Paddle gearing is one of the joys of our waterways. It is historic and still in use. It has its own language of racks, jacks, pinions, pawls, worms and nuts. And despite past attempts at standardisation there is still a great variety of it be found across the country.
Early paddle gearing on river and canal locks was wooden, usually of the peg and pull type. Some paddle posts are still wooden today. But as time went on, wood was replaced by iron, typified by the classic BCN rack and pinion gearing that spread across Midland canals during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1970s and 80s hydraulically operated granny paddles were introduced, but these were not a success and most have now been replaced.
Locks commonly had gate paddles at the lower end and ground paddles at the top end, although in working days a combination of both allowed faster locking times. There were many regional variations, ranging from the curious ball and chain counterweighted gearing on the Bridgwater & Taunton, to the beautiful crown wheel and pinion sets on the Oxford Canal (which survived into the late 1980s in places) and handspikes and hand-wheel worked gears on the rivers of the North East. In between was a rich heritage of shapes and styles, like the Ham Baker candlesticks on the great inter-war sections of the Grand Union Canal and the rare and extraordinary reverse inclined ground paddle gear at Hillmorton Locks, which may well date from the 1840s.
Spotting different paddle gearing is enjoyable and some people have invaluable photographic collections that show how this idiosyncratic equipment has evolved and changed over time. It makes its own noise too; the shake, rattle and roll of traditional paddle gearing really is the soundtrack of waterways history.
As national heritage manager, Nigel’s role is to lead the Canal & River Trust’s team of regional heritage advisers in England and Wales. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in the conservation, archaeology and interpretation of historic buildings and places. He is a member of the editorial board of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. He has written numerous articles concerning heritage conservation and is the author of several longer published works, including the English Heritage Book of Canals.See more blogs from Nigel Crowe