The story of Henry’s Tow Path Bench at Whilton Locks
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Tue Jul 12, 2016 at 11:31am

The story of Henry’s Tow Path Bench at Whilton Locks

Henry Grantham was the last lock keeper at the Whilton and Buckby Flight of locks, near Whilton Marina on the Grand Union Canal. Henry often won the ‘best kept locks ’ award and was a well known character locally and on the canal network. His family had worked on working canal boats, carrying cargo around the midlands and Henry grew up working alongside his parents on their boats.  

When Henry's father also called Henry (1st) and his wife retired in 1941 they sold their working boats to Samuel Barlow Coal Co of Braunston, This meant that Henry had to seek work with his erstwhile rivals The Grand Union Co, and when the canal network was nationalised in 1948, Henry worked for the newly formed British Waterways Transport, finally becoming lock keeper on the Whilton and Buckby flight for many years until he retired in 1941. 


On Henry Grantham’s death in 1989 locals decided there must be a memorial to him and his proud traditions. A towpath bench was decided upon. It was discovered that the Wooden Canal Craft Trust were restoring the very boat upon which Henry had lived and worked on as a young man called “Forget Me Not”  and they had some redundant timber that was too far gone to be re-used in the rebuild, but sound enough for a garden bench. Hence some of the old English Elm wood from the Grantham family working boats, on which Henry has lived and worked on during his life, was used to build the bench. The bench was positioned overlooking the bottom Lock near the entrance to Whilton Marina. 

In 2005 the ancient Elm eventually decayed and the bench was refurbished using English White Oak.

In the summer of 2016  the bench was again in sorry state, so Whilton Marina, with the help of their carpenter Pete, once again restored the bench to its former glory. 

The Story of The Grantham Family Working Boats; Forget Me Not and Sarah Jane

In the early 1900’s  the Grand Union Canal would have been  very busy with working narrowboats, carrying coal, cargo and manufactured goods from London and the midlands, by horse drawn canal boats.  Some companies had very large fleets of boats , but others were family owned and run by Independent Boatman, these were known as “Number Ones”  Henry Grantham (1st) was one such “Number One” and in 1927 ordered a new boat from Lees and Atkins on the Coventry Canal.  As motorised boats were very few and far between during these days, Henry’s new boat was horse drawn and he named it “Forget Me Not” The Grantham family worked hard and in 1929 were able to have an engine installed by Nursers Yard at Braunston. With her increased versatility she did well, and in 1931 returned to Nursers to be modified with a proper motor boat stern. 

In 1933 the Granthams took delivery of a new butty from Lees & Atkins, which they named“Sarah Jane” which was probably the name of their very first boat. The two boats did well during the thirties, with regular contracts to carry coal to Dickinson’s paper mills in North London. However by the late thirties work tailed off.  The powerful Grand Union Canal Carrying Co had built up a vast, well organised fleet, which meant they were undercutting the “Number Ones” who often returned from London with empty boats. Slowly the “Number Ones” gave up the struggle and sold out to the larger companies. Henry Grantham (1st) held out until 1941, when he and his wife finally retired and they sold the boats to Samuel Barlow Coal Co. Barlows already had a boat named “Forget Me Not” so the butty’s name was split between the pair of boats with the motor becoming “Sarah” and the butty “Jane” Both boats were engaged in the coal trade throughout the war. 

Working boats pass by at Whilton Locks

In the mid 40’s “Sarah” appeared in the film “Painted Boats” an evocative story of a horse and boatman that was forced to submit to his boat being motorised.

By the late 50’s due to motorway completion, trade on the canals was in serious trouble and “Sarah” was thirty years old which was the normal life for a working boat in those days. In 1960 she was retired from carrying and was converted for residential use. Her new owner taking her to the Kennet and Avon Canal, and living aboard for many years.

Forget Me Not

Around 1971 her owner died and no one seems to know what became of “Forget Me Not” or her butty “Sarah Jane” Eventually she turned up at David Jones Boatyard at Chester in 1976 for disposal. A hire fleet owner had done some repairs on her, but she was in a sorry state. The owner was unable to restore them, so gave the boat to a group of people who wanted to save at least a few old wooden canal craft. She lay for some ten years virtually derelict, until her protectors had finished re-building another wooden boat and were able to set up the “Wooden Canal Craft Trust” with their main aim being her restoration.