Articles - In Memory of Brian Webb - Hurley Weir Lock Keeper from 1966-2003

In memory of Brian Webb Hurley Weir Lock Keeper
In memory of Brian Webb Hurley Weir Lock Keeper
Canoe & Kayak UK Editorial - Posted on 15 Nov 2013
It was with great sadness that we received the news from extreme kayaking and Thames weir boating pioneer and old friend Shaun Baker of the passing of Brian Webb.

Although not a paddler himself Brian was the Lock Keeper at Hurley for many, many years, a real man of the river and his staunch support and willingness to understand the needs of paddlers meant that he always went beyond the call of duty to make sure that the boater of the Thames Valley always had the very best of conditions, and in doing so really helped playboating develop and thrive in a way that it may well not have without his help.

For playboaters of a certain age Brian’s will be a familiar name, but for those readers who are maybe a little younger, or are new to the sport in recent years, we thought that as a mark of respect, and affection for Brian and to remind everyone what a true gentleman he was we’d re-run the following interview. It was conducted by Andy ‘Jacko’ Jackson and originally published in the legendary Playboating Magazine on the eve of Brian’s retirement.

In memory of Hurley Weir Lock Keeper Brian Webb
Brian Webb MBE was the lock keeper at Hurley, on the River Thames, from the mid-60s. His cheerful outlook, friendly attitude and willingness to understand playboaters helped build an excellent relationship between paddlers and the Environment Agency, who control access to the river and weirs. The result is that Hurley weir is now one of the most popular paddling destinations in Europe. Brian retires this year and will be sorely missed by local, national and international paddlers. Local boater Andy Jackson took some time out to chat to Brian about life on the river over the last few decades.

How long have you been a lock keeper?
I started 45 years ago, in 1958. I’d been working in a factory making artificial legs and one of my colleagues mentioned that he worked at weekends on the Thames as an assistant lock keeper. I grew up with the Sea Scouts and Cadets at Westminster so the river had been a big part of my childhood. So I applied for a job and was fortunate enough to get one when I was just 17. I started at Molsey, working with the most senior lock keeper on the River Thames, and within a few hours of meeting him, he told me I wouldn’t last very long at the job.

When did you come to Hurley?
I spent a couple of years as the relief lock keeper at Hurley in the early 60s and went to Shepperton before coming back to Hurley as the head lock keeper in 1966. My youngest daughter was just four days old when we moved so it was a bit traumatic. But I’ve never regretted coming here.

What’s involved in becoming a lock keeper?
You have to start by being a summer assistant, then become a relief lockkeeper. There are various other phases - temporary relief, permanent, district relief, area relief – none of which will mean anything to your readers. But eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll get your own lock to work.

Are there more applicants than jobs available?
Yes, a lot more. When I started, it was difficult to find good lock staff but these days it’s a much more desirable job and there’s no shortage of applicants.

Have you ever been kayaking or canoeing yourself?
No, I might have been silly enough to be a lock keeper all these years, but no.

But your children do?
Yes. My wife and I foster children and many of the children we’ve looked after have taken up canoeing. One who lives with us at the moment and one of my grandchildren have become quite proficient, and a couple who’ve left us still take part in canoeing. Obviously I’ve become very interested in the sport and it’s good to see that we’ve been able to give our children something from the river.

Paddlers assume that weir gates can always be set to suit them. How does the setting of weir gates affect the river?
Well, as most of the paddlers that use this particular weir will know, there’s a formula that we try to use as far as we can. But we could so easily destroy that by pulling the gates in the wrong order. For instance, we try wherever we can to pull them together. If it’s just one gate, it’s one gate and there’s nothing we can do. If we pull two we try to pull gates next to each other. If we were to pull two and separate them, the wave would be no good at all for paddling. So by keeping them together we can create a good wave. Obviously, these days we try to keep the weir set in a way that the paddlers would want. I think the Environment Agency will want us to do that more and more in the future because that’s what they are there for – to encourage use of the river for recreational pursuits.

