Duchess Countess

One Boat's Story: NarrowBoat, Winter 2012

Harry Arnold

Harry Arnold looks at the search for the famous and long-surviving Shropshire Union Canal fly-boat

<p>The <em>Duchess Countess </em>in her final resting place on the banks of the Llangollen Canal at Welsh Frankton where she was used as a houseboat. The photograph was taken by Eric de Mar&eacute; in 1948 and was reproduced, albeit very small, in his seminal book <em>The Canals of England</em>.</p>Credit: Waterways Archive

The Duchess Countess in her final resting place on the banks of the Llangollen Canal at Welsh Frankton where she was used as a houseboat. The photograph was taken by Eric de Maré in 1948 and was reproduced, albeit very small, in his seminal book The Canals of England.

Waterways Archive

The Bridgewater Canal packet boat Duchess Countess was named after the dual-titled Duchess of Bridgewater and Countess of Ellesmere. The story of her initial survival, then tragic destruction on the banks of the Llangollen Canal just above Frankton Junction, has become one of the bestknown episodes in the history of fast canal passenger packet boats.

I come from the Bridgewater Canal village of Stockton Heath, where Duchess Countess called and from where she sometimes operated. The now well-known London Bridge Inn, with its extant ‘packet boat steps’, was where passengers transferred from and to the London stage coaches. Opposite Stockton Quay, now ‘redeveloped’ as housing, are the premises of Thorn Marine. Part of these undoubtedly contained the stables where the change horses for Duchess Countess and other similar craft were housed. On an inside wall is a primitively executed but fascinating mural of a packet boat, now somewhat damaged by alteration to the building.

I recall one of my great uncles telling me a story of the youths who rode the towing horses as postillions whose deft dodging of low bridge arches earned them the local name of “lean to the water boys”. So the memories of Duchess Countess have been around for years.

I have an official file on Duchess Countess, which was given to me in the 1960s after it had been saved from being thrown out by the Bridgewater Department of the Manchester Ship Canal Company.

In some correspondence she is referred to as a ‘fly’ rather than a ‘packet’ boat. Also the spelling of the name of the man who lived aboard her at Frankton varies, but I now understand, as in this Bridgewater correspondence, that it was ‘Mackie’. I was once told, but have no evidence, that he was related to the family who originally owned the Warrington Guardian newspaper.

From the File

Among the most interesting letters in the file is one dated 18th March 1953 from F. Rushton at Dukes Dock to C.H. Gibson at Ship Canal House, apparently in answer to a query. He says:

<p>The &lsquo;packet boat steps&rsquo; outside the London Bridge Inn at Stockton Heath on the Bridgewater Canal in the 1950s.</p>Credit: Harry Arnold

The ‘packet boat steps’ outside the London Bridge Inn at Stockton Heath on the Bridgewater Canal in the 1950s.

Harry Arnold

“I can only find reference to the above on a list dated 19th September 1919 which states: Tied up at Runcorn Yard. Duchess Countess (Fly Boat). Requires few sundries, caulking and painting £100.

“It is also included on a list for disposal dated 15th August 1927, so obviously it was sold after this date.

“In conversation with Mr Wareham of our Warrington Depot, he has informed me that the boat was put out of commission about the year 1913 and was subsequently sold to a Mr Mackie of Warrington about 1927 for conversion to a houseboat. He also mentioned that at one time it used to take passengers from Dunham to Manchester and back for a few coppers. There does not appear to be any record of the age of the boat.”

Another account, attached to a note from the public relations officer on 31st March 1953, is from a letter from T. Rylance Hague to J.K. Clayton dated 17th August 1944 in response to an enquiry from a Mrs Boddington. Rylance Hague refers to the fact that he had 53 years’ service with the Bridgewater Canal, for some years as its manager. His brother had 52 years’ service and he says that they were two of the few left who “sailed up the great Manchester Ship Canal on the day it was opened on January 1st 1894”.

