Diaries of greed, lust and love
Love Locked tells the story of the violence and political intrigue when the waterways first came to Reading.
The quills of the people involved record in their journals, love letters, memoirs, diaries and interviews, the high passions of hate and love against the moving story of a barge’s inaugural journey along the Kennet Navigation.
The principal diarist is Wakeman Frith, a compositor and newsman on the Reading Courant who is consumingly in love with a wife and mother. Sir George Crockmore spins his memoirs round his rapacious schemes for gaining wealth and carnal pleasure. The third contributor is the mayor’s wilful daughter Olivia Turner, who writes in her secret diary of her vexations with her parents, her siblings, her almost betrothed and of her remedies.
Love Locked gives an insight into private lives in a period of social and financial turbulence. The new technology of the Kennet Navigation threatens the livelihoods of Reading folk while criminals constantly outwit the Militia. Investing in the South Sea Company is seen by many as a way to get rich.
The various documents, rendered into modern English in Love Locked, give a graphic account of personal passion and pain at the onset of the commercial and industrial revolution.
Brief biographies of the diarists
Born in Cumberland in 1681, Wakeman Frith was educated by the monks at Lanercost and was witness to the violent religious intolerance in the Borders.
To escape from the relentless persecution his parents indentured themselves to work in the America Colonies. Frith watched his younger sister die on the gruesome crossing of the Atlantic and on arrival learned his family had sold themselves into slavery. He jumped ship in Boston.
Roaming upstate New York he was absorbed into a Mohawk community, where he came to appreciate the balances within their society. He valued the association between the local nations – Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca – in what was then called The Five Nations. There Frith found his first love Angeni, but she saw their outlooks were too divergent to bind them.
Back in Bristol Frith experienced immense happiness with Grace Leeson who introduced him into her father’s printing business. Frith was stupefied when Grace and their baby died in childbirth and again he roamed. A near-death experience alone on the Cheviot made him take stock.
He set off for London and reaching Reading found employment as newsman on the Reading Courant weekly newspaper.
Sir George Crockmore
Baronet and owner of the largest estate around Reading, Sir George believes he should be a viscount or earl. He acquired his farms and wealth through marriage, toadyism, gambling and bullying. Arrogant, stentorian and sadistically lecherous, his ego has been unchecked over his 60 years.
Sir George blames the lack of an heir on his three wives all of whom died in tragic accidents. He is a judge at Reading Crown Court and also in charge of the Reading Militia. Acquisitive and opportunistic, he is busy courting the London aristocracy with the aim of moving into property and business in the capital. He writes prolifically in his memoirs.
Mistress Olivia Turner
The eldest child of eminent merchant and mayor Robert Turner, at sixteen is already a spiteful little madam. The pretty girl had a spoilt childhood until four years previously when she gained a baby sister, Lucinda, followed a year later by Robert Junior. Mama dotes unreasonably on Lousy-Lucy and Papa over Podgy-Robby.
Olivia is rapidly acquiring deviousness and manipulative skills through observing Mama, but her destructive scheming when she is thwarted is all her own devising. The girl confides everything in her diary. She is tolerating Nicholas courting her because he is the most handsome boy in Reading and because her parents detest his family, the Middletons. But Nicholas seems too interested in the fat Barge-bilge from the renegade barge about to travel up the Kennet Navigation.
Maps of town and waterway c1720
History of the Kennet Navigation
This article was first published in Waterways World magazine.
In 1700, riverside towns across Britain were growing wealthy from waterborne trade. There were 1,300 miles of navigable waterways, primarily canalised rivers. This was achieved through artificial cuts to straighten the river, dredging, and the new technology of pound locks (with two sets of double gates).
Reading was one of these prosperous towns. Straddling the River Kennet, which was navigable for one mile down to its confluence with the River Thames, the town was ideally situated for river commerce to and from London. Reading became the hub for overland trading with the surrounding country as far west as Wiltshire. In his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724) Daniel Defoe gives a clear description “a very large and wealthy town, handsomely built, the inhabitants rich, and driving a very great trade … they send very great quantities of malt and meal to London by barges.”
