Here is the tragic end to the young life of Harry Johnson, a coal miner from Walsall Wood working his stepfather’s coal boat through the long lost Ogley Locks.
Lichfield Mercury 20 October 1905 p5 col4.
DROWNING FATALITY AT BROWNHILLS
Mr A. A. Bentham, the Acting District Coroner held an inquiry at the Public Buildings, Brownhills, on Saturday Afternoon, into the circumstances attending the death of Harry Johnson, a young man 18 years old, residing at Walsall Wood, who was drowned near the sixth lock in the Birmingham Canal at Brownhills on Thursday. Mr T. Dennis was the foreman of the jury. Mr. Edgar Lemon, secretary of the Midland Employers’ Mutual Assurance Co., watched the proceedings on behalf of the Empire Brick Co. — Jos. Anslow, canal boatman, Hollanders Lane, Walsall, identified the body of the deceased. His body was found in the Birmingham Canal on Thursday. Witness was his stepfather. He last saw deceased alive about 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, when he went to bed, asking witness to call him at 3-30 the next morning. He did so, and deceased went out of the house about four o’clock, though witness did not see him. He did not hear anything more of him until Ernest Jakeman, who had been with him, returned about 9-45 p.m. and told him what had occurred. Deceased commenced to work with him about six years ago. He never took anything to drink as far as witness was aware, and was clever and active at his work. — Ernest Jakeman, boatman, said he was employed by the Empire Brick Co., Walsall Wood, but on the day in question was working for Anslow. On Thursday, the 12th inst., he and the deceased, who also worked for Anslow, were returning from Lichfield, witness steering the boat and deceased driving the horse. It was about 6-40 p.m., and quite dark. They had one pint of ale between them. When near the sixth lock, Brownhills, the deceased ran forward with the object of opening the lock gates. He heard deceased drop the handle, but when he came up to the gate the deceased was no where to be seen. He supposed that after opening one gate he had slipped into the water in stepping across to the other gate. A man named Taylor, who lived by the canal side, came with a long rake, and deceased was recovered after the lapse of about twenty minutes. He was quite dead. The deceased was a careful youth. — Arthur Taylor, labourer in the employ of the Canal Company, who lives on the canal side, gave evidence as to the recovery of the body. — The Coroner viewed the evidence, and the jury returned a verdict of “Accidentally drowned.” Upon the recommendation of the jury, the Coroner also promised to write to the Canal Company suggesting that boatmen should carry a light when engaged in opening the locks.
The Birmingham Canal refers to what we know as the Birmingham Canal Navigation. The sixth lock is (was) Lock 6 on the Lichfield Canal currently under restoration; it was the highest of the Ogley Locks, nearest to Ogley Junction. Hollanders Bridge is in Walsall Wood, where Queen Street crosses the canal. Hollanders Lane is now Queen Street and Vigo Road. The Public Buildings would have been the Council House, now the home of Brownhills library. I believe Mr T Dennis was Tom Dennis, licensee at the Railway Inn / Tavern (my second great grandfather’s brother). I think Empire Brick Co. was where Empire Close is today (off Brickyard Road). The paper was issued on Friday, so the inquest was held on Saturday 14 October, and the tragedy occurred on Thursday 12 October.
The perils of locks
Ernest Jakeman, steering the boat, “heard deceased drop the handle”. Being familiar with locks, the sounds one would hear today would be opening the paddles, (if necessary) to empty the lock (they were going upstream), then when opening the gate lowering the paddle, but maybe they were in the habit of dropping the paddle, which would be much more audible – not to be tolerated these days. It appears that young Harry Johnson had opened one of the two bottom gates, dropped the paddle, then stepped across to the other gate, but miscalculated and ended up in the water. Surely, on falling several feet, there would have been a loud splash?! Apparently, there was no cry for help, but perhaps he had banged his head and was unconscious. The news report does not address these matters. Neither does it address whether it was slippery, perhaps from frost or dew.
Some boaters do step across the gap between one open gate and the closed gate on the other side of the lock, many (like me) prefer to walk round, which is less risky, especially for single-handers. From time to time boats do move in the dark, but I have not noticed anyone operating locks at night. In the days when the canals were still trying to compete with other transport modes, this would have been the norm, especially in winter. Either way, Harry Johnson would not have been the first or last to lose balance in such circumstances.
1901 Census: Hollenders Lane; Harry Johnson, step-son, 13, colliery labourer, worker, born Walsall Wood, with Joseph Anslow, head, 52, Coal Merchant, own Account, at Home [essentially self-employed]; Elizabeth, Wife, 40; Florence, [daughter]. 11 months; all born Walsall Wood.
This implies that Harry was four or five years older than reported.
The Walsall Advertiser 21 October 1905, p5 col4, also reported the incident, but added no further information.
Ernest Jakeman: Born about 1879, Lichfield. In both 1901 and 1911 lived at Hall Lane, Walsall Wood. In 1901 he was a boatman, and in 1911 a brickyard labourer.
Navigating a lock single-handed
The boater (above) is going to draw alonside and tie up to one of the wooden bollards on the towpath. It is clear that the lock is in his favour (empty), so he can open the gates. He will cross the bottom gates and open the laft hand gate, then either: walk to the far end of the lock, cross the top gate, open the right hand gate; or step across the gap between the open gate and the closed right hand gate and open that. He can then return to his boat and steer her into the lock. Again he has the same options for closing the bottom gates.
The lock is about 7ft 4ins wide, about 2.24 metres (some narrow locks are a little wider). The gap is half that width, 3ft 8ins (1.12 metres), so it is not a giant leap for most adults. However, the risk is that you could slip, which could mean physical injury from falling against the gate, possibly serious head injury, perhaps muscular injury in trying to arrest a fall, hitting the water (in this case 5ft 6ins or 1.68m), getting soaked through and possibly very cold, suffer shock, and be unable to climb out of the water. The more so if there is no one to help; and one of the pleasures of boating outside the holiday season is that it is less busy and more relaxing.