NarrowBoat Logo

Boxes by Boat

Traditional Techniques: NarrowBoat, Spring 2011

Hugh Potter

Hugh Potter reveals how the ubiquitous ‘container’ began life as a humble box on the British canals of the 18th century

Maintaining a centuries-old technique, coal is carried in containers from collieries located between Leigh and Worsley. A tow of at least five Bridgewater Collieries narrowboats passes a tow of an equal number of Leeds & Liverpool style wide boats, in the charge of tug Phyllis, on the approach to Barton Aqueduct on the Bridgewater Canal.

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

The concept of carrying goods in containers that can be transferred from one mode of transport to another is universally accepted today. We see modern containers on our roads, railways, ships – and inland waterways. But how many people realise that this technique originated on British canals? There is certainly a ‘box boat’ on display at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, but to find the origins of the concept we must go back further.

A fine juxtaposition with one of the earliest systems of box boats preserved in front of a modern container terminal (now moved elsewhere) at Ellesmere Port.

Mike Turpin

The breach in the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal above Nob End Locks was made even more dramatic by the presence of this empty box boat teetering on the edge of the steep Irwell valley. The frontmost box was placed at right angles to the others to compensate for the reduction in width towards the bows.

Bolton Evening News

The Kemmett Canal

The first mention that I have been able to find of cargoes being carried in containers on boats is on the ‘Kemmett Canal’. This predated the Stroudwater Canal and was intended to canalise the River Stroudwater from Framilode to Stroud. The Act of 1759 forbade the use of locks because of mill owners’ rights to the water. Instead, goods were to be transferred by crane between boats at a series of dams where the water level changed. It seems that only the first five-or-so miles of canal were completed – as far as Stonehouse – before it was realised that the scheme was not financially viable and that the improved river was still too small even for boats carrying eight one-ton boxes. It was abandoned in 1763.

North West

For the first successful use of containers on boats, we have to move north to the Bridgewater Canal. A Six Months Tour Through the North of England by Arthur Young (1771) describes the operation to empty the boats at Castlefield, Manchester, where they entered a short tunnel which ended at a vertical shaft up to street level:

“The boats contain a system of square boxes, fitted in exactly; these are filled with coals (each holds 8cwt) at the mine . . . they enter the subterraneous canal, and move on, until they come under the well; there they stop, and the ropes, which are fixed to the crane above, being let down with hooks, at the end are fastened to the boxes (which are ironed for that purpose) and then drawn up.” The ropes were wound around a wooden cylinder which was turned by a waterwheel.

A rare development of the unpowered box boat was Fred, motorised in 1943 at Worsley Dockyard for Manchester Collieries. The steel cabin was constructed at the collieries’ fitters’ yard at Walkden. It was powered by a Gardner 2L2 engine and was painted in a red livery. It carried only six boxes, but could tow other unpowered boats. Upon nationalisation Fred became the property of the National Coal Board. According to AM Models website, Fred’s engine was later installed in ex Fellows, Morton & Clayton steamer Monarch, and is now in ex FMC Alder.

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

Perhaps distracted by the photographer, the steerer of this Bridgewater Canal box boat seems not to be paying too much attention as he enters the ‘tank’ of Barton Swing Aqueduct. The tow line can be seen heading off from the mast to the left where the towpath ran on the elevated staging. The boats are returning to the collieries and with the boxes empty the horse can pull at least two boats.

The Waterways Archive, Gloucester

Young continues: “Each boat contains 12 boxes; two men and a boy are employed in the unloading, who are 20–45 minutes about each boat load . . . When drawn up the boxes are emptied on a heap for sale; and then let down again into the boats.”

The system had begun by using baskets for the coal, but developed into square wooden containers. By loading the coal directly into the containers in the mine and not emptying them until they arrived in Manchester, breakage was reduced considerably, thus enhancing the value of the cargo.

Later, larger boxes with bottom opening doors were introduced and continued in use until 1951.

