Two hundred years of the Grand Union Canal
ln 1791 a proposal was made to run a canal direct from Braunston (already served by the Oxford canal) to London. The bill received Royal assent on 30th April 1793 and construction on the Grand Junction Canal began the next day.
The Northamptonshire section had the greatest challenges because there were to be two tunnels, at Braunston and Blisworth; three ﬂights of locks, at Braunston, Long Buckby and Stoke Bruerne; and four high embankments across river valleys, at Weedon, Heyford, Bugbrooke, and Cosgrove. It was the greatest civil undertaking ever planned in England. It was built wide to take 14 foot barges, but gradually the narrow boats were found to be more ﬂexible because there was reduced queuing at the locks and tunnels, and they could also be used on the other, narrower waterways within the canal network.
Coal and lime
The canals brought coal to our local communities. There is still a coal yard operated by Fred Tarry on the canalside in Furnace Lane, although it no longer uses the canal for transport. The boat builders yard at High House Wharf in Weedon Road was also formerly a coal yard, as was the wharf at Flore Lane.
The coal and the canals encouraged the development of the lime kilns, of which there were several along this stretch of the canal. There was one beside Banbury Road in Bugbrooke where Pinnegar and Barnes now operate; one between bridges 33 and 32 near where the ironworks later developed; and one near the Narrow Boat and Stowe Hill Marina. The burning of lime created dressings for acid soils. The coal for burning could be brought by boat and the lime could be taken away by the same means.
Even more significantly for Nether Heyford was the development of the iron industry. There was a quarry just below Church Stowe from where the iron ore was brought down to the furnaces by a single track railway. The coal for the furnaces could be brought by canal from Coventry or Nuneaton. The lime was used in the smelting process. And the canal was used to take away the pig iron in the form of iron bars. There were two furnaces. The first, known as Heyford Ironworks, began in 1861 and was on the site of Furnace Wharf between the canal and the railway. The second, known as Stowe Ironworks began in 1866 and was on the other side of the railway near where Wickes now is. This second site later became a brickworks after the ironworks had closed.
These industries encouraged the development of local services. There was a boat building yard at High House Wharf, just beyond the bridge over the canal in Weedon Road. It was run before the war by Frank Jones. He employed two men from the village, Mr Causebrook and Charlie Knowles. There was a carpenters shop, a saw pit, a paint shop, a blacksmiths shop, and a steam box (where the planks were steamed into shape). There was also on the same site a coal merchants operated by Mr Bazely. Although the boat building had ceased by the first world war, the coal yard continued to operate for another sixty or seventy years under the West Brothers.
Flore Lane Wharf was also a commercial wharf during the nineteenth century. In 1871 it was sold by auction and raised £450. According to the particulars of sale, ‘the premises which are highly eligibly situated, were for several years in the occupation of Mrs Mary Tibbs who carried on an extensive trade in slate, tile, and bricks, coal and lime, in addition to that of a general wharfingers business, but are now in the occupation of Mr Meleycock, coal dealer’. In the 1960’s, the property was used as a coffin makers workshop, run by a man named ]enks or Jelks.
The boat people
All this activity brought with it a lot of local boat traffic. Life for the boat people was hard. They often travelled 20 miles a day. Many of the boats carried coal and it had to be barrowed across a board from the boat to the bank. Shops were few and far between, so the boat people were largely self sufﬁcient, making whatever they needed such as pegs and clothes. Some kept a dog which was used to catch rabbits. Some took ducks from the water, and sometimes potatoes and swedes from the fields. They often got the blame for anything that went missing.
The women worked as hard as the men, helping to load the boats, as well as deal with all the domestic chores. Many children didn’t learn to read or write because it was impossible to attend regular schooling. Instead they had to look after the horse. They used to swing the nose bag into the canal to dampen the oats and corn, and so prevent it from blowing away when the horse blew down its nose.
Sometimes they would need the services of the village such as the blacksmith or farrier. The house on the canal bridge in Furnace Lane, now known as ‘Wharf House’ was originally a barn where the boat horses were stabled at night. We also know that Mrs Anne Clarke, who was midwife in Nether Heyford in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, was sometimes called upon to deliver babies on the boats.
Many of them drank quite a bit, particularly the men. The canal was well served for pubs. There was ‘The Crown’ beside bridge number 35 towards Bugbrooke; ‘The Boat’ (now Wharf Farm) by the bridge in Furnace Lane, ‘The Bricklayers Arms’ (now Bridge Cottage, opposite Wharf Farm) and ‘The Narrowboat’, formerly called ‘The Globe’, on the A5. The high house at Flore Lane Wharf, though never a pub, was like many houses on the canals a brewhouse, selling ale to passing boat traffic.
It was during the busy industrial period of the 1860’s and 1870’s that the canal reached its heyday, bringing much activity to the village. However, the development of the railways, and cheaper imported iron ore around the turn of the century began the decline of these canalside industries. Although the first world war brought some renewed activity, most of the industry had gone by the mid 1920’s, and with it the local canal traffic.
However since the 1960’s there has been a strong revival in the use of pleasure craft. The moorings on Furnace Wharf are full, and there are two boat yards. There is Stowe Hill Marina near the Narrowboat pub where a dry dock was installed in 1977. The boat yard at High House Wharf (formerly the site of West Brothers coal merchants) which had been a boatyard until the first world war, was re-opened in 1986 by Mr Gardner, and extensively rebuilt. During the rebuilding, they discovered the remains of an old brick tar pot. This would have been used by the original boat yard in the days when the hulls were made of wood and sealed with tar. Beside the boat yard a marina was recently opened with room for twenty-four private moorings. Also, the towpath is regularly used by both ﬁshermen and walkers, so the canals are still very much alive around Nether Heyford, albeit with a rather different character from that of a hundred years ago.
The information for this article came from ‘Waterways of Northamptonshire’ by David Blagrove, from ‘Like Dew Before the Sun’ by Dorothy Grimes, and from the knowledge of local people.
Extract from “The Story of Heyford” – Local book series published in the late 1990’s
Volume 3 of 4 | Chapter 12 of 17 | Page 25 & 26