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Famous Fleets: NarrowBoat, Summer 2014

Alan Faulkner

Better known for its chocolate than for it use of narrowboats, Alan Faulkner looks into the fleet of a company that was a great believer in water transport

Boats at the new wharf at Cadbury's Knighton factory either delivering milk in churns or loading chocolate mass for transport to Bournville.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

The world-famous chocolate making business of Cadbury’s was founded by John Cadbury (1802–89) in Bull Street, Birmingham, in 1824. It was taken over by his sons Richard (1832–99) and George (1839–1922) in 1861, and in 1878 they purchased 14 acres of land 4 miles south of Birmingham alongside the Worcester & Birmingham Canal where, a year later, they opened a new factory at what became known as Bournville. Following Richard’s death in 1899 the business was incorporated to become Cadbury Brothers Ltd.

The new company had four managing directors, all being sons of either Richard or George, and each having charge of specific departments. Amongst them was George’s second son, George Cadbury Jnr, who was heavily involved in the research side of the business and in its transport activities. He had been born in Edgbaston on 7th April 1879 and had entered the business in 1898.

Cadbury’s had used water transport at its new factory probably from when it first opened, and a boat appropriately named Bournville was recorded for it in the Birmingham canal boat registers in 1883. It was used to bring coal from Hednesford and timber from Gloucester. It seems likely, however, that the company relied mainly on general carriers to bring coal and raw materials to the site, and possibly to take away the finished products.

In 1904, after detailed research overseen by George Jnr, the company launched milk chocolate. Thisbecame extremely successful, leading to the need for a major expansion programme. As the equivalent of a glass and a half of milk went into every half pound block of milk chocolate, the supply and transport of milk became of increasing importance. But milk is some seven-eighths water and only the final eighth part is needed for the chocolate. Likewise the quantity of milk supplied from farms varied considerably, being at its lowest in the winter months when the demand for milk chocolate, with Christmas and Easter, was at its highest.

Cadbury’s answer to this was to set up milk-condensing factories in good dairy-farming areas. The first opened in April 1911 at Knighton on the banks of the Shropshire Union Canal. It was provided with a long wharf where boats could deliver milk and coal and from where the product could be taken away to Bournville.

Cadbury’s distinctive first motor boat, Bournville 1. Built to a pioneering design, in practice the steel structure was not strong enough to withstand the powerful vibrations from the 15hp diesel engine.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

Despite the concentrating process, a fair amount of water still remained in the milk. In 1912, and to avoid having to transport this unwanted moisture back to Bournville, Cadbury’s started delivering cocoa mass – pure ground cocoa moulded into solid blocks – by boat to the factory. Here it was mixed with the condensed milk and with sugar before being dried in ovens, removing nearly all the remaining moisture and becoming known as chocolate crumb. This could then be bagged up and sent by boat to Bournville for making into chocolate. Each bag weighed one hundredweight and 465 bags would just fit into a narrowboat’s hold.

A second concentrating factory was opened in 1916 at Framptonon-Severn, in an important dairy area and alongside the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. It operated similarly to Knighton.

To cover the increased transport needs to and from the planned new factories, Cadbury’s ordered two specially designed steel motor boats from Orr Watt & Co Ltd of Motherwell. They were delivered by rail to Manchester, where they were launched into the canal. The first, named Bournville I, entered service in June 1911; Bournville II followed in November. Both were fitted with 15hp direct reversing Bolinder engines manufactured in Sweden and they were among the first motor boats to operate on the canal system.

Inside the cabin of Bournville 1, looking back towards the steering wheel at the stern of the boat. Like the boat itself, this was a radically different design to the standard narrowboat cabin, and seems much more spacious. The stove, with its back to the hold, is on the left.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

A pair of milk boats poses for advertising purposes at the stop gate at Knighton on the Shropshire Union Canal.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

A busy scene at Cadbury’s Blackpole Wharf, north of Worcester, with timber being unloaded from Henry Rice of Gloucester’s narrowboat Success.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

Their design was unique in that they had no gunwales. Instead, the steel sides of the hold extended upwards to the same height as the cabin and were surmounted by a steel deck, giving the appearance of a large box. The hold provided ample accommodation for a bulky cargo under cover and was accessed through three hatches. The boatman’s cabin at the rear of the boat had windows on both sides and a further break with tradition included folding beds on each side and a stove – which was placed well forward and backing onto the hold. Steering was by a wheel controlling two rudders by chains. Each craft could carry 20 tons.

In service the engines performed satisfactorily, but the design and construction of the boats proved not strong enough to withstand the vibrations and the rigorous conditions of canal use. Structural alterations were carried out at the end of 1912, when it is thought the holds were converted to more normal open ones, but Cadbury’s soon replaced them by conventional narrowboats.

