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Ron's Notes

My father, Ron Jesse, CEng, MIMechE, was an engineer. He trained with the navy and saw action on HMS Belfast in the Battle of North Cape. After the war he joined the National Gas Turbine Establishment (NGTE) at Pyestock near Farnborough. We lived in Fleet, close to the Basingstoke canal.

I don't remember if he was a founder member of the Surrey and Hants Canal Society, or joined shortly after it formed, but I can vividly remember collating the newsletters. Piles of paper, one for each page, were arranged around our living/dining room, and my parents, sister and I would walk in circles picking up the pages and stapling the finished newsletter before circling again.

Dad died a few years ago and in his records we found these notes about Perseverance. I have taken the slight liberty of toning down his punctuation and adding some pictures, but other than that, the words are his. With hindsight, I think the most remarkable thing is that he estimated it would take 14 years to dredge the upper pound. In fact it took 18 years. A very good estimate, given the uncertainties involved.

Memories of the Dredger 'PERSEVERANCE' in its spell of duty with the Surrey and Hants Canal Society.


In the early days of the Surrey and Hants Canal Society,. we all recognized that one of the major problems associated with the restoration of the canal was dredging. The upper pound in particular was very badly silted,- in places islands of mud and weed blocked the channel. Whatever the solution, it had to be within the society's power to afford and manage, and it had to be kind to the environment.

At Pyestock, engineering colleagues and I conducted many desk studies (in our tea breaks, of course) involving Heath Robinson schemes of pumps and bucket machines and mud throwers - all quite impractical.

Then, one day in 1970 word got around that there was a dredging machine of some sort lying idle on the river Kennet to the west of Reading

Perseverance on the Kennet and Avon

So - One Sunday afternoon, I suggested to my wife, that I should take her for an outing, as she hadn't been well ! I drove to the location, and we found the 'dredger', lying against the river bank , behind a scrap yard.

Our first impressions were that it was:

  • Rusty and neglected

  • Powerful

  • Pretty well complete (although one of its grabs was lying abandoned on the bank.)

We took some measurements (I just happened to have taken a tape along, and I needed my wife to hold the other end!) and I confirmed that the hull would pass through the locks on the 'Basingstoke' should this be necessary. Reading Road Bridge at Fleet could just be negotiated "if we let the tyres down a bit"!

There were two buckets, one a ring grab, which gathers loose material, and a piston operated steam grab, used for digging harder material, This was the grab lying on the bank. Each would raise about a ton of mud.

The dredger belonged to the Kennet & Avon Canal Society. A Fleet man, Ian Cripps, had been working it for them. I contacted Ian, who told me it had failed its boiler inspection, and for this reason was out of use. He also said that there was not much enthusiasm in the Kennet & Avon society to operate the machine to its full potential.

The Surrey & Hants Canal Society appointed Ian, another chap (whose name I forget), and myself, to conduct a feasibility study whose terms of reference were :-

  1. Should the society put in a bid for the dredge

  2. How could it be transferred to our canal

  3. How could it be used if transferred?

We soon realized that the dredger was exactly right for the Basingstoke top pound.

It would have to be carried overland and launched near the top end of the summit pound, as the canal is a cul-de-sac connecting only with the river Wey at Woking Its water supply is from springs near the top of the summit pound. Once on the top pound, there was a 15 mile stretch of quiet countryside through which the machine could work with very little bank side disturbance.

Entering the canal from the river Wey was not really on. It would have involved towing the dredger down the river Thames, then along the Wey Navigation to its junction with the Basingstoke at New Haw. Then each lock would have had to be repaired in turn, and the pound above filled with water to allow the dredger to work upstream.

The case for the dredger we listed as follows ;-

  • Minimal first cost (scrap prices)

  • Economic to operate (the boiler was capable of burning wood, an ample supply of which would be available on the banks of the top pound.)

  • Simple to operate. We envisaged members being able to operate the crane and the boiler with a minimum of training.

  • Floating machine. There would be no destruction of the bank side, except for silt disposal.

  • Powerful able to dig a hard bottom.

  • Silent, except for steam noise.

  • Attractive as a live steamer. We thought it would pull the crowds at bridges; (which in the event it did at Swan Bridge Odiham, where we finished up widening the narrow cutting, and hauling the mud to the dump site by diesel train.)

We estimated 14 years to work from Greywell to Aldershot.