Relevant to our story, he says “There were, of course, other fast packet boats the most notable of these being one called the Duchess Countess which for nearly a century journeyed daily on the canal and for a great part of that period between London Bridge at Stockton Quay near Warrington and Castlefield, Manchester, and drawn by a packet horse ridden by a boy at speed, the horse being changed 3 times each way (1 at Stockton Quay, 2 at Lymm and 3 at Broadheath inward, and outwards 1 at Manchester, 2 at Broadheath and 3 at Lymm.”

<p>The only known photograph of <em>Duchess Countess</em> as she was when operating on the Bridgewater Canal. Around 1900, there was much interest in what wake steam boats were producing, and this photograph was taken of the horse-drawn packet boat travelling at 6mph near Broadheath to provide a comparison. The bow knife and its support can just be made out.</p>Credit: Waterways Archive

The only known photograph of Duchess Countess as she was when operating on the Bridgewater Canal. Around 1900, there was much interest in what wake steam boats were producing, and this photograph was taken of the horse-drawn packet boat travelling at 6mph near Broadheath to provide a comparison. The bow knife and its support can just be made out.

Waterways Archive

<p>A rare postcard of <em>Duchess Countess </em>whilst she was converted but still afloat on the Llangollen Canal, seen here at Chirk Aqueduct, presumably after she was sold to Mackie in 1927.</p>Credit: Colin Such

A rare postcard of Duchess Countess whilst she was converted but still afloat on the Llangollen Canal, seen here at Chirk Aqueduct, presumably after she was sold to Mackie in 1927.

Colin Such

Credit: Harry Arnold

Harry Arnold

Credit: Harry Arnold

Harry Arnold

Sadly only photographed in black and white in 1970, the badly eroded mural of a Bridgewater Canal packet boat, on an internal wall of what is now Thorn Marine at Stockton Heath, is difficult to access today. Interestingly two horses are shown, only the second one being ridden, but written reports refer to only one horse. 

He then refers to an attached ‘newsprint picture’ (unfortunately missing) and says it was taken “after her long service in passenger and goods transport between the time she was built in 1804 and 1916 when her commercial career ended.” He goes on to say:

“I have ridden on her many times both on business and pleasure trips on the canal. Her boy driver was called was called ‘the jockey’. She did the round trip (6 days each week) in about 12 hours including loading and discharging at many points, though in many cases small packages were thrown or handed ashore whilst moving, because the Captain’s bugle announced his approach. She carried also many groceries from Manchester wholesalers to country stores on her route, Stretford, Sale, Broadheath, Dunham, Lymm etc.

“Finally, there were a few other fast boats known as ‘Fly boats’, wider than narrowboats but less in beam than barges. By many canal men they were called bastard boats, not of course unkindly. There were fly boats plying between (1) Manchester and Bedford, Leigh; (2) Warrington; (3) Runcorn, all used for lighter and more urgent local traffics, perishables etc.”

A newspaper cutting that does survive in the file is from The Journal of Friday 4th August 1933 (presumably a local Manchester area paper) entitled ‘Old Worsley, Some Historical Notes’ and subtitled ‘From the Manuscript compiled by Ald. W.M. Rogerson’. Referring to the Duke of Bridgewater, he says “… in August 1778 he started a passenger boat service for which he had boats specially constructed. From Worsley to Manchester the charge per person for front seats was 12d [5p] and for seats abaft 6d, and between Worsley and Runcorn front seats cost 42d and rear seats 27d. The return fare was three-quarters of the double fare if the return journey was made on the same day.”

It goes on to say that Ald. Rogerson still has copies of the actual handbills which were printed on the authority of the First Earl of Ellesmere in 1850 which stated: “Cheap travelling between Manchester and Liverpool; fare, sixpence. The Bridgewater Swift Packets, in connection with the splendid and powerful steamer Blanche, will sail with passengers between Manchester and Liverpool during the month of January as under.”

The handbill apparently then gave times of sailing from Knott Mill, Manchester, and from George’s Pier, Liverpool. Passengers had to book their tickets before boarding at both ends and the steamer also called at Brunswick Steps in Liverpool. Passenger’s luggage was limited to 56lb. Another then extant handbill announced “cheap travelling fares between Manchester, Warrington and Liverpool” and another “between Patricroft or Barton and Manchester”, for which the fares were 2d best cabin and 1d steerage.

