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Tea garden tales of life on the Canal

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

Fran wasn’t born to the canal, but the idea of it fascinated her as she spent time on the canal with her aunt during school holidays. She remembers how she used to enjoy a packet of crisps at the Barley Mow in Wolverton by the side of the Grand Union and was allowed into the inn, though she shouldn't have been, to watch the games of skittles.

Roger’s fascination was engines, car engines mostly. Roger is the kind who builds things and makes them work. In 1977 Roger had bought a boat, The Ash, cut it in half, added a new length in the middle and put it back together again expanding its length from 50 to 63 feet. It was around 32 years ago that they came across a mostly derelict cottage right by the Denham Deep Lock. At first they rented it and moved in on Christmas Day 1989. Roger started a new business on the canal, turning his engineering expertise to servicing narrowboats and barges and using The Ash to move coal, diesel, Calor gas and logs up and down the canal to supply the holiday travellers and leisure seekers. In 1992 they bought the cottage.

Denham Deep Lock is the deepest lock on the Grand Union Canal network with a “fall” of around 3.5 metres. In the industrial heyday of the canals Denham was considered an important stopping point and is no less so now that the canals are mainly used for leisure. Fran recognised the opportunity. In 1992 and then, with Roger, the owner of the old Lock cottage, she opened Fran’s tea garden offering teas, coffees, delicious cakes and snacks. It has become famous throughout the canal network.

Above Fran’s garden the Grand Union Canal flows lazily over the viaduct which spans Denham’s least known river. Village residents are familiar with The Misbourne and the Colne but there is a much lesser known channel that leaves the Colne at the weir behind Fran and Roger’s cottage, runs alongside Fran’s garden under the viaduct and winds its way down through Uxbridge to rejoin the Colne at West Drayton. It is Fray’s river believed to have been cut to feed mills on its lower reaches. It takes its name from John Fray the 15th century lawyer and senior politician who was the owner of Cowley Hall.

Waterways and canals have been a lifeline for British industry and agriculture for far longer than we might know. Canals can be traced as far back as Roman times when the Romans used canals for irrigation purposes and to connect existing waterways with one another. Romans built the Foss Dyke in Lincolnshire for drainage and navigation and the Caer Dyke around AD50 shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE by the armies of Emperor Claudius. During the Middle Ages traders transported goods and products mainly by sea and then by horse and cart through a network of muddy roads connected to main towns. The weather was unpredictable and piracy at sea was dangerous. Once on land, pack horses struggled along the muddy and pitted medieval road system; too often the goods were damaged before arrival.

Britain's rivers offered a favourable alternative and allowed larger quantities of goods to be transported safely through navigable waterways. But some rivers were too shallow or perhaps too fast flowing. In some areas, industries and millers were already using the water to turn their water wheels needed for production and milling flour, etc. And they had ancient rights over the water.

So canals were built specifically to join up key areas of production (coal mines, quarries and mills) with large towns or ports. Canal boats and barges that were towed by horse along the waterways could carry heavy supplies to sites where new castles, churches and monasteries were being built. At Windsor, a cut was dug to bring the Thames closer to the castle.

During the Tudor period from 1486 to 1603, Britain grew as an economic and political power. Increases in population and industry required an expansion of Britain's commercial waterways. The old and rather perilous single gate locks, the so-called 'flash' locks, "stepped" the canal system by releasing a rush of water downstream and boats were winched upstream. After 1530 these were replaced by the double gate system we know today. In the mid-1700s at the beginning of the era of industrialisation, landowners, business owners, local people and the government became part of the process to approve expanding the building of canals. Landowners and businesses paid for canal and acquired shares. sometimes a successful money-making venture, sometimes not.

When complete, the Grand Junction Canal shortened the earlier route between London and the Midlands by some 60 miles and not being prone to the vagaries of the Thames, it also provided a more reliable waterway. The canal thrived: in 1810 the Grand Junction carried 343,560 tons of goods through London, with roughly equal amounts into and out of the capital.

