Little Eaton Local History Society

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The Clock House


Life and work on the Canal 1795 to the present day

By Clare Howard 

The Clock House was built in 1795 by the Derby Canal Company to house the canal agents and their families. For almost 150 years it was one of Little Eaton’s most iconic buildings, standing prominently at the head of the canal, acting as the villagers’ timepiece and becoming home to scores of families who worked on the canal, the railway, the mills and the quarries.

In the 1970s and 1980s it slowly became hidden from view by industrial buildings, and many of Little Eaton’s current residents are not even aware it exists, let alone the details of its rich history.  We hope this article will help to resurrect the legacy of the Clock House and the people that lived and worked there.

This painting, now hanging inside the Clock House, shows how important a landmark it used to be for the village. The painting is a reproduction of one of the most famous photographs, taken in 1908 of the house and the last load of coal to be transported on the canal to Derby, having been brought to the village by the ‘gang’ of horses and wagons from the pits at Denby.  


1. Construction of the canal

The Derby Canal was first advocated by James Brindley in 1771 as the transport system in the town was poor, coal was expensive, the roads were inadequate and the river Derwent was prone to flooding. Twenty years later, in September 1791, a meeting was held by a committee of businessmen at Bell Inn in Derby to discuss the cutting of a canal – several such meetings were held, and the committee commissioned Benjamin Outram to survey and estimate for a broad canal to run from Swarkestone to Denby in the Bottle Brook Valley north of Derby, with a branch to Sandiacre on the Erewash Canal. Because of the high cost which would have been involved in cutting the steeply graded section from Little Eaton to Denby, it was decided that this northern part should be a tramroad up to the Denby collieries.

The cost of the construction was £60,000 and this sum was to be raised by the issue of 600 shares of £100 each, floated in 1793. Francis Radford and Thomas Tempest of Little Eaton were amongst the purchasers. The cost of building the canal in today’s money is around £60 million.

This plan was accepted and the petition to parliament was presented on the 2nd of February, 1793, with Royal Assent being given on the 7th of May, 1793.

The canal mainly carried coal (as had been planned) but it also carried stone, corn and cement.


2. The Gangway and wagons

The Little Eaton Gangway, or tramroad, ran from the end of the canal in Little Eaton to the collieries at Denby. Under the direction of Benjamin Outram, the gangway took two years to build from 1793 to 1795. Wagons loaded with coals were pulled by horses up and down the line, which was single track with passing places. The tramroad was laid with L-section, cast-iron rails, so that the wagon’s wheels fitted inside the rails, rather than the usual method used in railway tracks. The rails were 3 feet long and they weighed 28lb.

A unique feature of the tramroad was that the top of the wagons were detachable boxes, which were lifted from the wheelsets and placed directly in the waiting narrowboats, and when they arrived in Derby they were lifted out and placed on carts for haulage around the city – probably the first form of containerisation in the world.  

The wagons themselves hardly changed in over 100 years of use on the gangway. They were horse drawn and held 2 tons on coal each (48cwt).

This picture shows a wagon thought to date from 1798, and clearly shows the flange on the rail rather than on the wheels. The main axle was made of oak, cheaper than wrought iron, and it carried iron stub axles.  


The gangway itself became a feature of the village, with horses and wagons travelling up from the canal, behind the Queen’s Head, along what is now Alfreton Road, under Jack O’Darley’s bridge and on to Denby.  The two pictures below show the gangway under the bridge, then and now.

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3. The first coals are delivered

On completion of the Little Eaton line of the canal and the tramroad, the first coals were delivered to Derby in May 1795.  It took three hours for the coal to travel the four miles from Little Eaton to Derby. William Drury Lowe, the owner of the pits at Denby, ordered that the first boatload of coal be distributed for the benefit of the poor.


4. Construction of the Clock House

The Clock House was completed after the opening of the canal and became the home of the first Canal Agent within a year. It would have looked very similar to the photograph below, taken over 100 years later in 1905.


The building was three stories at the front and two at the back. It was split into three smaller houses, with a fourth added 40 years later in about 1840. The two houses at the front, overlooking the canal, consisted of a small kitchen/living room and two bedrooms, spread over three floors.  The two houses at the back were two storeys and laid out in the traditional 2 up / 2 down manner.

The two pictures below, taken in 1901 and 2018, show the back of the house and it can be seen that little has changed from its original construction.

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5. The Canal Agent

The role of Canal Agent was a prestigious position and the terms and conditions were generous, signifying the importance of the role: a salary of £40 per annum, plus the occupancy of the Clock House and the garden.  By 1841, the salary had risen to £80 per annum.

Only one of the cottages inside the Clock House was occupied by the Canal Agent; most likely this was the three storey part at the front on the left of the building. The Canal Office was the small side extension which could be accessed from the front, back, and from inside the house.

