The History of Kings Lock Cottage, Aylestone (Part 1)

Kings Lock Cottage stands at Lock 38 on the canal we now know as the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal. This canal was built to connect Leicester to the River Nene near Northampton, where it would join the projected central artery of the canal system, the Grand Junction Canal. An Act of Parliament on 30th April 1793 authorised the building of the canal, which was then named the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union. On 6th May 1793 the proprietors met at the Swan’s Inn in Market Harborough, with John Peach Hungerford in the Chair, and they appointed sub committees for each section of the proposed canal. Surveying and construction work started from the Leicester end. Although the building began well, it slowed over the winter, and in February 1794 there was a rumour that work was being discontinued. The rumour was swiftly quashed and progress improved.

The section where Kings Lock Cottage stands, from Leicester to Blaby, was open for barge traffic by October 1794. The canal’s troubles were not over yet. The Union had to overcome local opposition and then they had to rebuild the Saddington Tunnel because it was out of line. Funds ran so low that in 1797 the canal was forced to terminate at Debdale Wharf. A branch to Market Harborough was started in 1805 and completed by 1809. The final connection to the Grand Junction Canal at Norton Junction and Buckby Wharf finally opened in 1814, thus completing the connection between London and the Midlands.

Kings Lock was originally called Aylestone Lock, or Aylestone Village Lock, distinguishing it from Aylestone Mill Lock, the lock to the north at Aylestone flour mill. Recent researchers say that the lock cottage was built during the earliest part of the project in 1795 or 1796, but I have not been able to find any evidence for this. The original cottage, which can be seen in old photographs (as shown), was a simple two up, two down residence. Old maps suggest that the left hand section was added some time between 1914 and 1930, providing a kitchen and space for two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. If you look carefully at the cottage today, you can see the difference between the bricks and the wall thicknesses in the two sections. Drinking water came from a well in the garden to the left of the cottage, but the exact site is unknown today. Perhaps the next owner will find and restore it?

The First Lock Keeper, William Burdett

The first known lock keeper was William Burdett. I have found no evidence of any lock keepers before him, so it is possible that the cottage was not built until his arrival. Not every lock had a lockkeeper, after all. There was no lock keeper at Aylestone Mill Lock to the north, nor at Blue Banks Lock to the south. William was born in Blaby in 1793.
I have not had access to the archives during my research, and it was difficult to distinguish William from another unrelated William Burdett who lived in the area at this time. My research into William’s life is therefore incomplete. He seems to have come to Aylestone first in 1812, as a young man, just 19 years of age with his pregnant girlfriend, Ann Broughton. Parish records tell us that they married at St Andrew’s church on 12th July 1812. We can only speculate as to why they married outside their home parishes, William in Glen Parva, and Ann in Blaby.

Records show three children born before 1816: William was born in 1812 at Aylestone wharf in 1812, Elizabeth in about 1814 (her baptism is unrecorded), at Mary at Glen Parva wharf in 1815. Although there is a clear connection to the canal, since wharves appear in two of these records, I cannot prove William’s occupation until the baptism of his fourth child, John, at St Andrew’s Church in 1817, when William is named as a lock keeper. William and Ann went on to have six more children, all baptised at St Andrew’s. They were Eunice, Sarah, who died as a baby, George, who died age 20, Robert, who died age 6, Anne, and another Robert in 1840. The young family must have been packed like sardines in their tiny cottage!

William and his family were to remain at Kings Lock until at least 1851. I have not found William in the newspapers until 6th August 1836, when the Leicester Mercury reported an inquest into the drowning of two children, 9 year old Joseph Bruce, and his little sister, 5 year old Mary Bruce, on Friday 29th July 1836, who had been selling green peas to boatmen on the canalside at Glen Parva. Mary’s body was recovered first, by a boatman, and William helped to drag the canal to find Joseph’s body. It seemed likely that one of the children had fallen in, and that the other drowned whilst attempting to rescue their sibling.

Two years later, on Tuesday 14th August 1838, as the Leicester Mercury reports, William was passing a boat through the lock when the top gate caught on an obstruction and would not close. Thinking it was weeds or rubbish, William dragged the canal with a rake, but he must have been horrified to recover the stiff, cold body of a little boy, William Towers, aged seven, who had fallen into the lock whilst fishing. William and his family tried their hardest to revive the little lad, but to no avail.

The Leicester Journal reported that William was a witness in the case of a man of about 50 years ago, found drowned in the canal nearby. William had seen the man walking along the towpath about ten yards below Foster’s Bridge at about 3pm on Saturday 2nd May 1840. William asked him whether he was out of work. The man said that he was not, but he was feeling ill, and had come out for a walk. He said that he had been a “sad drinking man, and that if he had a hogshead of money he should spend it all on drink; that he had been in the army and in foreign parts as a youth, and that he was so much addicted to drink that he could not do without it; that he was a Leicester man and a stocking maker by trade”. When William left the man, he was lying on the ground on the rise of the bridge. About an hour later he heard that the poor man, whose name was not known, had drowned.

Later that same year, on Sunday 8th November 1840, there was a tragic accident. William’s wife Ann sent their youngest child, ten year old son Robert, to wash the mop in the canal. The poor little lad fell in. He had only been in the water about five minutes when he was rescued, but he appeared lifeless, and all the family’s efforts could not revive him. It was the second child named Robert who they had lost.

In the 1841 census we find William and Ann Burdett living at the cottage, with their son John, age about 20 and working as a boatman, their daughter Elizabeth, age about 25 and daughter Anne age 15, both working in the wool hosiery industry, and their son George, age 15, a boatman.

I found proof that there were two unrelated William Burdetts in the Leicester Chronicle and the Leicester Mercury in 1846. William Burdett, the lock keeper, was charged with assaulting the other William Burdett, also of Aylestone, on the 5th or 6th June 1846 (the papers disagree on the date). The Mercury specifically states that the men were not related. The alleged victim said that William had come into the public house, and a light-hearted conversation had become heated and ended with abuse on both sides, such that the victims eye had been cut, the eyelid drooping on his cheek. The defence claimed that the conversation had started with the alleged victim accusing William of theft. William had dared him to repeat the accusation, threatening consequences if he did, and he had gone ahead and repeated it. William had to pay a fine and the expenses, amounting to 14 shillings in total, but there seem to have been no further repercussions.

William was still a regular at St Andrew’s Church, and on 30th July 1848 he was a witness to a scene in which a local sexton, Mr Straton, allegedly assaulted Frances Jordan, who was described as a humble young woman of respectable character. Simeon had asked Frances to leave the free pew where she was sitting, as it was reserved for the elderly and strangers to the village. William said Mr Straton had come to Frances “like a bull dog and attempted to force her out”. He said he had attended the church for 33 years (since 1815) and the seat had always been free to use.

On 1st February 1849 one of William’s daughters witnessed two boatmen, Joseph and Samuel Rayson, breaking down a gate belonging to the Canal Company and throwing it into the canal. The damage was estimated at 5 shillings. The Canal Company wished to take the case to court as a deterrent to others. Although Mr Bell, representing the defendants, stated that the guilty party was a man called Hudson who was working the boats with them and was drunk at the time, the Raysons were fined 12 shillings each for damages and costs.

In the 1851 census William and Ann were still living at the cottage. William was now age 58, and Ann age 59. Their unmarried daughter Ann age 24 was living with them, and was working as a frame work knitter, probably making hosiery. Also living with them was Eunice’s daughter, their granddaughter, Ann Padget, age 6.

This is the last reference to William and his family at Kings Lock Cottage. The story continues with the next lock keeper, the eponymous George King.

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