The story of Bill and Maureen McCreadie, Eynsham Lock Keepers 1969-2004, as recounted to Witney U3A on 17 January 2008.
Maureen has also written A History of the River Thames at Eynsham, published in the Eynsham Record 21 2004 pages 3-9.
We hope village residents and businesses find this useful, as will our visitors. A copy of the Lock Map (597 kb) is now available online.
UPDATE 2011: the camping area has been enhanced by a Mongolian yurt 5m in diameter - bookings £90 / night - more >>
Once upon a time there was a young man from Coleraine. Coleraine is on the River Bann - Bill and his friends spent a lot of time IN it and beside it.
Young Maureen was born in Oakham, so perhaps she was meant to be a country girl. The previous year, thanks to Herr Hitler, Mum and a dozen other expectant mothers were evacuated from London to Rutland, still a very rural county. Phoney war, many of the other mums-to-be went back to London but my Mum loved it. Of course we had to return to London and the blitz and with Finsbury Park at the end of our road visited this open space where a very straight stretch of river always fascinated me. I later found out it was the New River, cut to bring clean water from Hertfordshire to New River Head for London's early water supply. Even when we spent a year in a Yorkshire mining village when I was eight, I found a river to explore and then we moved to the Kent coast where I did most of my growing up.
Old Father Thames decided to play Cupid. Dear Old Father Thames, he has certainly been through it. The original statue was created by Rafaelle Monti in concrete for the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. He survived the fire that destroyed the Palace in 1936. By 1958 the original was in a rather sorry state and too fragile to withstand the vagaries of the weather so a cast was taken and sited at Thames Head. However there was no peace for this son of the Old Father he was subject to almost continuous attacks by vandals. In 1974 he was removed to St John's lock, the topmost lock on the river, where he can enjoy the peace and respect he so richly deserves.
It was whilst we were both working for Salter’s Steamers that we met on this boat ‘The Henley’. The boat on which I spent the summer of 1965 was the Henley (this picture was taken a little before our time!) and Bill McCreadie was the skipper. Our first date was at the end of the first day working together ...
We married at the end of that season, spent a few days in Cirencester and walked to the source of the Thames.
Meanwhile Bill applied to join the Thames Conservancy Navigation section as a relief lock keeper and started what was to be his lifetime career on 31 January 1966. We have since found out that he didn't fit the profile and that Peter Bowles, the Navigation Inspector who appointed him, was told by the Chief Inspector to get rid of him - because he had been a Salters Skipper and he was IRISH. Fortunately Mr Bowles ignored this instruction, otherwise this would have been a very different story.
Little has been recorded about the first Thames Lock Keepers. We do know that in 1652 the first official Lock Keeper was appointed to the Swift Ditch Lock above Abingdon by the second Oxford - Burcot Commission. He wasn't permitted to marry, sell victuals and lived a tiny one up one down cottage. Things weren't quite so bad for the McCreadie family.
We moved to Eynsham in October 1969, with the boating season at an end, rather a depressing time to move to a lock house which was cold and damp, so much so that I thought about packing my bags and taking our young sons back to live with my parents.
Somehow we survived that first winter. I had a part time job in the University Radiation Protection Office. We bought an old banger Morris 1000 which took the family shopping once a week to Waitrose in Witney and even made it down to Dover the following summer for my brother's wedding.
By the summer of 1970 we were beginning to make a life at the Lock and also to make friends.
My childhood experience of pets had not been a happy one and I decided we wouldn't have any at the Lock .... famous last words; 3 dogs, 6 or more cats, a goose and during our self sufficiency period of the 70s, chickens, ducks and rabbits!
When our last cat died in 2000 we said no more pets as it would not be fair to start them off in the wonderful surroundings of the lock and then take them to goodness knows where. More famous last words, this big black monster just appeared out of the bushes and little by little moved in with us and quite happily made the move to our present home without a care!
Bill Long had the distinction of being the lock keeper who saw the transition from a flash lock to ...
The building of the lock house complete - Cotswold stone with Stonesfield slate roof (replaced in late 1990s), 3 bedrooms, two living rooms and kitchen - no bathroom and a chemical toilet adjacent to the back door but access was from the outside.
The Thames Conservancy inaugurated Eynsham Lock in 1928.
This year (2008) Eynsham and Kings Locks will celebrate their 80th birthdays - perhaps we should persuade some steam launches to recreate this picture!
This aerial view clearly shows why locks are necessary - for boats to bypass weirs - why are weirs necessary - When we arrived 41 years later not a lot had changed! Part of the kitchen had been partitioned for a bathroom but the toilet was in the same location - more or less outside. Kitchen and bathroom were streaked with black mould. Windows and doors didn't fit properly and there were howling draughts everywhere. In 1993 full double glazing, oil-fired central heating, a new roof and full insulation finally made Eynsham Lockhouse a very comfortable house but by then of course, the boys had grown up and moved away. Glad to say that some things have changed in 80 years!