This system was also used extensively on the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal. It operated locally in Bury until the mid-1960s, thus ensuring that it was well recorded.

Containers were also used for the transfer of goods at Marple prior to the completion of the lock flight (1800–07) when a temporary railway was in operation between the two levels.

Nearby, but rather later, the main cargo on the Macclesfield Canal was coal from the Poynton mines, of which there were about 20 in the peak years of 1850–75. Coal delivered to High Lane wharf originated mainly from the local Middlecale mine, from where it was brought in wheeled tubs carried on special flat-decked narrowboats. The last of these lay sunk in the High Lane arm for many years and was finally removed in the 1960s, apparently without having been photographed. But the practice was not unique to the north west of England.

Leeds & Liverpool

Rather larger containers were used on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, as its boats were bigger. Coal was delivered to Whitebirk power station from the Wigan area in wooden containers that appear to have been around 12ft by 6ft. 

John Goodchild Collection

Taken from Alec Waterson’s Recollections of Boat Building at Ladyshore for the Manchester, Bolton, Bury Canal (1982) this diagram shows the workings of the bottom opening doors on the boxes used in the north-west. This well-illustrated book also offers an excellent insight into the construction of the boats that carried the boxes – the author worked at Ladyshore Colliery boat dock.

East Midlands

Farey, in his 1817 Survey of Agriculture in Derbyshire, tells us about two box boat systems related to the Chesterfield Canal. The Hollingwood Common Tunnel was 1¾ miles long, but did not actually connect with the Chesterfield Canal. It was kept 1ft lower and, except for the first 300 yards, it was driven into the Duke of Devonshire’s coal seams and was used for draining, and also for working them. The tunnel was 6ft high, 5ft 9in wide and 2ft deep. Boats 21ft long and 3ft 3in wide were used and each held seven ‘corves’ (miners’ coal containers), weighing together just over a ton. When a tunnel boat arrived at the side of the main canal, a crane hoisted up the boxes, and emptied their contents into a canal boat just below Hollingwood Lock 5.

The second reference is to a railway on the north side of North Wingfield which ran roughly east for 1¼ miles to bring coke burnt at Ling’s colliery down to Ankerbold. The bodies of the trams that used the railway were large boxes carrying about a ton which were lifted off to be transferred to road wheels. They were then taken to the wharf at the head of the Chesterfield Canal where a secondcrane transferred the boxes onto boats which carried them to Killamarsh where they were off-loaded by yet another crane onto road wagons to be carried to Mr Butler’s iron forge.

Farey also tells us about the system used on the Cromford Canal, specifically by the Butterley Company, whose works were directly above Butterley Tunnel. Rather than cart goods from the tunnel portal up to the works, an unloading bay was built in the tunnel itself. Known as the ‘Wide Hole’, a length of 180ft was built at double the width of the rest of the tunnel, enabling two narrowboats to pull to one side for loading or unloading. Farey describes the method used:

“In the Coke Yard on the east side of Butterley Furnace, two large Shafts descend to a recess for Boats, adjoining the Canal Tunnel, thro’ which the large Tram boxes of Coals, Ironstone, Limestone, Fluor, &c are drawn up, for the use of the Works; and Pig Iron and Cast Goods, &c are lowered into the Boats below. Formerly, a large water-bucket, supplied from a Reservoir, descended in another Shaft, as a counterpoise for drawing or lowering Goods in these Shafts, but a very complete WhimseySteam-engine has been substituted; guide chains descend the drawing and lowering Shafts, to steady the frames that suspend the Tram-boxes: which last are held suspended over the Shaft, while a Stage is slid over it, on which a pair of Wheels, and a Horse attached to them by shafts, have been backed; the Tram-box is then lowered and placed on the Wheels, the stage is slid again off the Shaft, and the Horse then proceeds with the Tram-box and its contents, to any part of the Works, and returns in like manner to the other Shaft, with Goods that are to be lowered in like manner and sent off.” West Midlands

A replica tram wagon with removable box on display at the Midland Railway Centre, Butterley, sited above the same tunnel on the Cromford Canal where the originals were used 200 years ago.