Life as a lock keeper

Even as the roads of Britain were improved over the course of the eighteenth century, water transport remained the most efficient and cost-effective means by which to move large cargos. This method of transport was critical to the commerce and economy of England and therefore, it was necessary to ensure these waterways remained navigable at all times. From the early decades of the 18th Century, when each lock was built, a neat and tidy cottage was built on the river bank nearby. These cottages were offered to a man who was willing to operate and maintain the lock as the major part of his compensation. There was a toll to be paid by anyone who wished to pass through one of these locks. In most cases, the lock-keeper was allowed to keep the tolls as his cash income. Those lock authorities who did not allow their lock-keepers to keep the tolls, usually included a modest cash stipend for their lock-keepers, along with the cottage.

Even a single man would have found it difficult to subsist on the small cash income which a lock-keeper earned through tolls or a stipend. It would have been nearly impossible for a man with a wife and children. However, a sturdy, decent home was an important commodity for most people at that time, so there were many who were eager to take on the position of lock-keeper, despite the low cash pay and the fact that they were essentially on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most lock-keepers offered any aid they could to boats passing by which were in need of assistance. Lock-keepers usually kept an eye on their section of the river or canal and many of them were responsible for saving the lives of people who had fallen into the water, either from a passing boat or from the river bank.

The majority of lock-keepers and their families found ways to supplement their small cash income and they usually enjoyed a relatively comfortable life. Most lock-keepers’ cottages were situated on a generous plot of land, which was also available for the use of the lock-keeper. Many of them planted substantial kitchen gardens where they grew fruits, vegetables and herbs, primarily for their own use. But any surplus would be sold, usually to those passing by on the river, to bring in extra income. Chickens, rabbits, pigs, goats and sometimes, even a cow, might also be raised, for meat and milk, to supplement the fruits and vegetables from the garden. Surplus milk might be made into cheese and butter, again sold or traded to those on boats passing by the cottage. Fish inhabited most rivers, and even some canals, so fish certainly made up part of the diet of those who lived in a lock-keeper’s cottage. Records show that a number of lock-keepers were also bee-keepers, thus ensuring reliable pollination in their gardens. More importantly, the honey and beeswax which was produced could become a cash crop for the lock-keeper.

Though the bulk of the plantings in a lock-keeper’s garden were practical, comprising food for the table, quite a number of lock-keeper’s also planted flowers. Some lock-keepers obviously enjoyed flowers and their cottages might be partially covered by flowering vines or great clumps of colourful flowers could be seen dotting the surrounding green sward. Other lock-keepers planted only a few flowers on their property, usually near their front doors, just to add a touch of colour. It was common to see dozens of these lovely lock-keepers’ cottages, accented with flowers, along many quiet stretches of navigable rivers or canals across England. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that most lock-keepers, unlike toll-takers on roadways, were not reviled, but were usually considered to be helpful, kindly and amiable characters. Living in such attractive and bucolic surroundings may well have imbued lock-keepers with a perpetual sense of well-being and happiness.

Enterprising lock-keepers found other ways to supplement their income. At least a couple of lock-keepers along the Thames are known to have built a substantial baking oven on their property. They used their ovens to bake large batches of bread which they sold each day to those traveling on the river. Others brewed beer or cider which they sold or traded to the boat and bargemen who passed through their locks. Generally, lock-keepers had families and their wives and children all contributed to the family income in some way. Wives and/or daughters would make cheese, butter or preserves, bake bread or brew beer, salt or smoke meat, all of which could be sold or traded for cash or needed supplies. The ladies might also have had a still room where they made medicinal preparations from their herbs and/or distilled scented oils or waters from the flowers in their gardens. Sons might tend the animals and the garden, fish the river and help their father operate and maintain the lock. During the early 1800s, most lock-keepers and their families enjoyed a pleasant and agreeable life.

