William Snell was a lock keeper on the Aire and Calder Navigation for 35 years witnessing many changes as the waterway passed from being a private company to becoming part of a nationalised transport industry.
He was born in 1902 and grew up at Burley close to the centre of Leeds. His father, James Snell, a general labourer, had been born at St. Austell in Cornwall where William’s grandfather, Samuel, was a tin and copper miner. With the Cornish mining industry in decline he had moved his family to Yorkshire in the 1870s where he became a coal miner.
In 1928, in Leeds, William married Susan Elizabeth Victoria Linney. Born in North Shields near Newcastle in 1907 she lived as a child in Jarrow on the south bank of the River Tyne where her father worked in an iron foundry. Her grandfather, Henry Linney, had served as a steward on transatlantic liners including the record breaking Cunard ship Etruria. He came from Southampton and had French ancestry on his mother’s side.
For many years Bill and Lily Snell lived in the lock keeper’s house at Lemon Royd (modern spelling Lemonroyd) near Fleet Mills but later moved to a cottage in Oulton. Below they are remembered by one of their grandchildren, Dave Elliot, a former pupil of Rothwell Grammar School, who grew up in Methley and Oulton before moving with his family to the Otley area.
My granddad could not obtain regular employment for several years during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was due to there being very few jobs available, particularly in the manual sector due to the economic situation at that time. It was the days before unemployment benefits so it was fortunate that my grandma worked at a Lyons tea house in Leeds and later as head cook at a school in Kirkstall. During that time they lived in Burmantofts near St James ‘s Hospital.
Granddad eventually got regular employment in 1934 as a canal lock keeper at Lemon Royd lock, between Woodlesford and Methley on the Aire and Calder Navigation. From that time until 1953 my grandparents lived in the company owned house adjacent to the lock at Lemon Royd where they had enough land to keep a few chickens and livestock.
In 1953 they moved to Hope Cottage off Leeds Road in Oulton where my granddad was very proud of his rose garden at the front of the house. He continued to work at Lemon Royd after that move as I remember visiting him in the lock control room there, probably in the early 1960s.
The bargemen would give my granddad loose change in coppers (1 and 2 pence pieces in old money) for opening and closing the locks. He would store this change in large preserve jars at home before taking it to the bank when it amounted to a significant sum.
He worked as a lock keeper until his retirement in 1969, although for some years prior to that he worked on a rota system covering several locks in the area. Lemon Royd, Woodlesford and Thwaite Gate were definitely three of those he covered but I think there may have been more.
He usually went to work on his bike except when close to retirement when he would catch the bus to Thwaite Gate locks, as he found the hills on that route from Oulton too much of a challenge! He also always had his haversack with him containing his lunch (‘snap’ as he called it), his flask of tea, his Woodbine cigarettes and his Daily Mirror.
On his retirement in 1969 he received a letter from the chairman of the British Waterways Board relating to his 35 years service and a book which contained the signatures of around 40 of his workmates. I assume this was standard practice at that time.
He always used to give his full pay packet to my grandma! She very much controlled the purse strings in the family but she made sure he had a ‘few bob’ for his occasional visits to the Old Masons pub in Oulton and for his Woodbines.
My granddad told me that he had been very lucky in having been too young (but only just) to be called up for the First World War and too old be involved in the Second World War. I also think his occupation as a lock keeper may well have precluded him from joining up in 1939 as the canals would no doubt have been seen as vital to the transport of goods in the war effort. One of his duties was to patrol along the canal checking for damage after air raids and for unexploded bombs.
Granddad spoke with a ‘reet’ proper Yorkshire accent. When I was visiting once with a girlfriend who spoke very polite “Queen’s English”, I had to interpret for her what he was saying! I became very good at interpreting as many of grandma’s family were Geordies from around the South Shields area, with accompanying broad Geordie accents.
Finally, because the Aire and Calder had been nationalised by the Labour government in 1947, my granddad was entitled to well subsidised, or perhaps even free, first class travel with British Railways, which allowed my grandparents to have some quite upmarket holidays for that time around the UK. I remember travelling with them once to Norfolk and sitting down in the first class buffet car for a meal, silver service style. I was somewhat perplexed to see in front of me about five sets of knifes and forks for the various courses and yes you got it, at about 8 years old I picked up the wrong ones for the first course!