About NarrowBoat

NarrowBoat explores hundreds of years of canal and inland waterways history and heritage.

Britain’s canals were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution – their construction made possible the movement of large quantities of raw materials that stoked Britain’s industrialisation and allowed for goods to be moved efficiently to market.

Although large parts of the canal network were infilled and built over as first rail and then road took over their role in transport, much remains and the waterways are now a highly valued leisure resource. We are also left with a rich legacy of waterway history and heritage.

Originally conceived as a quarterly magazine to bring this legacy to life and explore our unique canal history, the digital issues of NarrowBoat have become a fully searchable archive of over 400 articles (including more than 6,000 images) covering over 200 years from the birth of the canals to the 1960s.

NarrowBoat  and narrowboatmagazine.com are published by Waterways World Ltd, 151 Station Street, Burton-on-Trent, DE14 1BG

The printed magazine and online digital magazine are published in March, June, September and December each year.

Below is a text only version of the first issue of the magazine - to access the full version of that or other issues you will need either to buy a copy or become a subscriber which gives you free online access to all issues of the magazine. To subscribe, click here.

Spring 2006 - Issue 1

Past & Present

Sixty years ago, there seemed little hope for our waterways. Rapidly declining fleets of boats were attempting to operate on long-neglected 150-year-old navigations. Many unmodernised canals and rivers had survived competition from those ‘new-fangled’ railways for over a century, but the inexorable rise of road transport was a more difficult challenge.

In 1946, a small number of enthusiastic individuals decided to do something about it. They formed the Inland Waterways Association. And, no doubt about it, they saved our waterways – one of the most successful voluntary campaigns of the 20th century.

It is hard to know whether any of them could foresee what our waterways would be like sixty years later. In 1946 there was still regular commercial traffic across the country – but few pleasure boats. Today that is completely reversed. In 1946 canals passed the back doors of industry. Today they pass the front doors of very desirable dwellings.

In the intervening decades much has changed. Those founders from 1946 might not recognise the boats that now use the canals, nor much of the townscapes that they pass through, but they would still recognise the essentials of the canals – the locks, the bridges, the narrow silver channel through town and country.

For me, in the 1960s when I first became interested, one of the most endearing features of our waterways was to be able to step onto the towpath and to step back in time. That is still true today and that is what continues to make our canals and rivers so attractive in the 21st century.

With Narrowboat we hope that we will increase your enjoyment and appreciation of our waterways, taking you back to busier days when they were thronged with carrying boats, revealing how the waterways that we so love today came about, explaining the distinctive arts of the waterways, and much more.

Welcome to the unique history and heritage of Britain’s waterways. Welcome to this first issue of Narrowboat.



Heritage Update The latest on preservation, archives, threatened structures, and places to visit

Heritage Events Where to see the preserved boats

Readers’ Queries Your questions answered


The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal A full historical profile of one of our oldest and best preserved canals by Ian Langford

Roses Revival Tony Lewery suggests that the ‘traditional’ painting of today is but a tiny part of what once existed

Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd Alan Faulkner looks at one of our best known carrying fleets

Consulting Certificates Lorna York helps you discover your boating ancestors

Canals That Never Were Richard Booth looks at the Watford & St Albans branches of the Grand Union


Runcorn Euan Corrie examines a 1963 photograph of the Manchester Ship Canal

Boats, Barges & Trows Barrie Trinder on vessels of the Upper Severn

Spoon Dredging Tom Foxon looks at an ancient technique that survived until the 1960s

Readers’ Queries

Here we hope to shed some light on your canal conundrums. In this, our first issue, we help John Foley in his quest to learn about Success, its owner and voyages.

Send us your answers and queries

Can you add anything to the following information? Do you have a mystery picture that has been puzzling you? It might be an old canalside building, an early pleasure boat, a working boat or an unknown location. Is there something that you have been trying to find out about the waterways that has eluded you? If so write to Narrowboat and we will do our best to find out the answers for you. And if we can't, we'll ask other readers to help. Send your questions and answers to Narrowboat, 151 Station Street, Burton-on-Trent DE14 1BG, or e-mail hugh.potter@wwonline.co.uk.


The passage of Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is something of an adventure today, but not really out of the ordinary. So when John Foley first read out a newspaper cutting to me from the Glossop Chronicle, I wondered why he was puzzling over it. He quoted from the paper: “Most thrilling of the adventures of the Gloucester doctor, his family and friends, who are spending a cruising holiday on the canal, was their passage through Stanedge tunnel, which was negotiated, but not without difficulty, on Friday. “The Severn long-boat Success in which the doctor and his friends are spending an adventurous holiday arrived in Ashton on Wednesday evening of last week, and left the next morning for Stanedge tunnel, which was their objective. The boat passed through Stalybridge and Mossley, on Thursday afternoon, and arrived at Uppermill about 3.30pm. Owing to some difficulty in passing through the lock at Wade Lock, Uppermill, the boat did not proceed towards Stanedge until Friday morning. Further trouble was encountered when the boat reached the lock at Woolroad. The tunnel was successfully traversed, although not without difficulty.” So, what was so unusual about this particular passage of the tunnel, apart from the spelling of its name? Well, it turns out that the newspaper was dated 27th August 1937! One of the party said that passing through the tunnel (which must have taken place on Friday 20th August) was the most thrilling part of the whole voyage. The only words that date the report are in the quote: “Near certain air-inlets we occasionally saw a flash of brilliant light and heard the roar of an express train.” Today, that rail tunnel is used for the back-up safety vehicle that follows the electric tug through. Oh, and we tend to use the spelling with the extra ‘d’ – ie Standedge. The newspaper continues: “Returning from Stanedge the boat left Uppermill on its homeward journey about 7pm” which suggests Success proceeded no further east. (Assuming that the boat was still full-length, it would not have been able to pass beyond Huddersfield anyway because of the shorter locks of the Huddersfield Broad Canal.) When the boat reached the vicinity of the Lock House at Millbrook there was another delay while minor repairs to the rudder were carried out, and the journey was not resumed till 10.30am on Monday. During Sunday and Monday morning large numbers of people inspected the boat and, when the journey was resumed, many walked alongside the “unusual craft” as far as the lock at the Guide Post Tavern, Stalybridge. The doctor and his crew had left Gloucester Docks three weeks previously, and come north via the Severn and Staffs & Worcs Canal. Their voyage had been “fairly uneventful” as far as Poynton where they found that one of the Macclesfield Canal bridges had subsided by a foot and the boat was 9in too high to pass. They got through by ballasting the Success down with ten tons of bricks. Woodley Tunnel (Peak Forest Canal) was also a tight fit with only just over an inch clearance. Water depth for the Success’s 2ft draught was only a problem on the Ashton Canal where it scraped the bottom, although weeds had fouled the prop from time to time and at one point caused the blades to be bent. The family were regular canal travellers, the report states, covering over 1,000 miles over the previous 4–5 years and reaching Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1936. The newspaper describes the Success as “a cosy floating home: a commercial long-boat, to which the doctor, who is the owner, has added superstructures fore and aft. There are sleeping and living quarters for eight people, and a neat little kitchen. She is powered by a sturdy 12hp marine engine which allows her to travel at a steady four miles per hour.” From the photograph in the newspaper, we can see the unusual (by today’s standards) conversion with what appears to be an open section of hold between the two cabins. What was this boat, John Foley wanted to know, who was the doctor, and were there any other reports of its voyages?

Origins of Success

It seems most likely that Success was built for the Gloucester carrier Harry Rice, as his second boat of that name, in 1918. She was registered as Gloucester 427 on 15th November 1918 and gauged on the Birmingham Canal Navigations as 899 on 30th July 1924. Whilst the BCN table was never amended or cancelled, the Gloucester Health Register states that Success was sold in 1935 to a Mr Greene for use as a private vessel or pleasure boat. This conflicts slightly with the newspaper in that the purchaser is not named as a ‘doctor’, and the report states that the boat had been cruising 4–5 years – perhaps a touch of reporter’s inaccuracy? If Success had been cruising since 1935, it could easily have covered the 1,000 miles mentioned in what was more likely 2–3 years. We tend to think of leisure cruising on the canals as starting after the Second World War, influenced by L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, but there were some intrepid explorers who preceded him. If any reader can throw any more light on the voyages of Success, or the mysterious ‘doctor’, or knows of other early long distance voyages, then please let Narrowboat know about them – contact details are given below. Special thanks to John Foley for supplying the original newspaper cutting, and to Alan Faulkner and Pete Harrison for information on Success.


This charming group of canalside buildings, with workshops and two cottages, is from the extensive collection of photographs in the David Owen Archive at the Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port. The questions are: which canal (obviously drained at the time of the photograph) and where? It is not recorded in the Archive. The construction of buildings and waterway wall is brick, with pan-tiled roofs hinting at an East Midlands origin. And the canal appears to be narrowing as if at the approach to a lock or swing bridge. If you can throw any light on the mystery, then please write to the Editor at the address opposite.

Legging Through Standedge

From 4th to 15th May, the Horse Boating Society’s Maria, pulled by Bonny and Queenie, will be making the return trip through the Huddersfield Narrow Canal between Ashton and Huddersfield. Attempts will be made to leg Maria through Standedge Tunnel on the two Sundays, 7th & 14th May, when there will be extra events around the reopened Standedge Visitor Centre at Marsden, including waterway craft demonstrations, from noon to 4pm. Details: www.horseboating.org.uk.

Historical Profile

IAN LANGFORD looks at one of our earliest and most complete original narrow canals


The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal is one of the most attractive in the country, despite increasing riparian development in recent years and its nearness to the urban and industrial sprawl of the Black Country. A journey along its 46 miles is full of interest amid ever changing scenery: through pleasant pasturelands at the northern end and spectacular rocky terrain at the southern. Opened in 1772, the Staffs & Worcs was a major link in the chain connecting the industrial Midlands with the rivers Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames, and earned a dividend within a few months of completion. The canal remained independent and viable until nationalisation and is now the most heavily used recreational waterway in the Midlands. Unlike many contemporary waterways, no part of the Staffs & Worcs was realigned, widened or otherwise ‘modernised’ in anticipation of railway competition. When it passed to the nation in 1948, the canal was essentially as it had been built, aside from minor works and the addition of a few bridges. Some features have since disappeared, notably most of the original stone edging, but it remains one of the best examples of a firstgeneration canal and the achievements of Brindley and his assistants. It seems incredible that the Staffs & Worcs was threatened with extinction as a result of the Bowes Report of 1958, but fortunately the danger was averted. Due in no small part to the efforts of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society (S&WCS), formed in 1959, the canal’s value as a recreational amenity in the West Midlands is well established. Its historical importance has also been acknowledged, with the entire canal being given Conservation Area status.


