Thursday, February 03, 2011

K&A Canal restoration legend dies

Bryan House, Kennet & Avon Canal restorer.

Picture by Bob Naylor©

Goodbye 'Grumpy'

Bryan House, known to all as Grumpy, died on January 8th at the Royal United Hospital in Bath aged 71 and his funeral took place at Semington Crematorium on Tuesday 21st of January.
Bryan was active from the very early days of the restoration of the Kennet & Avon Canal and his ingenuity in finding novel solutions to practical problems as well as his ability to 'aquire' the means to implement them, along with his bloody minded doggedness, was legendary.

Bryan's day job for 30 years was as an engineer for the Cement Works at Westbury and unknowingly they contributed much to the canal restoration.  A mourner at Bryan's funeral who worked with him there said, "Bryan took me to visit the canal and when I arrived at the workshop at the wharf I thought I had walked into the Cement Works engineering workshop."

  The task they faced on Caen Hill
Caen Hill clearing
Speaking about how he got involved with clearing the Caen Hill Flight Bryan said, "In about 1970 we were in the pub in Rowde and I said to Commander Robinson, they managed to do all that work in the old days, so get your kids from Dauntsey's School and we'll have a go at clearing it out again."

And so they set to clearing the locks on the Caen Hill Flight. They used  slashers and hooks — and local people would come along and say "You're flogging a dead horse —  no way will you do that".  But the more they said that, the more determined Bryan and the others were that they were going to do it.

First Bryan brought an old tractor from Bradford on Avon, "We brought it very early one Sunday morning because it wasn't taxed or insured." he said, "And when we got it on site it was very handy — it made us realise that we needed to be more mechanised."

Bryan's Caen Hill railway
Caen Hill Railway
They found some old mini railway track along with some 3ft gauge mining trucks in the old BWB yard. One of the trucks was fitted with a brake so Bryan decided to turn it into a motorised rail truck.

He put together an old diesel engine and part of a car back axle with a chain drive down to the trolley wheels. He then fitted a compressor and some brake cylinders off a lorry and made a 'dead man' breaking system.  Bryan said, "It was very Heath Robinson — but it worked." 

They then laid track from a lock chamber and out into a side pound and they were able to take the rubbish out of the lock into the middle of the pond to burn it.

Bradford on Avon — the Kenavon Queen
Eventually BWB put a stop to the volunteer work on the Caen Hill Flight so Bryan moved on to help out at Bradford on Avon — first putting an engine into a boat called Kenavon Queen that the group there had made.  

An old Lister engine out of a dumper truck was fitted into the 25 foot wooden boat and connected to an old Ford 10 drive shaft and back axle onto which they fixed paddle wheels.  By braking each side independently they were able to steer the boat in the same way as a tracked vehicle.

The tripboat Kennevon Queen
Bryan said proudly, "For years we actually managed to get people to pay for trips on it — and we gave a guarantee with every ticket that we would take people out — but we didn't guarantee to bring them back.  They might have to walk."

Scary weedcutter
Weed was a serious problem so they decided they needed a pair of weed clearing boats.  They 'aquired' two ex-army flat bottomed bridging pontoons, put a weed scraper at the front of one and a silage blower in the other and worked the boats side by side.

The weed was pulled up on a rope and someone stood by the side of it shovelling the weed across into the other boat where it fed into the silage blower that shot the weed onto the bank - it had a six cyclinder Lister engine and it threw the stuff out with great force — beer bottles and everything.  People who saw it in action described it as "pretty scary".

Bryan House on the front of Ladywood
Tripboat Ladywood
They were doing well with trips on the Kenavon Queen but then someone saw an advert in Waterways World for a 70 foot narrowboat at Ladywood in Birmingham.

A group of them set off by car to look at the boat which turned out to be in a terrible state. Completely bare inside with the engine in bits in three bread baskets in a shed — and the propellor shaft removed.

The asking price was £15,000 but after haggling they finally paid £5,000 for the boat and went back to Bradford on Avon with the engine in the back of the car.

The next problem was getting the boat back to the K&A. Bryan called in a favour from Sparrow Cranes, who did work for the Cement Works. They had a depot very near to Ladywood and they agreed to move the boat as a favour next time they were doing a job in Bristol.

Once the Ladywood was at Bradford on Avon they fitted her out and with a refurbished engine she was soon taking people on trips on the canal.

Bryan and his son-in-law, Tupper Abbott, helped to run the dry dock at Bradford on Avon and many boat owners in those early days of leisure boating on the K&A were glad of their skills and inventiveness.  Ray Rogers who kept his boat nearby said, "There seemed to be no problem that Bryan couldn't overcome and he was always willing to help other boaters."  Bryan and Tupp were involved with the maintenance of the trip boat, Ladywood, which had by then been taken over by the Canal Trust.  Through Bryan's wheeling and dealing with suppliers the boat was kept serviceable at almost no cost to the Trust.

Because of the politics of the K&A Canal Trust at that time Bryan stopped volunteering for the Trust and concentrated instead on his own boat, The Lady Peggy, a clinker built wooden converted ship's lifeboat that he kept at Lower Foxhangers. And Bryan could always be relied on to help other boaters with their maintenance problems.

Although Bryan stopped his voluntary work with the Trust he remained a member and he was one of the small number of Trust members who attended every AGM.

In his later years Bryan lived in Bradford on Avon with his partner Pauline Elcock who sadly died last September.

Bryan is survived by his two daughters, Kim and Simone, and five grand daughters and three grandsons.
Bob Naylor


  1. Good piece. So hard to sum up how much he did but I think the canal would not be as it is without his work.

  2. Wonderful obit for Bryan, a good number of boaters, including us, would not be on the canal if it had not been for him. I don't join clubs so it was a mark of Bryan's persuasive powers and enthusiasm that he got me to join the Canal Taverners. Under his influence Bradford on Avon was alive with energy and a can do attitude, it was when he left that the rot started.