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  • Narrow Boats by Tom Chaplin

    The horse tows away a Joey boat with load of rubbish into Farmer's Bridge Top Lock. Note the simple towing mast and crude shape of the boat. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    As my wife and I approach our golden wedding anniversary, we have been reminiscing about our early life, when especially in winter, working narrow boats outnumbered pleasure narrowboats. These wonderful craft, with their floating population, brought their own culture and atmosphere to the canals. Unfortunately, the last of the family-operated long distance vessels stopped trading in 1970.

    The story of the narrow boat goes back to Georgian times when Britain had an agrarian economy and boats were pulled by horses. That soon changed: a horse could just as easily pull a canal boat loaded with 25 tons as a 1-ton cart on roads that often amounted to little more than muddy lanes. Narrow boats were soon moving raw materials and finished goods around the country and the industrial revolution became possible. In time, the horse gave way to steam, then diesel and boats operating in pairs were able to double the tonnage.

    Top cloths are positioned over the planks and side cloths to protect the coal. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Virtually all of the modern steel narrowboats afloat today were built after the end of trading and both their shape and decorations have become increasingly remote from the traditional working boat. Narrow Boats traces how these historic craft evolved, and explores why different companies developed their own design. In those days, boats travelled as far in a working week as pleasure cruisers did in a month. At the centre of these staggering levels of efficiency were the boatman and his family, on whom the reliable, fast deliveries depended. This book gives the background to life aboard these marvellous vessels and the very cramped quarters that formed a permanent home.

    This engraving, first published in 1873, shows a typical horse boat replete with the familiar form of decoration that changed little during the next century. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Victorian reformers campaigned for better conditions and secured acts of parliament to improve matters. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to peer into a mock up boatman’s cabin at a museum and react with horror to the prospect of this being home to a family. In reality of course, some had bow cabins which held an extra bed, and once fitted with engines, the boats usually worked in pairs and this meant two cabins, which doubled the living accommodation. In large families, children sometimes worked and lived aboard a childless or less fecund relative or friend’s boat. During the 19th century, many urban families shared damp, insanitary basements with several others and in this context the narrow boat cabin probably seemed a pretty good option.

    Restored boats, with their stunning painting, are now highly valued and many of today’s pleasure-boats and house-boats attempt (with mixed success!) to reproduce the effect. Narrow Boats takes the reader on a close look at how the boats were painted and has many colour photographs of work by the best, well-known professional painters.

    The lock gates are being opened using the boatman's rope trick. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    During the twentieth century, as industrial processes changed, many of the core cargoes, like coal, were no longer widely required. London docks closed and the end of carrying, which had been predicted for some time, in the event happened quite quickly. Even before this, the boatman’s way of life had become an anachronism and as more and more families moved ashore, it had become difficult to maintain staff levels and recruit new people. Perhaps it is surprising that despite the coming of the motorways, the narrow boat survived so far into the 20th century.

    The castle is an original, painted in 1950. (Narrow Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    Fortunately, in the 1960s, even the smallest load was enough to prevent the Government from shutting a canal on which there was a right of navigation and we have to be thankful to a few dedicated carriers, who despite obstructive authorities, persisted and successfully saved some of our favourite waterways. Unfortunately, the idea persists that our waterways are inappropriate for modern commercial traffic. Yet a boat will reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to lorries. Heavy loads, like aggregates or building materials, could avoid motorway gridlocks and delays, while their removal from our roads would reduce accidents. However, it seems unlikely that the heavy investment needed for this will be forthcoming.

    A recent programme in the current BBC series, Britain Afloat featured narrow boats: this book will help to answer the many questions raised in the film.

    Tom Chaplin's new book Narrow Boats is available for purchase now.

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