St John's Lock


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from Environment Agency Guide 2012-2013

This section in The Stripling Thames by Fred Thacker

Thames Valley Villages, 1910, by Charles G Harper

Lechlade Map 1920
Fred Thacker’s Map, 1920.

1775: a weir is shown on Bowen’s map.
1790: St John's pound lock was built.
1792: the completion of the new navigation works to link up with the Thames & Severn Canal.
1830: The first lock house (on the Right bank of the lock – between weir and lock) was built.
1857:  The lock was “in a frightful state of delapidation”;  missing gates being replaced with hurdles and straw!

1859: The Thames, Mr & Mrs Hall


It is here we first meet a point of greater interest — The first lock on the river Thames, It is rude enough to be picturesque. This lock occurs, however, in a back-water, or rather an artificial cut, the main branch of the river flowing through the arches of St. John's Bridge,

1867:  Lock repaired.

1870: St John’s Lock, Henry Taunt -

St John’s Lock, Henry Taunt, 1870
St John’s Lock, Henry Taunt, 1870
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT281

1885: The Royal River -

There are a lock house and garden to rest in, Thames Conservancy notices to be read, and ancient lock-keeping folk to talk with.
It is a very old lock. In the natural order of things it cannot last much longer, and at no distant date, no doubt, it will give place to one of the more useful, but infinitely more prosaic, affairs of iron, with modern improvements in the machinery, which the Conservancy supplies when it is necessary to replace the original structures.
The partly-decayed boards, the hand-rail rising from their outer edge, the lock gates patched many a time, and thinned in regard to their outer casing by many a winter flood, have done their work, and stand in weather-worn picturesqueness, all awry, doing their remaining duty as best they may.

[The rebuilding was still twenty years away!]
1885: St John’s Lock.  It is slightly worrying that the dog and owner who were at the lock in 1859, were still there in 1870 and 1885 -

St John’s Lock 1885
St John’s Lock, 1885, the Royal River.

Lechlade Lock lantern slide, 1883-1908, W C Hughes, research by Dr Wilson, courtesy of Pat Furley.

1905:  Lock rebuilt.  A new lock house was built on the current site on the Left bank – “a picturesque new bungalow”  (Fred Thacker adds dryly “"one hears regrets for the original shanty”".)
1923: Walter Higgins printed this in his book"Father Thames", however it looks to me as if the print must be earlier than 1905 because there is no sign of the new bungalow -

1923: St John’s Lock, Walter Higgins
1923? St John’s Lock, Walter Higgins

1937:"The Thames and its Story" [ I think this counts as"regrets for the original shanty"! ] -

With its house and appurtenances, the lock makes a garish blot on the prevailing softness of colour: it is all startingly new; the red brick and white paint have to be greatly toned down by time and weather before they can take their proper place in the landscape. But it will take years to accomplish, and one cannot but sigh for the picturesqueness of the old lock; with its weather-worn boards, patched gates, and its pretty cottage, it took its place comfortably in the scene.
The new building is aggressive; it suggests"hustle and bustle", and seems out of place on the quiet banks of the soft flowing river. But it is in accordance with the tendency of the times - a tendency to haste and utility, at the sacrifice of beauty and leisure.
It is the day of the motor, and the river, almost as much as the roads, has been affected thereby. These upper reaches, with the advent of the motor boat, have become easy of access to the tourist whose desire it is to see all that is to be seen in the shortest possible time with the least expenditure of trouble.
Hence the capture of the river by the motorist. But it must be said that the water motorist is less unpleasant - save in his trail of petrol odour - than he of the car. He makes no noise save the rhythmical beat of the screw, and it must be acknowledged that there is even something fascinating in the smooth gliding of his boat.
We doubt, however, if the charm of the oar-propelled boat will be one whit lessened to the real lovers of the river by the easier methods offered by the motor. The delightful sense of healthy fatigue induced by a day's rowing is part of the pleasure of the river-man; it accords fittingly with the closing in of the day, when, the destination reached, oars are unshipped, the camp prepared, and the quietude of the summer night settles down upon the scene, and the river with its gentle murmur provides a pleasant lullaby.

1955: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith -

1955: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith
1955: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith.

1960: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith -

1960: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith
1960: St John’s Lock, Francis Frith.

1992: Skyscan's Aerial view of St John’s Lock in The Secret Thames -

St John's Lock
Skyscan's aerial view of St John's Lock.

2000: St John’s Lock -

St John's Lock
St John's Lock.

Father Thames

So here then is the very shrine of Old father Thames himself where he reclines in glory.  His effigy was carved by Rafaelle Monti, and was originally commissioned in 1854 for the Crystal Palace; unusually for its time, it was carved out of Portland cement. It was rescued from the fire at Crystal Palace in 1936 and bought by the Thames Conservancy, who eventually installed it at Thames Head in 1958. Following vandalism the statue was moved to St John's Lock from Thames Head in 1974.

