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The Grand Union Boat Control System

Traditional Techniques: NarrowBoat, Winter 2014

David Blagrove

David Blagrove explains how boats were monitored on the waterways between the Midlands and London

The Bulls Bridge control board held in the National Waterways Museum’s store at Ellesmere Port. Although there were many ‘control points’ highlighted with a red centre, most have faded and only those at Bulls Bridge and Paddington have been re-painted. This board represents the situation pre-nationalisation, after which several changes were made to reflect changes in traffic patterns.

Acommon misconception about the canal-carrying industry is that it was hopelessly old fashioned, outdated and technically obsolete. To some extent this may be laid at the door of L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, although Tom Rolt more than compensated for such a view in his later Inland Waterways of England. Nevertheless, a common view of commercial carrying in the past is one of gaily painted boats moving behind plodding horses along a sunny, winding, willow-bordered rural canal.

In fact even the Oxford Canal south of Napton was operated efficiently in pre-nationalisation days, and of course in industrial areas such as Birmingham or Manchester traffic moved briskly and with dispatch. However, few of the pre-nationalisation canal companies operated their own fleets, and by the 1930s the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company’s was the largest and had the most complex area of operations.

Traffic control on, say, the Oxford and Coventry canals was relatively simple because, apart from a few loading basins, they were essentially end-toend systems. In contrast, the Grand Union Canal had several important branches, two connections with the tidal Thames, and its route sprawled over 300 or more miles. Its boats traded not only to London and Birmingham butto Leicester, Nottingham, the Black Country and even the Potteries. Only the Birmingham Canal Navigations were more complex geographically, but here traffic worked independently of the canal company.

At its peak, the GUCCC and its associates operated over 180 pairs of boats and moved an immense amount of goods. At times the tonnage on offer could be almost overwhelming. For instance a single consignment of steel for the Midlands’ motor industry arriving by ship at Limehouse (or Regent’s Canal Dock as it was then known) could total 600 tons and would require some dozen pairs of boats to receive it. This was on top of the daily coal requirements of places such as John Dickinson’s paper mills and all the other commitments of the fleet.

The origin of the Grand Union control system probably dates back to the mid-19th century and the growth of the Grand Junction Canal Carrying Company’s fleet after 1846. It is known that boats were given operating numbers by the GJCCC and this was to be an essential part of subsequent control systems. Furthermore, an electrictelegraph system was in operation along the whole length of the Grand Junction Canal from 1862. Although this was on a wayleave and not actually the property of the canal company, there is evidence to show that it was used for traffic purposes by the company.

After the demise of the GJCCC following the Regent’s Park explosion of 1876, much of the traffic was taken over by what became Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd, whose boats operated over the whole system between the Mersey and the Thames, apart from the Severn and its associated canals. FMC certainly had an efficient method of controlling boats, most probably using the telegraph network and, soon after their introduction, telephones. In this, FMC was ahead of such transport giants as the Great Western Railway which, in 1892, had but one telephone, connecting the general manager’s office at Paddington with the locomotive superintendent at Swindon. FMC gave its boats fleet-operating numbers, but little is known of how the traffic was co-ordinated, although it is believed that a diagrammatic chart of the system was used.

The left-hand (London) side of the Bulls Bridge control board in greater detail. The red circles are very faded on most of the control points but have obviously had a repaint for Bulls Bridge and Paddington (and in the ‘key’) – possibly representing a reduction in number towards the end, reflecting the decline in traffic.

The right-hand (Midlands) side of the Bulls Bridge control board in greater detail.

It was the Midland Railway Company, a concern that handled a vast traffic in coal apart from other commodities and passengers, that instituted in 1907 a modern control system involving a centralised office connected with outstations by telephone. Other railway companies gradually adopted similar systems over the next two decades, largely because of the advantages that became evident during the First World War and the economies possible in avoiding needless stock movements.

Not surprisingly, after the formation of the Grand UnionCompany in 1929 and the growth of its subsidiary carrying company, a simplified version of this system was adopted. As the number of boats grew, and with it the regular traffic, it became essential to know exactly where all the boats and crews were at any one time. Boats could then be marshalled and if necessary kept in reserve to meet fluctuations such as the arrival of ships with steel, imported grain and timber. The last two of these commodities tended to arrive from the docks by barge at Brentford, so the point at which the Paddington Arm met the main line at Bulls Bridge wasthe natural focal point chosen for the control office.

A large diagrammatic map of the system was drawn up, measuring some 11ft by 4ft, and a number of intermediate control points were designated. There were 30 of these originally, set out so that in the normal course of events a boat, or pair of boats, would pass at least one point per day. The London area was at the left-hand end of the board, the Midlands at the right. On either side of the canal, were blue and yellow lines; yellow indicated south-bound boats and blue indicated north-bound.

Not all of the points were on the Grand Union system; there was one on the Birmingham Canal Navigations at the top of Farmers Bridge Locks known on the chart as ‘North of Birmingham’, and others at Glascote, Pooley Hall colliery (‘North Warwicks’), Baddesley, Griff and Newdigate collieries, Coventry Basin and Hawkesbury Junction (‘Longford’) on the Coventry Canal, Measham on the Ashby and Enfield (‘River Lee’).

On the Grand Union itself, control points were placed at Limehouse (‘Regent’s Canal Dock’ or ‘RCD’), Brentford, Paddington, Bulls Bridge, Croxley, Nash, Apsley, Boxmoor, Berkhamsted, Cowroast, Three Locks (‘Soulbury’), Fenny Stratford (‘Fenny’), Stoke Bruerne (‘Stoke’), Wellingborough, Northampton, Braunston, Hatton, Tyseley Wharf, and Camp Hill (‘Sampson Road’), Birmingham. It will thus be seen that boats were closely shepherded along the route, not unlike railway trains between signal boxes.