During the late 1750s and early 1760s there were various proposals for a canal to link the River Trent with Merseyside, culminating in a meeting at Wolseley Bridge on 30th December 1765. James Brindley was there to describe his plans for the Trent & Mersey Canal (the Grand Trunk), but the Staffs & Worcs was not on the agenda. However, less than a month later Aris’s Birmingham Gazette reported that “A scheme is on foot for making a navigable canal from Redstone’s Ferry, on the River Severn, through Kidderminster to Autherley, near Wolverhampton, and from thence down to the River Penk, in order to join the canal intended to be made from Wilden Ferry to Liverpool”. A notice in the same issue of the Gazette exhorted interested landowners, merchants and manufacturers to meet at the Red Lion in Wolverhampton on 29th January 1766 to determine how to proceed with the plan. In this way the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Navigation (S&WCCo) was born, something of an afterthought following the enthusiastic launch of the Grand Trunk. Proposals for the canal were put forward by a group of little-known businessmen from the Wolverhampton area; in fact in the early days it was often known as the Wolverhampton Canal. The scheme immediately found favour with influential landowners along the intended line; among them were two members of the Littleton family that was to be involved in the affairs of the Staffs & Worcs throughout its independent existence. Brindley surveyed the line with great expedition and the enabling Act for the Staffs & Worcs was passed on 14th May 1766, on the same day as that for the Trent & Mersey. Powers to raise £100,000 were given to the proprietors of the S&WCCo and in 1770 a second Act authorised the raising of a further £10,000, if needed. Work started near Wolverhampton and proceeded southwards under the direction of Brindley and his assistants, so that the Company could start trading as soon as a connection was made with the Severn. There was less urgency to complete the northern section, as progress on the Trent & Mersey was slow; troubles with the tunnel at Harecastle delayed its opening until 1777. By 1771 the Staffs & Worcs was open from Compton, near Wolverhampton, to the Severn and there were wharves and warehouses at Stourport, Kidderminster, Stewponey and Compton. No time was lost in completing the rest of the waterway and it was reported open throughout on 28th May 1772. It had taken six years to build the 461⁄8 miles and 43 locks of the Staffs & Worcs – no mean achievement when one remembers that canal building was in its infancy. It is likely that Brindley had not tackled a lock before he started work on the Staffs & Worcs and, according to Joseph Priestley writing 65 years later in his Navigable Rivers and Canals, his first one was at Compton. By later standards, engineering works are unspectacular, but are nevertheless of interest to the canal historian; the four major river crossings, short tunnels and rudimentary embankments and cuttings are among the earliest in the country. About a hundred over-bridges were built to Brindley’s design; many of them are there to this day. While the Staffs & Worcs and Trent & Mersey were under construction, Brindley was also working on the Coventry and Oxford canals, to add London to the list of ports that could eventually be reached from the Midlands. Six days before he died, in 1772, the Staffs & Worcs acquired its first branch with the completion of the Birmingham Canal, giving access to Black Country coal and industry and providing an invaluable supply of water. The fortunes of the Company were given a further boost with the opening of the Dudley and Stourbridge canals on 3rd December 1779, tapping the western flank of the Black Country. As a consequence of the increase in traffic, more wharfage and warehousing were needed at Stourport, and an additional flight of four locks to the river was built. Otherwise there was little capital expenditure on the canal until the middle of the next century. The long-awaited link between the Midlands and London came into being with the opening of the Thames & Severn Canal in November 1789, but its benefit to the Staffs & Worcs was short lived; the more direct route via Oxford was completed a few months later. Nevertheless, Stourport remained a major transhipment point for coal and a variety of manufactured goods, much going to Bristol for export, and for imported and agricultural cargoes on their way to the Midlands. However, trade was plagued by the unpredictable nature of the Severn; it was often impassable for boats after a dry spell and was prone to flooding during winter months. The problem was not completely solved until locks were built between Gloucester and Stourport in the mid-19th century, but in 1790 the Company obtained its third Act, giving powers to improve the navigation, and in 1803/4 it contributed to the cost of providing a towing path between Bewdley and Worcester. The company continued to pay a reasonable dividend to its shareholders; it decreased slightly when the Worcester & Birmingham Canal opened in 1815, providing a shorter and improved route from the Midlands to the Severn, but soon recovered. The only major capital outlay throughout the remainder of the 19th century was the construction of the Hatherton Branch in 1839/40, named after the 1st Lord Hatherton, at a time when mining in the South Staffordshire coalfield was expanding around Cannock. The branch, 33⁄8 miles in length, rose 45ft by eight locks, all except one having a uniform rise of about 6ft. It terminated at Churchbridge where a railway interchange basin was built by the South Staffordshire Railway in 1860. In the same year the Company paid for a magnificent flight of thirteen locks at Churchbridge, the land being purchased jointly with the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN). These linked with the Cannock Extension Canal, then under construction. The branch was served by several collieries and was a major source of revenue for the S&WCCo until nationalisation. In fact to some extent it compensated for the loss of trade on the northern section of the canal when the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal opened in 1835. The Hatherton Branch was last used when coal traffic to Stourport power station ended in 1949 and, due to mining subsidence, soon became derelict. There are plans to restore the branch, as part of the Lichfield & Hatherton canals project, the intention being to extend it to join the Cannock Extension Canal at Norton Canes. The Staffs & Worcs was given a new lease of life in the 20th century when A. J. Butler became General Manager. About 1925 he embarked on a major maintenance programme, mainly on locks, that after 1937 was completed by his son, Leslie. The canal passed to the British Transport Commission on 1st January 1948 and the Company ceased to exist, after paying a final dividend of 2.5%. Coal traffic to Stourport power station, the last trade of any consequence on the southern section of the canal, ended in June of the following year, shortly after a rail link to the Severn Valley line had been completed. The BTC was more interested in railways and docks than waterways, and the Bowes Committee of Inquiry was established to consider their future. In 1959 a Government White Paper based on its report recommended closure of the canal, but this was vehemently opposed by the S&WCS, founded in the same year. Commonsense prevailed and the threat was averted, but some canals were not so fortunate. However, the battle in 1962 to save the ‘Stourbridge 16’ locks was a turning point and there were no more closures. The BTC was abolished on 1st January 1963 and the British Waterways Board became custodians of the greater part of the waterway system. New ownership resulted in a complete change of outlook, since when BW and the Society have worked together to the undoubted benefit of the canal. The future of the canal was further assured, at least for boating purposes, when it was designated a ‘Cruiseway’ under the terms of the Transport Act of 25th October 1968, but it was an event five years later that led to official recognition of the canal’s unique contribution to our industrial heritage. With little regard for any historic or architectural merit it may have had, Ebstree Bridge (No 50) was demolished on 8th October 1973 on the grounds that it was simply no longer required. A Conservation Committee within the S&WCS was formed immediately and an inventory made of every structure along the canal, with an indication of its historic significance. Throughout the later 1970s the Committee liaised with local authorities along its route, resulting in the entire canal, from Great Haywood to Stourport, being given Conservation Area status.

The Route

The Staffs & Worcs climbs in a leisurely manner through 101ft by twelve locks from the Trent & Mersey at Great Haywood to the summit at Gailey. The summit level, across the watershed of England, is 10 miles long and then 31 locks descend 292ft to the canal town of Stourport-on-Severn. The canal follows river valleys for most of the way, first the Sow and Penk and then the Smestow and Stour. The ability of 18th century engineers to combine utility and beauty to great effect is everywhere apparent along the Staffs & Worcs. This is particularly true of the elegant roving bridge spanning the junction at Great Haywood, a listed structure that has been sympathetically renovated. It has all the features that are the trademark of bridges along this and other canals engineered by Brindley – sandstone parapet, dripstone and arch springers, splayed wing-walls and brickwork supported on large sandstone blocks. The attractive iron plates bearing the name and number of each bridge are unique to the canal; the original ones were fitted about 1835/6. Also at Great Haywood is the first of five fingerposts along the canal. These are made from old lock beams and were produced by members of the S&WCS. The canal immediately crosses the River Trent by a low aqueduct of four arches. Two would probably have sufficed, but Brindley’s technique was to construct one or more arches on dry land, divert the river, and build more arches in the old bed. The extra arches were retained to carry water in times of flood. Originally there were no parapets, as was often the case with early aqueducts. Except along the short section between Autherley and Aldersley junctions, boats on the Staffs & Worcs were mainly horse-drawn, creating little wash, and the original sandstone blocks that protected its banks were in place until relatively recently. A few lengths remain, but a consequence of the canal’s popularity as a cruising waterway is that a greater part of it has had to be edged with steel piling. The canal has the appearance of a large ornamental lake as it passes through Tixall Park. This is followed by the first lock, a shallow one to keep pace with the natural rise of the Sow valley. Scattered locks with irregular heights were characteristic of early canals, and this was one of Brindley’s rare mistakes. The pound between a shallow lock and a deep one below it clearly requires an extra supply of water, but the error was soon rectified. Later canals had uniform lock heights and locks were grouped in flights wherever practicable. To some extent locks along the Staffs & Worcs encapsulate the history of the canal. Most contain original features and, particularly along the northern section, some massive sandstone blocks edging the locks survive, often with wrought-iron bars on the towpath side to protect them from abrasion caused by grit-laden towlines. Otherwise, mainly where there was more traffic to the south, improvements carried out by A.J. Butler are evident. A more recent feature is a board with the lock’s name, again produced by the S&WCS. At Baswich are the remnants of a side lock (St Thomas’s Lock) into the river Sow, made navigable to Stafford in 1816. This replaced the short-lived horse-drawn tramway, from Radford wharf to the town, opened in 1805. The Stafford Branch went out of use in the 1920s. The canal then climbs steadily past the Teddesley estates of the Littleton family and through Penkridge to the summit lock at Gailey. The estates were the principal source of water at the northern end and there were five reservoirs: at Gailey and along the western edge of Cannock Chase. Along this section can be seen numerous feeders, to compensate for the irregular lock heights. The bridge at Penkridge is one of several where a separate arch is provided for the towing path and there was a small Company maintenance yard at the adjoining wharf. Just beyond the old railway bridge at Otherton and under the M6 is the site of the extensive Littleton Colliery basin. From the early 1900s until 1949 this was a major source of traffic on the Staffs & Worcs. Although the last four locks before the summit level have individual names, they were regarded as the Gailey flight in Butler’s day and the quoins have G4 to G1 cast into them. Watling Street crosses the canal at the summit lock at Gailey – an important transhipment wharf. Most of the original buildings survive, including the cylindrical wharfhouse, reminiscent of the roundhouses on the Thames & Severn Canal that the S&WCCo helped to promote. It is the sole survivor on the Staffs & Worcs and is now a shop with a comprehensive range of books on waterways and other canal-related items. The Hatherton Branch joins the canal at Calf Heath. The first two locks are part of a marina, but otherwise the branch is derelict. At Pendeford, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, is one of the few cuttings on the canal. This is shallow and hewn through solid sandstone and is little wider than a narrowboat, though passing places occur at intervals. There are then two canal junctions. The first, with the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction (now Shropshire Union) Canal at Autherley, was one the company did not want; Thomas Telford’s B&LJ, opened on 2nd March 1835, was a better and more direct route between the Midlands and Merseyside, greatly reducing through traffic on the northern section of the Staffs & Worcs. It is interesting to compare Telford’s roving bridge at Autherley with Brindley’s work 70 years earlier. The second junction, with the Birmingham Canal at Aldersley, provided trade and a supply of water. The summit level ends at Compton Lock, where there is one of the unusual circular weirs that are characteristic of the southern section. The architectural interest and ever-changing scenery of the length between Wolverhampton and Kidderminster is without parallel. There are numerous examples of early single locks, with and without bridges, the best being at Bumble Hole, and at Botterham there is an original double lock or ‘riser’. Awbridge has an unusual bridge and lock-tail, and the flight of three locks at the Bratch ranks as one of the wonders of the waterways. The extensive basin at Ashwood, opened on 2nd June 1829 and now a marina, was the terminus of the Kingswinford Railway. This line from collieries and other industries on the Earl of Dudley’s estates had two inclines separated by a level section and was another important source of trade. The first locomotive to work the level section of the line was the Agenoria, made in John Foster’s foundry in Stourbridge in 1829 and now preserved at the Railway Museum in York. There is the base of a second roundhouse on the old ironworks wharf at Gothersley, and Prestwood Bridge (34) is an almost exact replica of the original one that had become unsafe. Near the Stour aqueduct is the Devil’s Den, a curious boathouse at the foot of a sandstone cliff. At Stourton the canal is joined by the Stourbridge Canal that in turn connects with the Dudley Canal and the BCN. This was closed after the withdrawal of commercial traffic, but navigation was restored with the reopening of the ‘Stourbridge 16’ locks in 1967. Below Stewponey Lock, wharf and toll office is Dunsley Tunnel, only a short drift through unlined sandstone, but probably the oldest surviving tunnel on the waterway system. As with other tunnels on the canal, it has a towpath. The boundary stone between Whittington and Caunsall bridges (27 & 26), where the canal passes from Staffordshire to Worcestershire, was provided by the S&WCS in 1999. After the impressive overhanging Austcliff rock is the 65yard Cookley Tunnel, and at Debdale Lock is a sandstone cave, said to have been used by ‘navvies’ while building the canal. Most examples of S&WCCo paddle gear and gate fittings have been replaced or removed over the years, the former often being of BCN pattern. However, a set of top-gate paddles has been preserved at Wolverley Court Lock, on the outskirts of Kidderminster. As the canal enters the town, one of its few urban sections, it again crosses the Stour. Adjoining the deep lock in the town is the site of Mill Wharf, where all that survives as a reminder of its substantial traffic in coal, carpets and other goods is the crane. Below the lock is a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel, somewhat reduced in length. Between Kidderminster and Caldwall Lock the observant can find traces of the Company’s extraordinary experiment in electric traction that was carried out c.1924 – the stumps of posts and eye bolts that supported the overhead cable. The last few miles of canal are flanked on the west by a steep hillside and occasional cliffs, through which Brindley would have had to tunnel if the canal had terminated at Bewdley. Below Falling Sands Lock, at Pratt’s Wharf, are the remains of the side lock to the Stour, made navigable to enable boats to reach the ironworks at Wilden. The canal passes another former maintenance yard near York Street Lock, and terminates in the fascinating complex of basins at Stourport-onSevern. So different from the rest of the Staffs & Worcs is the scene at Stourport that it hardly seems part of the same canal. Few waterways end in such a dramatic manner, with a vast complex of basins, a collection of buildings dating from 1768 onwards, and boats of all types from both the canal and the river.