Not all locks in all locations were the same in terms of traffic on the waterway on which they were situated. Locks along canals on which many commercial vessels regularly travelled were much busier than were locks situated in the upper reaches of rivers like the Thames, which got significantly less traffic. Many canal locks might have to be opened and closed more than a dozen times each day, while a lock well upstream from London on the Thames river might only have to be opened two or three times a day, sometimes less. Lock-keepers who preferred a tranquil life in a secluded location typically chose a position as a lock-keeper well upstream on a river which did not get much traffic. Some of the lock-keepers who were responsible for locks in quiet rural areas were also scholars, poets, artists, even scientists, who devoted their free time to their intellectual or artistic pursuits. Lock-keepers who were more extroverted and wanted more activity, which usually meant more cash in the form of tolls, and/or interaction with more boatmen, took positions keeping locks on well-travelled canals.

Lock-keeper positions often stayed in the same family and were handed down from father to son through the generations. However, not all lock-keepers were men. From well into the early 1800s, there were a number of widows of lock-keepers who took up the work when their husband died. There was no prohibition against female lock-keepers until March of 1831, when waterway authorities decreed that neither wives nor daughters could assume the position of a deceased lock-keeper. Initially, this regulation was not always observed and there were still a few female lock-keepers on duty well into the middle of the nineteenth century, especially at locks located in quiet sections of rivers which did not get a lot of traffic.

The lock keepers of Denham

This was the world for Tom Collet, the lock keeper at Denham Deep Lock in 1851, and his wife Elizabeth. Denham was a very important place in the canal network. Remarkably for his Victorian times, Tom was 87 years old when the 1851 census named him as the lock keeper. His wife was a mere 71. Tom's job involved the collection of tolls from the canal users and the issue of tickets/receipts. With literacy and numeracy at relatively low levels compared with today, it was important that the barge captains knew their numbers to be sure their tolls were paid. Tom's job may not have seemed too arduous but it would have kept him up and about for twelve to fourteen hours, the normal working day for canal workers. The lock keepers were not usually well paid.

For the boatmen, conditions were often harsh and dangerous especially for the boatmen and their families living on board but at least work was regular and their pay was relatively good compared with that of the average agricultural worker. By Tom Collet's time a few of the barges and narrowboats had engines, but most still depended on being towed by a horse along the path running by the side of the canal - the towpath. It was as late as 1960 before the last canal boat working horse retired. It was well understood by the canal people that their horses needed special training for a cart horse never made a good boat horse. Wheeled carts would normally move at the first pull and stop as the horse stopped but of course a boat horse would have to first take the strain and get used to the boat then floating under its own momentum.

Treatment of the horses varied. The 19th century boat people gained a reputation for being very cruel to their horses, but this was far from true for all. For many boat people the horses were very precious to them Their livelihoods depended on them and their horses were well looked after. Denham Lock House had stables which once gave the horses a welcome shelter at the end of a wearying working day.

Thomas Collet sadly did not survive until the 1861 census, though the records suggest he may well remarkably have made it to the grand old age of 96. His place was taken by Samuel Basford. Sam was a much younger 68 when he was in charge of the lock in 1861 and was no doubt able to share the workload with his wife Mary and perhaps too their labourer son Samuel junior. Old Sam had been a carpenter and evidently no stranger to the canal. In 1841 he and Mary were living just a couple of doors away from Tom Simpkins the canal toll clerk on the Grand Junction Canal at Fenny Stratford and just two doors away was Tom Meacham the Wharfkeeper. Ten years later they were by the canal at Hemel Hempstead. We cannot tell for sure but we might assume that old Sam's talents as a carpenter were much in demand from canal users.

No trace of Sam's demise has been found, but by 1871 his role as lock keeper had been taken over by James Kirby. Mr. Kirby, just ten years his predecessor's junior, was likewise no stranger to the canal. Born in Rickmansworth, Jim Kirby had kept a grocer's shop in the Botwell area of Hayes close to the canal - though in 1851 he had registered himself in the census as a canal labourer whilst his wife Elizabeth kept the shop.

A clear pattern emerges. The Grand Junction company's obvious and understandable preference for its lock keepers was evidently to recruit them from amongst people already familiar with life on the canals.