Derby Canal

Perhaps one of the best known early containerisation systems was that on the Little Eaton Gangway and the Derby Canal, where wooden containers on tramway wagons were loaded at Denby Colliery and horse hauled to the head of the canal’s Little Eaton Branch. These containers were then transferred by crane onto boats, which took five at a time. The widespread knowledge of this system is undoubtedly due to a series of professional photographs taken towards its final days in 1908, and their subsequent distribution. This system was developed by Benjamin Outram in 1795.

A well-known photograph from the last days of the traffic, but one that sums up the original concept of containerisation. ‘Boxes’ of coal have been brought from the mines on the tramway to the head of the Little Eaton Branch of the Derby Canal, where they are transferred by crane into narrowboats.

The Waterways Archive, Gloucester

‘Making an Effort’ on the BCN

There was a short-lived attempt at a new kind of containerisation on the Birmingham Canal Navigations in the late 1950s when British Waterways trialled some mini ‘Tom Puddings’. Although not really within the remit of this article (tub boats and their larger progeny would make a separate article) I could not resist mentioning this experiment that took place in spring 1958.

The concept was demonstrated to the press at the Sampson Road depot. The idea was for small floating containers to be towed behind a tug and then craned out of the water for unloading or for loading onto land transport where necessary. The demonstration containers had been specially made of wood, but production versions would be of fibreglass or aluminium – “light but sturdy”. They were to have watertight doors opening outwards to make loading and unloading easy, and be of 3, 5, or 8 tons capacity.

The editorial in the BW staff magazine Waterways was not exactly over-enthusiastic about this scheme, saying “Of course, nobody can be sure at the moment that the new floating containers will be a rip-roaring success or not. But the main thing is that an effort has been made.”

The floating BCN box boats featured in the May 1958 staff magazine Waterways being loaded and then towed by a conventional tug. These demonstration containers were built very square and of wood.

The Waterways Archive, Gloucester

Obviously the experiment progressed as evidenced by these more shapely boxes seen at Bradley around 1980. Their riveted construction suggests they may have been made from sections of local Joey boats. The marks on the side show that they have been floating in the water at some stage, although it is not known whether they were regularly used on traffic. Note also the lifting lugs on the sides.

Laurence Hogg

As well as the more successful systems described elsewhere in this article, there were several less well known schemes.

Outram recommended a similar system to that on the Derby Canal for the Somerset Coal Canal but evidence of its use has yet to be found.

In Shropshire, the small canals with abrupt changes of level led to the use of boxes to transfer goods from one level to another. In the 1770s, where the Lilleshall branch of the Donnington Wood Canal met the main line, there was a 43ft height difference. Coal incrates was lowered from boats on the upper level to those on the lower, counterbalancing lime and limestone being brought up. Later an inclined plane was built which probably took the entire boat with its cargo.

A similar system existed on the Coalbrookdale branch of the Shropshire Canal to link a tramway with the canal.

On the Staffs & Worcs Canal, Courtaulds used container boats until at least 1956 to carry waste from their wharf at Hordern Road Bridge to a tip near Pendeford. The service featured briefly in October 1990 Waterways World.

Ash Boxes

One busy container traffic was the carriage of ash from Birmingham’s electricity and gas works to Minworth sewage works. A new scheme was introduced in 1918 with the construction of a large unloading dock at Minworth which would take three boats abreast. An overhead crane lifted out the ash boxes and transferred them onto bogies running on a 2ft gauge railway belonging to the Upper Tame & Ray District Drainage Board. The ash boxes were then hauled by steam locomotive to the sewage works’ filter beds.

To give an idea of the amount of traffic, in May 1928 the Drainage Board received 250 tons of ashes from Summer Lane power station, 1,220 tons from Windsor Street gas works and 1,560 tons from the ‘Grand Union Canal’. Thus, they were unloading five or six boats per day.

