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Tonks Family of Boatmen

The 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
Going Up Country.

        Most 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.

        Some 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.

        The 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.

        John’s 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.

Motor Boats
        In 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
     During 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 1962.

Tanker Barges
     Several 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 Docks.

Abbreviated Family Tree
        The 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 Tonks.

John (1843)
m Caroline Tustin
m Sarah Glover*

Henry (1876)
m Martha Groves*

Henry James (1896)
m Kate E Kingscote

Charles (1852)
m Mary Jane Wheeler

Charles Henry (1874)
m Emma Nicholas 

John Charles (1900)
m Minnie Gardner

Lionel Herbert (1906)
m Elsie V Chamberlain

Thomas (1880)
m Harriet Stokes*

Thomas Caleb (1902)
m Lily Broady*

Walter James (1904)
m Martha Helm*
m Violet Stokes* (nee Hook*)

Henry John (1907)
m Elizabeth Gage

Albert Charles (1909)
m Susan Carter
Mainly worked on tanker barges

Harry (1892)
m Martha Creese*

Walter (1856)
Drowned in the docks 1898



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