Monday, 4 October 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - A History of the River Thames

A report on the May 1996 meeting held at the Village Hall.

Roy Dunstan is a Lock Keeper, at present at Old Windsor, and my word he knows his River Thames, from its source at seven Springs in Gloucestershire to the Estuary. He was the speaker at the May meeting of The Eton Wick History Group and he talked of the changes in the control of the river over the centuries, the various organisations which held jurisdiction over it - from the Mayor of the City of London in the twelfth century right through to today's Environment Agency, with particularly fond mention of the Thames Conservancy. He spoke on the serious subject of pollution and, in contrast we heard about the Lock Keeper's wife at Cliveden - 'Mad Mary' - with her long tweed skirt and wildly swinging legs!

Boveney Lock Keeper
Dave Gibson
Mr Dunstan told us about the early weirs and locks - Boulters was built in 1772 and Bray,Boveney and Old Windsor locks were built during the first half of the 19th century; and he explained how busy the Thames used to be, with barges carrying Witney wool and Cotswold stone down to London; and some of the barges were huge - apparently one weighed 140 tons, and had a crew of six and was towed by twelve horses. In the 17th century over 100,000 tons of cargo was being carried on the Thames - now, of course, we see it used mainly for recreation. In more recent times, one huge barge almost caused a disaster when, in 1992, the unmanned ‘Actief’ (a floating restaurant) broke loose from its mooring and drifted down towards Windsor Bridge - Dave Gibson, the Boveney Lock Keeper saw what had happened, jumped on his bike, overtook the vessel, enlisted the aid of a couple of College staff near Windsor Bridge, and between them they managed to board the boat and make it safe before it could collide with the bridge - unchecked it could have badly damaged the bridge or swung across it, stopping the river's flow and causing flooding to the surrounding area. The heroes received a Norris McWhirter award for their bravery.

Barge horses sometimes had to be swum across the river when the towpaths changed from one bank to the other – a situation often caused by rich riparian land-owns not wanting the towpath (but really the bargees) on their side of the river. These riparian owners also objected to the visitors who wanted to enjoy the Thames when passing through Maidenhead during Ascot Week, but their 'Keep Out' notices merely served to provide bonfire fuel for the visiting city dwellers.

Thanks to the conservators, who have been busy cleaning up the Thames since 1866, the river is now cleaner that it has been for many years and fish have a better chance of survival; salmon have returned and to encourage them further some of the weirs have been fitted with salmon ladders to assist them up stream. The river's flow is now expertly controlled by skilful management.

During the 1990's the Parish Magazine of Eton, Eton Wick and Boveney reported on the meetings of the Eton Wick History Group. A member of the audience took shorthand notes in the darkened hall. This article was published in the June edition of 1996.

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