A view across the bottom of the second lock up the Camp Hill flight of the former Warwick & Birmingham (now Grand Union) Canal to Adderley Street gas works. An open day boat lies along the wharf loaded with eight boxes of ash destined for Minworth sewage works.

National Gas Archive/John Horne/BDL

A closer view of the ash containers destined for Minworth, with one of the specially built tugs in the background.

The site of the specially constructed wharf off the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Minworth with the railways alongside.

UCC Experiment

An experiment was undertaken by Union Canal Carriers in February 1974, when Widgeon and Alperton carried a trial load of 17 cased Massey Ferguson tractors from Buckby to Brentford. The 2-ton cases, containing the tractor component kits and spares, were loaded from lorries which had brought them from an export packing works near Rugby. The tractors were destined for shipment from Royal Albert Docks, London, to South Africa.

UCC/Robert Wilson

A rather poor image of a metal Courtaulds waste container being unloaded at the tip at Pendeford in September 1956. The horse is waiting patiently.

Georgina Sanders

South Wales and South West

Coal was carried in boxes from Thomas Powell’s and John Nixon’s collieries on the Aberdare Canal. The boxes were transferred from colliery drams to canal boat and then emptied into the ship’s hold. Later, more refined boxes were transhipped to trucks on the (broad-gauge) Vale of Neath Railway at canal head at Aberdare for Swansea docks but also went down the Glamorganshire Canal for export through Cardiff.

A primitive box system was used on the St Columb Canal near Newquay in Cornwall where coal and sand were hauled up the cliff into tub boats on the canal above.

For the excavation of Monk Meadow Dock on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal in the 1890s, and later for general dredging, iron boxes, 5ft 6in x 4ft x 2ft 6in deepwere filled with mud, and 14–16 per boat were transported, in two rows, to the disposal site, then individually lifted out by the crane and tipped. Apparently, the practice started on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. General dredgings were tipped into theRiver Severn or onto adjoining fields. When working near Sharpness, the box-carrying flats were taken to the old lock where each box was lifted by the floating steam crane and the contents tipped over the sea wall and down a wooden chute onto the foreshore.

It was thought that no photographs existed of the containers specially constructed to assist in dredging on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, until this image was being studied for inclusion in the feature on that canal in the Winter 2010 issue of NarrowBoat. The four vessels being used as pontoons against the bank can be seen to be filled with these iron boxes.

A ‘Modern’ Container Traffic

One of the last attempts at containerisation on narrow canals was in the Birmingham area. The associated GKN companies Forgings & Presswork and Hardy Spicer were once adjacent to each other at Witton on the Tame Valley Canal. When Hardy Spicer moved out to Minworth it was decided to deliver castings to them by canal rather than road. Special 54ft narrowboats, with a draught of 2ft 9in and a clear hold space of 42ft, were commissioned from William Harris of Netherton. These were designed to fit into a lock with a 16ft Bantam tug, which also drew 2ft 9in, built by E.C. Jones at Brentford and powered by a 24hp diesel engine. The castings were loaded into steel containers that were lifted bodily onto and off the boats by overhead electric cranes.

There were only two locks on the journey – the bottom two of the Perry Barr flight just below the Witton factory – and a round trip took 3 hours, enabling four trips to be made each day. In 1961 it was announced that the service was so successful that a second tug and three more boats were being added to the fleet, which was keeping 500 tons a week off Birmingham’s roads.

The Bantam tug with specially built narrowboat loaded with containers of castings at Forgings & Pressworks wharf at Witton above the second lock on the Perry Barr flight of the Tame Valley Canal in August 1965.

Ian Moss

Loading the containers of castings into the specially built boat at Witton.

The combined Bantam tug and dumb barge unit passing through one of the two locks on its regular journey at Witton. These three smaller photographs featured in the April 1961 staff magazine Waterways.

The newer Hardy Spicer premises at Minworth on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal in 1987. Like Witton, it also had a wharf with overhead crane to offload the containers of castings.

