The History of Kings Lock Cottage, Aylestone (Part 2)

The Second Lock Keeper, George King, 1851 – 1891

The story of Kings Lock Cottage (continued from Part 1) introduces the next lock keeper, the eponymous George King. George was the longest serving lockkeeper at Kings Lock Cottage. The first reference I have found for him shows him working as a lock keeper at Aylestone Mill Lock in 1851. It seems likely that the lock keeper at Kings Lock also covered the lock at Aylestone Mill. Several archive newspaper articles mention George King walking down the canal to the Mill, as well as patrolling along the stretch of canal to the south, at least as far as Blue Bank bridge, so he probably looked after Blue Bank Lock too.

George was born on 20th July 1817. He married Jane Lee in 1841, and they had five children, Anna born in 1845, John Thomas born in 1848, Henry born in 1850, Lydia born in 1853 (birth mother’s maiden name unlisted on registration), and Mary born in 1855 (registered in Blaby).

Unfortunately George’s first years there were marred by the tragic death of a son, John, just like William Burdett before him. On Friday 9th September 1853 George’s wife Jane was getting ready to go into Aylestone, and told her little boy John, who was only four years old, that he could run on ahead of her. She soon set off and was surprised not to see him on the road, but she thought that he must have rushed on to get to the town before her. As the day wore on, and John did not appear, she grew increasingly worried. George got a drag and tried the canal under the bridge, where the descent from the bridge to the towpath was particularly steep and dangerous. After about half an hour of concerted dragging, the little boy’s body was found and taken out of the water. At the inquest George said that the place where the little boy had fallen into the canal was very unsafe, even for grown up people, and especially at night. He said that some fencing was required there similar to that at the West Bridge. The inquest returned a verdict of Accidental Death.

By 1871 Anna, Lydia and Mary had left home. Lydia was working as a general domestic servant in Bruntingthorpe.

At about 6 am on Sunday 25th August 1872, George King was going down the river with a pair of fly boats. One of the boatmen drew his attention to a body floating close to the middle of the canal about 100 yards above Mary’s Mill. George borrowed a drag and rope from the boatman and pulled the body out. George did not recognise the young man. He was dressed in clothes which were not loose or disordered, and the body appeared to have been in the water for several days. George searched the body, and found a watch and a purse containing 2d. The body was removed to the Union Inn in Aylestone and was later identified as Frederick W Johnson, age 23, husband of Elizabeth Sophia Johnson. He was a steady young man, a book keeper in his father’s shoe manufacturing business, and a very good husband. That very morning Frederick had given evidence against a man called Samuel Greatorex, who had been robbing his father. The day after the body was found, there was an inquest at Mr Stables’ Public House in Aylestone. No evidence was found to show how Frederick came to be in the canal. His wife gave evidence that Frederick had been nervous about giving evidence and unable to eat all week, and that he had been suffering from severe headaches right up to the day of the hearing, but nobody seems to have questioned whether he may have been deliberately harmed by friends of Samuel Greatorex. An open verdict was returned. On the following Friday Samuel Greatorex was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.

The following month there was a less concerning incident. On the afternoon of Saturday 14th September 1872, at about 4pm, George spotted a man named Frederick Hodges just below the lock, carrying a fishing rod. Frederick was an elastic weaver and a member of the Angling Preservation Society. The two men talked for a while and George asked Frederick where he was going. Frederick said he was going further up the water to fish. George said he should not go any further as the waters were preserved by Mr Gregory, and fishing was not permitted. Frederick agreed that he would not go any further. The next witness, gamekeeper William Warner, saw Frederick fishing in the River Soar without permission at about 5.30 pm, on meadow land occupied by Miss Ann Bass. He was fishing for pike using a roach for bait. He claimed that he did not know that the waters were preserved. William confirmed with Mr Brocklebank that the waters above the bridges were preserved, and when he saw Frederick again half an hour later on the bridge at Aylestone, he warned him that he would be taking a summons out against him. Frederick argued that he had been told by Mr Brocklebank that he could not fish in the canal below Kings Lock, but that he had said nothing about the river. Frederick was fined 17s 6d or ten days’ imprisonment.

