Fossdyke Traffics

A Broader Outlook: NarrowBoat, Spring 2024

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones explores several images illustrating boats and cargoes traversing the Fossdyke Navigation

This is our free-access sample article from the Spring 2024 NarrowBoat

The Fossdyke is a rural route in Lincolnshire with little in the way of local industry. During the working era of the waterways, it primarily served as an 11-mile conduit between the navigable River Trent and Lincoln. Its junction to the River Witham in Lincoln connected traffic to the Horncastle Navigation, the Sleaford Navigation, the Lincolnshire Fenland country and the port of Boston. Most of the traffic was merely passing through, although there was some local trade in the form of market boats which usually operated only on a Friday. One of these was owned by a farmer at Torksey and also carried passengers in the late 19th century. The maximum size of vessel that could use the navigation was 78ft long and 15ft 2in wide on a 5ft draught.


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Below Torksey Lock, where the Fossdyke joins the River Trent, there was a short stretch of tidal canal connecting it to the main river channel known as Torksey Cut. The title of this image, ‘On the Trent’, is therefore misleading as the river is only visible in the distance. 

At low water three loaded sailing keels are lying on the mud waiting for the flood tide to give them sufficient draught to reach the lock. The empty craft behind the nearest keel is a lighter, into which part of the keel’s cargo will be transhipped. Keels working from Hull could load to a greater depth than the maximum 5ft on the Fossdyke, and so these lighters were loaded with any excess weight and towed behind the keel. 

At Torksey there was a small amount of local trade based around coal retailing, carrying and shipbuilding with its associated trades. For much of the 19th century, the latter was in the hands of the Dunston family who had moved to Torksey, making a living as rope manufacturers. Two of the second generation became well-known boat-builders. Richard Dunston, born in 1826, moved away to Stainforth and then to Thorne on the Stainforth & Keadby Canal, creating a business in 1858 that eventually became one of the most well-known and long-lived shipbuilding yards on the south Yorkshire waterways. His brother John Dunston, born around 1811, stayed and continued the family boat-building business at Torksey with his son as successor until about 1888 when a relative, John Henry Wildsmith, took over. He in turn kept the boat-building trade alive under his own name at Torksey for several decades after. He died in May 1921. 

Another notable family was the Tomlinsons who were agricultural labourers who turned to canal and river carrying with keels in the trade to Lincoln. The first to do this was John Tomlinson in the 1840s and, when his children eventually came of age, they took over the boating or turned to boat-building. The eldest son, Joseph Tomlinson, moved away after getting married and became a keel captain, later settling at Trent Port near Gainsborough, and he also ran his own coal-merchanting and later sand-dredging business. His brother John Tomlinson Jnr also became a keel captain and coal merchant based at Torksey. During the first decade of the 20th century, he established himself as a coal and stone merchant, later specialising in the gravel and sand trade from the Trent, from which he manufactured polishing abrasives. John Jnr had several sons who took up boating, most notably Timothy, born in 1884. After his marriage to Frances Ellen in 1910, Timothy bought a keel appropriately named Lady Ellen in 1911 for working in the Trent trade and, like several of his brothers, stayed in Torksey until the mid-1920s when he relocated to Hull. Timothy Tomlinson then bought other craft. including the Thames sailing barge Arnold Hirst, and both owner and boat are referred to in other captions.


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Heading east near Saxilby is Drinsey Nook where the county of Nottinghamshire comes against the Fossdyke. The white building was the Buffalo Inn, otherwise known as the Old Buffalo. In order to assist the sailing keel, a horse marine has been engaged with his two horses working side-by-side using two separate towlines attached to two points on the vessel to assist with steering.

Although Humber keels made up the majority of sailing vessels on the Fossdyke, it was still possible to see other craft, such as Thames spritsail barges. Initially the navigation owners forbade the use of powered craft but this changed, and in around October 1913 the East Anglian Navigation Co Ltd started a weekly motor boat carrying service between Lincoln and Hull, leaving the latter port every Friday. They had about eight craft, most of which were acquired from carriers Thomas Johnson & Son of New Balderton, near Newark, on the River Trent. One exception was the spritsail barge Arnold Hirst, bought from an owner based at the port of Harwich.The company used it for carrying to Hull docks up until World War I, then, due to the dislocation of Continental shipping which affected its carrying activities at the port, the boat was employed on traffic to Lincoln.

Arnold Hirst was built at Millwall, east London, in 1866, for a barge-owner and stone merchant at Brentford, and had a cargo capacity of 32 tons. The East Anglian Navigation’s motor boat for its Lincoln traffic was Lafford, built of steel at Ipswich in 1912 with a 50hp engine, and measuring 70ft long, 14ft wide and carrying 31 tons. The company used this motor throughout the war until 1918, when it was sold to carrier Emanuel Smith of Brentford, where it was used to transport cargoes between the London docks and destinations along the lower Thames, as well as venturing upstream to places such as Sandford-on-Thames. 

Most of the East Anglian Navigation Co’s craft were sold off early in 1921, with many of those from Thomas Johnson being returned with Arnold Hirst included in the sale, but he soon sold it on to Timothy Tomlinson. The East Anglian Navigation Co was wound up in 1926.