Fibreglass Boxes

In more modern times, reinforced fibreglass boxes of 270 cu ft capacity and capable of carrying up to 9 tons were used for several years on a ‘Continental Container Service’. The containers, measuring 7ft by 6ft by 6ft, were the largest single-piece GRP moulding that had been made commercially at the time, although they weighed in at just 9cwt. Around a hundred were produced, along with some smaller ones for use on narrowboats. They had been designed by Ralph Kirkham; it was his first introduction to canals, about which he was to become a great enthusiast and campaigner.

The idea was that they were loaded at the factory, taken by lorry to British Waterways terminals such as Leeds, Sheffield or Nottingham, then conveyed by barge to Hull or Goole where the containers were loaded onto ships for export. They could be sealed for customs purposes and thus ensure a faster transit. However, that was not to bargain for the dockers, whose unions ruled the roost in ports at that time. Their insistence on unloading and reloading every container totally negated their advantage, and the concept failed – an almost identical precursor to the better known BACAT (Barge Aboard CATamaran) system that they also killed off. One does wonder how they would cope with today’s universal container traffic.

Loading into the barge’s hold was relatively easy . . . until it came to manoeuvring the container into its final position. Today’s handling techniques are a little more mechanised.

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

Fibreglass boxes being demonstrated for the ‘Continental Container Service’ at Knostrop Depot, near Leeds, in the 1950s. 

The Waterways Archive, Gloucester

The Waterways Archive, Gloucester

Demonstrating the capacity of the box.

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

Can any reader throw any light on this rather different type of BW container?

The Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port

A rather less well preserved example outside the Gloucester Waterways Museum.

A preserved fibreglass box at the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole.

Cath Turpin

Last Traffic

The last long-running container traffic on the narrow canals brought history full circle. Josiah Wedgwood promoted the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal to reduce damage to his pots. Two centuries later, another pottery in Stoke-on-Trent reintroduced canal transport between two of its factories to reduce breakages. In 1966, Johnson Bros started carrying on 4 miles of the Caldon Canal between its factories at Hanley and Milton with the catamaran-hulled Milton Maid. In 1973 it introduced a second boat Milton Queen, 65ft long and built by its own staff. It was powered by a 1,100cc car engine driving a hydraulic pump and cost just £2,500.

A third boat, the 70ft Milton Princess, was added in 1978. Unlike the first two, this was built along traditional narrowboat lines by Malcolm Braine at Norton Canes and powered by a Russell Newbery DM2.

Each boat carried around 40 metal trolleys of pots which were wheeled on board. The whole operation, from loading the first crate to unloading the last, took just 2 hours, enabling two trips per day. The two newer boats were low enough to pass under Ivy House lift bridge without its being opened.

The main traffic stopped in the mid-1980s following the closure of the Milton depot, and the two newer boats were laid up. However, Milton Maid continued with local trade around Hanley for some years. The final trip took place on 14th July 1995. So, one of the very last regular narrow canal traffics used the same principle that was used at the start of the canal age.

Milton Princess is loaded at the pottery at Hanley for her 1978 maiden voyage on the 4 miles of Caldon Canal to Milton where the pots were packed and dispatched.

Boxes Today

From such humble beginnings, a worldwide network of container traffic has developed, without which it is hard to imagine how modern society would function. It seems a pity that whilst canals around the world now cater for container barges, the country which first developed them has almost no canals of sufficient dimensions to accommodate them.

Today, container barges operate regular services on all the larger continental waterways, such as here on the Rhine at Lorchhausen. The concept may have started in England, but our waterways could never compete today.


Many thanks for assistance from Archive magazine, Linda Barley, Grahame Boyes, Peter Brown, Mike Chapman, Mike Clarke, Martin Cockayne, Chris Daniels, Tom Foxon, Laurence Hogg, Caroline Jones, Hugh Conway-Jones, Martin O’Keeffe, Patrick Moss, Stephen Rowson, Christine Richardson, Paul Sillitoe and Cath Turpin.