Jane Bethell reports how the Stroudwater Company’s efforts to avoid the towpath becoming a right of way led to a confrontation in 1901.
At the turn of the 20th century the canal towpath was widely used by the general public, but the Stroudwater Company was keen to ensure that it could not be claimed as a right of way. Any commercial enterprise that needed to have access was charged rent, and sections of the towpath were periodically closed to the public for a day. These closures were publicised in advance and were policed by the employees of the Company.
In general, the closures passed without incident, but not everyone was happy with the practice. When a towpath closure was in place in 1897, Mr G W Sibly, the headmaster of Wycliffe College, attempted to use the closed section and was stopped by Company employees. He complained to the Company in writing, asserting that there was a right of way on the towpath. The Committee responded, stating that, although the public as a matter of convenience were allowed to use the towpath, there was no right of way.
Mr Sibly was a campaigner for public rights and clearly felt his public position gave him some authority – as well as being a headmaster, he was also chairman of the local Stonehouse parish council – and he was not prepared to let the matter rest. Matters came to a head on 13 February 1901 when the next closure was put in place. Mr Sibly, an assistant teacher and some 20 boys, attempted to walk along the closed section west of Ryeford Bridge, accompanied by a policeman who Mr Sibly had obtained to prevent an assault. They were met by four company employees who were there to enforce the closure.
In the resulting scuffle, it was reported in the Stroud Journal that there was much pushing and shoving, caps were lost, and both Mr Sibly and Company man Edward Hill were pulled to the ground. As the intruders continued to push forward, the assistant master tried to recover his cap from the canal, but he was stopped by Company man Albert Bassett, and when Edward Hill saw them struggling and went to intervene, he was thrown over into the water and damaged his ankle. This cooled tempers and the parties quietly dispersed. Edward Hill was taken to Stroud hospital where it was found his ankle was broken.
Mr Sibly reported the incident to the next parish council meeting, expressing surprise that anyone had been injured, and the Stroud News reported that some members wished they had been there to see the ‘fun’. However, the Stroudwater Committee took a different view and decided unanimously to pursue the matter. The solicitor advising the Company secured the legal opinion that the Company had a good cause for taking legal action. However, he first wrote to Mr Sibly with the offer that the action could be dropped if Mr Sibly agreed not to trespass on the towpath in future, to publish and sign an undertaking to this effect, and to pay five guineas in costs. After initially trying to avoid the embarrassment of publishing an apology, Mr Sibly eventually agreed to make the following statement in the press:
"To the Stroudwater Navigation Company. I find that I was misinformed as to the Public having a right of way over the Company's Towing Path at Stonehouse and regret that I attempted in the interests of the public to assert a supposed right to use the path on the 13th February last, on which day it was stopped by your orders. I hereby undertake not to make any such future attempt, and I consent to your publishing this undertaking. Dated this 7th day of May 1901. G W Sibly"
The injured man Edward Hill was a foreman or ‘ganger’ who had worked for the Company for many years. To make up his normal income plus any medical expenses, the Company helped him to begin a separate legal action for personal injury against the two schoolmasters. In the event, Mr Sibly agreed pay £60 in settlement of damages and costs and the action was dropped. The Company also agreed to pay him an allowance of £5 for the period when he was unable to work. After five months off work, Edward Hill returned to his job in July.
Many people now would have sympathy with Mr Sibly’s thinking, but he was ahead of his time and the outcome was arguably the best that could be achieved in 1901. Relations between the Company and the school do not appear to have been permanently soured: the school continued to use the canal for swimming and boating, paying rent for the privilege. The Company prudently clarified its procedures for future towpath closures to help avoid a recurrence. Documents held by the Museum in the Park show that the canal employees signed the schedule for the next closure and made reports of any incidents. There is also a note book with lists of people who had been given permission to use the towpath during closures with an acknowledgement that they would not claim a right of way.
Stroud Journal 22 Feb 1901.
Stroud News 22 Feb 1901.
D1180/9/10 p143 and D1180/1/7 p303-317.
Stroud Museum in the Park 2009.66/2 to 4.