James Kirby's tenure and occupation of the lock house was sadly brief. He died in December 1872. The canal company did not have to look far for his successor. Levi Tomkins and his family had been at the lock house further downstream in Uxbridge for at least ten years. Levi was steeped in canal life. He was born in 1821 in the canal village of Pitstone in Aylesbury Vale. When at the Canal House in Denham, Levi described himself simply as a "labourer", but earlier in Uxbridge he had made clear that he worked for the canal company. In 1851 the Tomkins family had been at Little Tring, the end of the Wendover arm of the Grand Junction first conceived to supply water to the Grand Junction from the Tring reservoirs but by Levi's time there a navigable waterway used for the carriage of coal and horse manures and serving three flour mills. By the time he reached Denham Deep Lock at the relatively youthful age of 52, Levi had a great deal of experience of canal life and from his description of himself as a labourer, it can be assumed that his employers expected rather more of him than simply collecting the toll charges at the lock.

The record of the Levi family's time in Tring is incidentally noteworthy for a very different reason. The census of 1851 describes Susannah Tomkins and many of the other wives of Tring labourers as Straw "Plaiters" skilled weavers of hats, baskets and ornaments which even today adorn the barges and narrowboats on the Grand Union. Straw plaiting was common in the area in the 19th century and could be a lucrative source of income.

Levi was still at the Canal House in 1891. Sadly Susannah had passed away but with him was his daughter Ellen, her husband a local coachman on the Denham Court estate, William Cannon and their daughter Sarah.

By 1898 the James family were in residence, but by that time much of the commercial use of the canal network had long surrendered to the railways. As his predecessor had done, John James described himself as a labourer on the Grand Junction Canal perhaps acknowledging that the title of lock keeper did not then enjoy the prestige it once had. That however did not prevent his successor from using the title. Despite still being in his 50s John sadly did not survive the decade. By 1911 Elizabeth was widowed though still living at the Lock House with her two sons, Ezra and James and her daughter, Iris.

And they had a lodger, 43 year old Fred Kempster, happy to be described as the lock keeper for the Grand Junction Canal Company. As for Ezra, at 27 he was using his skills to build boats and barges, a skill shared by Roger Wakeham at the Lock House 80 years later. Nowadays, over a century after Ezra Tomkins time, Roger's business has been taken over by Fran and Roger's son Peter. Fran is confident that with one son, one grandson and three great grandsons, the name Wakeham will remain very much part of Denham's canal history for many years to come.

Boat people and their communities

Canal boatmen came from all parts of the British Isles and even from Europe. Out of their harsh working conditions and communal living there gradually evolved a lifestyle, culture and many of their own words and phrases describing their occupations and their tools. They also acquired a reputation for hard living, hard drinking (alcohol probably providing a temporary release from the toil and privation of their daily lives) and fighting, which often led the local communities within which they worked to regard them as degenerate and a threat to the social order. Their thirst is believed by at least one historian of the canal culture to explain the larger than usual number of inns, pubs and beer houses in Denham village and the surrounding area along the canal.

Stealing and poaching from land alongside the canal was common. Boatmen milked cows in the dead of night, cut grass and clover for their horses, and stole chickens and eggs. And it wasn’t just the outside world they stole from. Boatmen saw nothing wrong with taking coal from their own cargoes or from unattended coal boats they passed. Pilfering was common and boatmen got skilled at removing goods in such a way that its disappearance wouldn’t be noticed until much later when the crates reached their destination.

On the other hand serious theft was unusual. It was as if things which the boat people needed for their work and survival should be regarded as being in common ownership and not to be categorised as stolen from a private owner.

There was an urgency about the boatmen's work, a need to make progress, to get their cargo to its destination and collect the next one. Inevitably that led to belligerent disputes with bureaucracy and indeed with any rivals who impeded their progress, and belligerent arguments led to fights all in turn adding to their unpopularity amongst the peaceful farming neighbourhoods along the canal routes.

