The Thames in Wartime

First World War

In August 1914, invasion fears were rife throughout southeast England.  The Conservancy board produced a list of six bridges ‘which were considered most important from a military point of view’, together with a similar list of weirs. 

Black and white photograph of small boats on the Thames with some people in them and a large bridge in the background. In the foreground, one man is stood on the front of the boat, looking down at it.
Maidenhead Bridge, as viewed in the 1960s, D/EX1269/1 
  • Handwritten committee minutes which record Lord Desborough’s discussion with the engineers of Great Western Railway regarding the guarding of bridges in Moulsford, Gatehampton, Kennets Mouth, Maidenhead, Windsor and Slough.
  • Handwritten committee minutes which record the resolution that the river below Windsor be patrolled, and a wire netting be placed at the head of the following weirs to prevent danger arising from substances floating down the river: Bell Weir, Penton Hook, Chertsey, Sunbury and Molesey.

Bridges and weirs to be guarded, August 1914, D/TC/B3/1/9 

The weirs and bridges were protected by volunteer patrols drawn from Army reservists. These patrols were equipped with arms, search lights and whistles.  Those lock-keepers who remained in post were made Special Constables.  

  • Printed minutes regarding instructions for protecting the river Thames. Includes examination of vessels, guard boats on patrol, and lockkeepers on watch.

Thames Conservancy Finance and General Purposes Committee, October 1914

Handwritten resolution regarding the protection of bridges with patrol in boats with arms, whistles and search lights. Also, a resolution to remove or cut back bushes, rushes or other growth abutting onto the bridges which may obstruct observation.
Image showing how protection would be carried out, August 1914, D/TC/B3/1/9 

At the war’s start, many staff volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. The Conservancy agreed to continue paying them their full wages but lost much local expertise.  It also did not extend kindness to their families, who were evicted from their tied houses when new lock-keepers and ferrymen were found. 

Printed ‘List of Officers and Men serving with the Forces’, 12 October 1914. Lists names of Head Office staff, Navigation staff, and Works Department (outdoor) staff in Oxford, Reading and Weybridge.
List of men serving in the Armed Forces, October 1914, D/TC/B3/1/9.  Already, 70 staff had joined up. 
Extract of printed annual report regarding active service. This states that there were 435 men in the Conservators’ employ, of whom 317 were eligible for service on the grounds of age. Discusses difficulty in engaging suitable substitutes for men who possess special qualifications and knowledge of the work. The wives of lockkeepers who have been called up were placed in charge of four locks. 10 employees had been killed in active service.
Conservancy annual report of 1916, showing that about ¾ of staff were eligible for active service, and that the Conservancy was beginning to use female lock-keepers where the gates were not ‘too laborious’, D/TC/E1/1/2 

Sixteen Conservancy staff did not return home from the war. Within that initial list from 1914, Corporal Frank Woodcock, 26, of the Berkshire Yeomanry was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915; and Sergeant Roland Corry, 25, of the Honourable Artillery Company was killed in Flanders in September of the same year.  Others, such as Sergeant-Major Coley, the Shepperton lock-keeper, and Chief Petty Officer Willey, lock-keeper at Cleeve, returned home with distinguished service medals. 


Second World War

The Conservancy response to the Second World War was much more planned.   The Government’s expectation was that key infrastructure would come under air attack and that this infrastructure should be protected by those who understood it.  The Conservancy was effectively able to mobilise for its own defence, and it appointed a Civil Defence Special Committee to do so.  

Head Office was moved from London to Reading, with staff being evacuated there on 3 September 1939.  Air raid shelters were built at locks and other Conservancy sites.  Essential kit and supplies were sent to each lock-keeper. 

  • Colour plan of an air raid shelter, showing the entrance door, benches inside and the earth covering overhead.
  • Colour sectional plan at ground level showing concrete steps, chemical closet, the air lock area between two airtight doors, and timber benches.
  • Black and white line drawing of an isometric projection of an underground shelter. Shows steps down and entrance area.
  • Table titled ‘list of articles required for each unit’. Includes soap, towels, disinfectant, water for drinking & washing, tinned food, plates, cutlery, books, writing material, tools, sand, spare gas proof curtains, blankets, electric lamp, first aid equipment, Elsan or Earth Closet, roll call list, and timber.

