Tom the Boater

Life Afloat: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2015

Christopher M Jones

A rare collection of photos showing the working boat scene of the early 1900s originally taken to illustrate a children's story.

The following images were staged and taken around the turn of the 20th century to illustrate a children’s book Tom the Boater: A Tale of English Canal Life. Written by Emma Leslie (1837–1909) and first published by the Religious Tract Society in 1882, the story follows the lives of a boating family aboard an unregistered, horse-drawn boat. The title character, Tom Swan, is a kind of Tiny Tim figure – a young boater with an injured leg and a sensitive mind. Although he is ignorant of everything but life on the cut, he is inspired by the words of a roving preacher and attempts to teach his beloved sister Polly, as best he can, about Christian salvation. Forced to leg through a tunnel, he falls off the boat and is presumed drowned. Unknown to his family, he is actually plucked from the water by a kindly observer who foresees the accident, and is taken to hospital. When Tom awakes, he is convinced he has been rescued by Jesus. Meanwhile, distraught Polly and her many s…

To read the full article…

…you need to be a subscriber to NarrowBoat. If you are, you can login here. If not, you can buy a subscription here . If you are having trouble logging in, please contact support at

Tom the Boater featured image