A role as varied as the weather. Although lock keeping appears to be a summer job, letting boats through the lock, grass cutting, gardening etc, a lot can happen in the winter - especially if the river freezes or a strong stream pulls a boat away from its moorings.
… or a strong stream pulls a boat from its moorings.
When Bill was a lock keeper the correct title was Lock and Weir Keeper (although even that might change) and weir control in very wet and very DRY weather is a vital part of the job. During the drought of 1976 every bit of weir tackle was shut and sandbagged, pumps were used to back pump any water that did trickle over the weir to keep enough water in the river for Farmoor reservoir and treatment works to keep going.
Of course the opposite happens when the rains come and the river runs high. Glad to say that although I did a stint as relief summer assistant at Eynsham, I never had to do any weir work but Sarah does. However whenever Bill received a phone call in the middle of a wet and windy night and had to go out on the weir, I didn't go back to sleep until he was safely back in bed!
The most dramatic occasion happened just as we were finishing a village quiz evening. Bill had been warned he could be called out so he stayed on Coke and I had my mobile switched on. Everyone laughed and cheered when we got up to leave. They were used to firemen on call, but not lock keepers! Due to illness and holidays, Bill and his colleague Tim were the only ones in the area available and the pulled 5 weirs from Northmoor to Godstow between 11 pm and 3 am. Eynsham fell in the middle of this group so I was ready with hot drinks and biscuits just after midnight.
... a key part of the role. Here Colin and Bill are playing draughts: just the way to pass the times between boats on long summer evenings after a hectic day.
This was the Sunday that I did cream teas in the garden and Eynsham Morris came to dance on the lock side.
Our good friend and guard dog Cyril warning off an intruder? Cyril hatched at Cokethorpe school but was abandoned by his mum. My friend Cynthia was asked to take care of him as she had an incubator; but when he grew too big for her small back garden we adopted him and he was with us for 16 years.
Bill rescuing a neighbour's chicken that had taken refuge in a tree when the usual trickle of water at the end of their garden had turned into a lake.
Did I once say NO PETS?
In 1981, together with the mums of Swinford, I organised a Royal Wedding Party in our garden for the under 16s and over 60s. I'm pleased to say that the youngsters in the picture are all married - a lot more successfully than the one we celebrated then!
In 1999 and 2001 we held parties in the garden after the baptisms of our grandchildren Rachel and Aaron.
I was part of the first generation of wives to follow their own careers instead of running a lock side shop (though I did do that for a few years in the 70s), serving teas or being summer assistant to their husbands but when I stopped being an admin assistant guess what I did?
The house and garden covered a third of an acre and this part represented about a third of that; and for several years I held cream teas here to raise funds for four different charities, including the Witney group Against Breast Cancer (ABC). This was the last of such events in 2003 when Eynsham Morris came to dance and attracted the biggest crowd ever. We raised nearly £300 for Cystic Fibrosis Research.
When I took early retirement from Thames Water in 1995 I really began to enjoy being a Lock keeper's wife. Bill would be the first to admit that he didn't like gardening, except grass cutting, but I did. It not only got me outside but meant that at last I could see what was going on at the lock and pass the time of day with boaters.
I was never sure whether Bill agreed with this or not.
You can appreciate Bill's grass cutting here but the borders and pots were my work - and when this was taken I was still working full time. In the summer I came home, cooked the evening meal and then out into the garden until dusk. Don't think I could keep up that pace now!
Bill always had a good relationship with the local youngsters - it avoids trouble and is great when now parents themselves, they stop to say hello.
Bill greets everyone in this fashion - did that include HRH? Bill was awarded the MBE in the New Year's Honours 2003 for services to the River Thames and local community. Bill was allowed three guests so the boys and I were all able to go ... but that's another story.
Sally came from North Oxford to be a Summer Assistant and loved the place so much that she and her husband bought a cottage in the lane at the back of the lock house and they still live there.
This is Albert who emptied the dustbins from the sanitary station every Friday and took the rubbish to the dump. In the school summer holidays he also took the boys, complete with packed lunches. It was the highlight of the holidays for them although they sometimes brought home more rubbish than was taken away.
Mark, a young man with learning difficulties, came down from Eynsham village to help every weekend in the summer for nearly 20 years and in the later years, winter weekends as well.
Early on a spring morning ...
The retirement gift that Bill is about to unwrap is a wind-up nautical clock, exactly what he wanted. Rather strange for a man who takes no notice of time and rarely wears a watch.
Much to my surprise (and Sarah's doing) I too received a present, a Roberts Digital Radio - now was that for the gardening or the cream teas?