Boats and Traffic

The Staffs & Worcs was built as part of the main trunk canal system and was intended to carry long-distance traffic originating on feeder canals from the industrial Midlands. However, its importance as a trunk canal lessened towards the end of the 18th century as more direct routes came into being. This was further diminished by the opening of the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction in 1835, but tolls on BCN traffic for the short section between Aldersley and Autherley compensated for lost revenue. The success of the canal, both in its commercial heyday and its recreational retirement, is due to the proximity of the Black Country conurbation. Commercial traffic on the Staffs & Worcs was always pre-eminently horse-drawn and in later years much of it was worked by ‘day boats’ of the type used on the BCN. As on most canals, the main commodity carried was coal. Nowhere does the Staffs & Worcs cross an exposed coalfield, but the company supported the building of branch canals and railways from various parts of the South Staffordshire coalfield. There was a ready market along the canal until the middle of the 20th century; coal was delivered to the saltworks at Baswich, brickworks, several pumping stations that supplied water to the Black Country, sewage works, iron and steel works, gasworks and electricity generating stations. From 1926 the power station at Stourport had its own boats operating the ‘Light Run’ and T&S Element also worked this coal traffic until it ceased in June 1949. There were also wharves for domestic coal at every town and village along the canal. Another important traffic was iron for slitting and forging, replaced by steel strip as rolling mills superseded the old ironworks. The steel was mainly carried in the ‘railway boats’ of Thomas Bantock, by T&S Element or by the Merchant family of Kidderminster. Merchants in fact handled most of the traffic ‘down the brook’ – the difficult river section between Pratt’s Wharf Lock and Wilden ironworks – until mid 1949 (see Waterways World October 2005). An unusual load conveyed on the canal was hay from Gloucestershire, with apples as ballast. The traffic was operated by a distinguished group of ‘Number Ones’ (owner-operators) – Dudfield, Rice, Young, Walker and others – who were known as the ‘Glosters’. The hay was for pit ponies in the Cannock area and the Glosters returned with loads of ‘big coal’ for sale down the Severn. The trade ceased about 1930, but long before this the Walker family had settled near Wolverhampton and for many years carried coal to their wharves around Tettenhall for domestic use. Chemicals were also carried on the canal. The immaculate ‘acid’ boats of Cowburn & Cowpar, pairs with names like Swan and Flamingo, carried sulphuric acid and caustic soda from Trafford Park, Manchester, to the Courtaulds artificial-fibre factory at Wolverhampton, opened in 1927. Chemical waste from the same works was among the last traffic on the canal. Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd delivered turpentine to the ‘Black Works’ at Four Ashes, and tar and ammoniacal liquid (‘tar water’) were collected from gas works at Kinver, Kidderminster and Stourport for shipment to Oldbury. Of the cargoes originating on the canal, building materials were carried from the early days; bricks and stone from the Stafford area and sand and gravel from Wombourn. Moulding sand was also loaded along the southern section for use in foundries in the Black Country and at Kidderminster, Stourport and Worcester. The Shropshire Union Canal Carrying Co had warehouses at Kidderminster and Stourport and operated a swift fly-boat service throughout the Midlands. The traffic was mainly in light goods, such as vinegar or carpets, and was taken over by the L&MSR in 1923. It continued until 1950 and one of the boats, Saturn, has been rebuilt and can once again be seen around the waterways.

The Bratch

The Bratch, where the canal descends by 31ft to the valley of the Smestow, is one of the S&W’s major engineering works and is full of interest. The three deep locks were originally a staircase, a device frequently used on early canals where a sudden fall of land was encountered. However, such an arrangement is wasteful of water and, where water was in short supply, canal companies often replaced staircase flights with conventional pound locks, as happened at the Bratch. Rather than build a new flight alongside, as was done at Meaford and Lawton on the Trent & Mersey, the staircase at the Bratch was converted into three independent locks separated by two very short pounds. Each pound is linked by a culvert to a vast side pond; the upper one is almost 300 yards in length and passes under the adjoining road. Although Bratch Locks can be baffling when encountered for the first time, they are worked in a similar way to a normal flight. At the top of the flight is a lock cottage, a rare survival on the Staffs & Worcs. Both bridges have features from the original staircase, as have the locks, but these are better seen when the flight is drained. Upper Bratch Bridge (No 48) is a turnover bridge, as is evident from the grooves in the saddleback coping stones, worn by the tow ropes of boats working uphill. The grooves were mostly filled with mortar in 1972 to improve the appearance of the bridge! Adjoining it is the former octagonal toll office, a striking feature of the flight. The central chimney is purely ornamental, and iron-framed windows give a clear view up and down the canal. It now serves as an information centre. The ‘Butler’ blue bricks, used to edge lock chambers and the towpath and for some steps, date from 1927. Below the bottom lock are fragments of an iron split bridge of the type encountered elsewhere along the canal and then Bratch Bridge (No 47), which also has several interesting features. Part is original, notably the sandstone blocks with a prominent batter, but it has been extended and altered over the years. Underneath is an extraordinary and unique collection of walls and steps, with an arch for boatmen to leave or rejoin their boats.

Stourport Basins

There was never any intention on Brindley’s part for the Staffs & Worcs to terminate at Bewdley; from the outset it was to join the Severn close to the mouth of the Stour, near the former village of Lower Mitton. Brindley chose a site on a river terrace, well above the level of the highest floods, to construct a basin for the transhipment of goods between narrow canal craft and the broad Severn trows. This 2-acre basin, the work of Thomas Dadford senior, is variously known as the Old, Middle or Upper basin and is linked to the river by two barge locks with a nominal fall of about 29ft. Warehouses, of which only one survives, were built for goods that could not be handled in the open. There were several docks, and an imposing hotel – later known as ‘The Tontine’ – was built to accommodate merchants and passengers on the river and canal. These features can be seen in Sherriff ’s print of 1776, along with trows and canal boats and also the bridge over the Severn, built by the canal company in 1775. Around the basin and along the road to the bridge grew the new town of Stourport. More basins were added in 1781, and a parallel flight of four locks to the Severn was built. This has two pairs of staircase locks (‘risers’) and the bottom lock occupies the site of a river basin shown in Sherriff ’s print. More docks and warehouses were built, including the Clock Warehouse, the inhabitants of Stourport paying for the clock in 1812. Finally, two other basins were added in the mid 1800s beyond Mart Lane. Both were subsequently infilled, one in 1865 to provide a site for a gasworks and the other after coal traffic to the power station ceased about 1949, but part of this is being reinstated. Operation of the basins needed far more water than could be drawn from the canal and was initially supplied from the Stour by a water-powered pump. A Boulton & Watt engine was installed in 1804 to pump water from the trow dock on the river. This was known as the Engine or Crown basin and much of the engine house survives. Stourport’s status as a premier canal port was relatively short lived, partly due to the shorter route from the Midlands to the Severn and beyond when the Worcester & Birmingham opened in 1815. Although commercial usage continued until nationalisation of the waterways, there was little further investment in the basin complex. This turned out to be an advantage for Stourport; unlike other canal towns, such as Ellesmere Port, Runcorn and Goole, there is much remaining of the original port and town.

James Brindley, Engineer, 1716 – 1772

James Brindley was a man of humble origins who had an innate genius for civil engineering and is rightly regarded as the pioneer of the canal system; he was connected with 18 waterways and with several other schemes that did not come to fruition. Brindley was born in 1716 at Tunstead, near Buxton, and the family moved to Leek when he was ten, where he trained as a millwright. For much of his life he designed and built mills, powered by water or wind, and later constructed steam engines for draining mines. It was relatively late in life, at the age of 42, that he turned his attention to canals. In 1758 the Earl of Gower and others commissioned Brindley to survey the line of a canal that became the Trent & Mersey, or Grand Trunk, as he preferred it. In the following year he was appointed engineer by the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater for a canal to link the Duke’s coal mines at Worsley with Manchester. This first part of the Bridgewater Canal was completed in 1761 and it was then extended to join the Mersey at what later became Runcorn, the line being varied to connect with the Grand Trunk at Preston Brook. In the meantime, surveying the 93-mile Grand Trunk continued and it became part of the scheme traditionally attributed to Brindley ‘for opening a communication to the ports of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Hull, with the adjacent towns and rivers’. This venture became known as the ‘Grand Cross’, of which the Staffs & Worcs was one arm. Brindley recorded his work in detail and surviving notebooks give an insight into his prodigious output as he travelled the length and breadth of the land surveying canals and attending parliamentary sessions in London. However, he could not oversee his many projects single-handed and delegated work to 16 assistants, of whom several became eminent engineers in their own right. Brindley’s role was usually surveyor and principal engineer and on the Staffs & Worcs he was assisted by Thomas Dadford senior and Hugh Henshall, his brother-in-law. In the autumn of 1772, while surveying the proposed Caldon Canal, Brindley got soaked to the skin and became seriously ill. His condition was no doubt exacerbated by the diabetes that had troubled him for some years and he died on 27th September. The Staffs & Worcs was the only arm of the Grand Cross to be completed in James Brindley’s lifetime and is a worthy memorial to him, the first of a long line of great civil engineers that transformed the face of Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

The Butlers

After reputedly working as an office boy on the Aire & Calder Navigation, A. Jeremiah Butler (pictured) joined the S&WCCo about 1905, becoming Clerk to the Company and then General Manager. In 1937 he was succeeded by his son, Leslie, who managed the canal until 1948, when the Transport Commission sent him to Liverpool. The Butlers served the S&WCCo for over forty years. Both lived near the canal at Tettenhall and operated from the Company’s head office at 87 Darlington Street, Wolverhampton, where it had been since the canal was completed in 1772. Anything along the canal with blue engineering brick is likely to be the handiwork of ‘AJ’, as he was known. He was responsible for replacing the lock edges with diamond-pattern bricks, particularly on the towpath side where towlines had worn the original sandstone blocks. He also replaced wooden sills and quoins with cast iron ones on most locks south of Otherton and on the Hatherton Branch. The quoins have the initial letter of the lock and date of installation, the first being at Kidderminster and Caldwall in 1925 and the last at Swindon and Hinksford in 1938. These are still perfectly sound and, thanks to the foresight of ‘AJ’, the fitting of new gates is evidently easier than on most waterways.

