Lock Keeper

The Job and What's Involved

Lock keepers are responsible for operating and sometimes maintaining the lock mechanisms that allow boats to pass from one level to another on canals and rivers. They work across the network of rivers and canals in England, Scotland and Wales.

Locks overseen by British Waterways are operated manually, either by the lock keeper or by visitors to the canals. Other locks are unmanned or automated and the lock keeper may have to give verbal instructions over the telephone to customers wanting to pass through. Hydraulic locks are less strenuous to operate, but are more complex and sometimes have to be overseen by an experienced lock keeper.

A lock keeper's day starts with checking that the lock chambers and life-saving equipment are in full working order. The safety of anglers, walkers and boaters, and of everyone visiting the area, is a high priority.

The work varies across the UK and with different navigation authorities. However, a lock keeper's duties may include:

  • Repairing locks.
  • Advising boaters on safe boat handling.
  • Advising visitors on local places of interest.
  • Helping with boats that have broken down.
  • Arranging for items to be removed that have been dumped in the canal - from household rubbish to mattresses or even cars.
  • Reporting problems with local wildlife, such as injured swans.
  • Reporting pollution and fly-tipping incidents.
  • Tidying and picking up debris.
  • Cutting grass.
  • Painting locks, bollards and hooks.
  • Planting flowers to make the lock look attractive.
  • Making sure canal-side vegetation does not become overgrown.

Lock keepers also have to monitor the water levels and try to control them using sluice mechanisms and weirs. They come to the aid of boaters and other visitors in trouble on the water. They sometimes take advance bookings for people wanting to travel through the lock outside of normal opening hours.

Boats require a licence for most waterways. Lock keepers may be responsible for issuing licences, accepting payment and policing licence evasion. Experienced lock keepers may have responsibility for the day-to-day management of volunteers and paid staff. The work may involve liaising with many different environmental groups and voluntary organisations.

Lock keepers usually work around 42 hours a week, though this varies depending on the time of year. They normally work on a rota system to make sure duties are always covered. They often work weekends and evenings during the summer months. With the exception of large rivers and busy stretches of canals, many jobs are seasonal.

Locks can be used 24 hours a day, but may only be staffed at certain times. Staffing varies with the seasons and from waterway to waterway.

Lock keepers work outdoors in all weather conditions. They may be responsible for a stretch of waterway that covers more than four miles. The work can be very demanding physically and may be pressurised during busy, summer months.

Locks vary in size and complexity. Some require a high level of physical fitness to manoeuvre. The work involves exposure to different grasses and pollens, which could make the job difficult for hay fever sufferers.

Lock keepers wear a uniform and protective clothing, which is usually provided by their employer.

The basic starting salary for a lock keeper is around £11,500 a year. Some posts provide accommodation, usually a cottage.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most lock keepers are employed by British Waterways and the Environment Agency. Vacancies also occur with some smaller regional organisations. Some posts are part time or temporary. Many appointments are seasonal, usually between March and September. There may be opportunities for voluntary work.

The rivers Trent and Severn, along with rivers in Scotland, overseen by British Waterways, offer more permanent posts. The Environment Agency employs lock keepers to cover the Thames non-tidal stretch, including around 45 resident lock keepers, 20 area relief lock keepers and 12 district relief staff. There are usually twice as many in summer.

Competition for jobs is keen and there are more applicants than vacancies. Candidates must be prepared for flexible working patterns.

Vacancies are advertised in the local and national press, on the British Waterways website, www.britishwaterways.co.uk, and the Environment Agency website, www.environment-agency.gov.uk. They can also be found in specialist publications, including the Environment Post, and on websites specialising in environmental jobs.

Education and Training

There are no formal entry qualifications. It is an advantage to have a good knowledge of the local area. Relevant experience, such as working in a boating environment, is also useful. The Environment Agency actively looks for some experience in the boating industry. It is also helpful to have some knowledge of agriculture, horticulture, the building industry and DIY.

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Training is usually on the job. A new lock keeper works beside an experienced colleague. Employers may also organise formal training programmes for new staff, usually covering health and safety issues, and first aid. Some employers may also provide training in customer service skills.

Staff may be able to work towards a relevant NVQ/SVQ, such as Level 2 in Maintaining and Conserving Rivers, Coasts and Waterways.

The Association of Leisure Craft Operators (APCO) runs an annual competition to find the best lock-keeping team in the country, a prize that is well respected in the industry.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A lock keeper should:

  • Be good at operating equipment.
  • Have good stamina and physical fitness.
  • Be confident and able to instruct people on technical matters.
  • Work well independently and as part of a team.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic when enforcing health and safety guidelines.
  • Be aware of safety hazards.
  • Have good communication skills.
  • Be interested in boats and boating.
  • Be able to carry out a wide variety of tasks.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion prospects are limited. Lock keepers may be able to move into a supervisory role as a waterway supervisor or project specialist with British Waterways, or to patrol officer or team leader with the Environment Agency, depending on the region. It may be necessary to move to a different area to gain experience and promotion.

With further study and experience, lock keepers may be able to move into leisure management or work in other conservation, horticultural or agricultural sectors.

Get Further Information

Association of Pleasure Craft Operators (APCO),
Marine House, Thorpe Lea Road,
Egham, Surrey TW20 8BF
Tel: 0844 800 9575
Website: www.apco.org.uk

British Waterways, Willow Grange,
Church Road, Watford WD17 4QA
Tel: 01923 201120
Website: www.britishwaterways.co.uk

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra),
Customer Contact Unit, Eastbury House,
30-34 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TL
Tel: 020 7238 6951
Website: www.defra.gov.uk

Environment Agency,
National Customer Contact Centre,
PO Box 544, Rotherham S60 1BY
Tel: 08708 506506
Website: www.environment-agency.gov.uk

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