A Lock-Keeper’s Cottage

There were a whole host of cottages situated along the banks of the rivers and canals of England during the Regency, as they had been for decades before. These charming, often isolated cottages were the homes of the keepers of the locks on the waterways. One of these cottages might be the ideal setting for all or part of a Regency romance. Such a cottage would be a nice change of pace from a small house in a rural village or a secluded cottage in the country.

The lore of lock-keepers’ cottages …

Very few rivers, or even canals, flow at the same level from their source to their mouth. And many of these waterways have various obstructions along their routes which impede water travel. The easiest and most efficient means by which to overcome these diverse navigational problems is with a lock or a series of locks. The Chinese are known to have used locks as early as the tenth century, but they were not used in England until the mid-sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, the most common type of lock used on the rivers and canals of Britain was the pound lock. This type of lock got its name from its design, which consisted of two large gates with a chamber between them. This chamber was known as the pound, a variant of the word "pond," meaning a quiet, still body of water confined by a dam or walled structure. Pound locks were also sometimes called cistern locks.

There were many pound locks in use on the rivers and canals of Regency England. These pound locks were fairly easy to operate, though it did require significant strength to open and close the gates. The basic principle of a pound lock was that one gate would be opened to allow a boat to enter the pound, then the gate was closed and the water level of the pound was raised or lowered as needed to bring the boat up or down to the level of the river or canal on which it was to travel. Once the water reached the required level, the other gate of the pound lock was opened to allow the boat to continue on its journey. There was also another purpose to which pound locks were put, particularly on rivers. If the water began rising upstream of a lock, both of the lock gates could be opened, thus allowing the overflow to pass on down the river without obstruction, which could reduce or prevent flooding that area. In severe cases, two or three locks along a section of river might have to be opened simultaneously to mitigate the risk of flooding. Most lock-keepers offered any aid they could to boats passing by which were in need of assistance. Lock-keepers usually kept an eye on their section of the river or canal and many of them were responsible for saving the lives of people who had fallen into the water, either from a passing boat or from the river bank.

Even as the roads of Britain were improved over the course of the eighteenth century, water transport remained the most efficient and cost-effective means by which to move large cargos. This method of transport was critical to the commerce and ecomony of England and therefore, it was necessary to ensure these waterways remained navigable at all times. From the early decades of the eighteenth century, when each lock was built, a neat and tidy cottage was built on the river bank nearby. These cottages were offered to a man who was willing to operate and maintain the lock as the major part of his compensation. There was a toll to be paid by anyone who wished to pass through one of these locks. In most cases, the lock-keeper was allowed to keep the tolls as his cash income. Those lock authorities who did not allow their lock-keepers to keep the tolls usually included a modest cash stipend for their lock-keepers, along with the cottage. Even a single man would have found it difficult to subsist on the small cash income which a lock-keeper earned through tolls or a stipend. It would have been nearly impossible for a man with a wife and children. However, a sturdy, decent home was an important commodity for most people at that time, so there were many who were eager to take on the position of lock-keeper, despite the low cash pay and the fact that they were essentially on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The majority of lock-keepers and their families found ways to supplement their small cash income and they usually enjoyed a relatively comfortable life during the Regency. Most lock-keepers’ cottages were situated on a generous plot of land, which was also available for the use of the lock-keeper. Many of them planted substantial kitchen gardens where they grew fruits, vegetables and herbs, primarily for their own use. But any surplus would be sold, usually to those passing by on the river, to bring in extra income. Chickens, rabbits, pigs, goats and sometimes, even a cow, might also be raised, for meat and milk, to supplement the fruits and vegetables from the garden. Surplus milk might be made into cheese and butter, again sold or traded to those on boats passing by the cottage. Fish inhabited most rivers, and even some canals, so fish certainly made up part of the diet of those who lived in a lock-keeper’s cottage. Records show that a number of lock-keepers were also bee-keepers, thus ensuring reliable pollination in their gardens. More importantly, the honey and beeswax which was produced could become a cash crop for the lock-keeper.