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Heading east from Saxilby towards Lincoln, with the Lindsey & Kesteven Chemical Manure works in the far distance, is the keel Sidall, deeply laden and towing a lighter. Interestingly, the crew use two towing lines on the relatively narrow canal, with a single heavy towing line for use on the River Trent when towed by a tug lying coiled on the hatches. Note the steerer is using a shorter iron tiller for the canal, which would be replaced with a large wooden tiller for steering on the wide rivers. Sidall was built at Goole in the autumn of 1904 as Golden Cross for a Hull owner, and later renamed Sidall in 1923. In 1929 it was bought by owner-boatman John Henry Smith of Lincoln. Initially his son John Joseph Smith was captain, then late in 1934 Fred Bisby took over the helm. Sometimes Sidall was worked in tandem with one of John Henry Smith’s other keels such as Ashcroft, bought in May 1932.

The Smith family were originally narrow Cuckoo boat owners and steerers based at Gringley on the Hill on the Chesterfield Canal, before making the transition to wide keels. They were not unique in that regard due to wide-beam craft having greater overall earning power than narrowboats, despite the initial higher purchase cost. John Henry Smith made the move to Lincoln around the turn of the 20th century but didn’t make the change to keel ownership until the late 1920s. John Henry Smith and his son John Joseph Smith both worked for Henry Le Tall Ltd, millers of Lincoln.


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The only industrial works of any substance on the Fossdyke was the Lindsey & Kesteven Chemical Manure Co Ltd, located on the southern off-side bank near the village of Saxilby, the latter being the only major centre of population along the route outside of the city of Lincoln. The chemical works was established in 1864 by a company of landed proprietors and tenant farmers, to manufacture and sell wholesale and retail artificial manures. The artificial manure manufacturing industry took off during the 1860s due to the excessive price of the natural superphosphate, Peruvian guano, combined with other imports of guano of lesser quality. The Lindsey & Kesteven firm made special horticultural fertilizer for tomato, vine and hot-house flowers and fruit, plus manures for market gardeners and potato growers. Their superphosphate manures were usually made from bones decomposing in sulphuric acid, the latter chemical also being manufactured onsite and sold to customers. Natural manures such as guano, potash, as well as nitrate of soda and sulphate of ammonia, were sold and transported to the works from Hull. The finished product was dispatched in bags, and a chute from the works to the water’s edge shows the method of loading into keels. A large gin block suspended from a makeshift derrick over the hold of the nearest craft was used as a pulley to lift the cargo in or out of the hold. The carlin hatches shown stacked over the hold were essential to keep the manure cargo dry when underway, as it was easily spoilt by damp. 

At the time this image was probably taken in the first quarter of the 20th century, the manager of the chemical works was William Porter Jackson of Saxilby. He, together with the works foreman, William Allsop, jointly owned a keel named Louise, bought from boat-builder Thomas Dunston of Torksey. It was registered in April 1887, but after the death of William Allsop, William Porter Jackson took over sole ownership. Jackson bought another sailing keel Ceres from carrier William John Warrener at the same time, and registered them both in his name in June 1894. Whether the craft shown were those owned by Jackson cannot be confirmed, although both Jackson’s vessels were sold off around 1925. The business was also connected by rail to the Great Northern & Great Eastern Joint Railway a short distance away, with a siding direct into the works. It seems the company had mixed fortunes in terms of profitability, but it survived and was still in business in 1959.


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As it approaches the outskirts of Saxilby, keel Excelsior has a good wind behind it, filling its sail and bending the yard with the strain as it heads east towards Lincoln. Using leeboards suspended in the water each side amidships to assist keeping the craft in the channel against any crosswind, the crew also have to be prepared to use that long shaft seen hanging over the water against the bank to keep the boat away from the edge, or keep it moving should the wind slacken. 

Excelsior was built around 1904 for an owner in Newark, and was one of the keels owned by East Anglian Navigation Co Ltd from October 1913. Around ten years later it was sold to flour millers Henry Le Tall Ltd of Lincoln, which was still the owner when this image was said to be taken in 1937. Its captain was John Joseph Smith, who had a house ashore at Lincoln but lived aboard when on a trip. He was assisted by his wife May, who is steering here, and his son Jess, who would have been aged 12. 

Excelsior was usually loaded with wheat in 18-stone sacks from a silo in King George Dock, Hull, and taken to Lincoln for unloading on the north side of Brayford Pool. Typically 100 to 120 tons were carried to Torksey, either wholly under sail or sometimes by tug to Keadby. Only 80 or 90 tons could be taken from the Trent to Lincoln, so a lighter was usually kept at Torksey to be loaded with any excess and towed behind for the rest of the trip. When the wind was slack or unfavourable, it was not unknown to bow haul the craft from the towpath fully loaded from Torksey using a towline and harness. The main obstacle on the Fossdyke was a railway bridge at Saxilby, which meant the mast, yard and sail had to be lowered to shoot it. After arrival at Lincoln, the final leg of the cargo’s journey was by horse-drawn dray to Henry Le Tall’s mill.


