Cargoes on the Grand Junction Canal

The stench was almost unbearable, and this wasn’t the first time.  Canal boats had arrived at Berkhamsted wharf but rather than being unloaded immediately, had been left fully laden overnight. Their cargo: manure!

On 5th April 1876 Cornelius Collins was charged with allowing a nuisance to exist on his wharf on both 2nd and 6th March of that year. The case was brought by Berkhamsted Sanitary Authority and the court required in future, that all such boats be unloaded, and the manure carried away, on the day of arrival.

Manure was a common cargo in those days, shipped out of London, with its thousands of horses, to be used on country farms as fertiliser.  But what other goods were being transported through Berkhamsted and Northchurch on this watery super-highway?

Cargoes on GJC

The Canal Boats Act was passed in 1877 requiring new and existing canal boats to be registered. These Registers provide a rich source of information on the canal traffic of the time. All canal boats were horse-drawn of course. The blacksmith’s forge at Dudswell run by Matthew Pocock, immediately adjacent to the canal, was ideally placed.

Of the canal boats registered at Berkhamsted, a fifth carried bricks, supporting the building boom in London and elsewhere, triggered by a rapidly growing population.  Approximately 13,000 bricks could be carried in one boat. Gravel was often carried as an alternative cargo for the boats that took the bricks and is seen as the second most common load. Foodstuffs feature prominently, with corn as the third most common item carried; and the reliance on horses is also clear with hay, straw and manure all showing in the top 10 cargoes. Coal was another heavy good, difficult to transport but vital both for the economy and for private individuals.

This was a busy stretch of water.  An impasse occurred at Berkhamsted’s Ravens Lane lock in 1890 when two different boat masters simultaneously claimed to have reached the lock first and neither would move to let the other pass through. The whole waterway was brought to a standstill: it took more than 24 hours to resolve this situation, by which time more than 50 other boats were queuing on each side of the lock gates. One hopes that none of them were carrying manure.

Tim Prouse, Chronicle v.XVI (Mar 2019).