At about 8.15 am on Friday 10th December 1875 a boy named William Goodman, aged 16 years, attempted to commit suicide in the canal. George found him below the lock, and although William protested that he wanted to be left alone, George got him out of the water. William was a servant, and George took him to a stable at the house of his master, George Barker of Aylestone. Suicide was a crime in those days, and a policeman was called. P C Dobney arrived the stable at about 8.30 am. William admitted that he had tried to drown himself and that he had been thinking of doing so since the day before. William was taken to the County cells. Later that day, his former employer, a cattle salesman named Mr J Harrison, came to speak to him. William explained that although he had no complaint about his master, his mistress, or his position, he was afraid that his new employer did not like the way in which he did his work. William was taken before the Leicester County Policy Court on Saturday 11th December. Here Mr Barker stated that he had no objection to William’s work, but he thought the boy was anxious to do more than he could. William promised that he would not attempt to commit suicide again, and he was discharged. As there are several lads in the area named William Goodman of the right age, I have not been able to confirm what happened to poor William, but thankfully I can find no evidence that he died at a young age.

At about 2 pm on Sunday 10th August 1890 George King was walking beside the canal near the mill when he saw the body of Alfred Burton in the water under the bridge. He was face down in the water, his legs tied together below the knee with a scarf, and his coat ballooned about him, apparently keeping him afloat. A hat, a shirt and two aprons were neatly placed on the bank nearby. With assistance from Mr Wilson the man was taken out of the water. Sergeant Goldsmith arrived at about 3 pm and called for Dr J T H Davis. They then removed the body to the Mill. It transpired that Alfred was single, aged 45 years, and worked as a shoe finisher. He had been lodging with his younger sister Eliza Marsters, and her husband Thomas, since Easter that year. Recently he had been behaving very strangely, especially when he had been drinking. He always spoke of drowning himself when he was drunk. On the previous Saturday, Sunday, and Monday he had only left the house to buy beer. On the Saturday he drank three pints of beer, and although he was not drunk, he seemed “affected in the head” and raved all night, suffering from the delusion that there was a man in the house with an organ. At about 11 am on the day of his suicide, he had washed, asked his sister for two aprons, and left the house. The jury said determined that Alfred had taken his life while in a state of temporary insanity.

In recognition of George’s long service, the lock was named after him (certainly before 1885 when the name appears on an Ordnance Survey map).

George was still working in 1890 at the age of 73. That year he was one of two Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal lock keepers who were kept on at reduced pay, even though neither were capable of a full day’s work. George was still living at the lock cottage on April 5th 1891 when the census was taken, but he was retired from his post later that year, and was given an annuity by a local charity. George died in Earl Russell Street, Leicester, in 1898. His wife Jane died at the age of 92 at their daughter Anna Bray’s house, 13 Church Road, Aylestone, on 21st August 1911.

The third Lock Keeper, Samuel Thomas Smith c. 1891 to 1899

The new lock keeper was Samuel Thomas Smith, known as Thomas, who was born in 1847. He was married to Hannah, nee Brown, and they had a large family of eight children: Herbert Albert (1870), Emily (1872), William (1874), John George (1877), Sarah Jane (1879), Joshua (1883), Ernest Harry (1885), and Charles (1888). Thomas probably arrived at Kings Lock soon after George King’s retirement in 1891, but it may have been a little later. The little lock cottage must have been crowded again, with four or five of his children still living at home.

Thomas was an experienced lock keeper, having been the lock keeper at Kilby Bridge for over a decade. A newspaper article confirmed that Thomas was responsible for both King’s Lock and the Mill lock. In 1894 the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal was bought by the Grand Junction Canal Company, but life on the canal continued unchanged.

