Wednesday 23 May 2012

BIG LOCK circa 1875

Photograph from the collection of the late Frank Smith of Ravenscroft. Reproduced by courtesy of Joan Smith
by Dave Roberts
This photograph, which has been sent to us by Middlewich Diary contributor Bill Eaton, must be one of the oldest, and certainly one of the most interesting, we've ever published.
It was loaned to Bill by the late Frank Smith of Ravenscroft Cottage, who was one of the leading lights of the Middlewich Heritage Society when it started in 1985.
As Bill says, Middlewich's heritage was a passion with Frank and the two of them would spend hours talking about the town's past.
Frank was always meticulous in his research, so we can, I think, take it for granted that the description he wrote on the back of the original photograph is correct, and that the image shows the shop which stood where the Big Lock pub and restaurant is now before that building was erected in the last quarter of the 19th century.
In fact Frank  added a question mark to the title - Big Lock Ca 1875? - indicating that, in his opinion, more research was needed.
It was, and is, but the photograph seems to fit the bill if we're looking for a picture of what stood on the site of the pub in former days.
The broad lock itself is in the foreground, and one of its gates can be seen on the left (the boatwoman standing next to it, by the way, appears to be wearing the traditional white head dress, indicating that Queen Victoria was still alive when the photo. was taken. Women on the canals switched to black head dresses as a sign of mourning for the old Queen, and never changed back again)
The steep cobbled alleyway in between the shop and the large building on the right which was, we presume, the condensed milk factory ( the Anglo-Swiss Milk Company was certainly in business in 1870) has endured for all these years and now forms a passageway between the Big Lock pub and the smart new town houses which have replaced the factory in recent years.
Bill Eaton, like all the rest of us, can only remember the building next to the  Big Lock being a pub but, it stands to reason that something must have been there before it.
We're used to the idea of a shop for boaters being incorporated into the pub, but it's very interesting to know that, as this picture appears to show us, the shop pre-dated the pub itself.
The canal and its lock had been there for a hundred years before this photo was taken and the need for groceries and provisions for the people working the boats would always have existed, so its perfectly likely that the shop was there first.
In fact, there are photographs of the pub with the shop incorporated into it, and the shop frontage looks remarkably similar to the one in this picture. Could it be that the shop premises were simply enlarged to form the pub, leaving the original shop and its frontage intact?
The building on the left with the tantalising letter 'S' at the end of its sign (we'll probably never know what that sign said) is interesting and could provide an alternative answer to this latest Middlewich Diary mystery.
You'll note that there is a set of stairs running up from the towpath to give access to this building.
Could it be that the building in question  was the canal side pub at the time, calling itself the Big Lock  or, perhaps, going under some other name?
Many thanks to Bill Eaton for sending us this fascinating picture.


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Geraldine Williams Is it possible that Frank was actually querying whether it is a picture of Middlewich Big Lock? Apart from the little alleyway it takes some imagination to transform the site into the 1970 version. I understood that the building by the present-day car-park used to be stables and that there were also some rails to roll down the condensed milk barrels onto the barges. The 1970 pic of the pub shows it was quite a grandiose design, so it's unlikely that it was an adaptation of any of the 1875 buildings.

Dave Roberts Yes, I think that's exactly what Frank was querying. I gather from Bill Eaton that he and Frank discussed this at length. The quality of the original photo suggests that it was taken from a book, and I think Frank was querying the original caption, or description, from that book.
My first impression was that the lock gate has to be in the wrong place for this to be the Big Lock, but when I looked at the 1970 picture it became obvious that the lock gate in the picture is the gate at the 'Middlewich' end of the lock, not the 'Northwich' end, so it could fit. The alleyway and curved wall to the right are also tantalisingly 'correct'. What a pity the picture doesn't include the building out of shot to the left.
This could be another Croxton Waterfall...

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