Canals and the River Thames by Edith Ditmas
From earliest times all heavy loads were carried by water wherever possible in the Thames Valley. Always there had also been conflict on the river between those who needed a clear channel and a controlled flow of water to facilitate barge traffic, and those who had interests in mills or fisheries and therefore wanted to impound the water by means of dams. The importance of the barge traffic was recognised as early as 1274 when King Edward I ordered that the Thames was to be widened so that ships and great barges might ascend from London to Oxford, without hindrance from any weirs but it was not till 1605 that a realistic attempt was made to control navigation by means of locks of the modern type.
The west-east canal networks brought traffic to the Thames and to the Benson area. The Severn and Thames Canal was in competition with the Kennet and Avon Canal which linked the Avon and its Bristol traffic with the Kennet River which flowed through Newbury and joined the Thames below Reading. In spite of these handicaps the Severn and Thames had a long history, surviving even the first impact of the railways and lingering, with drastically reduced traffic, into the early twentieth century. Competition from the railways, which could carry heavy freight quicker and more economically, eventually reduced the water-borne traffic until it became virtually extinct. The Severn and Thames was closed in 1927, except for a short stretch between Stroud and Chalford which, in turn, was abandoned in 1933.
The Thames was also linked with the industrial centres in the Midlands by means of the Coventry and Oxford canal which was completed in 1790 and by other networks which brought it into touch with Grand Union Canal, and by the Warwick and Napton canal which established connections with Birmingham.
Turning now to the barges themselves and their freight we find that the goods they carried and the services they rendered were very various. In the eighteenth century, before the development of the mail coaches, the barges carried letters and packets in addition to the ordinary heavy cargoes of coal, malt, iron ore, and manufactured metal goods which came from the west and the Midlands. On the return journey from London they brought groceries of all kinds, deals, foreign timber, and raw hides for the leather trade in Tewkesbury and Worcester.
Towing the barges was originally performed by teams of men, each team working on a particular stretch. Horses began to replace these teams in the mid-seventeenth century. As the barges became larger and heavier, more horses were needed to the detriment of the towpaths. The numbers varied according to the condition of the river and the force of the stream. In the eighteenth century we are told that a seventy-ton barge needed seven or eight horses for the stretch between Wallingford and Benson but ten or eleven were required from Benson to Abingdon, sometimes even a dozen. This was because of the very difficult stretch at Clifton Hampden where the hard rock bed was difficult to deepen. The time taken over the journey likewise varied according to the amount of unloading which had to be done at the weirs or where there were shallows. A boat from Oxford to Wallingford took about a day and from Wallingford to London four days. Returning against the stream the journey took longer so that London to Oxford would have taken about six or seven days.
Looking now in particular at the local stretch of the river, the earliest crossing of the Thames at Benson would have been by the ford where the Rivermead recreation ground now exists but in course of time the ford was superseded by ferries. One, known as the Horse Ferry, operated from a position now occupied by the Cruiser Station, the other crossed the stream below the Crowmarsh Mill. The Horse Ferry, as its name implies, was for the passage of horses, made necessary because here the tow path from Wallingford crossed from the right to the left bank of the river.
The Crowmarsh Ferry connected with a footpath on the right bank, which in the days when there were no bus services, provided a quick way by which to get to Wallingford. The last Crowmarsh ferryman was Mr Jones who enlisted at the beginning of the First World War. He went to France but did not return and the ferry fell into disuse, its place being taken by the Lock Ferry.
Fisheries on the river at Benson are mentioned in the Domesday Book and this almost certainly implies the existence of at least one weir. In 1314 a grant to Ralph Restwald specified a meadow enclosed by water called Sakenet, probably the 3-acre Mill Island, a weir and sluice adjacent thereto. (The Restwald family were freeholders in Benson in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and it is noted that Hugh Restwald held a piece of water by rendering five sticks of eels). A flashlock on the river served the mill there from early times and we have records of John James, a local landowner, who held a watermill in 1396. The field opposite Benson Lock still bears the name of Winchmead and it was there that the winch for hauling barges through the flashlock was worked.
