Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2023
Christopher M Jones
Chris M. Jones looks into the history of a single narrowboat that was photographed several times during its working life.
This is our free-access sample article from the Autumn 2023 NarrowBoat
Forget-me-not was built in the spring of 1928 for owner-boatman John George Grantham of Banbury, and registered under the Canal Boats Acts at Coventry in May of that year. This suggests the boat was built at one of the two Sephton boatyards, either Sephton Brothers at Tusses Bridge or F.W. & A. Sephton at Sutton Stop.
Initially it was paired with Grantham’s other boat, Rose of Sharon, dating from 1913, which was replaced with another boat of the same name from Nurser Brothers of Braunston Wharf in December 1929. Rose of Sharon was sold off in the early 1930s to his son Joseph Grantham, and John George Grantham replaced it with another, probably second-hand, boat called Louisa, pairing it with Forget-me-not.
In the late 1920s and early ’30s, many owner-boatmen working in the south Midlands were converting to motor power and giving up horse haulage. John George Grantham also adopted motor power by converting what is thought to be his Louisa to motor power by Nurser Brothers late in 1934, for £139 17s 7d. Grantham renamed his newly converted motor, which was powered by a 20hp Bolinder oil engine, The Rocket
Grantham used The Rocket & Forget-me-not on the Grand Union Canal carrying coal for firms like the Warwickshire Canal Carrying Co of Bedworth, and made occasional coal trips to Croxley Mill for paper manufacturers, John Dickinson & Co Ltd too. He also delivered roadstone for the quarry companies based in the Nuneaton area, such as Charles Abell Ltd of Hartshill Granite Quarries, near Atherstone. His trips on the Oxford Canal included coal for United Diaries (Wholesale) Ltd at Banbury and to Wolvercote Paper Mills on the River Thames near Oxford, both under the orders of canal carrier, S.E. Barlow of Tamworth.
Due to the impact on traffic by the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co, Grantham sold both boats to Samuel Barlow Coal Co Ltd on 30th November 1939: Forget-me-not was valued at £150, The Rocket valued at £150 and its engine £200. They were later re-registered to Barlow’s in September 1940, retaining the boats’ original names: Forget-me-not was given fleet number 26 and The Rocket number 24. John George Grantham and his family continued living aboard the pair, working as employees of Barlow Ltd into 1942 with his youngest son taking over as captain in August.
He was replaced by Ernest and Mabel Wilson still using The Rocket for a time, then Jack Skinner Jnr and his crew took over and started using motor Rodney by April 1944. During the rest of World War II, it is the Skinners who are most associated with Forget-me-not. Yet there was a brief interlude in 1944 when Ernest and Mabel Wilson were onboard – it was photographed at various angles by Paul Redmayne in June, showing it newly docked at Braunston Wharf with Mabel Wilson aboard.
Years later, one of these colour images graced the cover of Country Life magazine, dated 30th July 1964 and titled ‘Old Timer: A Narrow Boat on the Grand Union Canal near Braunston’. This was a stand-alone cover unrelated to any article on the topic inside. A similar version of it was also published during the 1960s on a Salmon Cameracolour postcard with Mabel Wilson standing inside the cabin. The paintwork displayed on Forget-me-not has been attributed to Frank Nurser, although it could also be Percy Foster who painted in an almost identical style to his employer Frank.
For those on the bank unfamiliar with canals, traditional narrowboats and their unique decoration, and who had never seen a painted boat before, this Salmon picture postcard was quite a revelation. The few waterways illustrated books that had been published during the 1960s all had black-and-white photographs. Perhaps the first to show boats in colour was Hugh McKnight’s Canal and River Craft in Pictures published in 1969, which had three colour images of Blue Line boats inside, one of them also reproduced on the dust jacket.
Jack Skinner Jnr took over Forget-me-not again by July 1945 with Rodney. All his trips on the Oxford Canal were carrying coal to the Oxford Electric Co Ltd power station on the River Thames at Russell Street, Osney. In November 1945 he switched his motor to Kent, and started carrying coal further downstream to papermills at Sandford-on-Thames.