Each point was represented by a circle on the diagram and those designated as special ‘control points’ were given a red circle within this to signify their importance. The red circles were at Regent’s Canal Dock, Paddington, Bulls Bridge, Apsley, Berkhamsted, Cowroast, Soulbury,Stoke, Braunston and Hatton on the GU and Glascote and Longford in the Warwickshire coalfields. At all these latter points lock-keepers or clerks had to report to Bulls Bridge every morning with details of boats that had passed in the previous 24 hours. This task was simplified by locking flights of locks overnight, usually from 6.30pm to 6.30am with special or priority traffic being allowed through during the hours of closure only by arrangement.

Boaters were also issued with ‘trip cards’ which could be posted at boxes at unmanned points. Some of the wartime women boaters found this somewhat irksome and tended to use the cards for writing shopping lists. The system survived such misuse though.

By each control point on the chart were ‘hooks’ (in reality small nails or pins) and traffic information. These would vary from ‘Awaiting loading’ or ‘Awaiting [customs] clearance’ at Limehouse to ‘Available orders’, ‘Illness etc’, and ‘Under repair’ at Bulls Bridge. Elsewhere the local traffic requirements were noted: Paddington’s position had three rows of hooks on the left headed ‘Passed south for RCD’; and on the right ‘Passed north for Bulls Bridge’ with a row for ‘B’ham’ and one for ‘others’. On these hooks were placed ivorine tokens, bearing the fleet numbers ofthe motor boats in each pair. Although butties were also numbered, they did not figure in the traffic control system. The tokens were double-sided with red indicating loaded and green for empty. Another set was used to denote independent carriers’ craft on sub-contract, or craft unable to move through illness or breakdown.

Thus the Canal Museum’s boat Sculptor in 1936 would have had a token with the fleet number 82 marked on it and, assuming it was sent to load at Limehouse, the token would be removed from Bulls Bridge ‘Available orders’ and, once Paddington reported it, placed on ‘Passed south’ at Paddington. Once at Limehouse and confirmed by telephone the token would be hung on the hook ‘Awaiting loading for B’ham’.

The clerks at Bulls Bridge would receive reports from the outlying control points and move the tokens along the board accordingly. In this way the fleet manager and his staff could see at a glance what boats were available for any extra traffic on offer at any point on the system and could give a fairly accurate estimate of arrival times at discharge points.

The system worked well from the outset and enabled the company to gain a reputation for reliability at a time when all forms of transport were under considerable financial strain due to the depression of the 1930s. Things eased after 1937 but it once again proved its utility with the increased traffic and severe pressure of the Second World War. In particular, much traffic from the north-east, especially coal, was diverted from coastal shipping to the railways, and the Grand Union in turn was tasked with relieving the railway of much traffic to and from the Midlands.

The Bulls Bridge control board photographed before it went to Ellesmere Port with some of the ivorine tokens still in place. Although only in black and white, it can be seen that there are different background colours on the tokens.

Different coloured tokens were used to represent the availability of craft.

A large variety of options was available at Bulls Bridge, where the control system was based.

The status of pairs at control points in the Midlands was noted by different rows of pins on which the tokens were hung.

The direction and destination of pairs passing control points further south were indicated.


After nationalisation in 1948, the newly formed Docks & Inland Waterways Executive retained the system and managed to cope with the augmentation of boats and traffic following the acquisition of FMC the following year. However, from the creation of British Transport Waterways in 1953 a decline began to set in and the system was modified. The principle remained the same, but the number of control points was reduced to 24 and new ones were added, reflecting the traffics previously carried by FMC. For instance, ‘North of Birmingham’ was replaced by ‘Sherbourne (sic) Street’ and ‘Coombs Wood’ and the loop round the ‘Bottom Road’ (ie via Saltley and Fazeley to the Coventry Canal) disappeared, with boats seemingly travelling to the coalfields via Hatton and Braunston. Additionally ‘Foxton’, ‘Leicester’ and ‘Stanton’ [ironworks] appeared, as did ‘Aylesbury’ and ‘Slough’.

By 1962, traffic was reducing fast, but the system was still in place when the fleet was disbanded by the newly formed British Waterway Board in April 1963. Some of the remaining pairs were taken over by Willow Wren Canal Transport Services Ltd, initially based at Durham Wharf, Brentford, but which moved into the vacant offices at Bulls Bridge the following year.

Willow Wren had used a different system of boat control before the takeover. It operated only about 12 pairs before 1963, but the manager, Leslie Morton, had previously managed the Grand Union fleet, and so would have been familiar with that company’s system. The manager of the augmented fleet after 1963, Mr Paynter, would also have been familiar with it. It is not clear when the boatcontrol board fell into disuse, but there would have been little need for it in the declining days of Willow Wren after Morton’s death in 1968. By this time the remaining traffics could be readily handled without the board.

Today, few vestiges remain. The board shown here is in the store of the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. The lock office at Stoke Bruerne,once a leggers’ hut, and one of the few places in the village to have a telephone before 1939, is still there and is used today by Canal & River Trust volunteers. And the toll office at Paddington, the lock huts at Cowroast and Braunston bottom locks and the workshops at Hatton are other memorials of the days when the canal was a bustling scene of industrial activity, and the daily recording of boats passing was essential to its efficient operation.

A closer view of the London depots.

The former lock office at Stoke Bruerne, once a traffic reporting point.

David Blagrove