How have you found the general attitude of the kayakers at Hurley?
The general attitude of kayakers at Hurley is absolutely first class; I have no problems with them at all as a rule. You’re always going to get one or two that want more than we can give them. But in the majority of cases – and I’m talking about the vast majority – we don’t have any problems.  If I go back over, let’s say the last five years, there’s probably only one paddler who fell out with us, and that was a misunderstanding. I think our relationship with the paddlers is brilliant.

Has that changed over the years as the understanding between canoeists and lock keepers has developed?
I think it’s changed a lot. When paddlers were first using this weir, we had instructions to keep the gates separated because that way they were less likely to get blocked up with debris. It wasn’t until we got the explanations from the paddlers about how they would prefer the weir, that we started setting it differently. When paddlers first started using the weir there were one or two who were a pain in the neck – I could name Shaun Baker for instance. But in fact, as I got to know Shaun I found him to be quite amenable to any changes we needed to make and he consequently carried that over to the others. So yes, there have been changes in the way we’ve operated the weir and communicated with paddlers. We’ve got a good understanding of one another.

What would be on your list of no-nos as far as paddling at Hurley is concerned?
The first – don’t shoot the gates. As far as I’m concerned it’s a dangerous practice because you can’t always see the people who are paddling on the wave and you could easily cause a serious injury. The second – don’t ever get onto the weir and attempt to make any changes yourself. The third  - do not access the weir bridge, whether from the water or across land. Generally, our ‘nos’ are about acting safely and knowing your own limitations.

The point about shooting the weir is interesting. It really is an accident waiting happen, isn’t it?
It frightens me when I see paddlers on the wave and somebody else coming over the top. You tell them not to but you know you’re wasting your breath.

How do you think kayakers impact on the local community?
Generally speaking I don’t think they have any more impact than walkers or fishermen. We would get 120,000 people over the footbridge in the course of a year and the majority are walkers, picnickers, fishermen and the like. We get about 140 paddlers a week, so it’s not vast numbers. We get complaints about them damaging the banks but I don’t really know how that can be. They don’t go fast enough to create a wash, like the private boats do. They don’t damage birds, they don’t put lead in the water and they don’t create smoke. I think most of the time it’s just that they are noticed more because they have boats strapped to the roof of their cars.

What do you think you‘ll miss most about your work here on the river?
I’ll miss everything about it really. I’ll miss the routine of getting up and going to work, I’ll miss the scenery. It’s not everybody who’s king of his own castle but here I’m king of my own castle and kingdom, the only house on this island. And there're a lot of very nice people. I always see people when they’re relaxed, when they’re on holiday and when they’re enjoying themselves. I don’t know anywhere else I could go where I’d get the same environment.

Has there been a particular highlight during your time at Hurley?
Highlights are difficult; you could pick on so many different things. I could say when I pulled someone out of the river and saved a life. Or when you paddlers gave me a picture with all your signatures on the back as a thank you. That was brilliant! A really lovely gesture. But perhaps my real highlight was getting an MBE because I got to meet the Queen. That was absolutely brilliant. I’ve always done things simply because I wanted to do them. I’ve never set out to either impress anybody. My nature is to get on and do the job that I’m paid to do. I think my job and our fostering were what led the Environment Agency to recommend me for an MBE. What a wonderful time that was.

Well, thanks for everything you’ve done for us, Brian. You’ll be remembered by paddlers for a very long time.
Thanks. Maybe I’ll see you all down by the river again some day..

Next time youfind yourself surfing the wave down at Hurley Weir take a moment to spare a thought for Brian, and his family, and all the great support he gave paddlers over the years.

Back to People Profiles

1 comments so far...

1.mandy h
21 Nov 2013 16:30
I would like to thank you all for your kind words . Brian Webb (my dad ) was a truly remarkable man , who I am sure will never be forgotten.
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