Further Reading

  • The Canals of the West Midlands. Charles Hadfield, David & Charles, Newton Abbott, 1966.
  • James Brindley, Engineer, 1716–1772. C.T.G. Boucher, Goose & Son, Norwich, 1968.
  • James Brindley, Canal Pioneer. C. Richardson, Waterways World, 2004
  • A Towpath Guide to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. J.I. Langford, Lapal Publications, 1974.
  • Canal Town: The Development of Stourport-on-Severn. Several authors, to be published by English Heritage, 2006.

Cruising Guides

  • Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with the River Severn and the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal; cruising map from Geo Projects.
  • Nicholson Guide to the Waterways, Nos 2, 3 and 4. include the Staffs & Worcs Canal.
  • Pearson’s Canal Companion: Stourport Ring. J. M. Pearson & Son.

Staffs & Worcs Canal Society

  • www.swcs.org.uk


Special thanks to Alan T Smith MBE for his assistance in preparing this article. JIL

Art of the Waterways

TONY LEWERY looks back to explore the origins of today’s canal painting

ROSES Revival

As a long-time enthusiast of the narrowboat painting tradition, and the author of some books and articles on the subject, I am occasionally asked to try to identify the painter of a particular piece of work. It is always a compliment and a pleasurable duty to try, and it has offered me access to a number of interesting pieces that I would not have otherwise seen. Unfortunately, of course, the more historical the piece the more difficult is the attribution. By the time we are back in the 1930s I am floundering with a number of recognisable styles but very few names to connect them to. Bearing in mind that in the first sixty years of the twentieth century narrowboat traffic declined from a lot to very little, it is particularly frustrating to have the exact reverse in terms of hard information. There is plenty of documentation from the last days of regular carrying, but only a relatively tiny amount from the really busy time before the First World War. The amount from the early nineteenth century is minuscule. What there is, therefore, is very valuable – but we do have to remember that it is likely to be one person’s subjective view of a very big subject. It will carry the bias of that observer’s viewpoint – the prejudices of class and education – for none of us is an entirely blank page, even when we take in our first impression. The parentage of the canal painting tradition so popular on canal cruisers today is rather narrowly focussed. It is inbred in the way that certain breeds of dogs have been bred from a very limited number of thoroughbreds, chosen for certain precise traits deemed to be desirable by the breeder. They may produce progeny that are beautiful but they are also likely to be delicate and rather highly strung, much more to do with breeders than dogs The immediate ancestry of today’s decorative tradition is based on those relatively few painters who were still at work when the present canal revival got going soon after the Second World War. Our current knowledge and attitude is quite sharply focussed through that influential time and in many ways through one area as well – the southern canals and particularly the village of Braunston. Go back a little more and we find it even more sharply focussed through the writing and philosophy of one man – L.T.C. Rolt – and his seminal ramblings in Narrow Boat. There was a time, a place and an attitude that filtered the broader messier reality into something comprehensible that many outsiders suddenly found extremely attractive. Rolt was writing just before the war but the influence of his discoveries only became important after his book was published in 1944. He gained disciples at an almost alarming rate and found himself thrust forward as both figurehead and spokesman for the emerging Inland Waterways Association. He retired out of the fray in 1951 but by then the whole movement was well under way, both led and driven by a new team of powerful people. But they were mainly metropolitan people and southern based, and the waterways that naturally formed the focus of their campaigning were those that were within easy reach of London, by rail or motor car. Whilst the biggest narrowboat carriers may have been Fellows, Morton & Clayton and the Grand Union Company, it was the Samuel Barlow Coal Company fleet that most dramatically carried the flag for the painting tradition. It was their boats and their boatyard at Braunston that brought ‘roses and castles’ into the public consciousness most forcibly in that critical period. In particular it was the work of Frank Nurser at that boatyard which had a perhaps disproportionate effect on the tradition that emerged from that time. But from the canals north of Birmingham there was a deathly publicity silence, and it has always been an unexplained puzzle to me why Rolt’s Narrow Boat makes so little mention of the traffic on the Trent & Mersey Canal. He notices it all right but is rather dismissive of the local painting tradition –“Their external finish did not compare with the Oxford canal boats”. In fact some of the Potteries boats were gorgeously decorated and traffic was still intense.

Three Broad Categories

When trying to identify painted ware from that period I generally start by assigning it to one of three broad categories of painting style which I personally call Braunston, Knobstick or Uxbridge. These are not precise terms and are not sanctioned by anyone else as far as I am aware but they help me to make some sense of a tangled mass. The Braunston style already mentioned was the commonest and most varied and will be discussed in more detail below. The Knobstick style, so called after the boatman’s nickname of the Anderton Company of Stoke-on-Trent, was particularly associated with the Potteries and regarded as something of a badge of allegiance for the Cheshire boatmen, whilst the Uxbridge style was a left-over from the Fellows, Morton & Clayton regime.

Uxbridge Style

I use the term Uxbridge because the painter at the FMC dock there was still decorating boats in this style into the earliest days of British Waterways, and some of his work survived in a few old ‘Josher’ cabins, and in a couple of Thomas Clayton boats that were built there. This is the simplest and most formalised flower pattern of the three, with each ‘rose’ constructed from a neat crescent surrounded by a necklace of teardrop-shaped petals symmetrically arranged around the perimeter. It is easy to do with careful practice, a reliable formula for decorative pattern making. John O’Connor in his book Canals, Barges and People of 1950 clearly names the decorative painter at the Uxbridge yard as Henry Penn, although I have so far been unable to corroborate his name from any other source. He was, however, at the time of writing still dubbed ‘the new man’ because he’d only been there ten years, although he could clearly remember how it had been before 1914. Presumably he came ready skilled from another boatyard, perhaps from the other main FMC dock at Saltley in Birmingham. We know that the main decorator and signwriter there from the 1890s was George Preston, and although I do not know of any actual examples of his work still in existence, there are a fair number of crisp black and white photographs that show his style very clearly. From these pictures we can see that his flower patterns had a similar crescent and necklace structure too. Perhaps this style should be called ‘Josher’ flowers instead. It is the style that is most akin to the formalised folk art flowers of many other countries, from Holland, Austria and Yugoslavia through Turkey to Pakistan. Somewhat surprisingly this style has not found so much favour with the new painters of the canal revival, and it seems to be slipping into history rather sharply. John O’Connor writes “The designs and colours now used in this yard are quite its own. The bucket designs, side pictures and rose sprays painted at Braunston are irregular, seemingly derived from French rather than Eastern European designs, but the patterns at Uxbridge are formal and abstract. ‘They go in for decorative work up there,’ said Henry Penn. Nothing could be more decorative, to my mind, than his own work”. A little later he discusses the possible connection of boat painting to pottery decoration: “The similarity is most pronounced in the looser type of rose painting from Braunston. The more formal flowers of Uxbridge depend more upon a ‘reflection’ pattern, in which two or three roses are depicted back to back as if painted against a mirror . . .”. This contrasting simplicity of the Josher style to the rest was not new in the 1940s. In his 1924 book By Shank and Crank, Edmund Vale also visits the Uxbridge boat-building yard where he made it his business to become acquainted with the man who painted the boats. “There are two schools of artistry on the canal – one simple and the other florid to an excess. To the mind of the waterman there is no question as to which is the better. For him, providing he gets his colours right, the design cannot be too intricate . . . My friend the painter belonged to the simple school, and I could not but think that the effects he achieved were very much finer than those of the florid craftsman.” Was this unnamed artist actually following his own aesthetic taste or carrying out the instructions of a cost conscious and competitive transport company? And once more we have to interpret the author’s comments in the light of the sort of person he was at that particular period. Here was an outsider, a visiting intellectual, commenting on a traditional practice at a time when clean-cut Art Deco design was seen as the modern antidote to Victorian and Edwardian excess.

Knobstick Style

It is possible to see this Uxbridge pattern of flowers as the ultimate simplification of the Knobstick style, the much more naturalistic looking roses of the boats of the Staffordshire Potteries district. If we knew which came first we could propose a derivation, but the evidence is lost in the fog of the nineteenth century. What we do know is that Bill Hodgson was already earning his living as a boat painter when he married in 1908, and it is his name and his paintwork that were crucial to the development of the recognisably separate Knobstick style that came down to us in the 1940s. He may well have invented it, for he was already a skilled painter with ambitions to be a proper picture painting artist before he settled to work on canal boats. Even then he was unusual in being employed as a full time decorator and signwriter, and not having to combine the trade with that of boat builder. This combination of artistic training, constant practice and natural flair led to a style that looks richer, more complex and naturalistic than most of the other boat painting styles that have come down to us. It is still very crude compared to the involved delicacy of the high-class furniture decorators of the Hepplewhite era, but the idea of a connection is conceivable. Seen through that narrow lens of rediscovery in the middle of the twentieth century, the Bill Hodgson style seems like a sidetrack, an aberration from the pure naivety of the simple-vision folk art that the time was looking for. Post-war Britain was seeking the fresh air of rural craftsmanship and uncluttered folk art. It was not looking for surviving remnants of heavy gloomy Victorian over-decoration, even if that was exactly what the popular taste of the working boat population would really have loved. If only we knew for sure what the generality of canal boat painting was like in the busiest days, instead of having to guess from the few surviving examples and the few written references. One personal opinion that I find particularly interesting from that period was recently brought to my attention by the canal historian and waterway transport expert, David Blagrove, for which I am very grateful. It is in an 1881 book called Letters to Marco, written by George D. Leslie. Although his comment is quite brief and light, quite conversational as the title suggests, it is written by a man who was an elected Royal Academician and a respected landscape painter. He was born in 1835 and trained under his artist father. So when he starts “From earliest childhood canal-boats have been to me objects of love and interest, their pretty cabins and quaint bright decorations especially delighting me ...” we are listening to a trained visual artist, not simply a journalist looking for an entertaining story, as John Hollingshead had been 25 years earlier in Household Words. After talking to a boatwoman at Wallingford on the Thames, Leslie decides to go to the midlands by train to buy himself a canal water can – “They hold about two gallons or rather more, are usually painted green with a red band round the centre, on which is the name of the barge, the handles are bright red and the whole can profusely decorated with flowers, etc.” His informant told him that they got their cans in Measham in Leicestershire, so after an involved train journey of two days’ duration he finally found Mr Malcolm the tinsmith and ordered a can to be made for him and posted on. “It was to cost five shillings for the can, and the flowering would be half a crown . . . The flowering is done by some local artist, who may have learnt his art at some of the potteries in the district, where the old hand-painted crockery . . . is still occasionally made.” What is striking to me is what he doesn’t say. This academic artist does not call the decoration crude or naïve or gaudy, but seems to link it favourably with pottery painting. Inside his boat lady’s cabin he is “struck with the immense amount of decoration which abounded on every side; each panel and cupboard-door had floral pieces and landscapes on it”. This suggests to me some quite serious quality artwork. Was this a common standard in the late nineteenth century? Real evidence is still too thin to be sure I am afraid, but it suggests to me that Bill Hodgson’s heavy and elaborate style of paintwork would have looked less out of place then than it did by the mid-twentieth century.

