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T&M Tunnel Traffic

Picturing the Past: NarrowBoat, Winter 2010

Stan Heaton

Stan Heaton photographed narrowboats working on the northern Trent & Mersey Canal in the late 1950s and early 1960s

Mersey Weaver’s France, towing an unseen butty, heads south into Preston Brook Tunnel, past an unidentified ‘Severner’. The latter is one of the former Severn & Canal Carrying Co’s motor boats built in the mid 1930s by Charles Hill of Bristol, by then working as a maintenance boat with very faded British Waterways signwriting. France entered the Anderton Company’s fleet in 1935 and passed to Mersey Weaver in 1954. She was still in the fleet when it was absorbed into BW in 1958. The cottage on top of the portal was demolished in the early 1960s. The other, semi-detached, house is still standing but the tall wash-house chimneys have gone.

For the second photograph, Stan Heaton moved closer to the northern portal of Preston Brook Tunnel to capture the Anderton Company’s Stockholm as it entered. There appears to be smoke coming out of the tunnel, probably the France’s exhaust and cabin chimney smoke. The traffic lights were boat operated, the wooden chicane framework carrying an arm (just level with the engine hole – see inset) which was pushed aside by a passing boat. The lights had gone by 1967 but some of the wooden structure was still in place. Stockholm was rebuilt from the Anderton Company’s horse boat Alice and entered service as a motor boat on 1st May 1937, passing to Mersey Weaver in 1954 carrying mainly pottery materials from Runcorn. She had been withdrawn by 1958. On seeing this photograph, the late Reg Barnett identified the crew as Eli and Maggie Bland.

Stan Heaton then drove over the tunnel to the southern portal to capture this image of France emerging through the fendering where the boat-detecting arm for this portal was located.

Stockholm is then seen passing south through Dutton Stop Lock, with France and her butty, possibly Millicent, ahead. Maggie Bland is standing by the gate whilst Eli Bland eases the boat through. Note the characteristic ‘gothic’ peaked rose panels on the cabin doors of Stockholm, which are echoed on the butty ahead. All the gates are open; this was common until the time of the major breach of the Bridgewater at Bollington, which coincided roughly with the end of the grain traffic to Kellogg’s in Trafford Park. Up to that point the Bridgewater was normally maintained at a level above the official datum to assist the grain barges etc, and Dutton Lock was generally more or less level. Dropping the level was intended to ease problems with subsidence over the Worsley/Astley colliery workings. The bottom gates are thought to have been removed in about 1960, and a single top gate with an extra large paddle and long balance beam was fitted. When the Bridgewater level was dropped in 1974, the bottom gates had to be reinstated.

An unidentified loaded Josher (ex Fellows, Morton & Clayton) motor in British Waterways colours leaves the northern portal of Saltersford Tunnel steered by Mrs Lil Beck. It may be one of the small Fish Class boats, still with a Bolinder engine, with a cargo of gravel from the Trentham area to the Trussed Concrete Steel Co in Trafford Park. The small ‘hovel’ above the portal might have been a leggers’ bothy. The clock stands at 3pm, suggesting that the boat is clearing the tunnel well in time for the 3.30pm southbound entry time (see below).

Leopard seems to be waiting at the southern portal of Barnton Tunnel, still in Fellows, Morton & Clayton colours although presumably in BW ownership. Leopard was one of FMC’s earliest motor boats, introduced in December 1912 having been built at Saltley. There are time clock and lights similar to those at the north end of Saltersford Tunnel, and the clock stands at 1.45pm. Perhaps Leopard is waiting for the official entry time, which logic would suggest was 2.45pm. On the extreme right, where a garage now stands, is the Navigation Inn, built by Ambrose Cottrell in 1860 and opened as a beer shop in the same year. The premises were closed in 1959 and subsequently demolished. The adjacent house is already apparently half demolished.

This detail of the northern portal of Saltersford Tunnel showing a clock, light and entry times is unfortunately not quite sharp, but most of the detail can be made out. No one we have spoken to actually recalls there being a clock here, but it certainly makes sense if boaters were expected to enter only at the times specified. The notice appears to give the entry times as: 8:0am 9:30am 11:0am 12.30pm 2:0pm 3:30pm 5:0pm 6:30pm 8:0 pm. (The hours are shown as eg 8:0 rather than 8:00.) These times imply that the two tunnels, Barnton and Saltersford, were controlled together, as 1½ hours would not be needed just to clear Saltersford in both directions! Presumably the lights were introduced after the steam tugs finished in 1943.

Construction work on the fan house at the southern portal of Harecastle Tunnel has just started, probably in 1957/8. A motor boat has just left the tunnel whilst the Josher motor boat Arabia in BW colours is waiting to enter.

Originally thought to belong to John Green, Pete Harrison identified the boat leaving the tunnel as ‘Large Woolwich’ Dunstan (ex Dunstable), belonging to flint merchant John Walley. It still has the customary baulk of timber propped against the ‘outside’ front corner of the engine room (or back end) bulkhead to protect the corner of the cabin structure and handrail from the very low arch of the tunnel roof. Boats were forced to travel right over against this arch because of the towpath, which had become impassable by the end of the 1920s owing to subsidence, and was under water in places. Boat crews would often set a substantial piece of timber or a plank up like this and retreat to the cabin once the boat had started through the tunnel, whether under its own or the tug’s power. The unusual removable deck arrangement on Dunstan had been added by previous owner John Knill and was intended to simplify clothing up. Dunstan was acquired by John Walley in spring 1952 and remained with him until 1957 when it was purchased by Willow Wren Canal Carrying Company, becoming their Swan.

Ex FMC Arabia was built as a horse boat at FMC’s Saltley Dock and joined the fleet in February 1907. She was motorised with a Bolinder semi diesel engine by W.J. Yarwood & Sons in 1937 and was in the North West carrying fleet after nationalisation, before being transferred to the maintenance fleet. She was later cut down at Stone and converted to a pleasure craft for service in BW’s hire fleet, possibly taking the name Water Arabis.

Because both these boats are being driven ahead, the photograph may well have been taken during the short period after withdrawal of the tugs and before completion of the fan house (see also inset), when boats were permitted to pass through the unventilated tunnel under their own power. This was still permitted for a while on Sundays after commissioning of the fans when there was no tunnel keeper on duty. There were several complaints of boat children and others being made ill by the density of the fumes and eventually the practice was stopped. The building on the left was the ‘battery house’ for the electric tunnel tug.


Special thanks to the following for additional information: Euan Corrie, Colin Edmondson, Pete Harrison, Tim Leech, Christopher M. Jones, John Pyper.