We recommended Colt Hill as the best place to launch the dredger, for a number of reasons. The B3016 led conveniently from Hartley Wintney, across Odiham Common, direct to the cricket pitch (which is now the car park) The present by-pass cut this road to form the cul-de-sac which I think makes the canalside area now, such a delightful spot.

A track led easily off the road, right up to the waters edge. The actual pitch was well away from the canal, so there was no danger of encroaching on the hallowed turf. Eventually the County Council found an alternative site for the Cricket Club.

Proximity to the New Inn public house (later renamed The Water Witch) did nothing to detract from the advantages which the site offered from the proposed launch of the dredger, also the winding hole would allow us to turn the dredger to face either way

The Report was accepted, and the dredger purchased for, I believe, £225. just £3 a ton.

And So To Work

About early 1971 I should think it was.

We found a spot near Fobney Lock in Reading, behind Courage's Brewery. It was quiet, remote from vandals, under the eye of the Courage's night watchman, yet accessible for the Society's recently purchased LandRover - another restored relic!

The dredger was towed there by a helpful chap with a powered barge, and we set about the job of bringing our hulk back to life.

Ian and I spent most week-ends motoring up to Reading, leaving about 8 a.m.and often not returning until after dark. The first thing was to cut out the boiler tubes. Ian borrowed an oxyacetylene cutter and sliced through the middle of the tubes, leaning into the manhole. Then we both cut the belled ends off with cold chisels and drove the tubes into the boiler. Many long hours were spent cleaning and polishing the tube plate holes, as it was important to remove all the scale.

New tubes were ordered, for delivery to Robin Higg's (another SHCS member) Nursery at Chobham.

By that time the Society had a landrover and a trailer, as well as a sales caravan, and now a dredger. No access to the canal as yet; but plenty of hardware to show we meant business!

Transferring the boiler tubes from Chobham to Reading, was for me quite an adventure. It was the first time I had driven a landrover, and the first time I had towed a trailer! We took the tubes firstly to Ash Vale Boatyard. I was interested to see the hulks still lying there, and the rope marks on the trees where barges were hauled out of the water years ago.

We built a fire, and plunged the tube ends in to make them red hot and soften them. The ends were then buried in a sand heap to cool slowly. All this was to the amazement of passing train passengers! This job done, we loaded up again and proceeded to Reading. From memory, there were about 80 tubes, each 2" diameter and 10 foot long. They were quite heavy, and had to be locked away down below each time we left the dredger. How our arms ached, at the end of a long working day. We made the ends bright by filing, and what a relief it was, to finally

thread them into their holes. There was a special space at the end of the dredger, to allow for the length of the tubes, when inserting them into the boiler. We borrowed sets of rollers to squeeze the tubes tight into the tube plates.

Next we turned our attention to the crane engine. It was all taken to bits, cleaned and put back with greasers full and oilways well lubricated. We had the feed pump to pieces and rebuilt with new rings, the injector and safety valves inspected, new gauge glasses, welded patches on the smoke-box and funnel, and - most importantly - had the pressure gauge calibrated.

Finally, over a year later, the time came to light the boiler fire. But, not before it was full of water! The Society did not possess a portable pump, so, we went back to basics and transferred a goodly proportion of the River Kennet into one of the boiler inspection holes By Bucket! Not a job I would recommend as a casual pastime. It was tedious and muscle-wracking after the first 100 bucketfuls! When full, we applied a pressure test and all was well!

The Insurance Inspector was satisfied, and at last, we could legally raise steam. A few lumps of coal remained in the hopper, and Ian lit the fire. I had a job on deck at the time, but I was amazed how quickly steam was raised. We set the safety valve to lift at the required pressure, and Ian gingerly warmed through the pipes and cylinders on the crane engine. Then ... Plonk, plonk, plonk... up came the jib from its stowage bracket.

It Worked!! And so quietly. A few spins round with the crane base, up and down with the bucket, and all was well. To celebrate our achievement, we ignored our lunch-time coffee flasks, and walked up to a nearby Pub for a pint.. or two. Imagine our amazement when the Landlord refused to serve us, because we were dirty, and dishevelled!

We explained that he was making a big mistake; we expected there would be dozens of canal enthusiasts in his area soon, who would in future studiously avoid his hostelry. In my experience, restorers of canals bring a lot of business to pub landlords! True though, they are often pretty muddy, dirty and scruffy!

By this time the Hampshire County Council was close to purchasing their half of the canal so we invited officers to witness a demonstration of 'our monster's' capabilities.

