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.