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Nursers of Braunston

Tracing Family History: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2019

Graham Nurser

Graham Nurser discusses details of his boat-building ancestors who were based at Braunston Wharf

Charles Nurser painting in his workshop at home in April 1955. Charles had a quite distinctive painting style, very different from his half-brother Frank, and some of his painted stools are still around today.

Born, as I was, eight years after my grandfather’s retirement, I never actually saw Charles Nurser (1874 –1967) building boats. In fact, although he supervised the lay up of Samuel Barlow Coal Company’s new craft almost to the end (illness prevented him from checking the last boat, Raymond), I was too young to appreciate his work. Meanwhile, greatuncle Frank died in 1952 so he was also remote from my young life. I was, however, aware of Grandad’s reputation. In April 1955 the Birmingham Post & Mail featured him in his home workshop, ‘The Stables’, painting stools for his grandchildren.

While Frank was the doyen of canalboat painters, both Nurser brothers could, I think, turn their hands to most aspects of boat-building and painting. Grandad once told me his speciality was cabin joinery. Fortunately, I took O-level Woodwork and a theoretical project was required. My father suggested ‘building a narrowboat’. In 1965, two years before his death, Grandad told me, in broad terms, how to do it. There were no plans or blueprints, of course, it just came out of a lifetime’s experience.

Early years

My great-grandfather, William Nurser Senior, had a large family, most of whom survived to adulthood. His first wife, Mary Manning, died within a year of marriage, his second, Clara Deakin White, bore a total of nine boys and two girls. His third, Mary Anne Wykes, had a boy and a girl. The boy was Frank so Charles and he were actually half brothers.

Charles and Frank were by all accounts rather different in character.Frank was outgoing and confident. He was a capable cricketer, playing for the local team. Not only was he the master painter, but he also managed the accounts. Charles was quiet and selfeffacing. When the Ealing production Painted Boats was being filmed at Braunston he was nowhere to be seen whereas Frank was involved, and rather enjoyed the celebrity status gained when Tom Rolt publicised his work.

A letter from Captain Patterson to Charles Nurser thanking him for his continued service at Braunston Wharf.

By 1881 the Nurser family were resident in ‘Fairview’, the end house of the row nearest the railway bridge in Braunston. Charles bred chickens (as did his brothers, Frank and Walter) and his business card proclaims him as “Breeder of Pure Bred Light Sussex and Anconas; Eggs and Chicks in season”. I was told that the workers’ ‘Christmas Box’ used to be a chicken. When the yard ‘lad’ arrived to collect his, it was still running around the pen and he had to chase it and wring its neck. Tastes in humour change!

Equally ‘humorous’ was the joke played by the keeper of the relatively new pump engine installed to move water to the top of the lock flight. As a small boy, Grandad and his friends would bathe in the pool of warm water that resulted from pumping. At least, they did until the keeper released tar into the water.

The Nurser family dominated the London Road houses near the Wharf. The Champion Inn had passed to William Senior, when he rented the dock in 1876. In 1901, his second son Harry Sidney moved to a nearby house with his new wife, daughter of canal carrier Emanuel Smith (later of Brentford). The Smith family also lived in one of the houses on London Road.

Changes in ownership

Harry Sidney, together with his elder brother William Thomas, inherited the business on the death of William Senior in 1899. The 1901 census lists Charles and Frank as boat-builder and boat-painter respectively, still living at home with widowed Mary Anne and in the employ of their elder brothers. The business continued to trade as William Nurser & Sons. Harry Sidney died in 1909.

Although William Thomas, also living nearby, continued the business for some time, increasingly poor health caused him to sell up in 1927. The company was put out to tender and it was by no means certain that it would remain with the Nurser family. Indeed, I remember my father telling me that at one time a move to Tring seemed likely. No doubt this was before Charles and Frank were successful in their bid to continue the business, changing the name to Nurser Brothers. William died in 1939.

Charles retired in 1941 but agreed with Captain Patterson, managing director of the new owners, Barlows, to continue to supervise the lay up of its new boats. Frank remained as manager until his death. It was, therefore, he who so impressed the young Tom Rolt on his legendary travels.

A family concern

Although it was William Senior and his four sons – William Thomas, Harry Sidney, Charles Wesley and Frank – who were central to the business, other brothers were also involved in peripheral ways.

Walter, who lived in Champion House (the old public house), was a coal merchant and gardener for Mary Bucknill at Ivy House, the large property behind London Road. According to the Nurser Brothers’ ledgers kept by Frank, regular payments were made to Walter for stabling and garaging.

Another brother, Hedley, was landlord of the Old Ship Inn, which was situated on the dock side of London Road, under the London & North Western Railway bridge. An advertisement in The Midland Daily Telegraph for 7th July 1900 names H. Nurser as proprietor – apparentlyhe occasionally helped out with the company books. Almost opposite the Ship Inn was Frank’s home, the Pebbles, situated at the bottom of the old London Road. In 1930 Charles and his wife relocated to High Street in the village, moving in with her recently bereaved aunt.

Religious beliefs

Although their father was a member of the Church of England, Charles and his immediate elder brother, Walter, were staunch Methodists (Charles was christened Charles Wesley). Other siblings were less religious. Perhaps these two gained their faith from their mother, Clara, who was the daughter of Charles White who kept the shop at the Stop Lock. Her uncle was Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister of Australia from 1903 to 1910.

An unconfirmed story was that Charles would march the men up from the dockyard to the chapel every Sunday morning. Certainly he and his wife Marion (known as Mary) were long-serving Sunday school teachers. It is interesting that Methodism was a faith shared with the Barlow family with whom they developed increasingly close business ties.

Further research

Many of the Nurser family are buried at Braunston; the older generation adjacent to the church. Frank is buried in the graveyard at the back, as are three of Charles’ children: Edith, Lesley and Stanley. My father Maurice was the only one to survive to old age though Stanley married and had a daughter. William Thomas had three boys, the eldest of whom, Alfred Walter, died in 1982, I believe, childless.

I am in the process of researching Harry Sidney’s family, and I am finding it very hard to obtain photographs of either of these elder brothers. If any reader can help I would be most grateful. I can be contacted via my website where further information can be found.

Uncle Frank painting Barlow’s Oxford. It was built by F.W. & A. Sephton at Sutton Stop in 1928 for boatman Joseph Skinner as Elizabeth. Then, during World War II, it was sold to boatman Alfred Hone Junior and renamed Duke of York, before passing to Barlows in July 1946. She was renamed again shortly after as Oxford.

William Nurser and Clara Deakin White on their wedding day of 2nd April 1861. He was 23.