Here is my second blog on the River Lea. It is a collection of notes and pictures that support the articles I have prepared helping the campaign to preserve a pretty Victorian Schoolhouse near the river where Lea Bridge Road crosses the waterway.

What’s in a name.

The Lea or the Lee are both correct spelling of the river’s name. Lea is more common but all Acts of Navigation and other historic legal documents usually use the spelling Lee. Other rivers have similar problems. Depending on where you are on the River Nene you can pronounce it to rhyme with bean or Ben.

The New River

By 1600 the river Lea, long a major water supply for East London was getting very polluted. It was decided to cut a new channel from the cleaner upper reaches of the River Lea and from Chadwell Springs and Amwell Springs as well as other springs and wells along its course.

They called the waterway The New River and it started at New Gauge House (below) starting between Ware and Hertford in Hertfordshire today it travels 20 miles (32 km) down to Stoke Newington.


Along its route from Great Amwell it passes; Broxbourne; Cheshunt; Enfield (pictured); Palmers Green; Bowes Park; Wood Green; Alexandra Palace; Hornsey; Harringay and Finsbury Park.


Originally it reached its finish at New River Head near Clerkenwell where its waters were diverted into Sadler’s Wells  Aquatic Theatre. Since 1946 it has been cut off at Stoke Newington, Hackney. and Sadler’s Wells performers can keep their feet dry.

A public footpath, The New River Path makes it possible to walk almost the whole length of the New River from Hackney to its source.

River Champion 

A great champion of the River Lea, indeed rivers in general is Griff Rhys-Jones who in 2009  made a remarkable BBC film about the River. His entire Rivers series – including the one on the Lea – is available on DVD.


He used a Canadian Canoe and the Lea gunpowder barge Lady of the Lea, a small sailing barge now privately owned, to explore the whole river.

The Lady of the Lea was built for £1500 in 1931 by Hyam & Oliver boatbuilders of Rotherhithe for the War Department and was used to carry explosives from the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey.  It is 72 feet long and 13 feet wide and originally was tiller steered and stumpy rigged with a folding rig allowing her to pass  under low bridges on the Lea, and Bow Creek. She has had many homes since leaving the Lea, notably Tring on the Grand Union, St. Katherine’s Dock on the tideway, and now at Faversham in Kent.


Now let’s look at London’s second river through some historic images. Many are commercial postcards and other old pictures. Its always difficult to establish ownership and copyright on pictures like this but this is a not-for-profit blog and I believe virtually all these images are long out of copyright. If you think I am wrong and believe you own these images lease let me know.


This delightful commercial postcard shows many views of the River.

The Lea was run and managed by a group of men called the Lee Conservancy. Here they are on an inspection of the Waterway.

Lea Conservancy Inspection

The Name of the River can be spelled  either Lea or Lee. Lea is much more common but in fact legally, in all the Acts of Navigation, for instance, the spelling Lee was used.

The upper Lea could be really tranquil as these commercial postcards show.


This is Lemsford in Hertfordshire in 1900

Lemsford Herts 1900

Narrowboats were rarely seen in old pictures of the Lea but here are some of the barges and lighters that made up most of the traffic on the river over the years.

last drawn horse barge 1955 river lea waltham abbey

The last horse working drawn barge traffic finished in 1955 although some demonstrations of horse towing have been seen on the river more recently.

Steam and later oil engined tugs pulled trains of lighters and barges on the Lea and other London canals in the East London area.

Scan0002 - Copy

Also replacing the horse in the 1950’s were small tractors. This one is actually Viscount St David towing his trip boat Jason on the Regents canal.


Another picture from the Regent’s Canal but showing the amount of coal a single canal horse would be able to move. The coal fired power stations on the Lea would have been fueled like this for decades. These were day boats with no cabins or other accommodation. If the journey took any longer than a day the bargee would stay in a pub and stable his horse.


Sailing barges were very common on the Lea. They were a smaller version of the huge numbers of leeboard sprit rigged barges that carried cargoes on the Thames Tideway. These barges would carry stacks of hay from the farm of Kent and Essex to feed the thousands of cart and cab horses on London’s streets. The barges would return with streets and stable sweepings, good manure for the Hay fields. The Lea had a similar but smaller trade.


Here is a typical Lea River Sailing barge (photographed at Ware). It was designed to exactly fit the larger river locks of the river Lea.

Lea Barge at Ware

Here are a selection of pictures of other Lea barges, mostly dumb barges, that is barges with no means of driving themselves, no sails. no engine. But we start with another sailing barge.

Lea Barge

Scan0001 - Copy

The distinctive barges and lighters that worked the Lea were also to be found on the Regents Canal. They usually loaded in the London Docks, especially the Regents Canal Dock and then went north by River Lea or Regent’s Canal where both the pictures above and below were actually taken.


The following two pictures show the unusual lock where the Limehouse Cut joined the Tidal Thames. Subsidence led to frequent lock wall collapses and a bracing structure was built over the lock for support.

By 1967 the lock was so unstable a new cut was made into the Regents Canal Dock.

Scan0008 - Copy


Sometimes the crew would have to bow haul the barge into a lock. This picture shows just how large the Lee lock were.

Scan0008 - Copy (2)

Here  are some pictures of the small tugs that pulled both Lea barges and Thames lighters with cargoes up the Lea.



One of these tiny but powerful tugs is on permanent display at the Docklands Museum.

Narrowboats in the London Docks.

We do know that pairs of narrowboats from the Canal system visited the London Docks. When I was researching the 1923 Canal boat strike in Northamptonshire I wondered where the influence towards militancy among the mostly rural boaters had come from.