Tantalising (as a photographer) it says that “Ald. Rogerson also possesses a photograph of passengers waiting for the packet boats at the boat steps adjoining the packet house at Worsley.”

Another reference to a photograph in the file is on a slip of paper which simply says “A photograph of the Duchess Countess (converted into a houseboat – owner Mr. H. Mclew, (another spelling?) at Preston Brook) appeared in the Warrington Guardian in 1934 – date not given.”

<p>Also taken by Eric de Mar&eacute;, probably in 1948 at the same time as the main photograph, this shows the elegant slender bows of <em>Duchess Countess</em>.</p>Credit: Waterways Archive

Also taken by Eric de Maré, probably in 1948 at the same time as the main photograph, this shows the elegant slender bows of Duchess Countess.

Waterways Archive

<p>The captain (left) and crew of <em>Duchess Countess</em> make ready to depart from Lymm Wharf in 1903.</p>Credit: Gordon Briggs Collection

The captain (left) and crew of Duchess Countess make ready to depart from Lymm Wharf in 1903.

Gordon Briggs Collection

<p>The fascinating interior of <em>Duchess Countess</em>, photographed by Eric de Mar&eacute;, when she was in the field beside the canal at Welsh Frankton.</p>Credit: Waterways Archive

The fascinating interior of Duchess Countess, photographed by Eric de Maré, when she was in the field beside the canal at Welsh Frankton.

Waterways Archive

It is also known that packets – probably including the Duchess Countess – carried bags of mail from certain Bridgewater-based post offices, although this may have been a purely local arrangement rather than part of a national service. This is also detailed in a newspaper report of a court case when the miscreant was convicted of stealing a mail bag from a passenger boat on the Bridgewater Canal.

Roberts’ Recollections

Leaving the file for the time being – as the story detailed by letters then jumps forward to 1953 – in 1961 I became involved in hostel boating and met ex fly-boat skipper Jack Roberts, who was to become a great friend and mentor. Jack first saw Duchess Countess as a lad on a trip with his grandfather in 1904 and wrote in his unpublished biography:

“We passed through Lymm, a pretty little town, and as we came up to Agden we saw the Duchess Countess which loaded fruit and vegetables for Manchester at this point each day. This boat was horsedrawn, with a riding saddle for the driver. And therefore could trot along, as it was only a light cargo.” Later, talking about mooring overnight at Broadheath, stabling the horse and going for a pint, Jack says “These stables were very well cleaned out. They belonged to the Bridgewater Canal, and kept a relief horse for the Duchess Countess only.”

On a later trip to Manchester’s Castlefield – after Jack had started work as crew on a Shropshire Union boat – he again recalls “On Monday we passed the Anderton Boat Lift, and were hauled by tug through the three tunnels, entering the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook.

This time we were accompanied by a boat from Leicester, who was for Manchester Docks. We passed the Duchess Countess at Agden, and made Broadheath for the night. On Tuesday morning we met the three cheese boats, all with a cargo. There was J. Partridge with Saturn, J. Jones with Equinox, and David Parry with Daisy.”

The Later Letters

Two views of the elegantly slim stern of Duchess Countess, characteristic of the Shroppie fly-boats. 

Credit: Waterways Archive

Waterways Archive

Credit: Waterways Archive

Waterways Archive

The later letters in the file are between 19th March and 9th November 1953. Somewhat confusing in timing, they are basically the result of an enquiry for information on Duchess Countess from John H. Scholes, the British Transport Commission’s Curator of Historical Relics. Scholes was tasked with setting up a ‘National Transport Museum’ in a disused tram depot at Clapham.

As the boat was on one of their waterways he contacted C.M. (Christopher) Marsh, then the BTC divisional waterways officer of the North Western Division of the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive based in Liverpool. Marsh wrote to Norman N. Bird, manager of the Bridgewater Canal, who asked around and also consulted the public relations officer of the Manchester Ship Canal Company.