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The largest settlement along the course of the Fossdyke was Saxilby, where the Great Northern & Great Eastern Joint Railway crossed over on a fixed bridge. This view, looking east, was taken at the foot of the railway bridge with Bridge Street on the far bank and an iron swing-bridge straight ahead. The scene has a number of craft, including a timber-laden keel, and another keel ahead with its mast lowered.. Between them is a partially loaded lighter with its bow in the air and its stern deep down in the water. Perhaps a portion of the cargo has been unloaded as the lighter is tied up against a small wharf giving waggon access down to the water level. Barely visible under the swing-bridge are a breasted-up pair of unladen Cuckoo narrowboats that have drifted across the canal. They have their tillers in place so may be preparing to cast off and are so small that they could easily clear the bridge without opening it. 

The nearest keel is the Emulcus owned by English and foreign timber merchants and importers, Henry Newsum, Sons & Co Ltd of Ashcroft, Gainsborough, and it was registered in his name during June 1892. The company also had works at Hull, Sheffield, Manchester and sawmills at Pelham Street, Lincoln, where this particular load was most likely destined. There they manufactured packing cases and all sorts of joinery. The image clearly shows the method of stacking converted, or sawn, timber aboard a keel with layers built up perpendicular to each other to give maximum stability. A portion of the cargo appears to be towed behind the keel as a timber raft, and possibly acted as an anchor as the high sides of the keel could also serve as a sail. Emulcus, along with other Newsum keels, was steered for many years by members of the Kinnersley family who regularly worked along the Trent and Fossdyke from Hull.


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The terminus of the Fossdyke was Brayford Mere, Lincoln, where the navigation continues as the River Witham to Boston and the North Sea. Access to the Witham can be seen in the middle distance with a pipe bridge straddling the entrance. This view of Brayford Mere was taken around the 1930s, with a laden keel named Pioneer owned by boatman George Bogg of Hull, unloading bags of grain against Brayford Wharf East. This craft was originally built in May 1911 for William Rainforth & Sons of Lincoln, manufacturers and carriers between Hull, Lincoln and Sleaford, and replaced an earlier keel of the same name. After Rainforth finished trading, Pioneer then passed through several owners until it was bought by George Bogg in November 1930. When his son George Jnr was old enough, he worked with his father as a mate. He was not the only member of the Bogg family working along the Fossdyke. George Snr’s father, Thomas Baumber Bogg, was an agricultural labourer and the first of the family to take up boating at Hull in the 1890s. He captained his own keel Ivy from 1903, later assisted by his two sons when old enough.

In January 1924 Thomas Baumber Bogg bought the old keel Spray and was employed by Joseph Tomlinson of Gainsborough. Then by July 1931 he carried grain, sugar and cattle cake to Lincoln for Furley & Co Ltd of Hull. His eldest son, Thomas Henry Bogg, married in 1916 and worked for carriers William Rainforth & Sons of Lincoln steering its keel Meteor. This continued into the 1920s, even after Meteor passed to other owners. From the mid-1920s, both sons Thomas Henry and George worked for the Lincoln & Hull Water Transport Co Ltd. Then in April 1933 Thomas Henry Bogg bought the seven-year-old iron keel Agenda from Joseph Tomlinson of Gainsborough and worked for Furley’s. Youngest son George Bogg continued working his own Pioneer carrying for the other main carrier along the Fossdyke at the time, the Lincoln & Hull Water Transport Co, managed by Timothy Tomlinson and hauling general goods.

The warehouse on the right of the image was occupied by the artificial manure business of Goole Tillage Co Ltd, which went into liquidation during World War II. It was subsequently taken over by Doughty, Goole Fertilizers Ltd, owned by Fisons Ltd of Ipswich.


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Old-established carriers Furley & Co Ltd and rivals the Lincoln & Hull Water Transport Co Ltd were both still engaged in traffic to Lincoln until 1971. Newly built by Hepworth’s of Paull in October 1959 as a purpose-built steel motor barge for Furley’s, Tess is carrying a typical load bound for Lincoln, which was usually seed for Barkers & Lee Smith Ltd’s Oil Cake Mills at Waterside South on the River Witham. Lincoln and Hull’s barges carried wheat to the Co-op’s mill, also on the Witham further on. In 1962 Tess has penned Torksey Lock and is about to exit to continue its eastward trip towards Lincoln. There were two sets of mitre gates at the western end of Torksey Lock, which open in the opposite direction from their neighbour. This is in case the level of the Trent floods higher than that of the Fossdyke. The rivetted balance beams of the highest outer set of gates can just be seen on the extreme far left and right above the inner closed gates.

This image was taken by Jack Parkinson aboard his cruiser, Grey Dove, which is waiting for its turn in the lock. Although not visible, Grey Dove is floating beneath a road-bridge crossing over the lock at this point and looks smart with its olive green and cream paintwork and lockside lights for winter working. For many years steam haulage by tug was forbidden by the authorities on the navigation but they eventually gave way, and companies like Furley’s and Lincoln & Hull Water Transport used tugs to tow sailing keels and lighters from Torksey to Lincoln. After World War II, these in turn gave way to powered motor barges like Tess.