Stony Stratford is a little place close to Milton Keynes. It was once a coach stop, straddling as it does Watling Street, the old Roman thoroughfare heading to Liverpool from London. It has many historic claims to fame (Eleanor’s funeral visited and a cross erected, Richard III visited, John Wesley preached, the phrase ‘cock and bull story’ originated there, etc, etc) but one of the biggest and yet not quite the loudest, is the Watling Works of the Edwards Hayes. That’s Edward I and Edward II.
Edward I (father of Edward II) wasn’t a local. He found his way to old Stony (as the locals affectionately call it) from Manchester where he was born in 1818 to parents who must, sadly, remain a mystery. He was a bright lad with great prospects. He had an inventive and original mind.
He also had it in mind to make it big in the world of agricultural machinery. So, arriving in Stony Stratford in around 1839, he set up shop and started selling the latest gadgets and gizmos to the local farmers.
He made all his own stuff (inventing lots of it…like his portable steam engine which only required one farm hand to haul it out to the field where, I guess, he could make his tea) but was not very successful. The locals didn’t accept him and his new fangled machines (they reckoned they wouldn’t work), so he made a change of direction.
And he made a strange decision. From 1860, he decided to start making boats at the Watling Works. This was the age of the steam driven boat and he reckoned he had what it took to make it big where it counted. And to be fair, he did. However, he could have made life an awful lot easier if he’d just checked his A-Z before he changed tack. Stony Stratford is about 50 miles from the ocean…at it’s closest.
The nearest water course was across Watling Street and down the road a bit. This water course was the Avon River, not the mnost navigable at the best of times. Even so, Edward made adjustments. His boats would be put on a trailer and dragged down to the nearest wharf from where they would float down to London.
Of course there was the prerenial problem of low bridges along the route. They got around this problem by removing masts, funnels and anything too high, as they went. Seems a bit labour intensive if you ask me.
When his boats were too big to float down the Avon, they would be pulled apart and put on individual barges, sort of like Victorian flatpack, to be reassembled in London. As Nick at Work said, it’s surprising Edward made any money at all. I guess his boats were very good.
One of his biggest customers was the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They wanted river fire boats and he supplied them. Apparently they were very good. So good that they took awards at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.
At some point, Edward I married and, in 1845, had a son, Edward II. As usual in stories of this kind, Edward II took over the works on the death of his father in 1877, and continued the successful supply of boats.
In 1891, Edward II loaned the Science Museum a model of one of the Watling Works’ fire brigade fire boats, which is why I was researching him today.
Edward II died in 1917 and, like a rudderless ship in a shallow canal, the Watling Works closed down in 1925. A comparatively short life for this sort of company but a very successful one for the Hayes family of Stony Stratford.