The history of our canals in 10 artefacts: part two

From a strange set of keys to a Dunkirk hero, collections manager Steve Bagley introduces us to four finds that provide a unique glimpse of our canal history

National Waterways Museum, Gloucester

Abi Whyte

Posted on 16/08/2019

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In an old grain warehouse on the bustling quayside, sandwiched between the River Severn and the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, you’ll find the National Waterways Museum, Gloucester. Collections manager Steve Bagley invites us into this intriguing treasure trove, to tell the stories of four artefacts that provide a unique glimpse of life and work on the waterways.

A warehouse tool

Over 200 years ago, tall ships from all over the world would have carried grain to the docks of Gloucester, to be stored in Llanthony Warehouse, now home to the museum. The first artefact that Steve shows me is a sack hook; an iron hook with a wooden handle, which warehouse workers would have used to hoist heavy sacks of grain over their shoulders and carry them where they needed to be stacked. This was back-breaking work, and Steve tells me that many workers would have developed sores and calluses on their shoulders from the constant rubbing of the rough sack cloth.

A landmark building

Llanthony Warehouse is as much a part of the museum’s collection as the historical objects it houses. The remarkable brick building was built in 1827, the last and largest warehouse to be constructed on the docks. Each floor’s open-plan layout showcases the original cast iron pillars, the stains of water ingress on the brick walls and the worn floorboards riddled with woodworm (now treated, of course!). Steve also shows me the clever tongue-and-groove construction of the floorboards, which would have prevented loose grains from slipping through the cracks.

A key to the docks

The third object is an unusual set of cast iron keys called Lewis Keys (also known as St Peter’s Keys as they look a bit like a representation of St Peter ascending into heaven). It’s a tool that has been used by stonemasons since Roman times, to hoist huge, heavy stones into place with a crane or winch. This three-legged key played a pivotal part in constructing Gloucester docks; it would have been inserted into the slot at the top of the stone, and when the winch lifted the key, the ‘legs’ would have splayed out inside the stone, bearing its gargantuan weight.

A war hero

The gleaming white Queen Boadicea II is the museum’s trip boat; she carries visitors around the docks and up and down the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal from March to October. Steve tells me about her incredible heroic past – originally built as a Thames pleasure cruiser in 1936 (she’s named after the bronze statue of Boadicea close to Westminster Pier, where she used to be docked), she was seconded into the Royal Navy on the outbreak of the Second World War, and was one of the “little ships” that rescued stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. Steve tells me that as she pulled into Dunkirk Harbour, a boat next to it was hit by a shell, killing many on board. Queen Boadicea II brought 13 stranded soldiers back to Britain, then went back to being a pleasure cruiser on the Thames before being acquired by the Canal & River Trust.

Plan your next day out at the National Waterways Museum Gloucester

Colin Nicholls