Braunston Style

Typical ‘knobstick’ roses on a cabin block decorated by Bill Hodgson, probably painted at the Anderton Company dock at Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent, where he worked from 1934 until his death in 1957. My third broad stylistic category of flower painting I lazily label Braunston or southern style, and although it is a rather hazy term it does have some basis in reason. Because of the geographic reasons argued earlier, Braunston became a key crossroads in the canal revival, and the work of Frank Nurser became important as a key artistic influence in the resurgence of interest in the folk art of the boats that followed. Nurser’s boatyard painted the boats of the Samuel Barlow fleet, and painted the Sunny Valley in the popular propaganda film Painted Boats in 1945. Frank Nurser became a friend of Rolt’s, and through him met Anthony Heal, who then started to market Braunston painted ware through the fashionable Heals Tottenham Court Road showroom in London. It was Braunston work that the well-known artist Barbara Jones featured in her painting that was later used for the dust jacket of Rolt’s Inland Waterways of England in 1950 and it was Braunston work that she analysed and described in her influential book The Unsophisticated Arts in 1951. But the critical focus for this influence was the actual artwork of Frank Nurser himself, and the fact that he quite consciously set out to teach others to continue the tradition. In the early 1940s he and his dockman Percy Foster, who painted in a very similar style, were doing all the decorative work at Braunston, but he took on both Dennis Clark and Ron Hough as apprentices and taught them the trade as well as influencing the new dock foreman George Crowshaw, who was moved there from the other Barlow’s dock at Glascote when Frank retired around 1950. Judging by his surviving work he was a gifted artist as well as a straightforward craftsman. He possessed an inborn aesthetic that sets his work apart from most of the other practising boat painters at the time, who carried on the trade in a perfectly satisfactory but uninspired way. His work was widely recognised as extra special at the time and he did several press interviews and appeared on television. It was some of his work that represented the canal tradition in the Lion & Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain in 1951. The most distinguishing characteristic of the basic Braunston flower is a broad, almost diagonal brushstroke against which the rest of the rose is built up. It gives the flower an immediate lively imbalance, the key to the active flamboyance mentioned before, contrasting clearly with the steadiness of flowers built symmetrically on a central axis. With the weight of that fat first stroke to one side there is always a sense of movement within the roundel of petal strokes that are put in to complement it, a balancing act between unequals. Each flower starts off with an exciting tension within it and a well composed composition of such lively elements carries considerable power. Nurser’s neat rich flowers keep it under control but some of his followers allow the flamboyance to dash away uncontrollably, especially under the pressure of commercial souvenir production. The flowers become less floral and more like a swift decorative shorthand. Sometimes a skimpy approximation was all that was delivered and the tradition took a dive towards slick commercialism.

Other Styles

Two other styles should be mentioned in this brief list of significant influences on the boat painting tradition at that critical time. Following my earlier precedent for giving them dockyard base names they could be called the Banbury and Leighton Buzzard styles. Herbert Tooley was still at work at Banbury painting neat symmetrical flowers in a style learnt from his father, a style very similar to those painted at the Lees & Atkins’ dock at Polesworth on the Coventry Canal. The basic structure is a pair of opposing petal strokes bracketing an arc of small petals radiating out from the heart of the flower. Although Herbert’s soft gentle flowers became well known for a while from the iconic dust jacket of the first edition of Rolt’s Narrow Boat, his paintwork output was small and he hardly entered the new market of the holiday industry at all. The Polesworth yard, whose elaborate paintwork had been much beloved by the owner-boatmen before the war, had almost shut down by the 1950s and the spirited paintwork of Jim and Isaiah Atkins did not receive the same encouragement of publicity that I think it deserved. They were a little too early closing down and a little too far north to catch the momentum of the new movement. The final painter that must be included in this survey is Frank Jones of Leighton Buzzard. He was the foreman boatbuilder and painter at L.B. Faulkner’s dock at Linslade but by the late 1940s it had been sold to a coach company and the boatyard was restricted to repair work – almost a one man operation with Frank in charge. But his paintwork was well known and much respected and like Nurser he became something of an ambassador for the tradition, happily posing for the press and appearing on the radio and television. He demonstrated his craft at the first Inland Waterways Association rally at Market Harborough in 1950 and became embroiled in the blue and yellow controversy with the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive. Frank happily grasped the opportunities offered by the resurgence of interest in the canals and concentrated on decorative painting for the new market. On his business card he described himself simply as artist decorator. His style is very rich and inventive and as befits an almost full-timer at this period his painting is very proficient and clean cut. But because he always seemed to be pushing towards higher standards it is more difficult to describe his flower painting style in one or two phrases. He used all the generic flower patterns described above, transmuted into his own personal style, usually all at the same time and all interlaced with a varied selection of daisies and anemones. There are several good examples in all the waterway museum collections and a whole selection belongs to the Museum of Rural Life, Reading, from a British Council exhibition that toured the world in the 1950s.

Boatman’s DIY

It is my belief at present that the narrowboat painting tradition was carried on in earlier and busier days almost entirely professionally, by decorators and boatbuilders employed to do the job. However, by the time the outside world was taking notice in the run up to the Festival of Britain, the biggest carrier in the south, the modernising Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, had been trying to rid itself of this anachronistic embarrassment for twenty years. This in turn had brought another important influence into the tradition as it was inherited by our new canal population, the concept of the boatmen doing it themselves instead of having it done professionally for them. Some of the roses and castles that were afloat on the surviving working boats when the pleasure boats flooded in was the artwork of the boatmen themselves, occasionally good, often charming, but usually cruder in technique than the slick practised brushwork of the professional boatyard painter. Rough it might have been, but its very existence proved how vitally important the tradition was to the boating population. That element of do-it-yourself amateurism was a key ingredient to the tradition as it was operating at that critical time of transition. It was a big and important influence on what followed.

Where to see them

Examples of painted canal ware can be seen at several museums including:

  • The Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne
  • The Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port
  • The National Waterways Museum, Gloucester
Acknowledgements I would like to thank all the people that have generously allowed me to see and photograph their items of painted ware over many years. For the objects in the photographs accompanying this article I would especially like to thank Barry Baker, Colin Bowles, Ian Braine, Huw Davies, Mike Dutton, Peter Gould, Mike Hall, Lionel Jones, Tony Miles, Liz Mortimer, Northampton Museum, Sonia Rolt, David Smith, The Waterways Trust, Lindy Weinreb and the Stoke Bruerne villager who allowed me to photograph the nose tin painted by Frank Jones. Tony Lewery All photographs by the Author.

Famous Fleets

ALAN FAULKNER commemorates exactly 40 years since one of the canal’s best known companies ceased carrying by water


The name of Thomas Clayton is probably best known in canal carrying circles for the colourful fleet of narrowboats that were some of the last to trade on a regular basis around the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN). The business also had a major involvement at the southern end of the Grand Union Canal and at one time its boats traded widely over many other parts of the inland waterways network.

Formation of the Company

The business can trace its roots back to 1842 when William Clayton set up as a canal carrier. He was born in 1818 at Yiewsley in Middlesex and was already involved with the canal when he married Catherine Johnson in 1839, for his marriage certificate describes him as a boatman. On setting up on his own, William’s business was first based at West Drayton but in the late 1840s the family moved to Aston in Birmingham. The Grand Junction Canal gauging registers record a series of boats for him including Wye in September 1853 which seems to have been the first to be named after a river, a styling that was to be applied with only a few exceptions in future. In the midlands the fleet was first based at Salford Bridge, typical traffics being paving stones and drainpipes taken down to London, with imported timber being brought back to the midlands. In April 1862, however, William rented premises on the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal at Saltley, transferred his base there and went on to establish a small boatyard. William’s third son, Thomas, was born at Saltley in 1857 and originally he set up as a timber merchant, this being recorded on his marriage certificate to Sarah Blyth in November 1878. His business was based at Saltley and it is certain that his father’s expanding fleet of boats delivered timber to it. Thomas was joined in this business by his older brother William John, born at Hillingdon in 1844, and it was eventually incorporated as W. J. Clayton Ltd, timber merchants of Saltley. At one time William also had a base at Old Lenton in Nottingham from where a small fleet of barges used to trade down the River Trent to Gainsborough. They were mainly engaged in bringing timber up river for transhipment to narrowboats for delivery to the family business. William’s move to Saltley was fortuitous in that several canalside gasworks were established in the area &endash; Adderley Street at the bottom of the Camp Hill lock flight in 1844, Saltley in 1858 and nearby Nechells in 1881 &endash; and these created a demand for coal to be brought to them and for tar and other waste products from the gas distillation process to be taken away. William was quick to recognise this need and was soon actively engaged, mainly in handling the liquid waste products. Regular cargoes of tar were being taken to the London area by the end of 1863 as well as to a series of destinations around the BCN, including an important distillery established by Lewis Demuth at Oldbury in 1865. Large volumes of gas water were also handled; it was rich in ammonia and was valuable in the chemical industry to manufacture fertilisers. At first the liquids were carried in barrels but it did not take long to realise that, with the addition of some watertight bulkheads, the holds of the boats could be divided to become a series of tanks into which the liquids could simply be tipped and subsequently pumped out. This dispensed with the need for barrels and speeded up loading and unloading dramatically. William Clayton continued to develop his business until he died at Saltley in 1882 at the age of 73. His son Thomas now stepped in to take over the management, albeit continuing to trade in his father’s name. The expansion continued, an important development being to introduce three steam-powered craft on the longer distance runs from Birmingham to London and Nottingham. Two of these were acquired second-hand from John Smedley, a carrier at Aston, but the third, Victoria, was a new boat built at the end of 1888 for Thomas by the carriers Fellows Morton & Company at their boat dock at Tipton. This may well have prompted the idea of a closer business relationship for on 3rd July 1889 a new company &endash; Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd (FMC) &endash; was incorporated to take over the existing business of Fellows Morton & Company, effectively from 1st January 1889, and part of the William Clayton business effectively from 1st June 1889. The Clayton deal involved the three steamers, twenty-nine horse boats, the premises and boat dock at Saltley, plant and equipment, all valued at £20,353. These boats were all involved in general carrying but Thomas retained the specially adapted liquid carriers of which there were thirty-one. As the sale had included the Saltley premises he had to find a new base and he moved to a site at Oldbury, close to that of his major customer, the Demuth tar distillery, from where he continued the business, albeit now trading in his own name. This continued until 1904 when Thomas incorporated the business to become Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd, with himself as managing director and other members of the family as directors and notably his nephew Forrester Clayton, the fifth son of William John, who had been born in 1878.