Eventually there was direct contact between Scholes and Bird. It seems that the earlier material in the file was loaned to Scholes, so there may be copies elsewhere. These letters could be seen as those which led to the eventual fate of the Duchess Countess. Scholes went on to publish a booklet ‘Transport Treasures’ which mentions the boat and others that were to be preserved, such as the early small Weaver flat Daresbury, but this was dumped and sunk.

Quite the best account of the boat in this period was an article in the Shropshire Magazine of April 1953 by H. Clayton Jones, who wrote an equally interesting one on the Montgomery Canal based fleet of millers A&A Peate featuring the famous Cressy. The material in the article is obviously from recollections of Mackie – when the boat lay in the field on the offside above Frankton Junction. He features in an interior photograph, but is not mentioned by name. It contains much of the material that is in the letters with additional detail, such as “1915 being the date of her last regular voyage” and her being scuttled and submerged in the Big Pool at Runcorn.

The next section of this article deals with the boat’s then recent history. Mackie brought the Duchess Countess to be based at John Beech’s boatyard at Frankton Locks, from where he generally cruised on the Llangollen Canal, often in the Chirk, Pontcysyllte direction. The article claims that she was “the last boat to navigate the Montgomery Canal”.

After the Montgomery breach the short section containing Frankton Locks remained navigable above stop planks put in at Lockgates Bridge and this may refer to her being the last boat to use Frankton Locks.

Early Inland Waterways Association campaigner Martin Grundy recalled Duchess Countess still being in the water opposite Beech’s yard in 1945 and meeting Mackie, who was friendly but rather shy. He said “I think that I can say for certain that my boat Heron was the last-but-one boat to come up Frankton Locks. Duchess Countess would be the last and I don’t know exactly when that was. It would be the very late summer of 1945 or early spring of 1946.” Ex Shroppie boatman Alf Owen – a member of the Shropshire Union FlyBoat Restoration Society – then working at Ellesmere, says that he and two others from the yard helped to take the boat up Frankton Locks.

Two Models

John H. Scholes commissioned a model of the Duchess Countess to be built by ex Thames barge builder turned professional model-maker Don Sattin. Don’s model went on display at Clapham and it was seen by the director of Manchester Museum David Owen who decided he must have one, both as a local Manchester boat and as the basis of a new collection of waterway models.

Scholes immediately let David have the original model and ordered another one from Don, who had just destroyed the formers within which he had planked the original, so he had to start from scratch. On the demise of the Clapham museum, the second model went to the then new Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne.

Later, David Owen arranged for the Manchester collection to go into the Island Warehouse display at Ellesmere Port, although it was not normally on show. So the Canal & River Trust, now in charge of the two museums, has two Duchess Countess models!

<p>The model of <em>Duchess Countess</em> on display at Stoke Bruerne along with the original name board from the stern.</p>Credit: Harry Arnold

The model of Duchess Countess on display at Stoke Bruerne along with the original name board from the stern.

Harry Arnold

<p>The model of <em>Duchess Countess</em> belonging to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.</p>Credit: Harry Arnold

The model of Duchess Countess belonging to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.

Harry Arnold

<p><em>Duchess Countess</em> beside the Llangollen Canal, apparently having had its cabin repainted in a lighter colour than in the first photograph in this article, and showing white staining to the black hull around the centre of the boat.</p>Credit: Waterways Archive

Duchess Countess beside the Llangollen Canal, apparently having had its cabin repainted in a lighter colour than in the first photograph in this article, and showing white staining to the black hull around the centre of the boat.

Waterways Archive

The writing style in the Shropshire Magazine article is somewhat flowery – describing Mackie in one part as a “modern Peggotty” – but it is full of detail. Although some have described Mackie as a ‘recluse’, this is dispelled by Clayton Jones, who mentions his membership of Frankton Home Guard. The story of the boat is brought up to date by saying “In the war years the old boat began to leak badly ... a team of willing villagers dragged her ashore where she still remains.” It ends (referring to ‘the future’) “so there is a movement afoot to ensure her permanent preservation.” And, in a footnote: “Since this article was written preliminary steps have been taken for the preservation of the old packet boat”.

