Picture Post Canals Part 2
Picturing the Past: NarrowBoat, Winter 2021
Christopher M Jones
Chris M. Jones continues his study of canal coverage in 1940s issues of Picture Post magazine
Winter on the Cut
In the Autumn 2022 NB, we studied a lengthy article on canals published in a September 1939 issue of the popular photojournalistic magazine Picture Post, which ran from 1937 to 1957. It seems likely that the piece generated some interest among its readership, for Picture Post returned to the topic of canals twice more over the following decade.
The first article, published on 6th December 1947, focused specifically on ‘Winter on a Canal’ – perhaps the memory of that year’s arctic conditions were fresh in the editor’s mind. Although covering just two pages, all the images were in colour and depicted four commercial craft engaged in the southbound coal traffic through Hertfordshire on the Grand Union Canal.
A lovely shot of a boating family steering their craft downhill, leaving a Grand Union lock. In the magazine this image was printed back-to-front so it has been reversed here. The water can was painted at FMC’s Uxbridge dock, probably by either Harry Crook or Henry Penn, which suggests that the pair was probably also owned by FMC. The lock is Hunton Bridge No 72.Christopher M. Jones Collection
An article in the 19th November 1949 issue of Picture Post focused on the folk arts of the English canals and was titled ‘Painted Barges’.
The main text repeats the well-worn cliché that roses and castles originated from Bohemia in southern Germany, perhaps being brought to England by gypsies or journeymen arriving from Central Europe. This view was put forward by L.T.C. Rolt in his book Narrow Boat published five years earlier in 1944 and this may well have been used by the unnamed copywriter as source material for the piece.
In the final paragraph the reader’s attention was brought to the recently introduced standardised blue-and-gold livery adopted by the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive for its own fleet. This was to replace the red, white and blue wartime austerity livery of the former GUCCC fleet that it acquired on 1st January 1948, and the red, green, white and yellow of the FMC fleet, acquired on 30th July 1949.
This splendid image shows a couple of water cans painted at Braunston dock in all their contemporary glory, without the faded colours and yellowed varnish seen today on surviving pieces in museums and private collections. However, the nearest can has not managed to avoid daily wear and tear, judging by the broken rivets on the carrying handle bracket. The boatman has used some wire to bind the bracket to the spout and the rear handle, so the vessel can still be used until it is repaired by the yard blacksmith or a local tinsmith.Christopher M. Jones Collection
The other four colour images in this article all show the decorative features associated with Braunston. By 1949 the Samuel Barlow Coal Co Ltd had taken over Nurser Brothers yard at Braunston Wharf to build and repair its long-distance carrying fleet. Naturally, this meant the company’s craft bore the famous decorative paintwork associated with that dock, as shown here with motor Neptune and butty York on the Grand Union Canal.
Both wooden craft originated from boat-builders W.H. Walker & Brothers Ltd dock at Rickmansworth. Neptune was the oldest, being built in November 1934 for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co and registered in December. York was originally named Octans and built in July 1935, also for GUCCC. Both were part of its star class fleet. The two boats were sold to Barlow’s in April 1943, with Octans being renamed York after fetching £300. Neptune went for £600 with half that being the value of its engine. The latter was scrapped in 1948 and another was installed at a cost of £619. The pair were captained by Albert Wilson in 1949.Christopher M. Jones Collection
Only one black-and-white image appeared in the article showing boats. Titled ‘The Watermen of Tomorrow’, it referred to the young boy holding the tiller.
The butty is Natal which was built of iron composite construction by and for FMC at its Saltley dock in October 1903. In 1949 it was paired with iron composite motor Hawk, built by Yarwood’s of Northwich, fitted out at FMC’s Uxbridge dock in February 1927 and valued at £750. At the time of publication this pair were captained by Thomas Hambridge and were part of the nationalised Docks & Inland Waterways Executive’s south-eastern carrying fleet.Christopher M. Jones Collection
The elum or ram’s had was the focus of another colour image which also identified the decorative ropework – another feature boaters added to their craft. The fouled anchor design on the stern post has been deftly executed freehand with a brush called a writer, and was often seen on Barlow’s boats in the post-war years. The only disappointment with the article is that more colour images weren’t published to give later generations a better glimpse of one of the last surviving decorative English folk arts.Christopher M. Jones Collection
This cabin-side panel, adorned with a landscape, was titled ‘A Bargeman’s Dream of a Castle’. Painted by an unknown hand, the style has distinctive features of work produced at Lees & Atkins dock at Polesworth with elements of work from Braunston dock. Perhaps the person responsible for the painting had worked at both docks and had learned to combine their features, either knowingly or unknowingly.Christopher M. Jones Collection
Several black-and-white photographs were published which are worth including here, purely to see why people living outside the closed world of the cut found this environment so attractive and aesthetically pleasing. It’s such a shame that most of these sculptural strapping posts have been removed, denying future generations the opportunity to see their utilitarian beauty gained from years of practical use by commercial craft.