Thrupp Family Gathering

Tracing Family History: NarrowBoat, Spring 2023

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones studies two images that reveal insights into an Oxford canal-boating family

This is our free-access sample article from the Spring 2023 NarrowBoat

Independent boatmen contractors, known by some as ‘Number Ones’, have become synonymous with the Oxford Canal. However, a less well-known group preferred to hire-boats rather than own craft, and paid a weekly hire or rental fee to the owners. But perhaps the rarest group were those who occasionally worked traders’ or carriers’ boats, but on their own account, rather than just as employees.


Christopher M. Jones collection

A 1907 Hambridge family group image taken in the field across the canal, opposite the Britannia Inn, accessed by Sparrowgap Bridge, with moored boats in the background. In the foreground, left to right, are: Thomas Hambridge Jnr (aged 20), his father Thomas Snr (aged 43), Lawrence (aged four), Thomas’s wife Eliza (née Coles, aged 41), with David (aged 18) on the right. Behind, left to right, is George (aged ten), Leonard (aged 14) and Jack Hambridge (aged nine). 

Thomas Hambridge Snr

One boatman from this latter group was Thomas Hambridge of Thrupp, who worked for coal merchant King & Co of Oxford. This firm was started in 1902 when James Francis King and three partners purchased the old-established business of William Ward & Co, including its fleet of six boats. Over time, these were replaced by three others named Princess, Queen and Mildred Maud.

King & Co could not keep its boats fully in work, so the boatman was free to find his own cargo. The Oxford Canal Co’s own traffic agency, which acted as a clearing house for traders by finding them boaters with boats, stepped in and provided trips for King’s craft when its own loading requirements had ceased.

Thomas was born into a boating family from Eynsham and, after he married Eliza Coles in February 1886, he became an independent boatman, buying his first boat by January 1888, followed by three more over the next nine years.

However, by the spring of 1904, Thomas had started working for King & Co, steering its boats inherited from William Ward’s. Then, by 1906, he was based at the Britannia public house on the canalside at Thrupp where his mother-in-law, Louisa Coles, was the landlady.

Two new boats built for King & Co were Princess, in the winter of 1905, and Mildred Maud, in the summer of 1906. Thomas took these over from new and, by 1911, he had also taken over another of King’s new replacement boats named Queen, which was built at the same time as Princess. By then, Thomas and Eliza had been married 25 years and produced 11 children, but sadly five had died.

Thomas Hambridge Jnr

Thomas Hambridge’s son, also called Thomas, appears in both images and worked independently from his father about the time Thomas Snr worked for King’s. Initially, Thomas Jnr worked hired boats, then, in July 1908, he bought a second-hand boat which he renamed Emma, pairing it with a hired boat. It looks as if he was working in the granite roadstone traffic from Nuneaton.

On 2nd August 1909 Thomas Jnr married Mary Ann Grantham at Kidlington, and they continued boating in Emma. By 1911 they had given up boating and taken over the Struggler Inn in Mill Lane, Banbury. Mary Ann’s father, boatman John Grantham, held the licence there, so it looks as if they had a helping hand to set up in business on their own account. Their boat Emma was sold off about the same time.

Retiring from boating

For many years Thomas Snr worked King & Co’s boats delivering coal, mainly to New Road Wharf, Oxford. However, in September 1913 Thomas Jnr moved to Oxford and took over the Running Horses pub in Hythe Bridge Street. His father, Thomas Snr, took over the Struggler Inn licence at Banbury and presumably gave up boating shortly after. The boats Princess, Mildred Maud and Queen were taken over by his brother-in-law, former owner-boatman Joseph Coles, also of Thrupp, who continued as captain.


Beauchamp Family Archive

This view is from Sparrowgap Bridge No 223 (also known as Sparrow Gate) with the Britannia pub off the picture on the left. The two boats against the towpath are King & Co’s Princess with Mildred Maud beyond. On the towpath, far left, is Thomas Hambridge Jnr with who is thought to be his wife Mary Ann in the white dress. Standing behind him is his father, Thomas Snr, wearing a flat cap. Sitting on Princess’s cabin are Jack, Lawrence and David, with Leonard and George Hambridge on the top plank of the loaded coal-boat alongside.

There are two intriguing aspects to this image that can only be guessed at. Firstly, it seems that two of the people present might be William and Ann Hambridge, Thomas Snr’s parents. They were running the Three Horse Shoes Inn at Thrupp at the time, together with their coal merchant’s business.

The second detail is the seated figures in the hatches of Princess, who appear unlikely to be boaters, including the man holding what seems to be a hinged wooden rule. What could be the reason for that and their presence on the boat? 


Thank you to Lorna York and Margaret Wilkins (née Beauchamp).