The Lift

Posted by MGB 2009

The Foxton Inclined Plane Barge Lift was a wonderful piece of Victorian engineering
It was designed as a project to widen the canal to take bigger boats whilst conserving water and speeding up traffic.


Visit 'Restoration' to see how the restoration is progressing.

Visit 'Lift History' to get the background information.

A unique solution - widen the waterway & save water

aka -The Thomas Lift, The Foxton Barge Lift, The Foxton Inclined Plane, Lift Lock, or The New Locks

The canal at Foxton climbs 75' 2" or nearly 23 metres, from the Market Harborough Level of the canal to the summit (in fact the small section of canal above the lock at Welford is the highest section). The high elevation with locks going down at either end of the summit gave the waterway engineers a big headach - see 'The Locks' for the early story. When FMC wanted to widen the canal to take bigger boats with the same crew and same horse, replacing the locks with wide locks was not an option because they would need to double the capacity of the reservoirs to cope with the extra water used and wide locks would have delayed traffic.

The wonderful solution was the lift

GJCCo engineer Gordon Cale Thomas was put in charge of the project, His solution was to build a boat lift to his patented design. The lift was built by W H Gwynne of Hammersmith London. It had 2 tanks or caissons, each capable of holding two narrow boats or one barge.

The tanks were full of water, and balanced each other. The lift was powered by a 25 horsepower engine. A journey time of 12 minutes for 2 boats up and 2 down, improved the speed tremendously. The same “lump” of water went up and down the hill all day so a very big saving of water was achieved, giving better control of this precious resource.

The Lift consisted of two tanks or Caissons linked by wire rope. A steam driven winch at the top, wound the rope on to one side of its drum and simultaneously let it off the other, raising and lowering the tanks. Each tank was full of water and weighed 230 tons with or without a boat. Two boats or a barge would fit in to each tank. The gradient of the inclined plane was 1 in 4 and the total lift height 75'2".

Using the Lift

In operation, you took your boat(s) into the tank at your level. Operation was a little different depending on whether you were starting at the top or the bottom. From the bottom, the operator would close a guillotine gate behind you using the hydraulic jigger - disconnect the hydraulic connection - and signal the engine room with a ships telegraph to say that he was ready.

From the top, two gates had to be closed and the hydraulic rams holding the tank against the wooden watertight seal had to be released. This was done in sequence and the design of the hydraulic control gear prevented incorrect operation.

The 25 horse power steam engine is turned on and you ascend/descend the hill. The other tank is either loaded with boats or just full of water. The descending tank simply sinks into the water at the bottom where the guillotine gate is opened by the operator. However, as the descending tank sinks it also starts to float, relieving it of its weight, this removed the counterbalance effect from the ascending tank.

To compensate for this, when the tank nears the top of the Incline an ingenious change is made to the angle of assent. The top of the slope curves off, making it easier for the tank to ascend. On the leading edge of the tanks, extra wheels come into contact with extra rails either side of the normal track, at the same time the rear wheels descend into a pit. This arrangement keeps the tanks upright. The tank has scraped the wooden seals fixed on the end of the top dock. Once at the top, hydraulic rams push the tank hard on to the wooden seal and the guillotine gates on the end of the tank and on the dock are opened, the horse is re-attached and off you go. The entire operation has taken 12 minutes, and could move 2 boats up and 2 down. A big saving against the time taken to use the locks. The lift also saved a tremendous amount of water, because the only wastage was that trapped between the gates at the top the hill.

Today, the locks are overcrowded with long delays. Water shortages mean that the lock opening times are often restricted. Modern pleasure boats are not all narrow and the lift would open up the waterway to wider boats.Indeed, a second lift at Watford Gap would provide a wide north-south connection, the only place in the country that this is possible. Join the Trust and help get this important and unique waterway lift restored for everyone's benefit!


The Lift in colour, a painting by Alec Riddett.

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The Lift on opening day June 10th 1900

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foxcm-15519.Plesure boats trips were organised on the lift. tourists standing in the hold of a cleaned up carrying boat. This one was the Market Harborough Congregational Church on a Sunday outing.

One of the small children on the boat told us 80 years later how exciting it was to go on the lift!

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