Though the bulk of the plantings in a lock-keeper’s garden were practical, comprising food for the table, quite a number of lock-keeper’s also planted flowers. Some lock-keepers obviously enjoyed flowers and their cottages might be partially covered by flowering vines or great clumps of colorful flowers could be seen dotting the surrounding green sward. Other lock-keepers planted only a few flowers on their property, usually near their front doors, just to add a touch of color. It was common to see dozens of these lovely lock-keepers’ cottages, accented with flowers, along many quiet stretches of navigable rivers or canals across England. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that most lock-keepers, unlike toll-takers on roadways, were not reviled, but were usually considered to be helpful, kindly and amiable characters. Living in such attractive and bucolic surroundings may well have imbued lock-keepers with a perpetual sense of well-being and happiness.

Enterprising lock-keepers found other ways to supplement their income. At least a couple of lock-keepers along the Thames are known to have built a substantial baking oven on their property. They used their ovens to bake large batches of bread which they sold each day to those traveling on the river. Others brewed beer or cider which they sold or traded to the boat and bargemen who passed through their locks. Generally, lock-keepers had families and their wives and children all contributed to the family income in some way. Wives and/or daughters would make cheese, butter or preserves, bake bread or brew beer, salt or smoke meat, all of which could be sold or traded for cash or needed supplies. The ladies might also have had a still room where they made medicinal preparations from their herbs and/or distilled scented oils or waters from the flowers in their gardens. Sons might tend the animals and the garden, fish the river and help their father operate and maintain the lock. During the Regency, most lock-keepers and their families enjoyed a pleasant and agreeable life and were content with their lot.

Not all locks in all locations were the same in terms of traffic on the waterway on which they were situated. Locks along canals on which many commercial vessels regularly traveled were much busier than were locks situated in the upper reaches of rivers like the Thames, which got significantly less traffic. Many canal locks might have to be opened and closed more than a dozen times each day, while a lock well upstream from London on the Thames river might only have to be opened two or three times a day, sometimes less. Lock-keepers who preferred a tranquil life in a secluded location typically chose a position as a lock-keeper well upstream on a river which did not get much traffic. Some of the lock-keepers who were responsible for locks in quiet rural areas were also scholars, poets, artists, even scientists, who devoted their free time to their intellectual or artistic pursuits. Lock-keepers who were more extroverted and wanted more activity, which usually meant more cash in the form of tolls, and/or interaction with more boatmen, took positions keeping locks on well-traveled canals.

Lock-keeper positions generally stayed in the same family and were handed down from father to son through the generations. However, not all lock-keepers were men. From the eighteenth century and right through the Regency, there were a number of widows of lock-keepers who took up the work when their husband died. There was no prohibition against female lock-keepers until March of 1831, when waterway authorities decreed that neither wives nor daughters could assume the position of a deceased lock-keeper. Initially, this regulation was not always observed and there were still a few female lock-keepers on duty well into the middle of the nineteenth century, especially at locks located in quiet sections of rivers which did not get a lot of traffic. There were forty-five locks along the Thames river from its source to Teddington Lock, where the Thames becomes tidal. Most of these were in quiet, isolated locations where a female lock-keeper could operate a lock beyond the notice of waterway authorities.

Lock-keeper’s cottages were constructed from of a number of different materials, in a wide range of styles and sizes. Those cottages which were in use during the Regency might have been as much as fifty years old, while others would have been newly built. Some cottages were situated right next to the lock their occupants operated, while others could be set back from the river or canal bank by several feet or more. A search engine image search run on the keywords "historic lock-keepers cottages england," will provide a plethora of pictures English lock-keepers cottages which have survived into the twenty-first century.

