Poetry rarely touches the waterways, but Tony Conder reveals how Ivor Gurney’s poem 'The Lock Keeper' brings to life the human side of working on the Stroudwater Canal in the early twentieth century when traffic was declining.
Dates, Acts of Parliament and lists of tons carried all help give a framework to understanding waterway’s history, but there are other sources. Some canal trade lasted into the age where photography became domestic and we have images of boats at work. The Stroudwater, like many smaller waterways has few paintings, but it does have a good paper record and also a unique record of its own.
Poetry hardly touches the waterways throughout their history. There are no great romantic ballads of the heroic struggle of coal barges on the Grand Union Canal compared to say Masefield’s poems about life at sea. The Stroudwater has however Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘The Lock Keeper’ which brings to life the human side of working on a canal. Too often the people who actually made canals work don’t get their voice heard. Here the ‘Tidesman’ or Lock Keeper at Framilode at the time of the First World War lives for us.
'You might see him at morning by the lock-gates,
Or busy in the warehouse on a multitude
Of boat fittings, net fittings; copper, iron, wood,…’
'His afternoon was action all but nebulous
Trailed over four miles country, tentaculous
Of coalmen, farmers, fishermen his friends
And duties without beginnings and without ends ….'
This is from the longer form of the poem. The lock keeper is obviously someone Gurney envies because of the certainty of his life but also its variety and that it is set among countryside and country pursuits, things Gurney wanted but could never quite grasp. Gurney stayed with the lock keeper at Framilode in 1913 when he was recovering from a serious breakdown. He suffered from depression which would surface throughout his life and he would die in an institution in 1937.
Gurney’s view is certainly affected by the calm he was seeking and found at Framilode, but he also captures the sounds and nature of the work.
'Or the tide’s change, his care, or a barge to let free
The lowering of the waters, the quick inflow
The trouble and the turmoil characteristic row
Of exits or of river entrances ….'
There was still trade from the river on to the canal in 1913 with barges coming in directly from Bullo Pill and barges from the canal let out to Framilode Mill. The poem opens up questions which would be interesting to research. That the lock keeper had a four mile length, half the waterway to Pike Lock presumably. This suggests that in such straightened times there were only two men responsible for walking the length of the Stroudwater. Surveying the canal for repairs they would talk to customers, ’…. coalmen, farmers ….’, check the fishing permits and generally know what was going on in nature and commerce on its banks. To supplement his income the lock keeper fished the river Severn and worked his land. His entertainment was the pub, presumably the Ship Inn kept for a while by his second wife’s Aunt and her husband.
'Later the tide being past violence, the gates known safe
He would leave his station….’ and then
'Poverty or closing time would bring him again
On the cinder path outside would be heard that slow walk ….'
Ivor Gurney’s first version of the poem was written at St Albans in July 1918 three months after the lock keeper's death. Gurney was recovering from another illness after service in the First World War. Coming back to Gloucester he tried to settle to a job, to find a way to live within his family. Ultimately he would fail, but he wrote his songs and his poems and sometime while living with his brother around 1920 he wrote the longer version of the poem which is well worth searching out.
Who was the lock keeper? James Harris joined the Stroudwater in March 1911. His duties were based on Framilode and he lived by the lock into the river where there was also a basin and a storehouse. Previously he had been a ship and general carpenter. Born in 1862, he was twice married - his first wife died in 1905. He remarried just as he took the Framilode job, Ellen Beard. The banns were read in Gloucester and the service was at All Saints Barton Street. At the time James Harris had been living at 97 Barton Street very close to the Gurney family which may be why Gurney was staying with them two years later.
The poetry of Ivor Gurney is interwoven with the River Severn and the countryside he knew. His joyous friendship with F W Harvey and the adventures they had together on the river in the £5 boat that James Harris sold Ivor appear in works by both poets.
World War 1 changed many things and many people. James Harris would not live to see the peace but in The Lock Keeper his world is encapsulated and opened up for us to get a glimpse of working on a small waterway a century ago.