Colin & Iris

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Winter 2023

Tom Chaplin

Tom Chaplin relates the history of a narrowboat pair and their role in saving the Kennet & Avon Canal

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


Colin & Iris moored alongside Tom Rolt’s Cressy at Sonning on their last trip back to Newbury in 1950. 

Recent articles in both NB and Waterways World magazines have featured the Harvey Taylor pair, Colin & Iris, which Arthur Harvey Taylor sold to John Gould of Newbury in 1949. When John told me that they were Arthur’s favourite pair, I wondered why….

During the late 1970s, I went to a meeting concerning dredging for a council and was surprised to discover that it was conducted by Arthur’s son, Colin. When the meeting finished, we had a long conversation and it turned out that his sister was called Iris. So, no wonder it was Arthur’s favourite pair.

The boats had always been docked at Bushell Bros of Tring but their yard had closed, so the pair were repainted by Frank Jones of Faulkner’s in Leighton Buzzard. The photo in the article featuring Daphne clearly shows painting by Harry Fenimore from the Tring yard. Frank Jones’s work became very familiar following its adoption by British Waterways as a transfer for its boats.

When John started carrying, one of his first contracts was to deliver loam to the large number of nurseries in the Thames Valley area of Middlesex. The boats were unloaded at Hampton Draw Dock (wharf) opposite Platts Eyot (island).

Carrying on the K&A 

Following the 1947 Transport Act, the Kennet & Avon Canal, formerly owned by the Great Western Railway, was nationalised in 1948. It was feared that since it was now in Government control, the canal might be officially closed by Act of Parliament. Nevertheless, this could only be done if all commercial traffic had ceased. Rumours circulated that there was going to be a long closure of the K&A, which might have lasting implications, so John and my father signed a legal contract in early 1950 for the carriage of loam from Newbury to Hampton-on-Thames. Colin & Iris returned to Newbury and, soon afterwards, John Knill delivered a load of salt to Newbury with his pair Columba & Uranus and left with a load of loam. The canal was then shut at short notice on the grounds of safety “until further notice”. Columba was, therefore, the last loaded boat on the canal and appropriately enough, a sketch of her was adapted to form a logo on the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust magazine and was used on envelopes. Colin & Iris were then marooned on an isolated section of canal with nowhere to dock them and no outlet for carrying.

An envelope displaying Knill’s Columba. 

Route to canal restoration

Kennet-and-Avon-1950-closure-notice.jpgHaving brought through-traffic to a halt, the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive (British Waterways) then directed its efforts to securing the official closure of the canal by Act of Parliament. However, the system of Legal Aid introduced by the new socialist Government enabled John to sue the British Transport Commission (see WW April 2006). 

While the legal process dragged on, the Government could not carry out its intention to close the canal and it abandoned the Act of Closure. By the time the case was concluded in John’s favour, public opinion had changed. Canals were no longer regarded as muddy drowning hazards but as a potential leisure resource, and volunteers started to restore the canal. Eventually, with support from British Waterways and the lottery fund, combined with a lot of enthusiasm, the canal was finally reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. There is no doubt that if John had not had Colin & Iris marooned in Newbury and a legal contract to carry on the canal, his position would have been too weak to fight the authorities and save the canal from closure. The judge called him the ‘Hampden of Newbury’, after the celebrated John Hampden who took a courageous stand against Charles I by questioning the legality of ship money tax.



The boat on the far left is John Knill’s Columba, still in his livery in 1959. The boat ahead is Gort which is now converted but still travelling the system. (Boats Gort, Winston, Halifax and Montgomery were all named after World War II heroes.) 

Later story of the boats

iris-head-lamp-painted-by-phil-speight.jpgUnfortunately, Colin & Iris both sank in the Newbury area and, with no nearby boatyards that might have come to their rescue, they were scrapped. John Knill sold out to Samuel Barlow in 1955 and Columba was still in Knill colours in 1959, moored at Braunston. Uranus ended up at Preston Brook under the overhanging roof of the warehouse. Her new owner spent a year converting her but, when the warehouse burned down shortly afterwards, she too was destroyed.

The pair Daphne & Roger were finally sold to Samuel Barlow and their occupants, Arthur and Rose Bray, moved with them. Daphne was sold off and replaced by the new Raymond in 1958. Roger, the last working Bushell-built narrowboat, was pensioned off in late 1968 when she was replaced by Nutfield.

When Iris was broken up, John Gould gave my father her oil headlamp. Today, repainted and electrified, it sits on the bow of our narrowboat. Maybe this is the last memento of the great pair that saved the K&A.