Dear Regency Authors, might a lock-keeper’s cottage make a likely setting for one or more scenes in one of your upcoming novels? Perhaps the hero is attacked, knocked out and left in a small boat cast adrift on a river. The boat drifts downstream to the area of a pound lock where the sharp-eyed lock-keeper sees the boat and pulls it to shore. The lock-keeper has a lovely young daughter who has knowledge of healing, so she cares for the injured man. How might a romance grow between them in such a lovely setting? Or, could a wealthy, but shy and scholarly hero take up a position as a lock-keeper in an isolated location in order to elude his annoying and demanding family and devote himself to his intellectual pursuits? What will happen when he fishes an intelligent but rather hoydenish and outspoken young lady out of the river near his cottage? How else might an author take advantage of a quaint, quiet, isolated lock-keeper’s cottage as a romantic setting for a story?


Author’s Note:   For those of you who like to do in-person research for your stories, you might want to consider a visit to a lock-keeper’s cottage or two. A number of lock-keepers’ cottages in England were taken out of service and sold off during the twentieth century. Some of them have been renovated and converted into small inns, bed and breakfasts or furnished short-term rentals. A few have been converted to public houses or taverns. One of the most charming is Lock Cottage in Oxforshire, a National Trust property. Another informative site, Weekend Notes:   River Walk Near Henley-on-Thames, provides information of recreational opportunities, as well as pictures of some quaint lock-keepers’ cottages. You can check with your travel agent, or run online searches on key words like "lock-keeper’s cottage" or "lock keepers cottage Britain" to get information on lock-keepers’ cottages where you can spend a few nights, or have a drink or two.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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20 Responses to A Lock-Keeper’s Cottage

  1. When I was in Tring, in Buckinghamshire, where barge holidays are popular, there was a lock-keeper’s wife who made and sold Bucks point lace to supplement her income. I don’t see why that might not occur in the regency too, perhaps with a daughter making her own unique patterns based on the observations of plants along the river, which someone is determined to track down for a special gown… and there could be many outcomes from that encounter! the lock-keeper also sold small metal wares painted in the roses and castles style that became popular with bargees but I believe that developed later. [I was 13; interested in history as I was then, I can't remember everything! but I did take up lacemaking and have a set of 19th century Bucks point lace bobbins handed down in the family of the lady who gave them to me]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A whole set of lace bobbins! I am wicked jealous of you!!! ;-) What a wonderful treasure to have! I took a course where I learned the basics of Irish lace-making many years ago, when I lived in Dublin. But I was a starving student at the time and could not afford the pillow and all the bobbins and other equipment I needed to pursue the craft at home. I have never gotten back to it, which I still regret.

      I love the idea of the lock-keeper’s daughter supplementing the family’s income with her botanical knowledge and needlework skills. Botanical study was considered most appropriate for young ladies, even of the upper classes and the aristocracy. Queen Charlotte was an avid botanist, as were some of her daughters, and they spent many hours drawing and painting plants. It would be only one more step to translate those drawings into lace patterns. Perhaps the hero is an avid botanist himself, and comes to the area searching for a certain species of plant, because he saw that plant captured in lace on the gown of a lady, mayhap the young lady his family intends him to marry.

      The lock-keeper might be a wood-worker or a metal-smith who makes small souvenirs. Or, perhaps he is also a botanist, who cultivates a large garden and has passed his knowledge of botany on to his daughter. I can see some lovely story options here.

      Thanks for sharing your own experiences and your ideas.

      Regards,
      Kat

      • I do like your plot bunny very much, Kat!
        I was also seeing a lady botanist seeing the lace and meeting the lock keeper’s daughter, at which point there’s a heap of gothic novel possibilities [a] they are coincidentally near doubles, with all the shenanigans that can come out of that,[b] they become friends and the lacemaker becomes companion too a wealthy and well connected lady and makes a good marriage, [c] the lock keeper’s daughter is the long lost relative of the botanical lady who was somehow mislaid in her infancy [d] we move into the realms of Sappho.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Oh, my goodness!!! So many plot bunnies, so little time!!!

          I like them all, though I think I like the near doubles one the best, there is so much potential for fun there.