Plans of the shelters and list of articles required to be kept in the shelter, D/TC/C3/53/2 and D/TC/C4/4/15

As in the First World War, many staff were called up to the forces and replacements found to do their work.  These were often pensioned former staff or the wives of those in service.  Land drainage work accelerated to support increased food production, while later on, the Conservancy also utilised prisoners of war to undertake clearance work along the river. 

These tasks were supported by a dedicated band of volunteers, organised by one of the Conservators.  In autumn 1939 Sir Ralph Glyn, MP for Abingdon, was allowed to set up a waterborne defence unit for the non-tidal river.  He recruited local men, women and sea cadets and, in May 1940, formalised his group as a branch of the Home Guard.  It was called the Upper Thames Patrol.

 The symbol of the Upper Thames Patrol depicting two overlapping circular shields with crosses on the front in the foreground, one with a sword on it and the other with sailboats on it. In the background is an anchor, rope, a sceptre and a sword. Above the shields is a crown and below is ‘U.T.P’.
The badge of the Upper Thames Patrol shows their close connection with the Thames Conservancy, D/EGL/O166/6 

At its height, the patrol numbered nearly 5,000 people.  Sir Ralph Glyn took on the office of Zone Commander, in charge of all the patrol’s activities and based in Yeomanry House in Reading. The upper river was divided into five stretches, each one with a stretch battalion and a local headquarters, usually in a riverside pub: 

Stretch A – St John’s Lock, Lechlade to Cleeve Lock (sub-divided into A1 and A2) 

Stretch B – Cleeve Lock to Sonning Lock (sub-divided into B1 and B2) 

Stretch C – Sonning Lock to Romney Lock 

Stretch D – Romney Lock to Penton Hook Lock 

Stretch E – Penton Hook Lock to Teddington Lock 

Black and white photograph of five middle aged men wearing smart military dress and sat in a small boat together. One man wears an armband labelled ‘Home Guard’.
Upper Thames Patrol officers, including Sir Ralph Glyn (second from right) [c.1942-1943], D/EGL/O172

The patrol cruised the river and walked its banks for 24 hours a day from 1940 until November 1944.  Each member committed at least 7½ hours per week unpaid.

Black and white photograph of six small boats in a row on the Thames, carrying several passengers. In the background there is a row of trees at the water’s edge.
Upper Thames Patrol vessels, c1940-1944, D/EGL/O167 

The river-based patrols consisted mostly of private launches with the owner often being a member of the crew. Each boat was provided with an identification badge giving stretch letter and boat number. They were given fuel and a lock pass, and at least two crew members were armed. 

Initially their main duties were to protect the locks and weirs and ensure there was no enemy activity on the river, such as signalling to aircraft.  From August 1940, all the bridges were primed with explosives that could be detonated to prevent capture in the event of invasion. 

List of 10 duties of the U.T.P. Includes the protection of Locks, Weirs and other Works of the Thames Conservancy.
The duties of the Upper Thames Patrol, listed in 1940, D/EGL/O156 
A typed list of common German military expressions. Includes English translations and pronunciations.
The volunteers of the UTP were all issued with instruction manuals. These included instructions on how to interrogate a stranger approaching a defence station and a list of common German military expressions which they might need to recognise, D/EGL/O165
  • Typewritten recommendation for Lieutenant Albert Edward O’Dell
  • Typewritten recommendation for 2nd Lieutenant Herbert Edward Surplice
  • Typewritten recommendation for Captain Stanley Ethelbert Dreschfeld
  • Typewritten recommendation for Corporal John Louis Parnell
  • Typewritten recommendation for Captain George Frederich Percival
  • Typewritten recommendation for Captain Donald Siward Thomas
  • Typewritten recommendation for Private Edward Aubrey Russell Westwood

Sir Ralph’s recommendations, D/EGL/O166/11 

The Conservancy also facilitated use of the river to help the military effort.  At Pangbourne, a bridging camp was created to train sappers to build pontoons, and at Caversham, the Thames was used as a testing site for landing craft built by the local firm, Elliott’s. 

Pangbourne Bridging Camp, c.1940-1943, D/EX2670acc10577.1

Landing craft supplied by Elliotts, on the River Thames, 1943-1945, D/EX1263/8A/230 


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