Plaque near statue

1994: Mollie Harris in 'The Stripling Thames' writes -

One man ... Eynsham born and bred is Ron May, who worked on the Thames for thirty-two years. His father and his grandfather before him, too, worked almost all their lives on the river. His father, for some reason, was known as Soldier May and Ron always as Young Soldier.
At one time Ron was dredger-master and drove a hundred ton steam dredger, which had to be towed up and down the river by a great tug. ...
It was Ron's gang who brought the huge figure of Old Father Thames from the source at Trewsbury Mead to its present home at Lechlade. One of their lorries had previously collected it from the Crystal Palace Exhibition and had taken it to Trewsbury Mead years before.

So he was installed here at St John's Lock where the lock keeper can keep an eye on the old boy.  (He does look as if he has, in the past, got up to quite a lot, and might just do so again, don't you think?)

Old father Thames

Alexander Pope, celebrated the Peace brought about in 1713, and proclaims a new time of prosperity for the river -

In that blest moment, from his oozy bed
Old Father Thames advanced his reverend head;
His tresses dropped with dews, and o'er the stream
His shining horns diffused a golden gleam:

Graved on his urn appeared the moon, that guides
His swelling waters, and alternate tides;
The figured streams in waves of silver rolled,
And on their banks Augusta rose in gold.

Around his throne the sea-born brothers stood,
Who swell with tributary urns his flood;
First the famed authors of his ancient name,
The winding Isis and the fruitful Thame:

The Kennet swift, for silver eels renowned;
The Loddon slow, with verdant alders crowned;
Cole, whose dark streams his flowery islands lave;
And chalky Wey, that rolls a milky wave;

The blue, transparent Vandalis appears;
The gulfy Lee his sedgy tresses rears;
And sullen Mole, that hides his diving flood;
And silent Darent, stained with Danish blood.

High in the midst, upon his urn reclined,
(His sea-green mantle waving with the wind)
The god appeared: he turned his azure eyes
Where Windsor-domes and pompous turrets rise;

Then bowed and spoke; the winds forget to roar,
And the hushed waves glide softly to the shore.
"Hail, sacred Peace! hail, long-expected days,
That Thames's glory to the stars shall raise! ..."

I think old Father Thames really ought to find his home on Temple Island in the Henley reach – where he could supervise events more suited to his lascivious appearance.  What am I talking about?  Well look at a typical day for him …

Old father Thames print 1
Old father Thames.

There is another version of this print -

Old father Thames print 2
The Thames or the Triumph of navigation 1792, James Barry.

A typical scene at St John’s Lock …
The print goes with two couplets from the poem 'Cooper's Hill' by Sir John Denham (1615-1669) -

Nor are his blessings to his banks confin'd,
But free and common as the sea or wind;
So that to us no thing, no place is strange,
While his fair bosom is the world's exchange.

I think what this is on about is the free market which the Thames facilitated with its easy (well easier) means of commercial transport.
That the statue was made with the same message is indicated by the parcelled up goods beside him
After Alexander Pope's celebration of the Great Peace under Queen Anne this is just a little of a come down!

W Clark Russell -

Father Thames, once a god, might more fitly be termed a goddess, under the title of Commerce; for this assuredly is the presiding spirit.
It quickens with life the smallest and craziest structures by the water-side; the very ebb and flow of the noble stream seem obedient to its laws, and its shadow is in the air and upon the face of the waters.

John Eade, with apologies to Lewis Carroll
Listen to 'You are old, father Thames'

"You are old, father Thames," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly lounge on a bed -
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

"In my youth," father Thames replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, being cement, I'm sure I have none,
So, I do it come sunshine or rain."

"You are old," said the youth,"as is natural of course,
But you've grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet were moved on for vandalism up at the source -
Pray what is the reason for that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this paddle - and the throwing of rocks -
Allow me to shie you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth,"and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak -
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father,"I took to the law,
And argued our name with wife Isis;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has brought me through many a crisis."

"You are old," said the youth,"one would hardly suppose
That your fame was as widespread as ever;
Yet you sit there in state and look down your nose -
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Father Thames says."Impertinent boaters!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or they'll think you're all loafers!"

St John’s Lock is the first on the Thames and still has its manual, wheel operated, paddles.  If you have to do it yourself it is a delight in comparison with the average canal lock. 
The weir here is often the first to trigger the adjustment of all the weirs down the river. When the lock keeper sees a change in level he responds appropriately and then telephones the next lock down - so that a movement here can cause a ripple effect all the way down.
Above the lock there are a few more tentative meanders.  Father Thames was just practising for the full grown article below the lock.  So we zigzag across the field, past the school to Lechlade Reach which is usually lined with temporarily moored boats on the field side and on the other a tree lined bank and glimpses of Lechlade town and church.

1937:"The Thames and its Story" -

The river is very modest hereabouts; at its widest part, in the near neighbourhood of the lock, it is not more than twenty yards across from bank to bank - a silver ribbon in the green meadows with which it is bordered on either side.
The scene is a peculiarly English one ... the red-tiled village, the grey church and bridge, framed in the rich green foliage; the verdant meadow lands surrounded again with trees, form a picture which is ever pleasing.

Aerial view above St John's Lock
Aerial view above St John's Lock

Lechlade from downstream. Lantern slide 1883-1906, W.C.Hughes, research by Dr Wilson, courtesy of Pat Furley

The River Thames near Lechlade, Ashley Bryant
The River Thames near Lechlade, Ashley Bryant