Another contemporary account is in Edward Wilson’s 1975 The Ellesmere & Llangollen Canal. Historian Wilson was a teacher at Ellesmere College and this book remains as one of the few standard works on this canal. His papers are in the Shropshire Archives for anyone wishing to continue his research. He states: “Finally Mr Mackie decided to sell her. The British Waterways Museum curator inspected the boat, but decided that with so little of the original wood left, and that in so rotten a state, it was not worth restoring the packet; so it was eventually sold to a local farmer and broken up in 1956.”

Undoubtably Duchess Countess was in a poor state, but I’m not sure how qualified Scholes was in judging the condition of wooden canal boats. Photographs taken before her destruction – including some by Angela Rolt, and Eric de Maré during his voyages that resulted in his seminal work The Canals of England – show a boat which by today’s examples of restoration could have been saved. Fortunately, what Scholes did was to send marine architect David R. MacGregor, a specialist in coastal sailing vessels, to carefully measure her and prepare an excellent set of plans.

The Bow Knife and the Inspector

Perhaps the best-known feature of the Duchess Countess was the S-shaped knife she carried on her bow to cut the towlines of boats that got in her way. The idea of her hurtling along, merrily slashing horse lines, is perhaps more a romantic concept than reality when you consider how efficiently boats were worked in those days. But the bow knife was a symbol of both the packet boat’s priority and authority.

This symbol of authority was also displayed on the two Shropshire Union company inspection boats on which managers and directors travelled the system in some style, ensuring all was well with their world and generally having a good time. The longer one, the Inspector, because of its light-coloured livery, was nicknamed ‘The White Elephant’ by the boatmen. Sold by the company about 1934, the Inspector was acquired by a Mr Hobson-Greenwood, whose son Denis is a well-known pioneer pleasure boater on the Shroppie. Denis has some of the official crockery, and donated the boat’s horse harness to the Powysland Museum at Welshpool, where it is on display.

Mr Hobson-Greenwood had the boat converted into a passenger trip boat by John Beech at Frankton by modifying the stern section and fitting a Chrysler engine, first renaming her Hobson’s Choice (not to be confused with a slightly later Hobson’s Choice which became the Grundy family’s Heron). In this form – and still carrying the bow knife – she operated in the Ellesmere area until, after a family lived on her, she was eventually broken up at Ellesmere maintenance yard after World War II. Some bits were dumped at the yard, including the bow knife, to eventually be joined by parts from the Duchess Countess.

On all the known photographs of Duchess Countess taken during her time on the Llangollen and Montgomery canals, there is no evidence of the bow knife. In one of Martin Grundy’s letters he said that when he went aboard the boat in 1946 there was no sign of it and Mackie thought “it was in a shed by the canal at Stockton Heath”, which Martin says he wished he had followed up.

From this evidence I am personally satisfied that the bow knife taken from Ellesmere Yard with the remaining bits of the Duchess Countess – now on display in the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne with one of the models and the carved name board – is actually the one that used to be carried on the fore end of the Inspector/Hobson’s Choice.

<p>The famous bow knife displayed at Stoke Bruerne probably came from the <em>Inspector</em> not the <em>Duchess Countess</em>.</p>Credit: Harry Arnold.

The famous bow knife displayed at Stoke Bruerne probably came from the Inspector not the Duchess Countess.

Harry Arnold.

<p>In this enlargement of a photograph of <em>Inspector</em> the bow knife and its supporting metalwork can be just made out.</p>Credit: Waterways Images

In this enlargement of a photograph of Inspector the bow knife and its supporting metalwork can be just made out.

