Ian & Stuart Shields | Photo: Hydar Dewachi

Thames & General Lighterage

When the Grand Junction Canal opened in 1800, Brentford became a crucial centre for the shipping of goods to-and-from London’s docks. Coal, timber, and grain were offloaded from barges onto narrow boats for transporting along the inland waterway network. The Thames Steam Tug and Lighterage Company was set up in 1856 to support this increasing river traffic. In the 1920s the company established a yard at Lots Ait, in Brentford, where they built barges and tugs for freight on the Thames.    

Brothers Stuart and Ian Shields were apprenticed to the company in the 1950s, working as fitters and turners alongside the teams of barge builders, welders and riveters at the yard. While there, the company was taken over by the Transport Development Group, and became the Thames and General Lighterage Company. At its peak the yard employed over 150 men, along with two women who worked as painters after the Second World War.

The arrival of the motorway system and the introduction of shipping containers dramatically changed the landscape of the tidal Thames, and the traffic that used the river. The Beeching Report of 1963 recommended that freight traffic move from the waterways to the roads, impacting the lighterage industry and the boatyards that supported it. In 1980 the yard at Lots Ait closed.

John Watson | Photo: Hydar Dewachi

John’s Boat Works

In 2005, Lots Ait was sold to investors. After seeing an advert promoting an opportunity to develop boat building once again at the site, retired solicitor John Watson took on the challenge. John accepted the lease and proposed a business plan for a new yard. A new footbridge was built to connect the yard, and in 2012 John’s Boat Works opened. Featuring workshops for local craftsmen, moorings for houseboats, and a DIY boatyard, Lots Ait is once again a thriving river community.

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