Other towns sought the same prosperity including Newbury, 17 miles west of Reading along the Bath turnpike and on the River Kennet. Supported by Westbury, Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and Hungerford, the town introduced a private Bill in 1708 to make the River Kennet navigable from Reading up to Newbury. It declared “the clearing of a passage for boats, lighters, etc upon the Kennet, from the wharf or present common landing place at Reading to Newbury, will be very beneficial to Trade, advantageous to the Poor, and convenient for the Carriage of coal and other goods, and will very much tend to the employing and increase of watermen and seamen.”
The Bill was not seen as “very beneficial” by the officials, wharf men, innkeepers and shopkeepers of Reading. They put up opposition in various forms over the next 20 years. Seven years after the Kennet River Bill was first introduced petitions were still being received against it. Royal Assent was finally given on 21st September 1715.
Building the Navigation
After three years, £10,000 had been spent (£1.1m current value) in building a few locks near mill dams but completion looked unlikely. So, in 1718, the proprietors appointed a new surveyor and engineer.
John Hore belonged to an established family of maltsters at Ham Mills, Newbury. His plan for the Kennet was to straighten and shorten the route to 18½ miles by creating 11½ miles of cut. The resulting Navigation was only one mile longer than the turnpike route, now the A4. He proposed to construct 20 locks to overcome the drop from Newbury to Reading of 134ft (40.8m). The gradient of 7ft per mile, compared to 1½ ft per mile on the Thames, accounts for the speed of the current. Barges travelling upstream required eight to a dozen horses, whereas they could almost ride the current downstream.
Only three locks were brick; the other 17 were turf-sided. All were of pound construction. They were 122ft long by 19ft wide, catering for the Newbury (or West Country) barges. These were flat bottomed with a rounded head, 109ft (33.2m) by 17ft (5.2m) with a draught of 3½ ft (1.1m) when carrying 110 tons. Each barge required a crew of six men and a boy. The bridge at Burghfield was the only arched stone bridge, the other 25 being timber swing-bridges.
The Reading riots
Construction of the Kennet Navigation was underway in 1719, and by 1720 the navigators digging the canal were working at Burghfield, four miles west of Reading. The pent hostility of the town against the new waterway erupted. A mob of several hundred marched out and destroyed part of the works. They were led by the Mayor, Robert Blake whose family owned the large wharf in Reading, along with the Recorder and other civic officers.
The Navigation proprietors urged the law officers of the Crown to prosecute the leaders as rioters. The two senior officials of Reading backed down and promised to use their position to prevent any similar disturbances.
But the trouble had only just begun. Spring 1720 saw the collapse of the South Seas Trading Company (the South Sea Bubble). Raising capital became far more difficult for the Navigation proprietors who were funding the entire project.
In the same year, several of the works were destroyed by “the Violence of some late extraordinary Floods”. This quote is from the petition for the second Kennet River Act, passed in 1721, which extended the completion deadline by two years to 1st June 1723. Only one of the original proprietors, Henry Martyn, had stuck with the project through to the second Act.
Nonetheless, a letter from John Hore in July 1721 shows work progressing all along the Navigation. “Sheffield and Widmead Cuts are opened, and the two large boats employed raising Colthrop Banks, the dams are made, the screw fixed, and great part of the Lock taken up at Aldermaston and I hope next week to begin at Padworth. The lock for Fobney and the part for South Cut [Southcote] are framed, as are the timber work for the two brick locks to be placed in Padworth Field except the gates, etc, which must be those from the Old Locks when taken up and altered.”
The Kennet Navigation was completed in 1723 at a cost of £50,000 (£5.5m current value). There is no record of the opening date or of any celebrations. The towpath was not completed until May 1724 costing an additional £35,000.
