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Transport Workers Battalions

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Summer 2014

Mike Clarke

Mike Clarke looks at how the military helped out on the canals during World War One

The June 1919 issue of Canals & Waterways reported: “At the time of going to press comes the news that all soldiers working on canals are being withdrawn.” These soldiers had been introduced in 1917 because too many canal men had gone into the army. “To meet the labour deficiency, arrangements were made for the employment of men from the Transport Workers Battalion for the purpose of loading and unloading boats and barges, dredging etc, as well as for keeping the canals free from ice in times of frost.” Although carriers and others were sceptical at first, “so well have the majority of the soldiers performed their work on canals, that traders who have utilised this class of labour are now parting with the men very reluctantly”. To reveal the story of the ‘khaki boatmen’, we need first to consider the role of the Transport Workers Battalions (TWBs).

During the First World War, the British army fighting in France and Belgium relied upon imports and supplies sent from Britain by sea. However, no steps were taken to retain dock labour untilthe Port & Transit Executive Committee was formed in October 1915. The loss of men to the military was affecting the flow of material, so it was decided to form special TWBs from those already involved with Home Defence. Their primary duty was as soldiers, but they would supplement civilian transport workers in times of need.

Labour relations in the transport industry were already strained, and there had been several strikes before the war, such as those on the canals and docks around Manchester in 1913. To avoid such actions, it was expected that the TWBs would be employed in the docks on moving munitions and other army supplies, rather than the traditional trades which were worked by civilians. Local committees were to be formed to ensure the smooth running of the scheme, comprising two military men, a port authority representative and a worker representative. Employers could ask the committee for help if there was a shortage of labour, though they had to guarantee paying the civilian rate to the men of the TWBs.

The initial idea was that the soldiers used would already be skilled in transport work, so no training would be required. The final figures for soldiers in the battalions show that though most were dock and general labourers, men came from all sorts of work; there were three valets, three music hall artists, a gravedigger and a jockey amongst the numerous trades represented. It was hoped that using men who already knew the work would reduce any antagonism from local workers, and the soldiers were also to be stationed away from the ports. For example, those working in Liverpool were stationed at Bebington.

The first TWB was the 16th (Transport Workers) Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment, formed in March 1916 and based at Colsterdale, now in North Yorkshire.

One problem with the scheme was that the exact standing of the battalions and men was never fully understood. The final report by Colonel W.R.J. McLean, Inspecting & Liaison Officer between the War Office and the Committee, was very critical of the way the battalions were regarded, and the difficulties this caused when organising work.

A train of boats near Altham on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, with the steamer at the far side of the bridge. The stern boat is probably towing a bucket on the end of a rope to keep the train straight when underway. This was the type of operation which the soldier boatmen were trained for on this canal. At locks, the steamer went first, and there were stables for horses specifically for working the dumb boats up or down the locks. Mike Clarke Collection

Shamrock, built in 1900 for the Rochdale Canal, iced in. Soldier boatman G. Gregor was employed on this boat at the end of 1917, to help captain Liverett and mate Aitchinson.

Waterways Archive

To some extent, the battalions were separate from other units in the army. Those enlisting had no obligation to serve overseas, and could not be transferred from one battalion to another. They only had 10 weeks’ training, and just 25% were armed. Their pay also depended upon what they were doing, receiving civilian rates for some jobs and military rates for others. They were not considered part of the General Army Reserve, but could be used as reserves locally in an emergency. Early in 1917 the number of battalions was increased to a strength of 5,000 men, and ultimately to an effective strength of 35,000.

The major use of men from the TWBs was in ports; Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Birkenhead and Newhaven were the main recipients amongst a total of 60, including the canal ports of Runcorn and Glasson Dock. In total 4,633,162 days’ work were achieved, and it was noted that the men often did the hardest and most difficult work. They were also employed at ironworks (441,935 days), on the railways (241,582 days), and in agriculture (37,951 days), with their work on canals totalling 357,570 days.

