The locks on the river at Sunbury and Shepperton are the result of a scheme by the City of London, which had acquired the rights over the river as far as Staines from King Richard I back in 1197, to improve the navigation on the Thames. In dry summers there was so little water that barges could be stranded for weeks.
In 1805 a series of locks were planned, located in long cuts to avoid bends in the river. At Shepperton this would have meant a channel from near Chertsey Bridge to Lower Halliford. Eventually the decision was made to instead place Shepperton lock across the narrow neck of ‘Stonor’s Gut’, where the river often breached through in times of flood. This created an island out of Hamhaugh, and required the re-routing of the towpath which had formerly led around the edge of the new island. The Earl of Portmore was later to complain about the difficulty this caused his tenant farmer, in carrying away the hay from the meadow on the island! The lock opened in 1813, the lock keeper being provided with a house similar to the old lock house at Sunbury.
By the 1890s the lock needed rebuilding, and a new lock was constructed alongside, to the south, which meant demolishing the original lock house and providing a new one. An extra weir channel was also cut, which resulted in the formation of the separate Shepperton Lock and Hamhaugh islands.
At Sunbury, a long channel was cut by hand through the Surrey bank of the bend of the Thames opposite the village, and a lock built at the lower end of the cut. This first lock, opened in 1812, was sited alongside the old lock house and footbridge which still exist.
The main channel of the river now bypassed the original wharf at Sunbury, by the church, and the owner of Darby House complained that the bargemen were now tying up at the end of his property. When challenged, they replied they “would tie up to his doorknocker if they were so minded”! In 1856, the lock was rebuilt at the tail end of the cut, the present location, with a new larger lock keepers cottage on the lock island.
The date plaque from the cottage (now demolished) can still be seen on the side of the old manually-operated lock. This was the swansong for the City of London’s many centuries of looking after the river, as the new Thames Conservancy took over the following year. In 1927 a second lock was opened alongside by Lord Desborough, Chairman of the Thames Conservancy.
The Sunbury and Shepperton Local History Society will be staging a display of old photos of Sunbury at Sunbury Library on Sat 20th October from 10am to 4pm. For more information about the river locally, see ‘Life on the Thames’ published by the Society and available at the exhibition, Squire’s Garden Centre or Nauticalia.
By Nick Pollard