To bring milk to the Knighton factory, Cadbury’s acquired a small fleet of horse-drawn narrowboats from Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd. It was found that each boat could carry 150 milk churns. The first boat, Buckby, was purchased for £80 in June 1915 and was renamed Bournville 7 and she was joined by Lilac and Uxbridge in November 1915 and Barton and Marple in August 1916, all given the Bournville name and the appropriate number.

These boats operated as day boats, with the three-man crews living ashore. There were two main routes – from Barbridge near Nantwich in the north to the bottom of the Tyrley Locks, and from the top of Tyrley locks to Autherley in the south. By this means a large number of farms could be served, with the boats picking up full churns from recognised spots and delivering the empties. Churns were also delivered to Knighton in horse-drawn carts and lorries. Milk boats also operated on the northern part of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, serving the Bournville factory, and on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal serving Frampton.

The establishment of the concentrating factories proved ideal, particularly as the demand for milk chocolate continued to grow strongly. At Knighton, two subsidiary milk-collecting stations were set up at Eccleshall and High Onn and at Frampton similar stations were established at Charfield and Newent. Completely new factories were opened at Marlbrook and Bangoron-Dee, but these were served by road and rail transport.

With the increased use of the canal, not only on the inter-factory traffic but in the collection of cocoa and sugar from the docks, the size of the boat fleet had to be increased. Two wooden motor boats were built by FMC at its Uxbridge boatyard and delivered in 1915 and 1916, effectively as replacements for the Orr Watt motor boats. At the same time W.H. Walker & Brothers Ltd at Rickmansworth started to build a series of new wooden motor boats and butties for the company, the first arriving in June 1915 and the last, Bournville 17, in July 1926 costing £315.

George Cadbury 1879–1954

George Cadbury Jnr was a lifelong member of the Society of Friends and lived in accordance with its high principles, giving generously of his time and money in helping many charitable causes. He married Edith Caroline Woodhall on 1st January 1902 at Stafford and they had three children: George Woodhall in 1907, John Christopher in 1908 and Mary in 1914.

Throughout his life George had a strong interest in promoting the use of the inland waterways and in transport matters in general. He became a director and then chairman of the Severn & Canal concern and was responsible for that company establishing a large new wharf at Stourport-on-Severn and developing the use of larger craft on the river. He co-authored a book – Canals & Inland Waterways – in 1929, which set out the history of the canals and how they were built, financed, managed and integrated into the national transport system.

In 1926 George had taken the lead in setting up a guarantee fund to keep the Worcester & Birmingham Canal open, as it was being threatened with closure at the time. He retired in 1943 but became president of the National Association of Inland Waterways Carriers and was a member of the Severn Commission and several other organisations. Following nationalisation of the canals in 1948 he was appointed as a part-time member of the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive and served until 30th September 1950. He died on 28th September 1954 aged 76.

George Cadbury Jnr, who did so much to encourage his company’s use of water transport. He was also a director of the Severn & Canal Carrying Company.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

Bert Williams and his mate on Bournville 5 waiting to unload milk churns at Knighton. On the right, Fellows, Morton & Clayton’s Crown was probably loading chocolate mass for delivery to Bournville.

Robert May Collection

Three of the fleet of milk boats at Cadbury’s milk evaporating station at Knighton on the Shropshire Union Canal. Some 150 milk churns fitted neatly in regimented rows into the hold of each boat. Knighton received a considerable proportion of its milk in this way and the service lasted until 1923 before being switched to road transport.

Railway & Canal Historical Society

A typical scene at Bournville showing two boats being unloaded at Cadbury’s canalside warehouse. The boat in the foreground had probably brought sacks of sugar from Gloucester Docks, whilst that beyond may well have brought chocolate crumb from one of the condensing factories. Both cargoes needed to be kept perfectly dry.

Railway & Canal Historical Society

A regular pattern was established, with boats undertaking the 40-mile trip from Bournville to Knighton with chocolate mass and then back to Bournville with chocolate crumb. Cadbury’s allowed three days for this, as there were often hold ups in and around the Birmingham area due to the heavy day-boat traffic. They were run as normal family boats and usually managed three round trips a fortnight. It was essential that both the chocolate mass and the crumb were kept absolutely dry and the boats had to be sheeted up to ensure this, even when empty. Cadbury’s also supplied empty sacks to cover the floor, sides, stands and mast of the hold.