          =^..^=

          • Isn’t there… and both know a lot about plants so if the lock keeper’s daughter is pretending to be the lady she can sketch and look knowledgeable unless someone trips her up with Latin names… [wow, that would be a bit of research, because I know fine well the names of a lot of plants have changed their taxonomy, especially in recent years as the RHS has been streamlining them... I may have a book that gives all of them...] perhaps the Lady is supposed to stay with someone and has made other plans and the LKD goes instead and falls in love with the eligible gentleman of the house that the Lady didn’t want, and he works things out and doesn’t mind her origins… as you say, so many plot bunnies, so little time…

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I would draw the line at research into the Latin names for plants. Not at all up my street!

              =^..^=

              • heh, I have a crib for the Latin names, a Wisley Plantfinder guide to all the epithets, Latin and common, by which plants are known… and a solid grounding in botany, which helps [and having come to art in a broader sense from botanic illustration, I've an appreciation of what sort of things will be in these young ladies' commonplace books too.]

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                What a wonderful resource! And I am so impressed to know that you are a botanic illustrator. It is a skill for which I have a high regard. I learned watercolor painting, mostly by paining flowers, but I was never able to develop to the point that I could do proper botanical illustrations. I think they are lovely.

                =^..^=

              • Not sure if I could do it now, well it depends on what the arthritis is doing at the time… I do try to keep my hand in but mostly just paint flowers. I’m a control freak so all the measuring is something I find soothing…

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                I know that feeling. I used to do Chinese calligraphy, and as part of the process I ground my own ink from an ink stick. My teacher taught me to prepare my mind for the calligraphy I was going to do while I ground the ink stick against the stone. It became one of my favorite parts of the process.

                =^..^=

              • Very meticulous work!

  2. helenajust says:

    I was aware of locks and lock-keepers, but it had never occurred to me that so much income (and such a variety) could be earned from those passing along the canal or river. And I love the idea that the experience differed so much depending on where the lock was situated. As you say, an excellent source of ideas for a book!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you like the idea. When I read about these cottages, they just seemed to scream out that they wanted to be a setting for a Regency romance. And I think readers like new things, as long as they have a basis in history, so why not a lock-keeper’s cottage?

      However, I don’t know how much extra income all the efforts of the family might generate. I doubt they would get rich. More than likely they made enough to keep the family in clothing, furniture, and other hard supplies they could not make themselves.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. The hero, unconscious in a boat on the river being saved by the lock-keeper – brilliant plot-bunny, Kathryn!

    My plot-bunny is as follows:
    A lock-keeper’s cottage is located at the edge of the estate of Earl X. The Earl is quite a libertine. Though being married and having a son and two daughters with his wife, he always has had many affairs with other women -even with his female servants. A house maid gives birth to a son of the Earl, and then sadly dies in child-birth.

    Being illegitimate, the boy is not acknowledged by the Earl. But at least the Earl somehow cares for his natural child: He has the lock-keeper and his wife, a loyal but slightly grumpy couple, raise him. The child, John, is lively and intelligent and the Earl, who keeps a distant but constant interest in John, pays for his education.

    However, John doesn’t know that he is the Earl’s illegitimate child. Until that fatal day when the Earl’s first born son, William (aged 23), tragically dies in a coach accident. The heir of the family is lost! The Earl’s daughters, Mary (20) and Eliza (16) can’t inherit the title, and the Earl doesn’t want the distant, abominable cousin of his to become his heir.

    The Earl sends for John (25): He is a son of Earl X after all, the first born even, and he shall be the Earl’s heir now. Mary shall teach him how to behave in high society – and later, she shall marry him. The family is shocked, and Mary, being in love (and secretly engaged) with a handsome young nobleman, is enraged.

    John, who has lived most of his life at the lock-keeper’s cottage, arrives at the family seat. He is welcomed frostily by his half-sisters. Little do they know that John does not want at all to marry Mary. Having lived closly to the estate for so long, John is acquainted with Mary’s and Eliza’s young governess, Miss Aliston. Miss Aliston (24) has a tender for John. But so far she had been unable to see a way how to become his wife.

