By Pam Vernon-Roberts, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 16, 2007
Not surprisingly, Brentford, with its position on two main waterways, has had a long tradition of boat building and operating. Here we look at one well known Brentford boatyard which was in business for nearly a hundred years and developed an innovative product, the Bantam Boat, which pushed, as well as pulled, barges. This article is extracted from an extensive dossier on the firm and its boats compiled by Pam Vernon-Roberts, great grand-daughter of the firm’s founder.
Edward Charles Jones (1859-1946), who founded the firm, was born in Brierley Hill, Staffs, but had moved to Brentford by the time of the 1881 Census where he is described as a journeyman/barge builder and living at 17 Catherine Wheel Yard (now Road). In the 1890s he set up his own business in Staffordshire Wharf, Catherine Wheel Yard. He is first listed in Kelly’s Directory of 1894 as a boat and barge builder. He also owned and operated barges and narrow boats. In 1883 he had married Jemima Collier who also lived in Catherine Wheel Yard with her father, the landlord of the Catherine Wheel pub and a lighterman and owner of barges and tugs. By 1896 Edward Charles, Jemima and their four children had moved to 99 High Street where they lived above a newsagent’s shop which Edward Charles also ran. The shop was owned by Jemima’s father.
The boat business prospered and sometime before 1915 moved to larger premises in Brentside Wharf at the start of the Grand Union Canal (visitors entered from Dock Road). In 1923 the firm began to build barges made of steel, rather than wood. The E C Jones barge The Success was one of the first steel barges on the River Thames.
E C Jones’s son Edward George had joined his father after serving in the Royal Navy during World War I and he ran the firm during World War II when the work was mainly repairing barges and life boats for the Navy League. He always wore his Royal Naval Reserve uniform to work and apparently helped with the evacuation of Dunkirk. After the war, Edward George’s three sons returned to the family firm and in 1946 the company went public as E C Jones & Son (Brentford) Ltd.
Edward George was a keen supporter of Brentford Football Club and it was his firm that erected the metal framework towers for the Club’s floodlights. He was also an inventor, designing a better and safer type of cleat bollard (patented in 1947) and, more importantly, the Bantam tug.
The Bantam was a small tug of a completely new design. It was steel welded and, unlike most boats, built from the deck downwards with the keel added last. Although there were different designs most Bantams were pusher tugs – they pushed the barges as well as pulled them. For pushing, the barge would be held rigid by two steel cables, tightened by a winch, so producing a single propulsion unit, effectively making the boats one unit. Bantams were especially designed to push barges on inland waterways and sand and gravel pits where space was confined since their small turning circle gave them superb manoeuvrability. They were also more economic to operate and more effective in flood conditions since the barge was unable to drift as it would if towed.
The prototype Bantam was demonstrated on the Thames between Kew and Isleworth in 1948 and patented in 1950. Between 1948 and 1977 the company built 89 Bantam Boats and many are still in use on, for instance, the Basingstoke Canal, Manchester Ship Canal, Grand Union Canal and in various gravel workings.
E C Jones & Son Ltd also built many other craft, including over 200 barges for use on the rivers, canals and gravel pits, and passenger vessels for use on the River Thames (The Eleanor Rose and Tideway still operate on the Thames today), landing craft for the Egyptian Government and, in 1958, a floating grandstand to be used as a stewards’ enclosure at the Henley Royal Regatta.
The last member of the Jones family to be involved with the business retired in 1981 and ownership transferred to Edward Harris, although the name of E C Jones & Son was retained. During these latter years the firm’s work included a new type of dredger, steel pontoons, a piling rig; it also upgraded old barges for use as houseboats. Sadly, the recession caught up with E C Jones and it went into liquidation in 1992.
The lavishly illustrated dossier entitled E C Jones & Son, Boat Builder, Brentford: A History of the Company, by Pam Vernon-Roberts can be seen in the Local Studies room at Chiswick Library.