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A Journey down the Grantham Canal - 1881

The following article was first published in June 2001 in Issue No 9 of Waterfront, a quarterly magazine about the Grantham Canal. My thanks to the author and the Grantham Canal Partnership for the use of this article. For more details see the Grantham Canal Website at Grantham Canal Partnership

A Journey down the Grantham Canal - 1881

Celebrated local guide book author and Grantham canal supporter Ken Brockway has written this interesting account of a notable journey in the century before last. How did he get so much detail? We'll let you decide for yourself!!

Grantham to Woolsthorpe

Grantham was crowded. Showmen from all over the country and continent had converged on the town for the Mid- Lent fair to be held on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Their caravans filled the Market Place and the surrounding streets. Besides the showmen with mechanical exhibitions there were photographers, conjurers, shooting galleries, wax work exhibitions and marionettes. The Inns were packed to capacity and a troupe of musicians from Germany were lodging in Welby Street.

I was pleased to be away from all the hustle and bustle promised for the following three days. Having been offered employment in Nottingham I chose to take a few days and walk the distance alongside the Grantham canal.

Wharf Road leads to the canal terminus. I paused at number 31 to seek advice from Mrs Mary Robinson, born at Barkstone in the Vale and formerly a boatman's wife, her knowledge would be invaluable for my trip. Just time for a farewell drink in the last "Blue" public house, the aptly named Blue Boat. The widowed Mary Milner is now head publican, but needs to takes in lodgers to keep the Blue Boat afloat.

There are three occupied cottages on the wharf; Mr Cotterell, agent to the Great Northern Railway and Thomas Musson a horse shunter on the railway. But of interest to me was Mr Caleb Page, canal inspector. I lingered to pass a few words and learnt some useful contacts for the journey ahead. I don't recall if there were any day boats at the wharf, but there were no living boats, the area was quiet compared to the frenzy in the town.

The canal was peaceful as I passed the skin works and into the countryside. Harlaxton wharf in the cutting was deserted, piles of coal having been unloaded awaited delivery to local houses by William Towers the coal merchant. Even the fishermen had abandoned the bank in exchange for festivities in Grantham

At Woolsthorpe the first lock is found, but the second is of more interest, having a house alongside and an arched bridge at the tail. I spoke to a woman in the cottage garden. She said her name was Elizabeth Willis and her husband was a carpenter but was away from home. While her seven children played around the lock she spoke of their move from Grantham some four years ago. The children clearly enjoyed the freedom of the countryside and I could imagine the family remaining in this idyllic spot for many years.

Mrs Willis introduced me to her neighbour James Pacey a brick maker who invited me to join him for a drink at the beer house kept by Benjamin Wright, here we met George Pearson, he lodged on the premises, with his wife and three children. Mr Pearson owned a barge and was the local coal dealer. He was making a trip towards Nottingham the next day and offered me free passage, so as the day was closing I accepted the offer of a meal and bed at Woolsthorpe Wharf.

** .... and on to Cropwell

It was an early start from Woolthorpe Wharf. Mr Pearson had a motive in his invitation as he expected me to work the wide locks at the start of our trip. The boat passed Muston Wharf where the crane and tramway awaited the next boat with goods for Belvoir Castle. Occupants of Muston Gorse Farm and the canal side cottage were busy with their early morning chores, while eight year old Fred Green could be seen making his way across the field to school at Redmile.

As we passed Bottesford Wharf, Mr Pearson spoke to Thomas Roberts who called himself a Wharfinger, but at 78 he wasn't up to much and neither was Thomas his son. At 25, 'Wharfinger's son' was hardly an occupation at Bottesford Wharf, quiet now since the railway was far more convenient for the town.

We were soon at Redmile and still moored on the wharf were two living boats. No families on these coal boats, only the bargemen Henry Manderfield and Frank Newman with their mates, William Minkley and George Riley. They all looked a bit bleary eyed, perhaps for staying too long at the Old Wind Mill where William Harrison is the Licensed Victualler and butcher., As if that was insufficient they admitted to joining John Clower at the Peacock Inn for a nightcap.

I left the boat here and continued my journey on foot. Peter Day was busy trimming the towpath hedge along the embankment. Born and bred in Redmile he worked as canal Labourer on the navigation to keep his wife and four children at their Redmile cottage.

As I passed Mill Bridge I could see the turning sails of Richard Musson's post mill on the hill to my left. Folks in Redmile said he was a fortune hunter, having married the miller's widow ten years his senior. But he had her sons to contend with, both working alongside him and no doubt eager to take over the business, which they considered rightfully theirs.

To my right the new works of the Great Northern and London and North Western Railway still scarred the countryside. But the imposing station for the Duke of Rutland was well staffed with Mr Copley having moved from Bradford to take the station masters post. At 35 he could move on again if he made a success of this minor prestigious position. He was assisted in the running of the station by two signalmen. John Wilkinson had moved from Staffordshire and John Waller from Boston. With porter George Robinson they worked long hours serving train departures from Sam to 9.30 in the evening

Pausing at Barkestone Wharf, I advised Mrs Turner that the coal barge was on it's way. She replied that wood was their fuel at present as her husband John a master builder, had been laid off due to the recent bad weather. I pressed on to my intended destination for the night Cropwell Bishop.

......... to Journey's End in Nottingham

Cropwell Bishop is a thriving industrial village of over 600 inhabitants. I had been advised to avoid the Canal Inn, where Vincent Parker considered the supply of beer as an occupation not worthy of mention. I left the canal at the roving bridge and joined the throng returning to their homes after a hard day at the brick and plaster works. The co-op store, kept by George Squires, was my first call to obtain provisions for breakfast. The woman of the house, wherever I stayed would be willing to cook food if I supplied it. Mrs Squires was apologetic that they could not provide accommodation, with three children and the Widdowson sisters their accommodation was full. She suggested I try one of the five Inns. I thanked her and went on my way.

The Wheatsheaf Inn had no spare rooms, there being three households on the site. John Shipside besides being publican also had his cordwainers workshop in the yard where he employed two men. William Knight a butcher also occupied the busy site.

Despite Mr Shipside's dual trades he kept a good pint which attracted thirsty workers from the canal. There were Henry Wilson, John Harrison and Hilary Starbuck, all boatman on the barges, and George Clarke and John Skellington, both labourers on the canal. I met them all and we discussed the increasing threat from the railways, especial now the Vale was served by the new Joint line. The Cropwell men felt safe, their bricks and plaster were loaded from the canal side works and taken directly to the centre of Nottingham. There was plenty of clay and plaster still in the ground around these parts, this would keep them in jobs for many years. They suggested I see Mrs Swinscoe in Manns Yard and here I found a good bed for the night.

Next day I was tempted to take the road to Holme House, passing Joshua Mann's farm, close to the canal bridge at Stragglethorpe. But no, this was an expedition along the canal and I would not stray from that course, however winding it may be. At Berry Hill the canal starts it's descent to the Vale of Trent and at the top lock lives Robert Wesson the canal foreman labourer and Robert Lilly at 70 still occupied as a Carpenter. Moving on through a pleasant area of unspoilt countryside around Hollygate Lane I soon came upon Mr William Skinner the lock keeper. He lived in the isolated Shepherds Cottage with Mary his wife and their three children, John 7, Oscar 4 and Annie 1.

The windmill at Sneinton now indicated the closeness of journeys end and I hurried on passing the hamlet of Gamston and new homes south of the Trent at Lady Bay before crossing the bridge for a tram ride to the Market Square.


Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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