The pound was built in 1788 to replace a flashlock that had fallen into bad condition and had been partly carried away: we are told that on that occasion there were some Dutchmen amongst the gang of workers who were paid at the rate of 2s 2d per day. Repairs and a partial reconstruction of the lock were carried out in 1870-71. Further repairs were necessary in 1895 when the wood work of the lower gate collapsed and was found to be rotten.
For part of the time, at any rate, Benson Lock was unpopular with the river folk because it was said that the lock-keeper was too often absent from his post but, on the other hand, there was often friction between the villagers and the bargees. They were a rough lot and their quick tempers and foul language were proverbial. Their horses damaged the tow-paths and a badly hauled barge of seventy tons weight could ruin lock-gates or mill-dams. It is not surprising that the men who worked the barges were not welcome in the inns that catered for the coaching trade; in Benson it was the Swan Inn at Preston Crowmarsh which served the river folk.
Benson and neighbouring villages were, for many years, supplied with coal from the Midlands through Coventry and Oxford canal which brought it to the Coal Wharf on the river bank west of the church. After 1934 the barge traffic ceased but for two more years the wharf continued as a depot, the coal being brought from Wallingford station by lorry and distributed from the wharf to local customers.
The wharf site then became a boating and bathing station in full use by the flourishing Benson Swimming Club. The Club ceased to function during the Second World War and eventually the site was sold to Mr R Banks who updated its facilities to make it a thriving motor-boat station with a number of cabin craft for hire. A modern slipway was constructed and the Benson Cruiser Station became one of the finest repair shops on the Thames with provision for building and storing. In summer a caravan park adds further amenities.
Next to the Cruiser Station was, and is, the pleasant little recreation ground called Rivermead, an area where originally part of the coal merchants’ storage and stabling sheds had stood, but which was rescued by the imaginative foresight of Mr E J Williams. Mr Williams had a direct interest in the riverside amenities for in 1933 he had purchased the disused Crowmarsh Mill and had turned it into an attractive dwelling house. After the closure of the Coal Wharf he foresaw the possibilities of this three-quarters of an acre of land on the river bank and bought it with the intention of offering it to the Parish Council for public use. The offer was at first refused and Mr Williams was left with the field which he started to improve by planting ornamental trees. Then the Second World War intervened and all plans were dropped.
After the war Mr Williams submitted fresh plans and these were accepted. The ground was eventually purchased for the Parish for recreational purposes, the required money being made available from the proceeds of the sale of part of the former Moorlands recreation ground when this had to be given up to make way for the second bypass road in 1941-42. Amenities for the Rivermead pleasure ground were donated by local people and groups such as Mr E J Williams who gave the flag-staff and its pedestal and two seats, a children’s paddling pool given by the Benson Jubilee Swimming Club, and the spitfire jet drinking fountain provided by the Benson Services Canteen. Some of these items have succumbed to vandalism but the paddling pool remains and the tree sheltered stretch of river still affords good sport for local anglers.
Two mills are mentioned as being at Benson at the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086 but one may have been on the Ewelme Brook near the present site in Mill Lane. For many years an important corn-milling industry was carried on at Crowmarsh Mill and by the end of the nineteenth century eight or ten men were usually employed. The Littleboy brothers were the last corn-millers and Mr William Littleboy also ran a bone-mill alongside until one day he found a human skull among the bones. Thereupon he gave up that part of the business.
The Littleboys were followed by a Mr Wigglesworth who was a flock manufacturer; unfortunately the collection of rubbish used in this industry produced a most disagreeable smell which made it unpopular with the neighbours. Bad summer floods in 1906 which prevented the water wheel from working made the mill uneconomic and Mr Wigglesworth had to close down. The mill property which included the Island, an Osier bed, Ferry Cottage and the Old Malt Houses, was bought by Lord Wittenham. The mill was disused for a number of years but in 1922 it was used as a generating station by a local company supplying electricity to Wallingford, Benson and Warborough. This closed in 1930 and the mill was in danger of becoming derelict until, in 1933, it was purchased by Mr E J Williams who turned it into a private residence. Part of the old stone walls were retained to show the extent of the old buildings and within their protection a formal garden, including a swimming pool, was laid out. Other parts of the island site developed into a wild life sanctuary in which swans, pheasants and partridges could be found and on at least one occasion, an otter reared its cubs.
