Fringe Box



Has Rubbish Put Paid to Stoke Lock’s Place In History?

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

by David Rose

Guildford’s Stoke Lock, on the Wey Navigation, should perhaps be better known within the UK’s history of inland waterways.The fact that the area around it has long been the town’s dumping ground is probably the reason it is not.

It has been said that in about 1616-20 Sir Richard Weston of Sutton Place dug his first lock hereabouts as part of his agricultural experimentation into water management. This eventually stimulated canalisation throughout Britain. It may have been the site of the first pound lock in the UK.

Stoke Lock in the late 19th century.

The scheme was Weston’s ‘flowing river’. It enabled him to control the water around the meadows of his estate, thus flooding them when necessary.

In his book The Wey Navigations (Surrey Industrial History Group, 2003), Alan Wardle writes: ‘Just above the lock leading off to the north behind the lock cottage is a short channel. This is thought to be part of Sir Richard Weston’s ‘flowing river’.’

‘It certainly heads in the right direction, but for a mile or so beyond all trace of it has disappeared.’

Wardle adds that Stoke Lock is often said to have been built at the same time as the ‘flowing river’. He states that this may be so but, unless at that time substantial barges were already navigating the natural river here, nothing so expensive as a pound lock would have been needed. He states that a dam or weir would have been sufficient to divert water into Weston’s channel.

A picture postcard view of Stoke Lock in the 1900s.

The lock, of course, remains to this day with its keeper’s cottage alongside. But I can’t help thinking that in its heyday of commercial traffic on the waterway and right on into the 20th century it would have been something of a remote location on the outskirts of Guildford.

Today, the suburban development of Bellfields is close by along with the Slyfield Industrial Estate, that includes the local public tip (now called a recycling centre) at the end of Moorfield Road.

The reason why it was once such as remote place is rather obvious. By the end of the 19th century it had become the site of the town’s sewage works and refuse tip! A place where most of Guildford’s inhabitants would have chosen to stay well away from.

From about 1896, Guildford’s refuse was barged down the river from a ‘transfer station’ in Bedford Road near the town centre and dumped on the marshy ground just beyond Stoke Lock.

Alfred Batchelor sitting on the doorstep of Stoke Lock lock-keeper’s cottage in the late 1930s. He was originally a bargeman and became lock-keeper in later life. He died there aged 73 on June 7, 1943.

Dumping of refuse as landfill was replaced by an incinerator (then called a dust destructor), built off Woking Road just prior to the First World War. In the 1960s and 70s, landfill returned with a further area of land at Slyfield used to bury the town’s rubbish.

It’s the dumping of the town’s late Victorian and Edwardian rubbish that has fascinated me for many years. The site of the old tip was excavated from the 1970s onwards by myself and many others for old bottles and bygones.

Back then, a fellow bottle hunter told me that one day while he was there, digging through the layers of ash and composed material for old bottles, an elderly man came long to see what he was doing.

This person told my fellow bottle collector that he remembered this site in his youth – back in the early 1900s.

He recalled the barges mooring up beside the river bank, adding that  ‘narrow-guage railway lines’ were laid across the marshy ground. On these were trucks into which the town’s refuse was transferred and then pushed by hand and tipped.

I reckon any remains of Weston’s ‘flowing river’ were obliterated by the dumping of Guildford’s rubbish at the turn of the 20th century.

Of course, no photos of the tip during those years appear to exist, but there are a number of photos of Stoke Lock – several of which were published as picture postcards. No doubt the postcard company photographers didn’t stray as far as the tip!

Just as well perhaps, as it is said that as well as domestic refuse, all kinds of other unsavoury things found a ‘final resting place’ down there. Evidently, an area was set aside for the dumping of metal items and another for dead dogs, cats and other animals of no use to the knackers yard!

Perhaps, if this stretch of the river had not become the site of the town’s sewage works, refuse tip, and today’s recycling centre, it’s importance in the history of the UK’s waterways would now be more appreciated.

Eillen Pierce of Guildford kindly allowed me to copy this photo taken on a Wey barge and the one of her grandfather, Alfred Batchelor, seen above. From left, Mrs Pierce’s grandmother on her father’s side of the family; Eileen James (later Pierce); Ivy James (Mrs Pierce’s mother); Audrey James (Mrs Pierce’s sister); Aunt Dora Aimes. Cicra 1934.

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