On the appointed day, we swung the dredger across the river into deep water to put it through its paces. First, bucket into the water, splosh!! Plonkety-plonk and up it came, all wet and dripping. Trip the bucket, and Whoooshsh! - out came the mud with a terrific splash back into the water, which was most impressive. Ian did this several times, and we all agreed that we certainly had the power. The question was, could we get it to the Basingstoke? The Hampshire County Council agreed in principle that it could be used on the canal.

The early part of 1972, was spent dismantling and marking all the small parts. These were transported, and stored in the shed on Ash Vale Boatyard.

The Royal Engineers at Church Crookcham, were persuaded (my wife just happened to work for the army at this time!) that it would be a useful training exercise to lift off the crane and boiler, and to transport these to (I believe) a spare hanger on Odiham airfield. The steam grab was refurbished by the Apprentices at Pyestock, and tried out on a temporary scaffold using compressed air. It would not be required on the dredger at first.

The hulls, which were calculated to weigh 30 tons for the Main hull and 12 tons for the pontoons, would require commercial transportation. A quotation of £1,000 for the entire job was accepted, and a sponsor sought. Watneys, whose public house, the New Inn (now Waterwitch) stood to flourish under the activity planned for Colt Hill, met the full cost. In return, a plaque was fixed to the towpath side of the dredger proclaiming their involvement "in modest Language".

One problem which sticks in my mind was the removal of ballast in the rear compartment of the main hull, placed there to partly balance the crane at the front end. This ballast consisted of thousands of rivet punchings, mixed with cement, and poured into the hold. Removal was only possible by chipping away individual lumps of iron.. and it took Ages. Bucketfuls (small ones) were passed up for a chain of members to tip over the side. Several week-ends were spent on this job, and woe betide the dredger which picks that lot up sometime! Never!

Finally we parted the hulls. To take the strain off the bolts (by now the main hull was riding too high for the pontoons) we partly filled the hull with water, then floated the pontoons away. All was well, until we pumped out the main hull. At about one foot deep, the water sloshed to one side, and there was a real risk of capsize. That would have been fatal, as it would have certainly sunk. We stopped pumping at once. Fortunately we caught her.. With me hanging on to the ropes to hold her steady, Ian dashed to the phone to ring for assistance, as we were on our own, and nearly the end, of another long day.

The 'cavalry' came over the hill, and a dozen or so members from Fleet came out to our rescue. I was very glad to see them it had been 'a very nasty moment'. With their help, we finished pumping out and all was ready for lifting from the water.

Moving to the Basingstoke

The great day came...July 24th 1974

With the assistance of some diving enthusiasts, we positioned three chains beneath the centre hull, to spread the weight. A single 45 ton crane took the strain, and in no time it was onto an extendible 'trombone' trailer, festooned with advertisements by Watneys as to their involvement. Television cameras whirred, and off it went. The pontoons were child's play by comparison, and by noon all the transport was on army track-way which we had laid on the cricket pitch beside the canal at Colt Hill.

We had dug a launching hole to receive the hulls, but in the event it was not deep enough to float the hulls. This was not important, as we had plenty of preparatory work to do before it would be necessary to float them off.

Many weeks were spent chipping and painting every square inch of exposed steelwork, inside and out. Firms sponsored needle guns, paint, wire brushes - you name it! Volunteer members made up gangs on Saturdays and Sundays, and we made a personal approach to every resident of the road near the bridge explaining what was happening.

In the Autumn of 1974, we dug a larger hole next to the hulls, winched them into it, and joined them together. The army fetched the boiler, and in it went. They fetched the crane, and all the odds and ends. All were duly bolted on. I remember Brian Bane turning up as a new member, asking for a job. He paled slightly when I suggested he should take the landrover and trailer to Ash Vale, load up the ring grab, and fetch it to Colt Hill. To his credit, he went off without a murmur and did just that. He later became dredger manager, and was responsible for digging out many miles of canal. My abiding memory of those days is, that if a task wanted doing, we just did it, regardless of the difficulties.

The entire project of reconditioning the dredger, proving it, dismantling it for overland removal to the Basingstoke Canal, and re-assembly, took over two years. For quite a long time, Ian Cripps and I were the only members working at Reading; and I reckon we spent some 60 week-ends breathing new life into the rusty hulk that was to become our Iron Coot, The 'Perseverance".

Dredging and Mud

So at last steam was raised, and in February 1975, Ian took the first grabful of mud from the Basingstoke Canal.