Development of the fleet

After settling into its new location the business soon resumed its expansion. Between 1892 and 1898 a dozen new boats were built at FMC’s Saltley dock, some taking the names of boats that had been transferred over to FMC and some replacing older craft in the retained fleet. By the end of the century Thomas was looking elsewhere for yards to build boats and the first of a series came from Rudkin Brothers of Leicester and from Edward Dutton of West Drayton, whilst early in the 20th century both W E. Costin Ltd of Berkhamsted and . FMC’s Uxbridge dock built craft for the fleet. They were joined by W H. . Walker & Brothers Ltd of Rickmansworth in 1912, by William Nurser & Sons of Braunston in 1917 and by George Hale & Son of Oldbury in 1926. With the transfer of the three steamers to FMC the fleet was entirely horse drawn and it was not until 1937 that Lindola was purchased from FMC and renamed Soar to become the first motorboat in the Clayton fleet. Eight new wooden motors followed her from FMC’s Uxbridge dock between 1937 and 1939. A new development came early in 1942 when the horse boat Ribble was converted to a motor at the Samuel Barlow Coal Company’s dock at Braunston at a cost of some £318. Severn, built in 1937 at Uxbridge as the last new unpowered narrowboat for the fleet, was dealt 28 with similarly in 1944 to be followed by Pearl in 1945, the latter being dealt with at Clayton’s own dock at Oldbury, using Barlow’s work as a pattern. After the war two motors of iron composite construction were bought from FMC but they did not prove successful and were soon sold. More long lasting were four wooden motors from the Severn & Canal Carrying Company, which entered service between 1948 and 1950. In 1952 another three iron composite motors were bought from the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive &endash; France was renamed Adder and served for a short time but the other two, England and Portugal saw little, if any, service before being sold. Whilst most of the boats entering the fleet were built specially to deal with the liquid cargoes, some were acquired from other carriers involved in similar operations. Four were bought from Midland Tar Distillers, three from the British Cyanide Company of Oldbury and there were several smaller acquisitions. The biggest purchase came in 1949 when fifteen boats, most originating in the fleet of Chance & Hunt of Oldbury, were bought from Imperial Chemical Industries (General Chemicals) Ltd with Claytons taking over the carrying contracts at the works. With this acquisition the fleet reached its greatest size of just over ninety craft, which included sixteen motorboats.

Company Changes

Thomas Clayton died in 1927 aged 69. He was a much-respected man in the midlands, serving on Warwickshire County Council from 1910 for many years, becoming both an alderman and a county magistrate and being actively involved with the British Red Cross Society. He was awarded an MBE for his services. He was also reputed to have been the first man to suggest tarring roads and is said to have paid for treating half-a-mile near his home in Castle Bromwich to prove his point. Following Thomas’s death Forrester Clayton took over as chairman and managing director, based at Brentford. He, too, was prominent in local affairs being an alderman and Justice of the Peace. By now other directors had been appointed including Arthur Henry Clayton, born in 1911 a grandson of Thomas, and Kenneth Norman Clayton, born in 1912 a grandson of William John. Meanwhile James Henry Clayton, a brother of Thomas, had been appointed a non-executive director based at Brentford; in 1896 he married Louisa Boyer, the daughter of William Boyer a prominent canal carrier at Paddington. Another nonexecutive director was Alfred Clayton, who managed Thomas Clayton (Paddington) Ltd, an associated company that dealt with refuse disposal for several London boroughs. He was also involved with two family property companies at Hayes and Twyford in Middlesex. Forrester served until his death in 1942 aged 63 when Arthur, who was universally known as Harry, and Kenneth took over as joint managing directors. Kenneth retired at the end of 1971 leaving Arthur to carry on with his son Neil, born in 1941, now becoming a director.

Operations in the North-West

The fleet used to trade well away from its Oldbury base. Canal boat inspection records indicate that they traded regularly on the Bridgewater Canal in the early 1920s and it is thought they were taking petroleum products from a refinery at Trafford Park to the midlands. This was the forerunner of an important new traffic that started in 1924 from the Shell refinery at Stanlow on the Manchester Ship Canal taking fuel oil or gas oil mainly to Shell’s depot at Langley Green on the Titford Branch Canal, conveniently close to Clayton’s Oldbury base. Initially the traffic was handled entirely by horse-drawn boats, normally working in pairs, and it was probably this relatively long-distance run that led to the belated introduction of motorboats. By the end of 1952 there was just one horse-drawn pair left and it succumbed to the motors in April 1953. The boats worked on a shuttle basis sometimes doing the round trip in a week, and keeping this up for week after week. Whilst not all the records of the trips have survived Usk & Mole (captain Ben Smith) made 37 trips in 1950 and 41 in both 1951 and 1952, Mole being replaced by Holston for just five trips in 1951. The tonnages were substantial &endash; for instance 29,786 tons were handled in 1949 but thereafter they were lower - 12,703 tons in 1951 (578 boat loads), 12,850 tons in 1952 (604 boat loads), 16,749 tons in 1953, 12,435 tons in 1954 and 5,666 tons in 1955, the traffic finishing at the end of August. A tug always had to take the horsedrawn boats the short distance from Ellesmere Port up the Ship Canal to load, and then bring them back, and initially the motorboats were made to follow the same routine. It was not until 1953 that the motors were allowed to go up to the refinery under their own power, Harry Clayton and his son Neil accompanying the first pair. This speeded up the traffic considerably as, if the tug was missed, there might be a whole day or more before loading could take place. Whilst Langley Green was the main destination supplied from Stanlow, gas oil was taken regularly to Nottingham and to Birmingham, and fuel oil was delivered to Saltley, Walsall, Wolverhampton and occasionally to Leamington Spa. Other traffics northwest of Oldbury included tar being collected from Shrewsbury gasworks to be taken to Oldbury &endash; Clayton boats were regular visitors until 1927 by which time the canal was already in poor condition. Another collecting point was from the Shelton wharf at Stoke on Trent, whilst creosote from Oldbury sometimes made up a return load. Creosote was also delivered to Cefn Mawr on the Welsh branch of the Shropshire Union Canal (‘Llangollen Canal’) whilst naptha was taken to Manchester.

Operations in the South-East

Despite William Clayton’s early move to the midlands, the business maintained an important presence at the southern end of what was then the Grand Junction Canal and for many years had a base on one of the branches of the River Brent at Brentford. For a time during Forrester’s chairmanship, the company headquarters was based here rather than at Oldbury. As in the midlands the basic business was the collection of tar from a series of gasworks. This tar was initially taken to a distillery on the River Thames but later a processing facility was installed at the Southall gasworks, operated by the Gas Light & Coke Company, and this became the destination for the tar from the Uxbridge, Kensal Green and probably other works. To handle this traffic the company took advantage of the wide locks available on the Grand Junction and acquired a series of wide boats and barges. The first, the wide boat Colne, was launched from FMC’s Uxbridge dock in October 1903 and was followed by Frays in January 1904. These were wooden craft as were Chess and Bourne from Costin’s yard at Berkhamsted, the barge Thames from Duttons at West Drayton and three barges from Walkers of Rickmansworth. Subsequent craft for the Brentfordbased fleet were steel barges such as two built at Watson’s yard at Gainsborough in 1923, followed by two built in Holland in 1924 and two acquired from the Maypole Dairy in 1927. For many years the horse-drawn wide boats used to work up the Grand Junction serving gasworks as far north as Long Buckby, a special handcart being used to bring the tar to the boat when the works were some distance from the canal. Other locations served included Newport Pagnell, Fenny Stratford, Leighton Buzzard, Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead, Watford and Pinner. The wide boats could not reach the works at Aylesbury and Northampton, due to the narrow locks on both those canal branches, so narrowboats had to be used and in these cases the tar was often taken northwards to Oldbury, especially that from Northampton. The company also operated on the River Thames with barges collecting tar regularly from Reading and from as far upstream as Oxford. Latterly, however, tar from the Oxford gasworks, which were situated on the river below Osney Lock, was taken by narrowboat up the Oxford Canal to Midland Tar Distillers at Banbury, this traffic surviving until the closure of the gasworks in 1955. The company also delivered to Banbury some of the tar from the Leamington gasworks until these works, too, closed in March 1964. In 1954 4,771 tons were carried on the southern section of the Oxford Canal, of which 772 tons originated from Leamington. To supplement the tar trade the company had started delivering fuel oil to both Kensal Green and Southall gasworks and to other users, particularly at Southall, and this became an important traffic. In 1926 a record 13,706 tons were delivered to Kensal Green and 12,040 tons to Southall. Another gasworks traffic thought to have been handled by Claytons was gas lime from the Kensal Green works to Yeading &endash; in 1904 10,991 tons were handled, but it came to an end in 1911. After the Second World War the barges were confined to trading no further north than Uxbridge and they carried on until the company gave up its Brentford-based operations in 1960. They had remained horse drawn until the very end, the company maintaining stables at Durham Wharf, just below the Brentford Gauging Locks. Elsewhere towpath tractors had been introduced in the 1950s, Claytons being the last to use horses on the canal.

The Birmingham Canal Navigations Traffics

The gasworks traffic centred on Oldbury in the midlands was the mainstay of the company’s operations throughout its existence. At one time thirty-five boats were on the crude tar traffic alone, another eight were dealing with gas water and others were carrying creosote and other by-products from the distillation process. In 1951 150,000 tons of tar and tar products were handled for Midland Tar Distillers, which had become the predominant company following a merger in 1923. For many years horse boats handled most of this traffic and Gifford and Gipping were still operating as such until 1963, but motorboats handled all the runs thereafter. The company served virtually all the gasworks which had reasonable canal access and a procession of boats used to leave the Oldbury base in the mornings, spreading out across the BCN system to their various destinations. At one time the gasworks on or close to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal &endash; Aston (Windsor Street), Washwood Heath, Nechells and Saltley &endash; were all served and a stream of boats used to pass down the Farmers Bridge locks, holding up the other traffic, to reach these various destinations. Ultimately these works were linked by pipeline to a Midland Tar distillery at Nechells, putting an end to Claytons visits to the area. In 1963 51,210 tons of gasworks traffic was still being handled. This rose marginally to 51,582 in 1964 but by now the traffic was generally in decline with the on-going closure of gasworks. Rowley Regis had closed in 1961, Solihull in 1962, Tipton and Leamington in 1964 and Albion in 1965. By the beginning of 1966 only Smethwick, Swan Village, Walsall and Wolverhampton were left, serviced by just eight boats. With the prospect of further closures &endash; Wolverhampton closed in 1967 and Smethwick in 1968 &endash; the rising costs of maintaining the ageing boats, and the plans to erect the elevated M5 motorway over the Oldbury base, the company ceased its canal carrying operations from 31st March 1966, Stour collecting the final load of tar from Walsall. Away from the BCN the company used to collect tar from gasworks at Stourport and Kidderminster and its boats were some of the last to use the southern section of the Stratfordupon-Avon Canal to collect from the works in that town before the canal became virtually unusable. Tar and gas water were also collected from the Aylestone gasworks near Leicester and at one time from Coventry. The company also made some deliveries to a modern distillery erected in the early 1950s by Midland Tar Distillers at Four Ashes on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.