Waterways Images

<p>Members of the Briggs family alongside <em>Duchess Countess </em>at Lymm Wharf in 1903. It portrays Gordon Briggs&rsquo; mother and some of her seven sisters along with his grandfather James Feay, on the far right in flat cap, with grandmother Annie in black alongside.</p>
<p>The gentleman in the tailed suit and bowler looks like a canal official. The captain of the boat is behind James Feay. James, born in 1860, was listed in the 1911 census as a &lsquo;canal canvasser&rsquo;. He lived in Stretford not far from the Bridgewater Canal and had the use of the <em>Duchess Countess</em> at weekends, cleaned out and provided with a horse and crew. The trip from Stretford to Lymm and back made a nice day&rsquo;s outing.</p>
<p>Sadly, the photographer was keener to record the family rather than the boat.</p>Credit: Gordon Briggs Collection

Members of the Briggs family alongside Duchess Countess at Lymm Wharf in 1903. It portrays Gordon Briggs’ mother and some of her seven sisters along with his grandfather James Feay, on the far right in flat cap, with grandmother Annie in black alongside.

The gentleman in the tailed suit and bowler looks like a canal official. The captain of the boat is behind James Feay. James, born in 1860, was listed in the 1911 census as a ‘canal canvasser’. He lived in Stretford not far from the Bridgewater Canal and had the use of the Duchess Countess at weekends, cleaned out and provided with a horse and crew. The trip from Stretford to Lymm and back made a nice day’s outing.

Sadly, the photographer was keener to record the family rather than the boat.

Gordon Briggs Collection

The End

Photographs indicate that Duchess Countess was broken up in stages. Some parts, including a carved name board, some timberheads and, supposedly, the bow knife, went to Ellesmere Yard then on to the Transport Museum at Clapham, and some are now in the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne. I understand that pioneer campaigner and hotel boat operator Peter Froud had some pieces, but they were lost in the disastrous fire at his then base in a warehouse at Preston Brook. So that was the end of the famous Duchess Countess, but nothing is known about what happened to Mackie.

Author’s Footnote

This is not a definitive history of the Duchess Countess, but is based on material I have acquired, and the boat’s involvement in my life. There is a lot of other material available on the boat and on the Bridgewater and other canal packets – enough for a book. This is a subject that needs researching and collating, and I hope that this at least starts this process. – HA.

Well, it encouraged me to dig a little deeper, with a visit to the Wigan Archives, as recorded in my article Marriott's Way and Other Passenger Boats. – Ed.

Duchess Countess Trust

Because of the connection between the boat and the Montgomery Canal, the Duchess Countess Trust was formed, based around Llanymynech, with the aim of building a replica of the boat and for it to “act as a floating museum to provide a window on the past, present and future of Britain’s waterways”. The scheme started off with great enthusiasm, planning fund-raising and getting quotes from boatbuilders.

In the meantime British Waterways asked the trust to manage the Llanymynech Wharf Visitor Centre in the restored stables on a section of the Montgomery that straddles the Welsh border as it passes through the village. The trust acquired the ex Caldon Canal passenger boat Lady B and refurbished it, naming it after Montgomery Canal engineer George Watson Buck. Here the members and the boat do a great job running trips and introducing the public to the delights of this waterway.

But what about the main project of building a Duchess Countess replica? It seems that this has been shelved due to the problems of fund-raising. This was always going to be difficult as there are major problems in getting grants, such as from the Heritage Lottery Fund, for ‘new-build’ projects.

But volunteer railway groups have done it – at far greater cost – with steam engine Tornado, and the Chesterfield Canal Trust has its replica ‘Cuckoo’ boat. It would be a wonderful thing to see a new Duchess Countess flaunting her bow knife as she travels the waterways once again.

<p>The only known photograph of&nbsp;<em>Duchess Countess</em>&nbsp;to show her location in context of the nearby Bridge 2 of the Llangollen Canal at Lower Frankton, taken on 10th June 1953.</p>Credit: Gordon Briggs

The only known photograph of Duchess Countess to show her location in context of the nearby Bridge 2 of the Llangollen Canal at Lower Frankton, taken on 10th June 1953.

Gordon Briggs

<p><em>Duchess Countess</em>&nbsp;at Lower Frankton on 10th June 1953.</p>Credit: Gordon Briggs

Duchess Countess at Lower Frankton on 10th June 1953.

Gordon Briggs