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.
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.
Thames Conservancy Finance and General Purposes Committee, October 1914
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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