The Oxford Canal Chain Book

In 1992, as part of the BW Architectural Heritage Survey, I walked the Oxford Canal from Hawkesbury to Oxford and inspected all its historic structures.

At the time, there was a waterway office at Marston Doles and someone there showed me a calf-bound, roughly A5 sized Chain Book that dated from around 1842 and was signed by the canal engineer Frederick Wood. It was basically a survey of the Oxford Canal, with every two pages covering a mile and listing all the weirs, locks, bridges, wharves, toll offices and so on, with details about them. I made a lot of notes from it, stuck them in my rucksack and set off along the canal.

It took me about three weeks to complete my survey and then I moved on to some other waterway. Not long afterwards, the Marston Doles office closed and the original Chain Book vanished. I’ve never seen it since, but recently I got hold of a photocopy from someone at the Warwickshire Industrial Archaeology Society and I’ve scanned it for safekeeping.

Looking through the Chain Book again is fascinating. People had scribbled notes in it ranging in date from the 1840s to the 1970s – it was a real slice of everyday working history. It records that the Oxford Canal Company owned stone quarries, lime kilns, osier beds, pubs and wharves. Giving their names or numbers, it lists all the different types of bridge – turnpike, parish road, occupation, towing path, drawbridge and notes when each was built, rebuilt or demolished, right up to the late 1970s. It reveals that in 1842, 9,900 boats crossed the Oxford summit and 20,059 boats passed through Hillmorton, no doubt benefitting from the newly built paired locks, which cost ‘upwards of £1400 each’ and were ‘completed and opened to the Trade on 25 August 1840’.

The Hillmorton Locks were ‘built upon running quick sand, which occasioned much difficulty in their erection’ and ‘all the Lower Gates are of Cast Iron’. Several of these gates survive to this day and must be the oldest operational gates owned by the Trust. Full size wooden patterns for these iron gates survived in a workshop at Hillmorton until the late 1980s and I tried to find a home for them, without much success as I recollect now.

Documents like the Oxford Canal Chain Book are invaluable for uncovering the hidden history of our waterways and it is good that copies still exist. But one question remains; what happened to the original book?


Nigel Crowe

Last date edited: 21 August 2014

About this blog

Nigel Crowe

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 this author