The first reference I have found to Thomas Smith at Aylestone locks is in the following story. At about 8.30 am on Tuesday 24th March 1896, Thomas met a man walking along the towpath. The man asked Thomas whether he was going in the right direction for Blaby, then hurried onwards without saying another word. Thomas didn’t notice anything strange in the man’s manner, and he did not seem to be drunk. At 10.30 am, Thomas was near Blue Banks, just under a mile south of the cottage, when he saw a body in the water. The canal here was about 4 feet deep. The body was taken out of the water. The man’s hat was found on the bank about 30 yards away. The body was later identified as John Burdett Lee, a 58 year old iron founder’s porter. John lived at 1 Garton Terrace, New Bridge Street, Leicester. John had been widowed in 1891 when his first wife Eliza died. He had been remarried for some eight or nine months, but he was not happy with his new wife. On the previous Thursday they had agreed to separate, and John had stated his intention to live with one of his sons. At about 11 pm on Monday night, John’s youngest son Thomas had seen his father just before going to bed, then he heard his father leave the house at about quarter to six the next morning. John had gone to work that morning, but he left again at about 8.30 am, saying that he felt ill. At the inquest John’s son Thomas said that his father had never given any indication that he was contemplating suicide. Another son said that John had no friends in Blaby, so there was no clue as to why John was heading there. The jury returned an open verdict.

The following year Thomas was involved in another tragic suicide. Charles Bailey was a cellarman, aged 36, who lived at 104 Filbert Street. He had been a drinker for some years, and had been greatly depressed for five or six months, although he had never said anything about taking his own life. Eventually Charles was sacked from his job due to his drinking. On Sunday 20th June 1897, he was at home all day and seemed to be in his normal health and spirits. In the evening he went for a walk with his wife and children, then returned home and had supper with them. Charles went out again after supper, saying that he would not be long, but he did not return. On Monday 21st, Thomas Smith found Charles’s body in the canal, and pulled it out with the drags. Charles was fully dressed except for his cap, which was in his jacket pocket. The body was removed to the mortuary and examined by Dr Meadows. The Jury returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity.

These sad deaths continued the following year. On the evening of Monday 21st February 1898, Thomas was standing at the door of the lock house when a stranger passed by. As he passed the lock house, the man observed that it was a cold night, and Thomas agreed that it was. The man seemed sober and quickly walked on past the lock. Early the next morning, Tuesday 22nd February, Thomas was on the canal side about half a mile beyond the lock house when he noticed the man’s body in the canal, frozen in the ice. The water at this point was very shallow, and the body was in a stooping position, with the feet near the bottom of the canal. Thomas fetched a drag, broke the ice, and pulled the body out onto the bank. An enquiry was held at the Union Inn, Blaby, on Wednesday 23rd. The man was later identified by a commercial traveller Henry Dudgeon as John Robert Smith, a fellow commercial traveller. John was about 40 years old. Henry stated that John had been doing no work for the last few months. George Lavender, ‘boots’ at the Blue Boar Hotel, Leicester, said that John had spent the previous eighteen month lodging at the Inn. A short time ago he had taken ill with influenza, and had stayed indoors for about ten days. George said that the previous Sunday John had been in low spirits, and in conversation it became clear that he was in difficulties with his finances. When pressed, George reluctantly admitted that John sometimes drank to excess. Despite these revelations, George was insistent that he had no idea that John would consider committing suicide, in fact, he was the last man he would suspect of doing such a thing. Dr Wells of Blaby stated that John’s death was due to suffocation from drowning. The Coroner came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence of suicide, and returned a verdict of ‘found drowned’.

Thomas died at the Lock House at the relatively young age of 52, on 30th June 1899. His death was listed in the Leicester Chronicle. By 1901, his widow, Hannah, had moved to Sandy Lane, Leicester with her four youngest children. She died there in 1905, and was buried at Welford Road Cemetery.

The tale of Kings Lock Cottage will continue with the story of George Edward Swanwick.

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