However a special correspondent writing in the Evening Standard came to a more balanced conclusion after joining Captain Jonah and his family as they made their way through Denham on a four day journey carrying a cargo of sugar from the Paddington Basin to Birmingham. The journalist's article was a reflection on the then recent enactment of the Canal Boats Act of 1877 requiring decent accommodation on board with further measures to limit the spread of disease and to ensure the primary education of boat children. Starting out with a conviction that boat people had nothing but a "stolid, heavy, ignorant look about them quite capable of committing any brutal assault without intending it" he had been pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received, the cleanliness of the boat and the healthy state of Captain Jonah's children including 16 year old Joe who explained his extensive knowledge of the detail of the appalling murders committed in Denham seven years earlier though he observed ruefully. Of Joe the writer wrote ruefully "Unless my mind much misgives me, Joe will, when opportunity serves, become an offender against gthe game laws less perhaps from innate tendency to wrong-doing than from sheer ignorance and want of knowledge of what is right"

Boatmen who were women

A woman who lived on board the barge with her husband was expected to steer the boat occasionally and sometimes lead the horse on the towpath. In addition to these and her other household cooking and cleaning duties, boatwomen decorated the interiors of the boats with lace and rag rugs and decorated the exteriors with the distinctive rose and castle paintings. The occupational tables in the 1851 Census show 1,638 women employed on canal boats in selected counties, but the real number was certainly higher.

The number of women working on canal boats increased during the First World War to make up the gaps in the labour force which were created by men leaving to join the armed forces. The canal carrying trade suffered during the First World War and the immediate aftermath of the war was a period of extreme financial difficulty. The number of men in employment fell drastically. The number of men working the canals on their own account appeared to double and the size of the female labour force as a whole increased by 50 percent. The proportion of females to males on living and working on canal boats remained high until well after the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Family life

It is estimated that from 1800 to 1840, when the canals were hives of activity, there were around 18,000 families working and living on working canal boats, with 3,000 women making up this number. Boat families had very little leisure time as a day trip could last up to 17 hours and obliged as they were to keep the cargo safe until delivery they were never really "off duty". Boating families on the canal made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life. Outside observers often commented that their distinctive mode of dress added to the idea that the boat families were a separate class. The men wore fustian trousers, plus jackets, waistcoats, thick blanket coats and fur caps with side flaps. The most distinctive part of the women’s dress was their quilted cowled bonnets.

Shopping could be challenging. Shops near the canals were often out of food, or shop keepers tended to reserve their goods for their regular local customers. Shops that catered to boat people were often half beer houses along with a half general store and butchers.

Children were very much part of the labour force on the canals - a subject of much controversy in the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th. Children older than 10 learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses. Statistics from the Canal Association suggest that in 1854 about a quarter of those people living on board were children under the age of sixteen. The Evening Standard correspondent writing in 1877 noted that the horse for the barge on which he travelled was being looked after for a short period by a child barely out of his third year, whilst his not much older siblings, though in lacking schoolbook education knew as much as there was to know about survival on the canal - with an adult vocabulary to match.

Census figures are not very helpful to identify the extent of child labour on the canals as parents were anxious to conceal from the authorities that their children aged 10 and older were involved in long and arduous daily toil on the canal boats. Canal Association figures indicate that in 1854 about a quarter of those people living on board were children under the age of sixteen. From 1905, the Board of Education asked local education authorities to send in returns stating how many children of school age had been seen on canal boats in their area during the year but even the figures from these returns are not considered trustworthy by historians.

The Canal Boats Act of 1877 was enacted to protect canal children by giving power to registration authorities to inspect boats and to restrict the number of people who could live on board. However, the legislation simply permitted this to happen rather than required it to happen and little changed until the Act was amended in 1884. Much later, laws were passed to enable canal children to gain an education. By 1918, education for all children up to the age of 14 was compulsory. Nevertheless, sometimes the boat children would just turn up to clock in, but then move on with the family, if they didn’t settle in or if the family had to move on to find more work. On 7 February 1930, the Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette, reported that “The House of Commons has given a second reading to a Bill that is designed to remove children entirely from canal boats. It is a proposal from one of the electors in the Uxbridge Division. The chief arguments for the Bill are that a canal barge is no fit home for children, as the cabins are ill-ventilated and cramped for room, damp, and unsanitary, and the boats often carry dirty and unhealthy cargoes. Most of the 2,000 children concerned get little or no education and are consequently restricted in their future range of livelihood."