Between 1914 and 1917, canal companies had lost nearly 3,000 men to the armed services, and carriers had also lost some of their staff, so that there were probably 50% fewer men available in 1917 than in 1914. On 9th January 1917, a paper on ‘Better Utilisation of Canals’ discussed staffing levels.

Female labour was considered, but only thought suitable for narrow canals. It was regarded as “a physical impossibility for women, either alone or with the aid of one man, to work a broad boat with 50 to 60 tons on board”. It also suggested that women were unsuitable for warehouse work, a bit surprising considering that a good number were later involved with coal shipments at collieries.

A report on the turnround of ships of 12th July 1917 said the War Office would not release men for work on canals, but that the question was being dealt with by the recently set up Canal Control Committee. Diverting traffic from the railways or coastal shipping was considered essential.

Railway-owned canals came under Government control in 1914, at the same time as the railways, but private canals came under such control only with the formation of the Canal Control Committee (CCC) of the Board of Trade on 1st March 1917. Three sub-committees were formed for the northern, midland and southern districts, and one for Ireland, comprising an independent chairman, representatives from the War Office, Ministry of Munitions, Railway Executive, canal companies, and carriers. The CCC was soon arranging for TWBs to help with expediting traffic on the canals and also arranged for canal men over 25 years of age to be drafted back temporarily to their previous employers to provide experienced men to help with training.

No 9 was a typical Leeds & Liverpool Canal steamer used during the First World War. The engine was at the back of the cabin, with the boiler in front, the open back to the cabin keeping the temperature down and making it easy for the steerer to speak to the engineer. Some wag has written on the negative “SS Mauritania (I don’t think)” suggesting that this rather larger vessel, which played an important role in the war, was in people’s minds at the time.

Waterways Archive

The Rochdale Canal Co wrote to the Northern Sub-Committee on 29th June 1917 requesting help from the TWBs, and they were advised to contact the 16th (TWB) York & Lancaster Regiment at Barnard Castle. They required 32 boatmen, 20 boat horse drivers, a boiler maker, mechanic and apprentice, 10 maintenance men, 36 porters, 10 carpenters and a covermaker, though some posts had been filled by civilians 3 weeks later. The battalion reported 86 men as available for canal work on 29th August, and the Rochdale took 29, mainly as boatmen or horse drivers. Ten went to the Aire & Calder, and 30 to the Sheffield & South Yorkshire for dredging work, with the Leeds & Liverpool then approached to see if it required any men.

The first eleven men for the Rochdale arrived in Manchester on 7th September, with further men arriving fairly quickly. By the end of the month, 30 men were working on the canal, nine as boatmen, 15 as horse drivers, four warehousemen, a mechanic and a clerk. A further 22 men arrived at the end of October. Training was done on the job: “Usually there are two boatmen and one horse driver to each boat, but, for the purpose of training, one soldier is placed on the boat in addition to the two experienced men, and one soldier is attached to the experienced horse driver, making five men in all in place of three. This system is working very well, and the men are taking up their duties in a satisfactory manner. Some of them will shortly be available to take the place of the other boatmen and horse drivers, and so bring further soldiers into training.”

As a result of the success on the Rochdale Canal, the Leeds & Liverpool applied on 2nd October for 70 boatmen, and if they were available, 19 porters, two carters and two stablemen. Initially 20 boatmen would be trained on the canal, a further 20 accepted after training on the Rochdale, with a further 20 trained afterwards. The eventual system of training on the L&L was different. Bank Newton lockkeeper Mr Kendrick’s diary records, on 19th November 1917, that a steamer and six boats had passed through with a sergeant and 20 men. The steamer had been converted into a houseboat, though sufficient accommodation could have been provided in the boats’ cabins. There was a cook on board, so perhaps the steamer was also used as a mess. Kendrick said they were “in good spirit and some are fine fellows from London, Hull, Newcastle and Liverpool”. The steamer and ‘six soldier boats’ returned from Leeds on 30th November.