Barge traffic gradually increased, helped by agreements such as those between the company and Captain Orpwood. He was to trade regularly to Newbury for 12 months, when the proprietors would endearingly “Make the said Captain a Gratuity of Fifty Pounds in Lawful Money, one Pipe of Good Port Wine to the Captain’s liking, and to make up the whole £100 in Plate for his Wife as he or she shall direct.” The agreement ended acrimoniously after six months when Orpwood complained the Newbury wharfinger was giving preferencial loading to other barges and the proprietors countered that Captain Orpwood owed £94 9s 1d in unpaid tolls.
Meanwhile in Reading, resentment was steadily increasing. In July 1725, millers Antrum, Green and Massey complained of obstruction. Their malt cargoes were fast aground at Sheffield mills, six miles from Reading. The miller Simon Finch had run off all the water in the short pound through the mill gates. A barge with 30 chaldrons of coal from London waited eight days before turning back to Reading. Bargemaster John Usher employed a lightening boat to offload his 16 tons of flour, 30 tons of cheese and four tons of brass. As if this was not enough he was then stoned from the banks when his reloaded barge passed through Reading.
More enterprising bargemen set about building a tumbling bay to pen the water, but were continually harassed. They planned to start early in the morning of 22nd July, but an unruly mob of 200 was already there, again encouraged by the Mayor and Aldermen of Reading. The rabble “cut, chopped and sawed the timber, and cut holes in the side of the barge where the men were working.”
That same month Maidenhead bargemaster Peter Darvall swore in an affidavit he had received an anonymous letter. It was angry, threatening and showed a continuing aggression towards bargemasters working the Navigation.
In the winter of 1725 flooding caused shoals near Reading and the Navigation proprietors employed men to clear the obstruction. They were assailed and jeered by a hostile crowd from the banks. Astonishingly the town authorities had the labourers arrested and imprisoned as rioters by invoking the recent Riot Act of 1715. Faced with such hostility the Kennet Navigation proprietors were forever short of funds, failing to pay wages or compensation to landowners.
A third Kennet River Act came into law in 1730 because “the powers under the two earlier Acts have proved defective.” It enabled the proprietors to claim compensation from anyone who wilfully damaged or disrupted the waterway. Meetings of the Commissioners were to be held on “neutral ground” in Aldermaston, midway between Reading and Newbury.
The proprietors also had a running conflict with their engineer John Hore. His contract had appointed him surveyor for life at £60 per annum, with additional remuneration for being wharfinger at Newbury from June 1724. Hore put in a claim for his expenses during the construction but not the paperwork to substantiate them. He was sacked. The proprietors instituted proceedings in Chancery against him in 1730, which went to arbitration. A compromise was reached in 1731 and he was reappointed at £100 per annum.
Reconciled, he surveyed the Navigation in 1734 reporting “works are in the greatest declension”. Locks needed strengthening, banks raising, bridges repairing and general clearing was required. In April 1735 he wrote that Fobney and Southcote locks were violently blown. Burghfield had fallen into “almost complete collapse after a great boat had passed through downwards, which caused mighty rejoycings at Reading and a report at Newbury etc that no boat would pass for upwards of a month.”
Eventually, the fortunes of the Kennet Navigation began to improve. In 1810 it became part of the Kennet & Avon Canal linking London to Bristol. Good times lasted until June 1841, when the Great Western Railway opened between London and Bristol. The GWR bought the canal in 1852, Its last profit was recorded in 1876, after which it deteriorated into dilapidation and disuse.
Ironically, the same passion that inflamed the citizens of Reading in the 18th century to fight against the Kennet Navigation, fired a dedicated group in the 20th century to campaign for restoration of the Kennet & Avon Canal, finally achieved in 1990. The Kennet Navigation, fiercely resented by people fearing a loss of their work, is today a thriving waterway for people enjoying their leisure.
Sources for this article have included the Berkshire Records Office, British Waterways South West, Reading Central Library’s Local History Collection, and the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury. Particular use was made of Fred S Thacker’s book Kennet Country (published by Blackwell, Oxford).
The Kennet today
Photographs from research outings along the Kennet & Avon canal. They are sequenced from Kennetmouth to Newbury. Some images courtesy of Mike Pearcy, Words & Pictures.