But there was not unanimity that the legislation was a good thing. The article continued:"The chief argument against is that the Bill as it stands will "break up the family life" by forcing the women as well as the children to live away from the barge, and the head of the family; and the usual reply to this is that the well-to-do people send their children away to boarding school without breaking up the family life."

Tea Garden delights

Though of course they would be there to help if any boat got into difficulty, Fran's family has no responsibility for the lock. The management of the canals is the responsibility of the Canal Canal and River Trust which in 2012 took over from the British Waterways Board established by Barbara Castle's Transport Act of 1962 - see the story posted here earlier in June 2021. Fran herself has handed over the management of the tea garden to her daughter-in-law, Jo. Though her memory is as sharp as ever it was, the legs no longer support many hours behind the counter handing out tea and delicious cakes and doughnuts.

It's not so long ago that barges were carrying milk curds through Denham lock to the Cadbury chocolate factory on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Bournville but, though still busy, the canal is quieter and more peaceful now than it was as an industrial highway. Al's description of his visits to Fran's Tea Garden in the 1990s captures it.

I don’t recall exactly when we discovered Fran’s Tea Garden, but having lived in Denham Village for the first 29 years of my life, it felt as though it had always been there; a little slice of quirky village magic replete with delicious cakes.

When the Colne Valley Country Park opened up in the early 1990s, as a family, we would take walks and bike rides into the park a lot, and later, with local school friends, I remember spending many many hours riding bikes or exploring the area.

No visit to the country park was ever really complete without making it as far as the canal and a visit to Fran’s Tea Garden. It was always the highlight - cups of tea and coffee, a jam doughnut for me and a slice of bread pudding for my brother. More often than not, we’d take the opportunity to help open or close the lock for passing canal boats before or after visiting Fran for a well-earned treat.

Fran was always so welcoming and seemed genuinely thrilled to serve her guests. Fran’s Tea Garden really did FEEL like that - it was Fran’s Garden, and you were welcome in for a cup of tea. She had one of the two best jam doughnuts of my childhood on offer and I remember her teaching me her method for making them - the first time I’d ever understood how they got the jam into the doughnut!

No matter the time of year, a visit to Fran’s Tea Garden always felt special, whether it was ice creams or cold drinks in summer, or hot tea and toasted sandwiches on a Boxing Day walk. Although the place has always been most definitely Fran’s place, I recall taking a great deal of pride in taking people there who hadn’t visited before, especially taking our family from 3000 miles away in North Carolina for a visit whenever they would come to England.

Fran’s tea garden always felt like a genuine “find” somewhere that wasn’t showy, wasn’t extravagant or even particularly well situated for passing trade, but always a great place to visit. Long Live Fran’s Tea Garden, and a huge thank you to Fran and her family for so many years of unique and wonderful service to this community.

Fran tells us that tea garden trade has suffered a little on summer Saturdays when she used to be so busy, because people are attracted to the Car Boot sale. So, dear readers, take the chance as the Covid crisis is ending and we return to some normality to drop in at Fran's tea garden on warm summer weekends, relax by Fray's river and watch the narrowboats and barges gently flowing by. You won't regret it.




Freer, Wendy Jane, B.A, Canal Boat People, 1840 – 1970, Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, May 1991.

Faulkner, Alan H. 1975, FMC: A Short History of Fellows Morton and Clayton Limited, Robert Wilson Designs, Rothwell, Northants

Gayford, Eily, 2007, The Amateur Boatwomen, The ‘Working Waterways’ series, The Belmont Press, UK


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