Here is an extract from my Booklet on the 1923 Braunston Canalboat Strike. This was one of the first ever strikes on the Canal System and was organised in a fairly remote small village in Northamptonshire.

Boatmans Strike postcard

Yet canal boatmen working through Brentford and Limehouse and into the London Docks would have met and talked with London dockers.  They would have heard of, and maybe even met, militant dockers’ leaders like Ben Tillett and Harry Gosling.  This legendary duo had demonstrated the strength of organised labour in the famous London dock strike of 1889. Known as the fight for the ‘Dockers’ Tanner’;  sixpence an hour for dock workers. Canal men and dockers would meet and talk in the waterside pubs of Brentford and Limehouse where socialist lessons and trades union principles and strategy would be hotly debated.

 In 1910 over thirty unions engaged in waterside transport work agreed to create the National Transport Workers’ Federation, with Harry Gosling as President.  In June 1920 the National Transport Workers’ Federation voted in favour of an amalgamation of transport unions and in May 1921 they decided to merge into the National Union of Transport and General Workers.

 On 1 January 1922 the TGWU was born. Gosling was elected president. Secretary to the Waterways Trade Group was a man who would go on to greater things, Ernest Bevin. Bevin recognised canal boatmen were one minority group requiring special help from the union. He commented “We keenly realise that there are many things from which these people have to suffer and some of them can only be described as scandalous”. In 1919 Bevin had established a committee “to inquire into the whole subject of living-in and on canal boats’.

 By 1923 Harry Gosling, was a newly elected Labour MP. He questioned the Minister of Health on the sub-standard living conditions of canal families. Gosling would be made Minister of Transport in the first Labour government later in1923.

 Up and down the English canal system the TGWU was recruiting among boat crews and other canal workers. By March 1923 the union had successfully negotiated agreements on wages and conditions of employment with many of the bigger canal carrying companies. It wasn’t going to be easy.  Some companies, FMC among them, didn’t want to know.

The TGWU and the boatmen had six main demands.

48 hour working week.

A joint committee would fix trip times and tonnage rates.

Captain’s weekly wage £1 5s (£1.25) and £1 for mates, plus agreed tonnage rates Steamer captains £1 2s 6d (£1.12)and drivers £1, with a bonus for the latter of 2s 6d (12p) for washing boilers. Again all plus tonnage rates.

The agreed rates would not be subject to any deductions for provisions for horses

Within twelve months of the date of this programme, two adult males would be employed on each boat, both of whom would be recognised as company employees and paid as such.

A sub-committee would be formed to inquire into the wage rates of other canal employees such as butty boatmen, lock keepers and tradesmen. This would make recommendations on a minimum wage level.

 There was another, in many ways a more serious problem. That 1921 inquiry, prompted by the TGWU, had real concerns about the employment of women and children on narrow boats.

 There were still many family boats working on the canals and high levels of illiteracy among both parents and children. Early in 1923 FMC responded to these proposals and concerns. The company didn’t propose improvements. Instead they quite simply said they would cut the existing low pay rates by a further 15 per cent.

 Then, on 10 August 1923, the company announced an intention to reduce boatmen’s wages from the following Monday.

For steamer captains working between Braunston and Brentford a cut of four shillings (20p) on a round trip.

For steamer and butty boat operating as a pair a cut of ten shillings (50p).

For London-bound butty boats and horse boats a reduction of fourpence (1.5p) per ton on tonnage rates.

The TGWU’s Mr Shaw hurried straight to FMC’s offices to protest. The Company were adamant in their response, the cuts would go ahead. The TGWU had no alternative but to stop the boats. It called its canal boat members at FMC out on strike. There were about 600 men on the FMC payroll at this time, although not all its employees were members of the TGWU.

At Braunston between fifty and sixty boats tied up in the approaches to the FMC wharf and along both sides of the Oxford and Grand Junction canals. This increased the village’s population (1,081 in 1921) by 300 putting a great strain on village facilities.

To run the strike at Braunston the TGWU sent Mr Sam Brooks from Area 5 headquarters at West Bromwich. He took up residence at the (now demolished) Ship Hotel, adjacent to the wharf and to FMC’s depot. Brooks stands out in strike photographs. He was a tall, well built man always in a trilby hat. In addition to his more usual union duties he soon organised a wide range of social activities for strikers and their families. Throughout the fourteen week strike there were concert parties and open-air church services for the strike-bound families. At the functions cigarettes were given to the men and sweets to the children.

Three deaths occurred during the strike and the funerals were emotional affairs. One was for twelve year old Edward Walker who fell overboard from his father’s butty boat and drowned. Over a hundred mourners followed the coffin. They covered the fresh grave with posies of wild flowers.

 The union was committed to fighting illiteracy among workers.  Mr Brooks was astounded by how many strikers could not even sign their name for their strike pay.  He organised classes himself to teach them and their children to read and write.

This Year (2015) we erected a permanent memorial on Braunston Wharf to those brave canal boat families.  Here are Julia Long and Mick Orpin of Unite and Prunella Scales and Timothy West unvieling the plaque.

Braunston unveiling

Peter Frost has written a history of the 1923 canal boat strike at Braunston. The 16-page illustrated booklet costs £5 including postage and packing and all profits will go to fund the permanent memorial to the strikers. Order your copy with cash or cheque (made payable to Wendy Wilson) from Wendy Wilson, 5 The Green, Braunston, NN11 7HW. More information on 07530 932-881.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s