Benson Lock is still in full operation and the lock garden is worth seeing. In 1973 the lock-keeper and his wife, Mr and Mrs Benger, won the Sir Reginald Hanson Challenge Cup awarded for the best kept lock garden on the whole of the River Thames and they have had other awards in successive years. This seems to continue a pleasant tradition for in earlier days it was said that summer boating parties could tell when they were approaching Benson Lock by the scent of lilacs drifting across the water. Perhaps it was this that attracted the painter J M W Turner when he made a water-colour sketch in 1807 of Benson church across the meadows from an islet near the lock.
Though Benson village lies on higher ground at a little distance from the line of the river, the Thames is very much part of the village life. With the passing of barge traffic, the Thames came into fashion for the sport and pastime of fishing and boating. William Allnatt, that dedicated rambler of the Wallingford neighbourhood in the mid-nineteenth century, praised the trout bred in the Ewelme Brook and found in the lockpool about two stones throw from the meeting of the waters, though he admits that too many of the young fry fall victim to the voracious Jack pike. When in 1884 the Crowmarsh Mill came into the possession of the Littleboy family, salmon rights were included among its appurtenances. Alas, neither salmon rights nor trout can be expected by the modern angler but there is a wide variety of coarse fishing, including chubb, roach, bream, dace, tench, pike and eels. Fishing is a favourite sport with a large number of the younger generation at Benson. There is a flourishing Fishing Club and competitions with other clubs. Although on the whole the fish are not very large an 81b bream has been known.
The high priority given to the river amenities as a social asset to the place was shown in 1899 when Benson was offered and refused its own railway. It was posed that a light railway should be constructed from Wallingford to Benson crossing the Thames just above Benson lock. Unfortunately this would have necessitated the building of a low and unsightly iron bridge and Benson refused the suggestion with the plea that the bridge would interfere with the sailing on the river. Feeling ran high and a contemporary article in the Daily Mail for the 3rd February 1899 pointed out that The river at this point is one of the few excellent sailing spots remaining, and the bridge, it is said, cannot be made high enough to obviate the lowering of sails each time it is reached. The population of Wallingford is only about 3000, and of Benson 1000. The proposed railway will be only a mile and three-quarters in length, and many persons maintain that the benefits proposed can in no way compensate for the disadvantages.
Benson’s conservation was blamed by some but the decision turned out to be wiser than was appreciated at the time; Benson’s rail facilities would have disappeared when the branch line to Wallingford was discontinued but the river would have been permanently marred by an unsightly bridge.
In 1906 a brochure for the Crown Inn at Benson extols the place as having "the finest weir on the Thames, and an important lock and good landing stage.... Visitors to Oxford, Reading and Henley, will find Benson a very enjoyable trip either by water or by road, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in England. Oxford and Kingston steamers — passengers can join or leave Benson lock twice daily for either up or down river. Electric launches for hire by day, week, month or season."
Pleasure steamers on the River Thames
Old photograph of punting just below Benson Lock Benson Weir and Crowmarsh Mill in 1880
For further details, read "The Ditmas History of Benson" by Edith Ditmas,
which can be ordered by clicking on the button at the foot of this page.
Memories of Alf Gurney, from one of Benson's illustrious families.
“In the 1920s coal (known as Coventry Cobbles) was transported via the Oxford Canal and River Thames by two barges unloading at Benson Wharf. This was done by wheel barrow over two planks. I well remember in 1926 during the National Strike, Pym Salter [Bridget Jones’ father] diving in to collect the coal that had fallen in the river.
At that time the road from Watlington [today’s B4009] was still a dirt track. The granite to improve the road came from Nuneaton, transported by barge down canals and the river. My father and brother were responsible for transporting it from the Wharf to the road works.
I still have in my possession an engraved cup that was awarded in 1925 for the Benson Boat Race. I was Cox for the winning crew, who included sons of the Lock Keeper – a Mr. Moffatt. (See below.)
I can also remember one cold winter about that time. I and my pals rode our push bikes on the frozen Thames to Shillingford Bridge to have our photos taken.”
Left: Playing on the frozen River Thames at Benson Right: Benson Sea Scouts, started by Canon Palmer