Boats held up by a strike in Manchester Docks. There were several strikes by dockers and boatmen just prior to the First World War, and labour unrest continued after the war started, enhanced by rapidly rising prices. It was partly to deal with these problems that the Transport Workers Battalions were formed. Waterways Archive

An empty steamer, still boasting the words ‘Fly Boat’ on the bow, tows a train of dumb boats on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the type of operation which the soldier boatmen were trained for on this waterway. Mike Clarke Collection

The original canal boatmen did not take too kindly to the army boatmen, especially when the sergeant in charge demanded priority at locks as they were on government service, though the thought of fighting twenty men for a lock must have been too much even for the most hardened of boatmen! A ‘khaki squad’ of 25 passed on 21st January 1918, and in March it was reported that 22 men were being trained. By September there were 37 soldier boatmen out of a total of 493 boatmen on the canal.

On 3rd November he reported “No 314 & Ginger and another soldier came for the weekend, I never saw them until noon on Sunday and only one then. 3pm Dr Wales came to visit boat and at 4.30pm I noticed the boat tilting and water to gunwale. Man [the other soldier?] reported to me that she was making water fast and Ginger very bad with flu and Dr ordered him to hospital. I at once ran for R. Turner [foreman carpenter at Bank Newton] and with great difficulty we got the sick man into No 42 steamer cabin, and boat into pool and ran it dry and left it for the night after seeing the men right with oil and lamp aboard boats.” Ginger was obviously a casualty of the 1918 flu epidemic.

The Midlands Sub-Committee reported that they had tried to meet the labour shortage by employing wives and families of boatmen to take the places of their husbands, principally for long distance traffic. They had also experimented with ‘boy labour’ but this had been unsuccessful on account of the reluctance of boatmen to spend time training youths. Boatmen objected to unskilled labour who had little knowledge of lock working, canal routes and night working.

In the south, a training school was set up at Devizes in 1917 where men were given three weeks’ training before being sent out to various canals and carrying companies. By February 1918, 135 men had been trained at Devizes and sent to work, mainly in the Midlands. Five men were sent to the Rochdale Canal in July 1918, where they were assessed by the canal’s boat inspector. He said: “The company’s boatmen have generally complained that men sent to them without any previous training are much in their way and impede the working of their boats. In the case of the men trained at Devises (sic) this was not so.… The trained men themselves say they benefited by their Devises training but that the boats being narrow were not entirely useful when transferred to the company’s flats and that they had much to learn on arrival here.” The school would have trained more, but couldn’t get enough recruits and so closed on 7th February 1918. It seems to have reopened however as it was noted as closing in September 1918 having served its purpose.

Number of days worked by Transport Workers Battalions on canals

These tables list the number of days of canal work (totalling 357,570) done by TWBs. They include canal companies, canal carriers, wharves, and locations where dredging was undertaken.

Northern Area

Location/Company days
Rochdale 26408
Manchester Ship Canal 17828
Sheffield & South Yorks 14717
Leeds & Liverpool 13334
Employers (small numbers) 8401
Aire & Calder Navigation 7754
Shropshire Union 4729
Bridgewater Collieries 4697
Rockferry 3120
Seddon & Sons 1460
Craven & Co 129
Kay & Sons 129
Croasdale & Co 128
Bradford Joint Canal Co 71
Clark & Co 54
Gloucester 42
Armitage & Co 40
Hunt & Sons 25

Midland Area

Location/Company days
Employers (small numbers) 44437
Birmingham 40202
Fellows Morton 12561
Bebington 8203
Chance & Hunt 4700
Shropshire Union 4559
Trent Navigation 4419
Bantock & Co 4209
Staffs & Worcs Canal 2267
Northolt 1209
Pitt & Matty 1006
North Staffs 437
Hargreaves 288
Coventry Canal 247
Mersey Weaver 196
Andrew Knowles 159
Anderton & Co 27

Southern Area

Location/Company days
Grand Junction 14186
Thames Tug Co 7166
Maypole Margarine Co 7004
Southall 6114
Tring 6043
Employers (small numbers) 5799
Sabey & Co 5241
Clayton & Co 2449
West Drayton 2132
Saddington 2095
Hays 1895
Devizes 1751
Hanwell 1393
Willesden 980
Stroud 817
Bridge Wharf Canal 452
Alperton 425
Watford 334
Cowley Peachy 296
Fenny Stratford 259
Braunston 210
Bristol 155
Pewsey 141
Ramsey St Mary 121
Leamington 94