The duties of the Agent included a general responsibility for the maintenance of the tramroad. The Canal Company ordered that the Agent was to:

"go up the Railway to Smithy House at least three times every week to examine the state of the railway and to keep the labourers to their work and that he write down his observations thereon in a book to be kept for the purpose and to send the same to the Committee previously to every meeting"

6. The Agents and other Clock House families

As well as the agent, other families rented the remaining houses in the Clock House from the Canal Company.  They had a variety of jobs, all revolving around the canal, the quarries, or the railway: jobs such as platelayer, miner, quarry worker, paper mill worker, labourer, or domestic servant. They were all working families and many of them had travelled from other parts of the country to find work, demonstrating the importance of Little Eaton as an industrial village.


The Canal and Coal Agents living at the Clock House until the closing of the tramroad in 1908 were:

•1795: Thomas Ward

•1810: Leonard Lead

•1821 to 1841: William Wall /Mr Grime (listed in Canal Company minutes as Agent from 1833 until 1841)

•1841: George Rickard (Canal Agent) and John Hill (Coal Agent)

•1851: William Oliver (Canal Agent), John Hill and William Rickard (Coal Agents)

•1861: John Rowland (Canal Agent), Elijah Trueman (Coal Agent), John Hill (Coal Agent)

•1871: John Rowland (Canal Agent) and Elijah Trueman (Coal Agent)

•1881: John Rowland (Canal Agent) and George Fogerty (Coal Agent)

•1891: John Rowland (Canal Agent) / John Hill junior (Colliery Agent)

•1901: John Fletcher (Canal Agent), John Hill junior (Colliery Agent) and Henry Muir (Clerk for Denby Colliery)


Other families living at the Clock House during the 19th Century included:

•1841 George and Elizabeth Hurst and son Henry, 20 / Michael Fogerty (25, from Ireland)

•1851 Hills, Rickards, Olivers, John and Sarah Riley - all working on the Coal Wharf / Fogerty family, Seals

•1861 Rowlands, Truemans, Rickards, Hills / Samuel and Charlotte Stone / Joseph and Mary Holland / Fogerty family

•1871: Rowlands, Truemans, Stones, Hollands, Smiths, Ingrams

•1881: Rowlands, Fogertys, Hollands, Johnsons, Stone

•1891: Rowlands, Hill(Junior), Hollands, Stone, Bradshaws

•1901: Hills, Fletchers, Muirs, Edens, Allens

•1911: Jefferies, Wilton, Jenkins, Maud, Coxon, Wilton

7. Life on the Canal: the boatmen

A snapshot of the life of work on the canal is given by Mr J Titterton of Derby, describing his time working on the boats from age 14 to 16 in 1906-1908.

“Denby Colliery sent 2-ton boxes of coal on the lines to Little Eaton. Four horses used to bring six 2-ton boxes each time. They used to lift these boxes, six in each boat, facing the New Inn Public House, all by hand crane. The journey to Derby used to take 2 hours to go and 2 hours to come back and 2 hours to unload.”  The journey was reported as three hours long when the canal opened, so one hundred years of progress had led to shortening the journey by one hour.

Although the work must have been hard, it was not always monotonous as coal was not the only thing transported – the Derby Mercury reported on 19 April 1826 that a llama, a kangaroo, a ram with four horns and a female goat with 2 kids arrived in Derby via the canal!

Wages of the boatmen at this time were 3s 8d per trip for men and 3s 4d per trip for boys. Unlike more respected professions such as those in the colliery or the quarries, those that worked permanently on canal barges were viewed with disdain by the Victorians. Canal People drifted apart from land locked 18th and 19th century Britain, developing their own free-floating canal culture, traditions, customs, ways of work and dress.  They lived in a closed community. Most boat people were born and brought up on the canals and they tended to marry other boat people.  Few non boat people decided to work the canals.

The prejudice experienced by the boat people was demonstrated in a speech by Mr Johnson to a public meeting in the Guild Hall, Derby. Arguing for the canal to be replaced by a railway he said:

“I have always understood too that boatmen are the worst of neighbours, they are a nuisance wherever they set foot upon the land (hear, hear) – and if I recollect right – I have heard Mr Crewe himself complain of the depredations committed by the boatmen on this canal, and of the very unfavourable effect produced upon the inhabitants of the village, by contact with them; so that I think the conversion of the canal into a railway should be regarded as a benefit rather than otherwise.”


8. Life on the Canal and Gangway: the horses

Horses were the life blood of the Clock House, gangway and the canal.  On the gangway, each horse pulled two wagons of two tons each (whereas the water on the canal allowed one horse to pull up to 50 tons alone).

