Final days of BW on the Grand Union

Last Traffic: NarrowBoat, Winter 2022

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones studies a series of photos of Fenny Stratford in 1963

This is our free-access sample article from the Winter 2022 NarrowBoat

All these images were taken around the late afternoon and early evening of 22nd June 1963 and show two pairs of loaded British Waterways boats on the move.

The year of ’63 was crucial in the history of canal-carrying following a fierce winter that started in Christmas ’62. The exceptionally severe conditions of snow, blizzards and ice lasted until early March and their effect on traffic was the catalyst that spelled the end for most of the BW narrowboat fleet.

The British Waterways Board was created at the start of January 1963 as a body independent from the British Transport Commission, yet by April it had decided to discontinue most of its carrying operations. That same month saw the creation of Willow Wren Canal Transport Services Ltd to continue the carrying work from July, meaning these photos were taken during the last full month of carrying by BW before the handover. Together with the transfer of existing traffics were 25 pairs of boats to Willow Wren.

All the boats shown were originally built for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co by Harland & Wolff of Woolwich. Motor Buxton & butty Balham, together with motor Banstead, are all steel large Woolwich Town Class boats built in 1936, while butty Bellerophon is a steel composite small Woolwich craft built in 1935. Its smaller hold depth clearly gives it less freeboard when fully loaded than the deeper large Woolwich boats.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

The first in the sequence shows Buxton & Balham heading north towards Fenny Stratford Lock 22 with Fenny Gasworks behind on the towpath side. The works was operated by the Fenny Stratford Gas Light & Coke Co and built in 1910. This view is looking south with road-bridge 96 out of sight among the buildings on the right. It carried the town’s High Street over the canal and is part of the Roman-built Watling Street.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

Now at Fenny Lock and framed by the railway bridge behind, one of the crew is filling the lock while giving the photographer a cautious look. The bridge carried the Bedford Branch of what was the London, Midland & Scottish railway before nationalisation. It was just a short distance to Fenny Stratford Station off to the right. Buxton & Balham are waiting on the off-side of the towpath as two British Waterways maintenance craft have moored there.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

After leaving the lock, Buxton & Balham continue north and are about to shoot Bridge 94 carrying Simpson Road over the cut. Fenny Stratford had been a destination for canal traffic for generations, receiving coal, salt, slate, bricks, tiles, sugar and timber, the latter for several merchants based there at a number of canal wharves. Willow Wren Canal Carrying Co carried timber there from March 1957 for Beacon Brushes. Judging by the freeboard of both boats, they may well be carrying aluminium, loaded either at Regent’s Canal Dock overside from a ship or from a barge at Brentford that had been towed upriver from the docks. Their destination would be Tyseley Wharf, Birmingham.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

Also taken from Bridge 94 looking north-west with Buxton & Balham forging ahead in the evening sunlight, passing Rose Cottage on the off-side. Following the takeover of boats and traffics by Willow Wren Canal Transport Services Ltd in July 1963, Buxton & Balham were two of those boats hired from BW.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

At some point after Buxton & Balham pass by, another pair appear, namely motor Banstead & butty Bellerophon, which are shown holding back above Fenny Lock. These clothed-up boats suggest they were carrying fine slack coal for either Colne Valley Sewage Works at Rickmansworth, which was loaded at Newdigate Colliery, or perhaps to Croxley papermill loaded at Pooley Hall Colliery. Both customers required dry coal, hence protection from the weather. The wharf on the extreme left was behind the White Hart public house, against Bridge 94.

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Christopher M. Jones Collection

After negotiating the lock, Banstead is towing Bellerophon out of Fenny Stratford Lock towards the gasworks on the right. The image would have been taken from the off-side on the south side of the railway bridge. After the cessation of most BW carrying activities by narrowboat, two small contracts were retained – one being cement from the Rugby Portland Cement works at Stockton to its depot at Sampson Road, Birmingham, on which Banstead was used until March 1969.