A recent National Gardens Scheme open day at the SAS Institute at Medmenham provided access to the Hurley Weir capstan. This is historically important as the only remaining example on the Thames of those capstans that once hauled boats upstream when there were only ‘flash’ locks – rather like dams – and not the ‘pound’ locks of today. The men who provided the manual power to turn the capstan wheel – usually rough individuals – were known as ‘tow rags’ which provides one explanation of from where the unflattering description ‘toe rag’ derives. The capstan had survived until the 20th century because of the efforts of Viscount Devonport who pledged to preserve it and donated oak from his estate to replace decayed timbers. The capstan wheel (see photograph below) was then restored in the 1980s by two men, David Empringham and Christopher Barnes-Wallis, the son of the man who invented the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ used in the WWII ‘Dam Buster’ raids.
The capstan wheel is to be found on the Buckinghamshire bank of the river close to the end of the walkway over Hurley weir (see photo bottom left) It stands on that portion of riverside land that Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, later 1st Viscount Devonport, bought to annoy his neighbour and rival Robert Hudson of Sunlight Soap fame who had acquired the next door Danesfield estate in the 1890s.
Kearley (1856 – 1934) was a grocer and politician who founded the International Tea Company’s Stores, became the first chairman of the Port of London Authority and served as Minister of Food Control during World War I. Kearley’s fortune was based on importing and distributing tea as is commemorated by the sprig of tea in the carved crest over the main door Wittington House. Hilaire Belloc wrote this savage verse about the man who’d been the MP for Devonport:
- The grocer Hudson Kearley, he
- When purchasing his barony
- Considered first, we understand,
- The title of Lord Sugarsand,
- Or then again he might have been
- Lord Underweight of Margarine:
- But being of the nobler sort
- He took the title Devonport.
In point of fact, Kearley had actually refused to pay to acquire his peerage citing his unpaid posts of national importance as justification enough for his elevation. An interesting history of the century-old Wittington House, built by Kearley and which now stands at the heart of the SAS Institute’s Medmenham estate, can be found at http://www.sas.com/offices/europe/uk/corporate/history.html
by Jeff Griffiths