Jack and Rose Skinner were photographed aboard Forget-me-not with Joe and Rose Skinner on Friendship opposite Banbury Dock on 22nd April 1946, just after Jack and Rose’s wedding. Jack Skinner Jnr was the son of Joe’s brother, Jack Snr, and his new wife Rose was the daughter of Alfred Hone, another owner-boatman from Banbury. A second view taken on the same day from drawbridge No 164 shows Friendship with Forget-me-not alongside, and their motor Kent moored against the towpath ahead. On the left is Banbury Dock run by the Tooley family, with L.T.C. Rolt’s converted former Shropshire Union boat Cressy tied up with an unnamed butty. By the spring of 1948, Benjamin Johnson and his family had taken over Forget-me-not using motors Jason and, later, Wasp.
In 1950, Forget-me-not was being used by Joe and Rose Skinner as a change boat, hired from Barlow Ltd, while their Friendship was being docked.
Two years before, a young architectural student, Michael Rogers, had bought motor boat Mabel from the family of the recently deceased owner-boatman John Wilson of Banbury, and he intended to live on it at Paddington Basin. However, his intentions didn’t go to plan and Mabel stayed at Banbury where Michael and wife Polly started to use it for part-time carrying with coal cargoes working under contract for S.E. Barlow of Tamworth. After Michael qualified in 1950, he and Polly took to full-time boating and wanted a butty, and so bought Forget-me-not after Joe Skinner had finished hiring it.
Now working Mabel & Forget-me-not on the Grand Union Canal, Michael and Polly Rogers carried coal to the Ovaltine works at Kings Langley, and Kearley & Tonge’s jam factory at Southall, known as the Jam ’Ole. However, carrying work only produced meagre earnings so Michael wanted to convert Mabel & Forget-me-not into a pair of hotel-boats, like Michael and Pat Streat had done with Nancy & Nelson. The latter had made good progress, and their first season as hotel-boat operators started in May 1953. But Michael Rogers’ wife Polly wanted to continue with commercial carrying and this caused a rift between them, resulting in their eventual divorce. Mabel & Forget-me-not were brought to Banbury Dock for conversion into hotel-boats by the Tooley brothers but, due to their very slow and disorganised method of running the dock, they only worked on Mabel. This conversion took two years but was finally ready for the 1954 holiday season, when the enterprise traded as The Inland Navigators.
Because Forget-me-not was left lying idle, it was hired again by Joe Skinner from 1st November 1953, while his Friendship was being docked by Tooley’s. He must have been anticipating a long time for this docking to take place, no doubt based on experience, as he had the boat registration certificate for Forget-me-not transferred into his name as owner on 1st December 1953, which was actually against the Canal Boat Acts as only the real owner should be on the certificate.
Joe and Rose Skinner then used Forget-me-not for their normal carrying work, bringing coal from Baddesley, then later Newdigate, to Banbury for Lamprey & Son Ltd, agricultural suppliers at Bridge Street, and coal from the North Warwickshire collieries for United Dairies Ltd at their wharf against Lower Cherwell Street. Both customers’ traffic was organised through canal carrier S.E. Barlow. The Skinners’ last trip with Forget-me-not finished on 17th October 1955, nearly two years without their own boat Friendship, which had 13 new planks fitted and a major repaint, all costing £360. The Tooleys then set to work on the conversion of Forget-me-not.
Michael Rogers worked Mabel for two years as a single hotel-boat until the 1956 season then, at the suggestion of Michael Streat, he bought converted Severner butty Malvern as a stopgap until Forget-me-not was ready. Finally, in 1957, Tooley’s work was done and Forget-me-not was ready for use that season, so its time as a coal-carrying boat had come to an end. As a hotel-boat it was photographed many times in various publications, including Waterways World. It was also on the cover of the November 1973 issue and again in September 1976; in both instances the images were taken on the Oxford Canal at Thrupp by Ivan Belcher.