Wednesday 10 July 2019

The Canal at Watford

The Canal at Watford - by Stella Merryweather

The branch which was never built.

This piece was prompted by a talk given to the group By Fabian Hisock of the Rickmansworth Waterways Trust. Key material was included in the talk for which thanks are due. The remaining material was researched by the writer from the sources named. 

The 1793 Act of Parliament which authorised the Grand Junction Canal company to raise funds to construct a main line from Brentford, to the Oxford Canal at Braunston, also authorised a branch to Watford. However, despite the enthusiam of the Earls of Essex and Clarendon for this plan, the town declined in due course to pay for the work, so the branch was never built. Instead, the canal passed by the town and when the stretch from the Thames to Two Waters Hemel Hempstead was completed in 1798, its closest point to West Watford was at Cassio Bridge. An Act of June 1795 had also authorised a branch to St Albans but this was also not built. The Grand Junction Canal reduced the distance to London from the Midlands by 60 miles (100 kilometres)—via Oxford and the River Thames—and made the journey reliable. As a result it thrived: in 1810 it carried 343,560 tons of goods to and from London, with most of it passing near Watford.   

Watford’s wharves

Of the two nearest wharves to Watford, one Lady Capel's Wharf off the Hemsptead Road had been built because Watford was the closest point to London where coal could be unloaded from the canal without paying a 1/1d per Ton toll. This toll had originally been imposed by the Corporation of London on all coal landed from boats in the port of London to pay for the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral after the great fire of 1666. The coal unloaded at Lady Capel's Wharf continued its journey by cart and wagon but the commercial use of Lady Capel's Wharf ended in 1847 when the original lease granted by the Earl of Clarendon expired.

Cassio wharf

Cassio wharf was on the north side of the canal, west of the bridge carrying Rickmansworth Road over the canal. Street and trade directories of the time give a clue to wharf activity. Pigot’s 1837 Directory lists John Cooper operating at the “new wharf” at Cassio Bridge The same directory declares that “goods forwarded to John Rogers at his wharf are forwarded to all places on the line of the canal as also to all parts of the kingdom”. Kelly’s Directory lists John Cooper in 1859 as wharfinger at Cassio Bridge as well as corn merchant. The photo below taken prior to the construction of the Metropolitan Railway viaduct in 1925, shows a busy scene, with piles of bricks on the wharf, destined no doubt for the intensive development of the town which was then in progress. Peacocks 1895 Directory lists J Pratt, builders’ merchant, as offering builders “Cowley stocks and inferiors supplied by boat” i.e. types of brick. By 1897, the same bricks sourced from brickworks conveniently south of Watford on the canal, are offered for supply “by boat or cart”. Later still 1905 Peacocks lists Pratt as supplying bricks from “canal and railway wharves.”  

The railways competed with the canal as carriers of goods throughout the second half of the nineteenth century yet the pairs of narrow boats thronging the water in the photo show a continuing high level of activity at the canal wharf at this time. One boat at least bears the insignia of Fellows, Morton and Clayton, one of the largest canal carrying companies. Whether owned by companies, businessmen or by their master boatman, it was not unusual for whole families to live and work on the boats. Women and children are visible to the rear of one boat and on the tow path and of boats recorded as lying at the wharf on census night in 1901 and 1891, all had wives and children on board.  

Census night 1861 - A snapshot of boats moored in the Watford registration district

In 1795 less than 4% of boatmen owned their own boats but gradually a flourishing economy developed of owner boatmen operating as carriers on the canal. These, known as Number Ones, would have family living on board and acting as part or all of the crew. While a reasonable living could be made, boatmen working for a company were better off than those who worked for themselves. “Number Ones”, were far more at risk financially. If a horse died or broke a leg or was ill the boatman was out of work. If there was a bad frost and the canal closed self-employed boatmen earned no money, whereas men who worked for a carrying company could get advances on their wages. 1

On census night 1861, five boats were lying near Watford, but only only one, the Sarah, was owner operated. Not unusually, the master boatman was illiterate and had to make his mark on the census entry. The place of birth of the crews on all boats is overwhelmingly in the Midlands. Wives appear on the list of crew along with assistants as young as 10 and some female assistants, although the majority listed are male. It was not unusual for young children to work on the canals. They may have had little education like their parents but they were practical and ready to work. Often they were lent to other boats to help other members of their own family. As there was a finite space on each boat, this helped families reduce over-crowding.1

Of the cargoes listed on each boat, timber, salt, coal and corn, are all typical. Also typical are the paired narrow-boats which required larger crews and could have been “fly” or express boats.

NamePlace of birthOccupationMooringName(s) of boat(s)CargoSizeRegistered
William Neader
Thomas Coaldicott
WarwickshireownerHuntonThe SarahTimber30Banbury
Mary      Coaldicott
John Lawman
WarwickshirecaptainHuntonDiscovery andSalt54Droitwich
Anne lawman
Emma Shelly
Anne Sharman
John Shelly
Henry Elliott
Thomas Cardwell
Thomas Ward
DerbyshirecaptainHuntonThunderbird andCoal 60?
Mary Ward
Elisabeth Ward
Michael Jones
George Moore
Thomas Bales
WarwickassistantBridgetons Bridge
William Burton

(Please scroll across to see full record)

A West Watford Boatman

In 1901, Frederick Stratfull or Stratful 39, a barge boatman on the canal was listed living on census night at 57 Fearnley Street in West Watford with his wife Ann and six children. Frederick’s birthplace was Marsworth in Buckinghamshire where he grew up the son of an agricultural labourer and a straw plaiter. It was not unusual for carters and farm workers living in areas the canal passed through to find work on the canal. Either because he had to or because the work was better paid and/or more congenial than farm labouring, on census night 1881 he was 19 and listed as a barge mate living on a boat on the canal at Harefield. Ten years later he is married with one daughter and living on the canal at Gebbels Brickfield Dock, again at Harefields. In 1901his six children have places of birth listed which are all on the canal system i.e. Cowley, Camden Town, Langley, Brentford, Kings Langley and West Drayton so must have been born and lived for some time on board.

But like many married canal workers Frederick eventually needed a house on dry land for his family and the fact that his wife and older children are not listed as having a gainful occupation in 1901, might suggest he was making a reasonable living as a boatman. Living in West Watford in the town his family would not have been as isolated from the wider community as those still living on board with the boatman.

But in the 1890s and 1900’s people were leaving the canals. As the tonnage carried by boats dropped the living standard afforded by a boatman’s wage also dropped. This might explain why Frederick also left canal work and is next listed in 1911 as a “carter in construction.” Given the continued building boom in Watford, this is not surprising. He had moved by this time to 13, Sidney Road into one of the first terraces built on the south side of that street. Perhaps with seven children by this time he needed more space or was Sidney Road more convenient for his carting of building supplies from the nearby wharf? It was certainly handy for the two eldest daughters, one of whom now worked in the North’s Speedometer works in Whippendell Road and the other in the paper mill, possibly at Croxley.

At his death in 1932 Frederick’s occupation was listed as “carman”. Having spent most of his working life on the canals, he transferred from boat to horse drawn then to motorised haulage. He and his wife moved to the more roomy Harebreaks Estate but both are buried in Vicarage Road Cemetery in West Watford.

1  Material on the lives of boat people courtesy of Peter Robinson at

This history produced by kind permission of Stella Merryweather. Copyright remains with her.

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