The Oldbury Depot and the Boats

When Thomas Clayton first established his new base at Oldbury, just west of where the Titford branch joined the Old Main Line of the Birmingham Canal, the facilities were very basic &endash; just an office and stables for the horses. Only very minor works were carried out to the boats, with Clayton initially being dependent on the FMC dock at Saltley for repairs and for new craft until the growth of FMC’s own fleet forced him to look elsewhere. Over the years further buildings were erected at Oldbury but in 1935 a new repair yard was set up to cater for the growing fleet, which numbered about eighty boats at the time. A concrete side-slip was built and two mobile shelters were provided that enabled work to be carried out on the boats under cover. Five men were employed and thereafter most of the repairs were carried out at Oldbury, although some work still had to be passed out to other yards, Lees & Atkins at Polesworth being one of the main centres for several years in the 1940s and early 1950s. Latterly the fleet declined in size and it was possible to bring all the repair work in house. Most of Claytons boats were flatdecked tank narrowboats, the company being by far the largest operator of such craft. The hull was of a standard design but the hold was fitted with bulkheads, one immediately in front of the cabin to protect the occupants from fumes, one in the bows and one midway between, dividing the hold into two tanks. The centre bulkhead had an opening, fitted with a paddle, which enabled the liquid to move from one tank to the other; by this means the boat could be levelled correctly. Some of the boats based at Brentford had their holds divided into three with an additional bulkhead. The hold was then decked over completely, and to ensure it was rainproof the planking was doubled &endash; one set running lengthwise, and the other set laid across the boat. Each tank was fitted with an access hatch in the decking, protected by a slide. Lees & Atkins, who built Gipping at their Polesworth yard in 1926, put the cost of building her at £310, against £275 for a normal boat with an open hold. With the hold being covered in, storage could be a problem and to overcome this several of the boats had fore cabins. Others sometimes had a tent-like structure erected behind the mast in which fodder for the horse and other items could be stored, although bicycles and such like were simply stored on the deck. Except towards the very end, Claytons prided themselves on the standard of decoration on their boats. The cabin side had a red background, surrounded by a dark green and a yellow band with the lettering in white. This included the company’s name, with Thomas always abbreviated to “Thos” and sometimes “Oldbury” included in much smaller letters. Horse boats had their names painted on the stern, sometimes with their individual fleet number, but latterly this number was included on the rear panel of the cabin side. Motorboats had their names and fleet numbers recorded on the front panel of the cabin side and both motors and horse boats had the public health registration authority and number painted above the company name. Early boats also included the number “1279” under part of the company’s name. This was Claytons’ Watermen’s Hall number, the river Thames equivalent of a gauging number, but after the 1920s this was usually omitted, as few narrowboats then went out onto the river, this duty being undertaken solely by the wide boats and barges. The last narrowboat known to be assessed for working on the Thames was Anker in 1907. Claytons included traditional narrowboat decoration, this often being influenced by the high standards from yards such as Nursers of Braunston and Lees & Atkins of Polesworth, but some of the boatmen were less enthusiastic about the decoration applied at the company’s Oldbury dock, irreverently calling the roses “Claytons’ cabbages”. Towards the end of the company’s life an abbreviated style of lettering was tried out &endash; with just the initials TC(O)LTD being used on the cabin side, but this only lasted for a short time before reverting to the full name. Despite the age of the wooden craft, several are still around the canal system today, lovingly cared for by their private owners with some, such as Gifford at the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, fully restored and a delight to see resplendent in the full Clayton livery.

Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Limited &endash; Surviving Boats

AdderConverted: pleasure boat, now in FMC livery, based Braunston
Captain Converted: 59ft pleasure boat
Conway (b) Shortened and fore end used for motorised pleasure boat
Dane Decked motor in TCO livery based Langley Mill
Dart Converted: 58ft motorised pleasure boat
Don Converted: house boat based at Stockton
Dove Converted: pleasure boat
Emperor Converted to carrying motor boat Empress based in the North West
Gifford (b) Fully restored with pre-war TCO livery by the Boat Museum Society, Ellesmere Port
Hudson (b) Shortened and fore end used for motorised pleasure boat Painted Lady
Monnow (b) Open horse boat undergoing renovation at Cowley (with motor Umea)
Pearl Converted: house boat based at Marston
Portugal In service as trip boat Jason based at Paddington
Poyle (b) Converted: motor house boat based near Ivinghoe
Severn Fully restored in 1997 with TCO livery based Bulbourne
Spey Decked motor in abbreviated TCO livery based Leigh
Stour Decked motor in full TCO livery based at the Black Country Living Museum
Tay Decked motor in shortened TCO livery based Anderton
Towy Clothed motor in TCO livery based Chester
Umea Converted: house boat in TCO livery based at Cowley (with Monnow)
Usk Converted: house boat (b) butty or horse boat

Tracing Family History

LORNA YORK looks at documents that help you track down your boating ancestors

Consulting Certificates

Have you ever wondered who your ancestors were, where they came from and what their occupations were? I did, and it opened up a whole new world to me. History was one of my favourite subjects at school, but in truth none of the facts and figures I learnt related to me. However, when I started on my journey of family history I was able to place my family into world events, so those events become more real. I also came to realise the relevance of social history – because my family had been living it. When I started my journey back into the past I was told by so-called experts that I would never find my family: they didn’t get married, and they definitely didn’t register or baptise their children. You may wonder why this was said. Well, all my family on my father’s side were canal boatmen. But the experts were wrong. I have managed to trace parts of my family working on the boats back to the 1790s – that’s almost to the beginnings of our canal system. How do you start? Begin by asking family members if they have information or old certificates, or perhaps a family bible where names and dates had been written down – although this is very rare with canal boat families, as most didn’t read or write. Like a lot of people I started too late to ask the questions; all the people I needed to speak to were dead. But I did recall some long forgotten stories about the family, one being that my grandmother was born a Theobald from Nantwich and her family ran the salt boats. You normally start with yourself and work your way backwards through the generations, but for this series I will start with my grandmother so that I can show the type of documentation you can find and some of the pitfalls you could encounter.

General Register Office

The first of the many indexes you will consult in family history is probably that of civil registration, the General Register Office, known as the GRO. This was set up in July 1837 to record all births, marriages and deaths. Each year is made up of four parts known as the March, June, September and December quarters. Each quarter is in alphabetical order, so if you are looking for Mary Smith born 1897 but don’t know the exact date, you would have to look in each quarter of that year. If she was born in December you might have to look in the following year’s March quarter as she may have been registered late.

Where do you find the GRO indexes?

  • Many larger town centre libraries have copies
  • The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) have a series of local Family History Centres and a web site – www.familysearch.org – but do not answer postal enquiries
  • Family Records Centre, 1 Myddelton Street, Islington, London EC1R 1UW (www.familyrecords.gov.uk)
  • www.1837online.com
  • www.freebmd.org.uk (free but not complete)

Most will allow you to access the index free, but some libraries may charge a small fee as will 1837online.com. Each entry in the GRO index is given a registration district, volume and page number (it is different in Scotland and Ireland).


My family story was that my grandmother Mary Jane Theobald was from Nantwich. I set about looking for an entry in the GRO and the nearest I found was listed as Northwich 8a 280 (ie page 280 of volume 8a) in the December quarter of 1878. When you apply for a copy of a birth certificate, to make sure you receive the correct one you should give as much detail as you can, ideally the name of mother and father, and the father’s occupation. I knew none of these things so I had to take a chance that this was the right entry. The fee for the certificate at the moment is £7 and to apply for a copy certificate you have three choices:

  • Local Register Office
  • Family Records Centre
  • Internet (www.gro.gov.uk)

What do you find on a birth certificate?

If you look at the copy of my grandmother’s certificate you will see

  • When born (28th September 1878)
  • Where born (Canal Side, Middlewich)
  • Name (Mary Jane)
  • Sex (girl)
  • Father’s name (Henry Theobald)
  • Mother’s maiden name (Ellen Bailey)
  • Father’s occupation (Boatman)
  • Date birth was registered (11th October 1878)

From the information on the certificate I now knew who my great grandparents were. I had gone back a generation!


The next certificate I decided to find was the marriage of my grandparents; my father was the third child in the family and he was born in 1907, so working backwards on a two-year cycle I calculated the marriage could have taken place between the years of 1901 to 1903. When trying to find a marriage certificate in the GRO index before 1912 you are looking for two people, and you have to cross reference them. After 1912 when you find one partner of the marriage the other partner’s name appears automatically. I looked for my grandfather’s name, William Yarnall, first and the reference I found for him was September Quarter 1902 at Daventry 3b 253. I tried to find the cross reference for my grandmother, Mary Jane Theobald, but found nothing. As I only live 10 miles from Daventry I decided to go and see what information I could find: this was in the days before computers had taken over and made life for the family historian a lot easier. I found the entry for William Yarnall: married to a Mary Jane on 19th September 1902 at the Register Office in Daventry. I had not found her earlier because she married under the name of Humphreys and gave her father’s name as Richard Humphreys, who in actual fact was her stepfather. The witnesses to the marriage were Richard and Thirza Granados. From family stories I knew that Richard Granados and my grandfather worked on the steamers. I thought they were just family friends, but in fact Thirza Granados (née George) was my grandfather’s cousin – but I didn’t find that out till much later in my research. In my experience 90% of marriage witnesses are a relative of some sort. When applying for a copy of a marriage certificate at a local Register Office you need to know the name of the church where the couple were married; the GRO reference is not of any use. When applying to the GRO they only need the reference.


The last certificate we look at is the death certificate. Again we go to the GRO to find the reference. How do you find out when somebody has died? If it is not within your living memory you may be able to obtain information from older relatives, or you can look at census returns to see if a person appears on one but not on the next one. Another way is to note when the last child in the family was born and work your way forward in time. You can also look at marriage certificates to see whether the father of the bride or groom is deceased. What do you find on a death certificate?

  • Date and place of death
  • Name
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Signature and residence of informant
  • When the death was registered.

My grandmother’s certificate records that she was the widow of William Yarnall and his occupation (retired engineering factory labourer). I have tried to explain how to find birth, marriage and death certificates in a simple and straightforward way. There are many articles and books that have been written that go into far more depth and explanation, and there are many good Internet sites that also give more detail. For further information ‘on line’ try www.genuki.org.uk – an excellent introductory website that includes an explanation of civil registration. Or, if you prefer books, try The Oxford Guide to Family History by David Hey.

In the Summer issue of Narrowboat I will look at Parish Records, International Genealogical Index (IGI) and the Census, before moving onto specific waterway sources.

Canals That Never Were

RICHARD DEAN looks at waterway projects that were left on the drawing board


The original proposal for the Grand Junction Canal passed two miles to the west of Watford, and a branch towards the town was added to the scheme in October 1792, being authorised with the main canal the following April. It would have run from the pound above Lock 79 at Croxley on the level to a basin near Watford Bridge. Later that year the company’s engineer, James Barnes, surveyed an extension to St Albans, and a separate Act for this received Royal Assent in 1795. The main map shows the Grand Junction as built in dark blue, with the two proposed branches in red. Whilst the Watford Branch was a straightforward canal, the nine miles or so onwards to St Albans was to be a canalisation of the rivers Colne and Ver, with roughly half being in the channel as marked by blue dots, the remainder being cuts of varying length to avoid the watermills. The positions of the locks needed to accommodate the rise of around seventy feet are estimated on the map. The company was not in any initial hurry to construct either branch. As prices rose during the 1790s and beyond, scarce funds were directed to completion of the through route and, despite periodic pressure from the two towns, they had always to be satisfied with land carriage to and from wharves on the main line.