The wharf area at Bournville was known as Waterside and was equipped with two fixed gantry cranes with the boats being moved along as loading or unloading proceeded. The sacks of crumb were lifted out onto flat trucks running along a narrow-gauge railway and were propelled into a hanger and onto a conveyor for stacking. In 1923 a bridge was constructed over the canal and the adjacent railway to enable goods from the warehouse on the east side of the canal to be carried directly into the factory on the west, cutting out the need for a detour.

The boats also made regular runs down to London to collect sugar and cocoa beans for delivery to Bournville, and occasionally to take away finished products. Sugar was also collected from Ellesmere Port and Manchester, mainly for Knighton, and from Gloucester Docks for the main factory at Bournville.

At Frampton, sugar could be unloaded directly from small sea-going ships, whilst narrowboats brought chocolate mass from Bournville and took the chocolate crumb away. These trips involved navigating the River Severn from Worcester down to Gloucester. Often a motor boat went by itself, but sometimes it took one or two butties down river. The current was such that only one butty could be brought back upstream. On the Worcester & Birmingham Canal the butties were handled by horses, mainly due to the large number of locks.

Motor boats going down regularly to Frampton were fitted with grab strings bolted to the cabin roof on each side in case any of the crew fell overboard on the river section. A safety chain was always kept on the exhaust chimney to prevent it being lost if it was knocked off, as the headroom under some of the bridges was affected when the river was in flood.

Another destination for the boats was Blackpole, on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal just north of Worcester. In 1922 Cadbury’s established a factory there with a saw mill and store in what had once been a former ordnance depot. Large quantities of sawn timber were handled here, waterborne for the entire journey and passing through the Kiel Canal on their way from the Baltic. This was used in various parts of the company’s operations such as in crates for exporting the milk chocolate to overseas destinations.

Boats waiting to deliver their cargo of milk in churns at the Knighton factory. Several former Fellows, Morton & Clayton butty boats were acquired by Cadbury’s in the mid 1910s to operate this traffic.

Cadbury Brothers Ltd

Virtually the entire Cadbury fleet at the old unloading place at Bournville in 1920. This was on the east side of the canal south of the later new wharf.

Cadbury Collection, Birmingham Public Library

Early in 1923 the milk boats stopped operating to Knighton, with the traffic going over to roadtransport. By 1928 Cadbury’s fleet had been reduced to four motors and five butties, and the company decided to discontinue operating its own boats and to rely on outside contractors. The Severn & Canal Carrying Co Ltd of Birmingham purchased the four motors and two of the butties, two butties were sold off separately, and FMC purchased the last butty, Bournville 17, in June 1929 for £185.

The Severn & Canal company now took over serving Frampton, Blackpole and Bournville, whilst FMC served Knighton and Bournville. It also made regular trips to Ellesmere Port and Manchester to collect the shipments of sugar, and to London to pick up both sugar and cocoa beans. Several carriers took coal to Bournville and Knighton, usually from the Cannock collieries; previously Cadbury’s had sometimes used its own boats. The most frequent coal carriers to Bournville were Leonard Leigh and Spencer Abbott, both of whom used open day boats. In 1935 George & Matthews (1924) Ltd of Wolverhampton introduced a new motor boat, Wanderer, into service and this was used to take coal to the Knighton factory.

Meanwhile the traffic between Bournville and Knighton was continued by FMC with single motors. Latterly this was Mendip, skippered by Charlie Atkins who worked on the run for 13 years with two round trips each week until the contract went over to road transport early in 1961.

Cadbury’s last involvement with canal transport started in 1963 when Willow Wren Canal Transport Services took some cocoa products from Bournville to Brentford for export. Then, in 1966, 200 tons of cocoa residue were sent by boat to Regent’s Canal Dock for export to Amsterdam. In April 1967 five pairs took the final shipment, after which the residue started being processed at Chirk and this brought Cadbury’s canal involvement to an end.

Educational Holidays

Cadbury’s Bournville 6 entering Bishopton Lock on the Stratford Canal on the first of Cadbury’s educational cruises for its employees in 1917. Two years later the standard cargo cloths had been replaced by a specially constructed temporary ‘cabin’ made of canvas on a wooden frame.

Even when it was no longer operating its own boats, Cadbury’s maintained an interest in canals and continued to run its educational cruises for young employees. The horse-drawn Bournville 6 had originally been used for this, and also to take special parties of children on pleasure trips. Later, other boats in the fleet were used including Bournville 17, and from 1919 these were fitted with a temporary waterproof canvas-on-wood ‘cabin’. After the fleet was sold, other carriers’ boats were used, latterly those belonging to Charles Ballinger of Gloucester. The story of these trips was told in more detail in the November 2012 issue of Waterways World magazine.

Fleet list for Cadbury

(m): motor boat