His first task was to wind the dredger round, to point towards Greywell. It would dig its way to the Whitewater winding hole before turning round, and heading eastwards to Aldershot, and Lock 28.

While all the rebuilding work was going on, a group of us had been agonizing over the disposal of silt. In the historical photographs of dredging other canals, the silt is being placed neatly behind bank-side piles, to raise the towpath. We were going to produce at least 10 tons of material per yard progress, so we would have to distribute the mud beyond the towpath.

We experimented with a hopper and chute, which collapsed. We tried a portable escalator, but the mud slid off! We tried a machine which flung the mud into the air, but ours was too wet and it went everywhere - except where it was supposed to go.

Eventually, someone found some tipping skips on narrow gauge rails going spare. These were purchased, rigged, and hey presto it worked. Each grabfill from the dredger was emtied gently into a skip, which was pushed along the rails to the dump site - usually a field a few yards in from the towpath edge.

After tipping, the skip was returned via a loop for refilling. A great job for small boys!

This system lasted until we reached Swan Cutting, when it was mechanised with a diesel engine. The steam grab was mounted here for widening the canal.

The dump site now was a low-lying meadow some 400 yards from the cutting. It was here that I first noticed Stan MeIler busy laying rails on the towpath very professionally, with a spirit level.

When the distance to haul the mud became too great, the next advance was made, to mud barges, a tugboat and a bank-side grabbing crane to throw the mud inland. This latter machine was discovered in a garden. It had been used by its owner to aim at the moon with its jib, to concentrate rays therefrom. He was said to have no further use for it.

[My recollection was that the poor soul had mental health issues, so was not living at home. His mother was happy to part with this thing in her back garden, however, it wasn't hers to sell. The arrangement was that the society paid her an annual sum of £10 for its hire].

The tugboat was sponsored by Johnsons Wax.

The methods employed to work through the Swan Cutting were the only ones practicable, given Society financial restraints, and the need to avoid damage to the surroundings. This episode 'pulled' the crowds, every week-end the bridge parapet was jammed with "Gongoozlers" , so the Society rattled the contributions tin.

Later on, in the vicinity of Sandy Lane, an extension was made to the jib, so that the steam grab could work across the 30 foot width of the canal. This was a big improvement, although some listing of the dredger resulted with an overfull bucket

Bridge holes were a nuisance. In the very early days, we tackled this problem from first principles - we got in with spade and wheelbarrow! To pump a given biidgehole dry, we drove a line of scaffold tubes with planks into the bed at each end of the hole, and laid polythene sheeting out facing away from the hole, but supported by the planks. When we pumped the water out, the weight of water pressed the polythene onto the muddy bottom to form a crude seal. In went the 'navvies' with shovels and barrows and barrow-runs, and out came the silt. Complete of course, with bottles, beer cans and bicycles!

This system worked well until, one day, the mud beneath the polythene was too wet to stick, and it shot underneath - to the consternation of members in the hole, who crawled out, looking very bedraggled - muddy boots is one thing to be expected, but mud inside your boots, and over the top of your knees is an experience never to be repeated. That system was abandoned, to be replaced by professional plank dams. Eventually every bridge hole was grooved to take stop planks.

Frank Jones and I worked closely during this period. We would spend Thursday evenings in the pub next door to his house in Farnborough, laying plans for the week-end work. I still have the note-book we used, and some hair-brained schemes are entered in rough, which formed the basis for Frank's later expertise. He must have become one of the country's finest canal restorers. "If it wants doing, Do it," was our motto.

We tried to develop an hydraulic machine to cope with bridge holes, but it never came to much. By that time, locks in the Surrey part of the canal required all the money that could be spared, and dredging was going on alright in its own slow time; and I quite agreed.

From Greywell to Fleet took 18 years.

There were hold-ups for:

  • the bank-slip at Dogmersfield

  • low water level summers

  • waiting for dump sites

  • retubing the boiler (another twice?) and other breakdowns.

  • Hauls to dump sites of greater distance than had been anticipated. They always had to be behind the dredger, so that the barges could move in deep water.

I am proud to have been associated with a project which was a classic of its type, and can boast

  • There were no serious accidents,

  • There was no serious pollution, physical ,chemical, or noise.

  • The local population were not upset.

  • There was no outrageous expenditure, (maximum capital cost, mudboats?)

  • There was lots of useful publicity, giving the Society, the County Councils, and the canal restoration project as a whole, a very positive and wholesome image.

I only hope it will serve the Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, as faithfully as it served the "Basingstoke".

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