Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Buscot Lock

I follow the meanders of the river and arrive at Buscot Lock which holds the distinction of being the smallest of the 45 Thames locks at only 33.47M in length. The lock was built at the same time as St Johns Lock, by the same engineer J.Nock. The weir was rebuilt in 1979 and created a lovely weir pool that is now a National Trust picnic area.

Buscot Lock
Buscot Lock

I follow the meanders of the river and arrive at Buscot Lock, which holds the distinction of being the smallest of the 45 Thames locks at only 33.47M in length. The lock was built at the same time as St Johns Lock, by the same engineer J.Nock. The weir was rebuilt in 1979 and this has created a lovely weir pool that is now overlooked by a popular National Trust picnic area.

The area around Buscot was revolutionised by a certain Mr Robert Tertius Campbell during the 19th Century.

In 1859 Campbell returned to England from Australia, where he had made his fortune in the goldfields. He bought the semi-derelict Buscot Park Estate, which at that time was mostly pastureland, and set about converting it into one of the most industrialised farms of the Victorian era.

The first stage of the project was to drain the existing farmland. He then constructed a twenty-acre reservoir, and fed it by installing two pumps driven by the weirs at Buscot and Eaton Hastings. The final part of the conversion was to use the reservoir to irrigate the whole 3,500 acres of the estate by cutting drainage channels into the fields. The work was carried out under the direction of Baldwin Latham, a noted civil engineer.

The general workings of the estate were well ahead of its time. Cultivation of the land was by giant Fowler ploughing engines, which were twice the size of engines commonly used elsewhere. They pulled six-furrow ploughs, and on many occasions worked though the night in order to prepare the fields for cultivation.

The estate had its own gasworks, and its own plants for the production of oil cake, fertiliser and vitriol. With what we have learned about Campbell’s efficient practices it is no surprise to learn that the raw materials for the fertiliser and vitriol were recycled by-products from the gas-works and the estate.

All of this required a high level of management and communication. In order to make this as speedy and efficient as possible Campbell introduced a telegraph system that covered the entire estate so that his managers were always able to pass instructions and keep up with developments wherever they were situated.

Campbell also introduced some other practices which are still controversial today. He used accelerated fattening methods with sugar beet feeds, and kept cattle in what we would term “battery” conditions. On the other hand he had a reputation as a good employer, and introduced a maximum nine-hour day for his labourers, which was virtually unheard of in those days.

It was Campbell’s wildest scheme that was to lead to his eventual undoing. In a venture that would have Duncan Bannatyne screaming “Aahm Oot!” within seconds, our dear Robert set up a distillery to make spirit alcohol from his sugar beet and export it to France.

The distillery was situated just above Buscot Lock and opened in 1869. In a similar vein to Campbell’s other initiatives it was a model of industrial efficiency. To collect the beet from the farms around the estate he built a narrow-gauge railway with over six miles of track. The railway used three steam locomotives that were named after Campbell’s three daughters, Edith, Emily and Alice.

Campbell continuously claimed that the estate and the factories made a profit, but by the mid 1870’s many were questioning whether he was covering his enormous investment costs. He had taken out huge mortgages to pay for all of the development work. Demand for his exported alcohol trade was being crushed by the Franco-Prussian War, and he had attracted the unwanted attention of the gentlemen from Customs and Excise. All of this started to seriously affect his health, and in 1879, only ten years after it opened, the distillery, the factories and all of their assets were sold off for whatever the Estate could realise in an attempt to cut the rapidly accumulating losses.

The remarkable enterprise had come to an end after only twenty years. However, many of the estate facilities were to function for many years afterwards, and parts of the irrigation scheme are still in use today.

Robert Tertius Campbell must have been a fascinating and inventive character with ideas well ahead of his time.

The estate was purchased by a very successful city financier, Alexander Henderson who later became the first Lord Faringdon, and his descendants continue to live here today.

The House is home to the Faringdon Collection which contains many paintings and objets d’art. British art of the 19th and 20th centuries are particularly well represented, but there are also paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyke and others.

The surrounding gardens are well worth a visit, with beautiful gardens, woodland walks and a spectacular water garden designed by Harold Peto.

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