    With John living in the same house, things have not become easier – au contraire: Mary, realizing that John does not want to marry her, is enraged again by his disinterest. She starts picking on Miss Aliston and John. The nobleman Mary is secretly engaged with is jealous of John and tries to harm Miss Alison as a kind of revenge. Eliza does nothing to help but runs away with that abominable distant cousin, who tries to blackmail Earl X into making him his heir by eloping with Eliza.

    Will the “lock-keeper’s brat” be able to entangle the mess, save Miss Alison and bring back happiness to the family?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A most imaginative plot bunny. However, poor John faces one insuperable impediment, he was born on the wrong side of the blanket. The English law of primogeniture expressly forbade any illegitimate child from inheriting a title. There was no way around that, ever. There was nothing the Earl could have one about it. Even if a couple married after their child was born, that child was still considered illegitimate in the eyes of the law and therefore, could inherit nothing.

      However, if the Earl had married the young servant girl in his youth, but kept it secret from his family and friends because he was embarrassed by what he had done and hid his first son away after his first wife dies, John would then have the legal right to inherit. Providing, of course, that the certificate of the first marriage can be found. Even if the young couple had traveled to Gretna Green, there would have been a record of the marriage made by whoever performed the marriage, and the bride would have been given a copy of that record. From the eighteenth century and right through the Regency, the marriage certificate was always given to the bride. The Earl might have taken it after she died, but was too sentimental to destroy it, so he hid it away somewhere, because at the time he did not want the child of a servant to become his heir. But upon the death of his second son, once he produces that marriage certificate and can prove that John is the fruit of that union, John will legally become his heir, no matter how his half-sisters, or anyone else, might feel about it.

      There is also the issue of consanguinity. Marriage between half-brother and sister would have been very much frowned upon in Regency England, even by the Earl. The risk of children with serious mental and physical defects would have been considered too much of a danger, not something he would want in his grandchildren. Even without the threat of marriage hanging over her head, Mary might just be nasty enough to make mischief between John and Miss Aliston. She could be so high in the instep that she cannot bear the thought that the Earl’s heir might stoop so low as to marry a governess. Or, maybe she is oblivious of the growing affection between them, she just hates her governess, who was wise to all her nasty tricks as a child and made her behave and do her lessons.

      I hope that helps to keep the plot bunny on track but historically accurate.

      Regards,

      Kat

    • Kat has addressed the issue I was about to raise, and with a clever way round it with that secret marriage… I believe however that marriage between half siblings was not merely frowned upon but illegal. First cousins could marry but not an uncle to a niece [and I remember reading somewhere that counted if the niece was the uncle's deceased wife's niece as well as if she was a sibling's child] or aunt to nephew so I would have thought that half siblings would be out. Supposing the Earl has a poor relation – a sister married below herself and was cast off but her daughter is at least a lady, albeit impoverished – whom he expects to be grateful to be allowed to marry his son. Only she has other ideas and is as quietly stubborn as her mother… the tangles between her, Mary and Miss Aliston might be something else. If Mary isn’t nasty it might be in her interests to make friends with Miss Aliston to make sure of help with her own lover.

  4. Oh dear, I committed a huge legal blunder! Thanks a lot for amending it and still have the basic storyline turn out alright.

    • Better to find out now than when it’s half written and you’re swearing… the laws of inheritance are very complex, even if you adopted someone [who might or might not be a natural child] they still, I believe, had to be provided for specifically under the terms of the will. This might not be a problem if the deceased was the sensible sort of person who makes a will the instant he marries and amends it with any offspring, but a lot of people have a superstitious fear of making a will for some reason, and a nasty shock that could be to someone adopted at a young age and assuming themselves to be a child of the house when suddenly disinherited… lud, that’s another potential plot bunny, isn’t it?

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