The number of animals involved was enormous and the number of workmen needed to keep all this horseflesh shod, fed and healthy was equally large. Horses were stabled and fed all the way up the four mile stretch of the gangway from Little Eaton to Denby – each horse was fed well and regularly with corn, crushed oats and chopped hay.

Little Eaton horses would have been stabled at the Clock House, the Delvers Inn (or Queens Head as it was renamed), the New Inn, in stables behind the Kings Head on the Town, and in various places up the gangway to Denby. Larger establishments employed ostlers to look after the change horses and sick horses, and they would keep the stable mucked out and ready for use for their boating customers.

A horse could wear out a set of shoes in four to six weeks – the Little Eaton smithy was built alongside the gangway and still operates from the same building on Alfreton Road near the Queen’s Head.

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This picture shows all aspects of the canal and gangway in front of the Clock House: the large crane used for lifting the wagon boxes onto the barges, the horses, the wagon wheels remaining on the gangway, and the people who lived and worked at the Clock House.  

9. The decline of the canal

Throughout the 1800s, the railways were to transform industrial Britain. In 1830 the Derby Canal Company commissioned George Stephenson to investigate the feasibility of converting the Little Eaton branch of the canal and the gangway into a railway, to fend off competition from the road and ensure that coal reached Derby more quickly. Stephenson estimated that the cost of the works would be around £13,000 and recommended that a new line be built, to allow transport to continue whilst the work took place. However, the Canal Company did not act on Stephenson’s recommendations, relying instead on short term increases in the price of coal and their profits.

The Canal Company’s failure to act on Stephenson’s recommendation was to prove fatal, as the Midland Railway was then extended from Derby to Little Eaton in 1848, and then extended further to Ripley by 1855. The colliery owners began to use the goods trains instead of the canal, and trade on the canal declined dramatically between 1860 and 1900.

In July 1908, after years of decline, the last load of coal was delivered along the gangway to the Clock House at Little Eaton.  

The photographs below show the last gang of wagons to travel down the full length of the tramway, from Denby to Little Eaton, on the day of its closure.

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Four years later, in October 1912, the Canal Company announced they were abandoning the canal as “the maintenance of it is now a great expense to the Company without any return”. By 1930, an article in the Derby Telegraph declared that the canal was “a white elephant” and should instead be converted into a “fine highway for fast motor traffic. Such an arrangement would relieve a busy and all too narrow main road”.

The Little Eaton branch of the canal was therefore filled in and is now the site of the A61 Sir Frank Whittle Road.

10. The Clock House in the 20th Century

The closure of the Little Eaton Gangway in 1908 and subsequent abandoning of the canal meant that the Clock House no longer served the same purpose, and the next 100 years saw a steady decline in its fortunes.

For 100 years between 1848 and the post-war period, the Midland Railway Company bought more and more of the land and buildings around the canal, and the Clock House lost its prominent place in the village. An auction in 1921 listed the building as “three houses and two small closes of grass land” with sitting tenants including James and Selina Jeffries, the Maude family and the Bradshaw family. James Jeffries was a paper maker who had been born in Somerset in 1872, and had travelled to Essex before settling in Little Eaton and working at the paper mill in the village from the early 1900s until the 1940s.


By the 1960s, the Clock House was beginning to look a little forlorn and the cottages inside were not well kept, with the many families who lived there as tenants not having access to indoor toilets and electricity that others in the village were beginning to use. The clock, however, continued to work and was wound each week by one of the tenants.

11. 1960 to 2000: The Clock House disappears from view

1967 Mr and Mrs Cox bought the Clock House and surrounding land, and over the next twenty years various parts of the land were sold to companies, gradually creating the Duffield Road industrial estate.

Tenants still occupied the cottages within the Clock House, with more than one generation of Little Eaton families such as the Starbucks, Bradshaws, Ludlows, and Harlows living in the building. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, it fell into increasing disrepair and current residents tell stories of Dukie Marshall, the village grave digger, who lived in the Clock House with scores of cats.

The plan below, from 1984, shows how the Clock House gradually became surrounded by the new industrial buildings, and the aerial view today.

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12. The Clock House is listed in 1984 and restored in the 2000s

Some protection was finally afforded the building in 1984, although this was too late to save the grounds, with industrial buildings now on all sides.

After years of neglect, it became uninhabitable but was finally bought in 2000 by Debbie and Nathan Hughes, who have sensitively restored it and created one large house, with all its original features – including the winder for the clock - restored.


References and acknowledgements:


•Caroline: Her Life in the Bluebell World of Little Eaton – Colin Stevens - Colby Stevens Moore


•A Native’s Tale: Memories of Little Eaton – Cathie Woodward


•The Little Eaton Gangway and Derby Canal – David Ripley