Tonks family was one of the leading families working on the narrow
canal boats carrying cargoes between Gloucester and the Midlands.
They can be traced back to Thomas Tonks (born c1822), the son of
waterman John Tonks. This page, based on information from Les Tonks,
highlights the male descendants of Thomas who became master boatmen
spanning three generations. For an account of a typical trip, see
of the Tonks boatmen lived in the small terraced houses that lined
the narrow yards off Lower Westgate St and the Quay, and many of
their neighbours were also boatmen. These ‘westenders’ formed a
close knit community, and it is not surprising that the Tonks family
formed marriage links with other boating families, such as Alder,
Hook, Mann, Mayo, Mayall, Stokes and Wakeman. Many baptisms and
weddings were celebrated at the parish church of St Nicholas, although
others took place at the Mariners’ Chapel in the docks where the
chaplain took a close interest in the well-being of the boatmen.
The abbreviated family tree below shows the four branches that followed
the boating life through into the twentieth century.
of the early Tonks boatmen worked for local boat owners who were
primarily interested in bringing coal to Gloucester and carried
whatever cargoes were available on the outward voyage. Others worked
for firms who carried a wide range of goods, including mixed cargoes
known as sundries. Census returns show that Tonks boatmen stayed
the night at places such as Worcester, Stourport, Oldbury and three
different wharfs in Birmingham. By the twentieth century, most of
the Tonks boatmen were working for the Severn & Canal Carrying
Co or their smaller rival Jacob Rice & Son, but some still worked
for individual boat owners.
master of a boat was usually paid for the trip and it was common
for him to take members of his family as crew, but sometimes it
was necessary to employ a mate so the family could stay at home.
In 1871, when John Tonks (1843) took his wife and two very young
children on a trip, he also took his younger brother Charles (1852)
to help work the boat. At the time of the next census, it is possible
John’s wife was ill or he wanted his children to go to school, as
John is recorded on a boat at Birmingham just accompanied by another
brother Walter (1856). By this time, boats were only authorised
to carry a man, his wife and ‘two’ children, and it became common
for couples to leave any excess children in the care of other members
of their extended family. However, the regulations were not rigorously
enforced, and in 1901 John was recorded at Birmingham with his second
wife, three daughters and a son on board.
brother Walter Tonks (1856) was later involved in a tragic accident.
He was employed by Henry Cooper to collect coal from Staffordshire
and deliver it to the The Flat on the tidal River Severn eight miles
below Gloucester. On the way back upstream one day in 1898, Walter
and his mate stopped for drinks at Minsterworth and again at Stonebench
and then drank some more when they reached Gloucester. On returning
to his boat moored in the docks ‘about half drunk’, Walter had to
climb over other moored boats, and while doing this he fell into
the water and was drowned. In a later generation, another Walter
(1904) was on a trip to Birmingham with his family when his young
son Henry died of pneumonia. This meant a harrowing return journey
for the family as they brought the body back to Gloucester for burial.
the late 1920s, the Severn & Canal Carrying Co began to invest
in motor boats. Charlie Tonks was allocated No 6, Harry Tonks
No 7 and Walter James Tonks No 8. These early motor
boats had powerful Bolinder engines which were started by turning
the flywheel with a jerk of the foot. If the jerk was not quite
right, the engine was liable to kick back, and on one occasion Charlie
was thrown backwards though the engine room door opening and into
the canal! Walter James later had the motor boat Willow which
had a smaller Petter engine and was somewhat under-powered for the
River Severn. Returning to Gloucester one day, he was turning at
the Upper Parting to enter the east channel of the river when he
was caught by a strong current and swept down the west channel.
Willow ended up stuck on Maisemore Weir, and the tug Enterprise
had to come and pull them back into the east channel.
The End of the Boats
the 1930s, the role of the boats declined due to growing competition
from rail and road transport, and many of the younger boatmen took
jobs on the growing number of tanker barges that were coming into
service. The boat traffic to the Midlands virtually ended in the
1940s, but Charlie Ballinger continued to operate a couple of boats,
and he employed Lionel Tonks to work one until Ballinger died in
members of the Tonks family who as children had helped their parents
on the boats later were employed on the tanker barges that carried
petroleum products from Avonmouth to Gloucester, Worcester and Stourport.
Albert Charles Tonks became master of the Severn Traveller,
one of three barges involved in a serious accident while trying
to enter Sharpness in February 1939 when six men lost their lives.
Later Albert worked on Harker tankers, as did his son Albert George.
Henry James Tonks was on Severn Carrier II and Walter William
Tonks (son of Walter James) on Severn Traveller and the tugs
Severn Victor and Severn Enterprise. Jimmy Tonks served
on several tanker barges and then was master of the coastal tanker
Bisley into the 1980s. Thus members of the Tonks family maintained
a presence on the water throughout the working life of Gloucester
Abbreviated Family Tree
table below highlights the four branches of the descendants of Thomas
Tonks (born 1822), and his wife Mary Ann Mann*, who followed the
boating life in Gloucester through into the twentieth century. It
does not show others who just went on the boats with their parents.
An asterisk indicates that a wife came from another boating family.
For more information about the Tonks family, contact Les