Picturing the Past

EUAN CORRIE looks at the Manchester Ship Canal

The Old Quay area of Runcorn was photographed by Geoffrey Sheldon from the Runcorn– Widnes road bridge on the afternoon of Saturday 1st June 1963. The bridge had been built in 1961 to replace the adjacent Transporter Bridge of 1905. These bridges (together with the London & North Western Railway’s 1868 Liverpool main line bridge behind the camera) cross the River Mersey estuary at the narrows of Runcorn Gap. The exposed mud in the estuary clearly indicates that it was about low tide, when the substantial wall built to enclose this part of the adjacent Manchester Ship Canal is clearly visible. Much of the canal embankment downstream of Runcorn was constructed along the edge of the tidal river by driving piles and tipping spoil. The ship is the Manchester Regiment (7,638 tons) owned by Manchester Liners Ltd. This company was set up by Manchester business interests to take advantage of the opening of the Ship Canal, later becoming part of the Furness Withy Group and a pioneer in the construction and use of fully cellular container ships. From the early 1950s its major services were from Manchester to the St Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes. The first Manchester Regiment (of 1922) was lost in a collision in 1939. Her name was taken by the vessel seen here which was launched in 1946 and sold to Panamanian interests in 1968. She is outward bound but less than fully laden and so may make a further call, possibly at Ellesmere Port, to complete her cargo before crossing the Atlantic. Vessels of over 1,200 Net Registered Tons were usually required to have assistance from two of the MSC Co’s traffic tugs for passage of the canal as seen here. These did not tow the ship, which was propelled by her own engines, but were attached to assist with steerage in the restricted waters of the canal. The tugs were always provided in pairs for a through passage, working strictly under instructions from the MSC pilot on the ship’s bridge. These were passed on the ship’s whistle or by mouth whistles via ship’s officers on fore or aft decks. The head tug appears to be the second MSC Firefly which had been built by Henry Robb at Leith in 1935 and gave useful service in her firefighting and salvage role during air attacks on Manchester Docks in 1940 and 1941. She remained in service until 1965. At locks and other stopping places the stern tug provided the necessary braking power. The bollards and wooden dolphins on the wall in the left foreground are Old Quay tying-up berths, provided for ships awaiting a berth or the passing of other traffic but little used in recent years. Set into the estuary wall is Old Quay Lock. Several such ‘side locks’ were provided under the terms of the MSC enabling Acts to allow free passage of craft to and from existing navigations or wharves, such as the Weaver or the Bridgewater Canal’s Runcorn Docks. This one gave access between one of the navigation channels of the Upper Mersey, close to the southern shore here, and Old Quay at the downstream end of the former Mersey & Irwell Navigation. This river navigation to Manchester was purchased by the MSC Co as part of the Bridgewater Navigation undertaking and was largely swept away during canal construction in the 1880s. Parts of the wharves provided the site for the MSC’s Old Quay workshops in the background of this view. By the date of this photograph most of these side locks were disused, with craft making the easier passage along the Ship Canal to enter the estuary through Eastham Locks. Beyond Old Quay the MSC leaves the shore of the estuary which extends left out of this view towards Hempstones Point, initially planned to be the site of the Bridgewater Canal’s entrance lock. The smaller canal was, however, eventually built past Norton Priory, through the town to a flight of locks descending to docks downstream of Runcorn Gap and its bridges. Old Quay Swing Bridge closes off this view. One of the ship canal’s hydraulically operated road bridges, the accumulator tower in which the system’s water was pressurised rises above the large MSC workshop shed to the right of the bridge. The bridge gives access to the foreshore and Wigg Wharf where Guinness has been discharged from tanker ships loaded at Dublin in recent years. At least ten tugs, steam and new ‘S’ class diesels, are clustered around Old Quay Workshops on the canal’s southern bank, along with a bucket ladder dredger. On slipways nearby a pair of lock gates are receiving attention. These workshops, which could undertake all the major engineering work required on vessels and lock gates and their machinery, remain the centre of MSC maintenance work to the present day. Mersey Road, which curves round past the workshops to reach the former river bank alongside the ship canal, remains but there have been great changes amongst the small streets of the town beyond in the last four decades.

A Broader Outlook

BARRIE TRINDER on the vessels of the Upper Severn Navigation


It now seems scarcely credible that the Upper Severn, the unimproved section of the river upstream from Stourport, was once navigable for large craft, yet for several centuries it was a busy commercial waterway supplying several counties with coal, and carrying some of the key products of the Industrial Revolution: pottery from north Staffordshire, textiles from Manchester, hardware from Birmingham and the Black Country, and iron from many directions. Until the 1820s it was part of a logistics chain supplying town traders all over the West Midlands and the Borderland with goods traded in the port of Bristol, imported groceries, wines, spirits and tobacco, lead and glass manufactured in the city, and woollen cloth from the west of England. Severn vessels carried many agricultural products, including cheese, hops, cider and grain. An understanding of the vessels that sailed on the Upper Severn requires some knowledge of the nature of the river, of the prevalent patterns of commerce, and of the language used by those who worked the river. The word ‘owner’ was used as a prefix for proprietors of vessels, just as ‘canon’ or ‘professor’ were used in other spheres. Many owners who carried coal over short distances owned just one vessel, usually, in the language of the time, a barge, a sizeable vessel that did not normally venture on to the estuary downstream from Gloucester. More valuable manufactured goods were carried in mixed cargoes by the wealthier owners, usually in trows, larger vessels that in the right conditions could venture right up the river into Montgomeryshire, but which were sufficiently robust and deep in the hull to sail the estuary. The principal owners of Bewdley – the Pearkes, Beale and Tyler families – despatched several trows downstream every fortnight to take advantage of the spring and neap tides to take goods to Bristol, or to ports in Somerset, Devon or South Wales. In the 18th century more and more goods from Shropshire were transhipped from barges to trows at Bewdley or Upton, or later at Stourport, and by the mid-19th century trows were rarely seen at Bridgnorth, Ironbridge or Shrewsbury. An owner’s fleet was called a ‘set’ of vessels. The wealthier owners had both trows and barges, and all had ‘boats’, smaller vessels that carried valuable goods when the water was very low, acted as tow boats when larger vessels went aground, conveyed bow haulers who dragged vessels upstream back to their homes, and ferried goods between vessels and wharfs in the river ports. Some ‘boats’, called ‘wherries’, carried passengers on regular services in the manner of stage-coaches from Shrewsbury to Worcester and Gloucester until about 1800. For several decades afterwards they took country people to market at Bewdley and Worcester, in the manner of country carriers. The opening of the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal in 1827 brought narrowboats on to the Severn. Even before the Middle Severn between Gloucester and Stourport was improved by the construction of locks in the 1840s, large numbers of narrowboats were taking imported timber and grain from Gloucester Docks to Birmingham and the Black Country, via Stourport or the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. From the 1850s they were hauled in long trains by steam tugs. Narrowboats also worked on the Upper Severn. They regularly took traffic, along with barges and trows, to and from the ironworks at Hampton Loade, and from the first decade of the 19th century appear to have carried iron ore from Broseley to blast furnaces in the Black Country. The Upper Severn Navigation was at its busiest in the early 19th century, and sound statistical evidence shows that traffic was actually increasing on the section between Ironbridge and Shrewsbury in the 1820s. The opening of the Shropshire Union Canal in 1834 drew away much of the traffic, and main line railways took much more. By the 1850s the principal remaining cargoes on the Upper Severn were coal, bricks and some iron, and they were mostly lost with the opening of the Severn Valley Railway in 1862. The squarerigged barges from the upper river must have seemed increasingly old-fashioned as they moored at Gloucester docks alongside the hosts of narrowboats and the brigs of up to 400 tons from the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the east coast of North America. The last commercial voyage on the Upper Severn took place on Friday 25th January 1895 when Thomas Oswell’s barge Harry, loaded with firebricks, hit Bridgnorth Bridge and sank 260 yards downstream. She was subsequently raised and hauled to Shrewsbury, where she became part of a collection of vessels of Colonel Thomas Thorneycroft, whose riverside house still bears his name. Alas, he left Shrewsbury within a few years, the collection disappeared, and the Harry, with every other vessel that worked this stretch of river, is no longer available to be studied. Perhaps it will be possible in the future to learn more about the trows, barges and boats that worked the Upper Severn by designing and building a replica.

Traditional Techniques

TOM FOXON looks at a primitive method of dredging that lasted into the 1950s


Once built and opened to traffic, a canal eventually suffers from silting. Much of this finds its way into the waterway from feeders and storm drains. In 1959, a heavy thunderstorm brought so much mud down a feeder to the west of Shortwood Tunnel on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal that a bar was formed across the cut which stopped traffic until it had been dredged. The Stone Cross area of the Tame Valley Canal suffered persistent silting from sand washed down from the sides of the cutting. The Oxford Canal was affected by silting entering it from the Cherwell crossing at Cropredy and from mud brought down the Souldern Brook. Several methods were used to deal with silting, one being the draining of the affected length, the mud being shovelled into barrows and wheeled up planks onto the bank. For many years this was the only method available, and it was still occasionally resorted to in the early 1950s. For large dredging projects, steam grab dredgers were used once the technology became available. Moving these cumbersome machines to a dredging site was time consuming, and for ‘spot’ dredging the spoon dredger was used. Canal companies didn’t like grabs anywhere near masonry and so spoon dredgers were always used for cleaning out wharves, basins and other places where material, often coal spilt while unloading, had accumulated against a wall. There were some places where no type of dredger could be used, for example the short and narrow Curdworth Tunnel (known as Paddy’s Tunnel) on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. In this case a hole was dredged at each end of the tunnel and the passage of loaded boats would then clear the tunnel as they pushed the mud in front of them. The spoon dredger, therefore, was not a substitute for a steam dredger but the two were complementary. In construction it was an ordinary canal boat with a wooden crane mounted on a platform over the hold. The chain of the crane was attached to a spoon, made of perforated iron so that water could drain from the wet mud. The spoon was fastened to a long, heavy pole with a T-shaped handle at the end. It was dropped into the water and then dragged forcibly into the mud by a winch forward of the spoon. The crane would then be used to raise the spoon just above gunwale level, guided by one of the crew at the end of the pole. When it was positioned over the hold this man would use the T-bar to turn the spoon over so that its two hundredweight of dredgings dropped into the hold. The use of an iron spoon was preceded by the use of a leather or canvas bag, its mouth extended by an iron ring. Whilst all spoon dredgers carried the same equipment, the layout varied. On the Trent & Mersey Canal the crane was placed amidships and the winch was fixed on the fore deck. Other operators might position the crane further aft and use a portable winch that could be secured in the position needed. The spoil was loaded into the hold of the spoon dredger rather than into separate mud boats. Spoon dredgers could be owned by canal companies or by private contractors. Among the latter were the Merchant family of Kidderminster who maintained the River Stour between its junction with the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and Wilden Iron Works, (see Waterways World October 2005). Pagett’s of Perry Bar did some spoon dredging on the BCN and also on the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal. In 1955 they were employed to clean out scours that had formed below several of the Minworth and Curdworth locks. Spoon dredgers required a crew of three men, two on the winch handles and one to manipulate the spoon, who were often self employed as far as the provision of labour went. This meant that they were not always available when required. In June 1943 the dredger men on the Stourbridge Canal went on strike. The canal company owned the spoon dredger and the men were paid on piece work at the rate of 5s 6d per ton. In November of that year dredging was again interrupted by an accident to one of the men, and in September 1944 it was reported that the dredgermen were “in the hopfields”. Dredgings had to be disposed of. Sometimes they could be shovelled out onto the bank at the site, as was done at the above-mentioned work at Curdworth locks; otherwise they had to be taken to a tip. The piece work nature of the job led to some fiddles. On one occasion a spoon dredger bound for a tip below Ryder’s Green Locks on the Birmingham Canal Navigations was gauged at the top lock, the men’s payment being dependent on the gauged weight. During the night the loaded boat was worked back up the locks. Next morning the same boat was presented for gauging again, which meant that the dredgermen were paid twice for the same load. Spoon dredging was one of the more picturesque sights of canal life. It was not until the late 1950s that British Waterways acquired some small hydraulic grab dredgers. The grab on these could be precisely controlled and, as they could be used near masonry, the old spoons were superseded. Whilst canal spoon dredgers were all manually operated, on some rivers steam power was applied to the winches. It was estimated that 65 cubic yards of gravel could be raised by one of these machines in a 12-hour day.