One of the Rochdale Canal Company’s boats, Hawthorne, pictured after delivery in 1906. Soldier boatman R. Rayner was an ‘additional mate’ on this boat in 1918, learning from captain W. Turner and mate B. King. Rayner was one of ten men acting in this capacity from 29th October 1917, six men having started a month earlier. There were 52 ‘khaki boatmen’ employed in various capacities on the canal at the end of 1917.

Waterways Archive

German prisoners of war loading timber on the Basingstoke Canal in 1916. This was another way of overcoming the shortage of labour on canals during the war, but their employment had to conform to the Geneva Convention. Waterways Archive

Men from the TWBs also worked on maintenance, such as repair of locks, dredging, loading and unloading, and ice breaking. Some had worked on canals before the war and needed no training, as they were among the men over the age of 25 who had transferred into the TWBs. They could then be drafted back to their original employers.

In total, 24,637 men were part of the TWBs, though actual numbers varied over time. The first battalion was authorised at the beginning of March 1916, but it was not until midApril that men were actively on duty, and actual work began a month later. Further battalions were added as was necessary, but it was always difficult to keep their numbers up. Some men were attached whilst they recuperated from injury and then returned to the fighting ranks. The work of the TWBs ended in June 1919, and they had disbanded by September 1919.

Although some battalions were used for specific jobs, such as dock labour, the men could be sent where they were needed. For example, in October 1917 the 13th Bedfordshire Regiment had men operating in some 17 locations at some time during the month. These included docks like Newhaven and Folkestone, the Grand Junction Canal at Tring and Southall (probably dredging) and unspecified work at places like Brentford and Northolt. At the same time, detachments of the 17th Cameronians were to be found not only in the Glasgow area but also in a dozen other locations including Dundee, Ayr and even on the canal at Rochdale. However, the main canal battalions were the 17th South Lancs, sometimes recorded as the Canal Boat Battalion, and the 16th York & Lancaster.

The tonnages handled by the battalions were recorded, though not necessarily very efficiently. In total, the 13th Beds handled 2,903,416 tons, plus ten men working for 7 months dredging canals and repairing bridges. The 16th South Lancs handled 810,660 tons from 2nd August 1918 to 9th May 1919, though the commanding officer’s records prior to these dates were incomplete, while figures for the 17th South Lancs seem not to have been recorded, but were chiefly coal for factories in the Black Country, with men also employed on maintenance and dredging.

There was also poor record keeping related to accidents, and there was a good number of fatalities and serious injuries, though it was thought the accident record compared favourably to those for civilian workers. Col McLean did note: “It should be borne in mind that those remaining in the units were not of the best physique, intelligence and alertness, and to these facts a proportionate increase in the number of accidents occurring in recent periods is due”. Accidents on canals were not noted specifically, but on 9th July 1918, Private James Jacques was drowned in one of Wigan Locks, and on 9th October 1918, Private Charles Tullitt was drowned at Finnington Bridge, near Riley Green, his widow claiming £300 compensation. The request for compensation shows that although the men were soldiers, they came under civilian rules when working at civilian jobs.

How effective were the TWBs? There is no doubt that they helped greatly in keeping supplies moving after it was realised that men were required to keep the army supplied, as well as to fight. The TWBs did some 5,712,200 days’ work and handled 27,341,000 tons of cargo, earning £2,069,245 of civil pay, and while so doing saved the army £980,000 by paying for their own food and billets. The actual figures were probably higher, given the poor record keeping.

The speedy unloading and loading of boats in the docks was the main reason for the Transport Workers Battalions, ensuring that ships were not held up in ports, particularly after the convoy system was introduced. Here, a canal steamer with primitive vertical boiler is awaiting transhipment of cargo in Waterloo Dock, Liverpool, around the turn of the century. Mike Clarke Collection