by Jutta Manser. introduction to some of the flora and fauna to be found on the canal throughout the year. Price: 30p plus 9p postage.
The History of the Basingstoke Canal, by Glenys Crocker. The booklet traces the history of the canal, from the application for the original act, through to its current condition. Price: 30p plus 9p postage.
The above booklets can be obtained from the Society's Sales Manager.
THE SURREY AND HAMPSHIRE CANAL SOCIETY
The Society was formed in 1966 to campaign for the restoration of the 33 mile long Basingstoke Canal, one of the few privately owned canals in the country. The campaign is two-fold; to press for public ownership by the Surrey and Hampshire County Councils and to urge for full restoration to allow boat-cruising, canoeing, angling, towpath walking and natural history conservation to take place.
Part of the Society's campaign has already been realised. Late in 1973, Hampshire County Council took possession of the 15 mile western section and restoration work is now in progress, while the future of the Surrey section is now being decided following the County Council's bid for acquisition by compulsory purchase order.
The canal runs through beautiful countryside as well as providing welcome relief in urban areas. Although today the locks are still deteriorating, and the water channel is choked with reed, the canal has a tremendous potential as an amenity.
The Society organises working parties, boat trips( rambles and meetings, and publishes a regular newsletter. If you would like to join or receive further information, please send a stamped addressed envelope to the Membership Secretary.
Last updated April 2006