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Narrowboat evolution

Unearthing History: NarrowBoat, Summer 2016

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones examines the changing shape of working narrowboats over 150 years by looking at fly-boats, slow-boats, barge features, living cabins and powered narrowboats.

Most of the vessels used on the navigations that pre-date the canals, such as Humber keels and Thames barges, evolved over hundreds of years. The narrowboat, however, was built from scratch in the 18th century to fit the new narrow canals of the English Midlands. It’s possible to assume, therefore, that the familiar design and shape of a motor and butty pair has always been the same. Look a little closer, however, and you will see a subtle development over many decades.

Early narrowboats

Throughout the 19th century, narrowboats were divided into two classes: fly-boats and slow-boats. The early type of horse­-drawn fly-­boat used up until the railways became well established is now extinct. These were often barrel-sided with very fine lines and were both narrower and shorter than we would see today – often well under 70ft long and as little as 6ft 3in wide, although more normally 6ft 8in to 6ft 11in wide.

Boats built for use on the rivers Thames and Bristol Avon and connecting canals often had washboards surrounding the fore-deck like these two second-hand examples, taken over by the Ministry of War Transport during World War I. This feature protected the fore-deck from flooding when passing flash locks on rivers and is a smaller scale version of that seen on river barges used at the time. Note the removable iron pins inserted into the top rail of the washboards on each boat for tying ropes.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

One of the last survivors of a vessel which gives us some idea of what a fly-boat might have looked like was the packet-boat Duchess Countess, seen here on the Bridgewater Canal near Broadheath Bridge travelling at 6mph. She had a large triangular stern deck for steering from, very much like Pickford’s fly-boats.

Mike Clarke

A description of one of these boats and its use was recalled by one of the last generation of horse drivers who worked on them as a boy during the 1850s. He was engaged on the London-to-Manchester non-stop run, which took about 70 hours, on a boat with a maximum load of 18 tons and worked by a crew of three. They used horses selected for stamina, which were changed at regular stations, and some boats even carried a spare horse aboard for when the towing horse became tired. The boats were built for speed, typically travelling at 6mph to 7mph, and manoeuvrability to reduce any bow wave and drag at the stern. It is for this reason fly-boat captains employed boys as horse drivers. They rode on the back of the horse, as walking behind it in the manner of slow boats was clearly impossible.

Images of these craft show them to have quite tall cabins, which may be due to the barrel-shaped hulls reducing space inside the cabin. These craft rarely, if ever, travelled light, so the height of the cabin was not a problem at low bridges.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century when the old fly-boats started to become redundant that the 70ft-long by 7ft-wide craft became the norm. These were mainly slow-boats, which were made to more or less the same dimensions until the end of carrying. The fly-boats that were still used, and the steam-powered fly-boats that joined them, were mainly finer versions of the slow-boat design of hull.

The majority of narrowboats were wooden in the first half of the 19th century, which included their structural timbers like knees and frames. Iron knees proved an ideal substitute, but the frames at bow and stern continued to be made of timber to the end of carrying. The beauty of iron knees was that they could be taken out of derelict boats and reused in new boats, along with stem and stern bars, rubbing guards and other iron fixtures and fittings. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, with the growth of boiler manufacturers and other structural iron-makers, it was inevitable that boats would eventually be constructed out of iron plates as the skills required were becoming increasingly common in industrial areas and ports, where shipbuilders were based.

Many were constructed as iron and, later, steel composite hulls with wooden bottom planks laid transversely. When transverse bottom planking came into use for wooden boats is not clear, and it may have been localised to certain areas. Wooden long-distance craft working in the south Midlands had longitudinal bottom planking well into the latter half of the 19th century, with transverse planking slowly replacing it.

This side profile shows a typical horse-drawn boat of the second half of the 19th century, with a distinctive curved arrangement of top planks that overlap, except at the mast. Christopher M. Jones Collection

It may well be that the introduction of steam-powered fly-boats created the tall mast, stands and a level run of top planks during the latter half of the 19th century, where light bulky cargoes could be stacked up underneath. These craft rarely travelled anywhere empty so the height of the rig was not a problem under low bridges.

This shows the arrangement of a horse-boat rig from the late 19th century until just after World War II, but with a straight run of overlapping top planks laid on tall mast and stands, similar to a steamer.

With the introduction of motor-boats, the tall rig of steamers was easily applied to these craft only with greater cargo capacity due to the smaller engine room.

In the post World War II-era it was more convenient to have a rig reduced in height so the stern top plank rested on the forward engine room bulkhead, as demonstrated by this motor-boat. Craft that had carried general cargoes before the war were increasingly used for bulk cargo carrying afterward, which meant they travelled empty more frequently. Therefore, it was more convenient to have a rig lower in height when passing bridges, and the top planks interlocked with each other instead of overlapping as before.

With the greater use of motor-boats, former horse-boats were now being used as butties. This illustration shows the post WWII arrangement of interlocking top planks laid on the mast and stands of a butty, which have been reduced in height to the same as those on a motor-boat.

This early photo of Hannah Beauchamp’s boat Staff of Life at Whitchurch Lock at Whitchurch-on-Thames shows the way the top planks are arranged in an arched profile from the cabin block to the forward beam that’s typical of the 19th century. The boat has washboards surrounding the fore-deck, often seen on boats regularly navigating the Thames. In addition, she has two unusual iron running blocks taking her river towing line back to a T-stud in the cabin roof.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Barge features

Narrowboats built on or near river navigations by makers of barges, flats and other wide-beam craft might include a number of their features. On the rivers Thames and Bristol Avon, and their connecting canals, raised combings or washboards around thebows were a common barge feature fitted to narrowboats, which prevented flooding of the fore-deck when navigating flash locks. These also had removable iron belaying pins set in the top for tying off ropes, with a similar set fitted into the top planks at the stern either side of the hatches.

Perhaps the most common of these barge features were the timber-heads seen on boats from the Bridgewater Canal and surrounding area, River Severn long-boats, and Cuckoo boats working the Chesterfield Canal. The latter craft regularly plied the River Trent and the Lincolnshire waterways with occasional visits into Leicestershire along the River Soar. In fact, of all the different types of narrowboats built, it is the Cuckoo boats that most closely resemble barges in their appearance.

Subtle features and adaptations

Some features of boats are more subtle and localised to certain rivers or canals. On the Severn, many longboats had four beams across the hold, with three stands and one mast, unlike boats elsewhere which had just three beams with two stands and one mast.

Navigations with low bridges and tunnels forced boats using them to have their mast and stands much lower than was usual elsewhere. The North Staffs Canal (Trent & Mersey) is a classic example of this, due to the reduced height of Harecastle Tunnel. Some of these boats also had an iron peg or hook bolted through the cabin roof just in front of the slide, to attach the towline instead of the mast when towing through the newer Telfordbuilt tunnel.

Because of a narrowboat’s smaller size compared to barges and other larger craft, they were more easily adaptable to suit whatever local navigation conditions they encountered. On rivers, boatmen could erect a tall extension mast tied against the normal towing mast, which allowed a longer towing line to be used. This was threaded back from the horse through a pulley-block fixed on the top of the extension mast then back to the steerer, and was done to avoid high flood banks and riverside vegetation. In favourable conditions, a makeshift sail could be erected from the extension mast on rivers and even on broad canals such as the Bridgewater. The rudder blade could have a portable wooden extension strapped to it to increase its surface area for better steerage in the river current.

Two fly-boats of Thomas and Matthew Pickford painted by Thomas Shepherd about 1827 at one of the City Road locks on the Regent’s Canal near Islington Tunnel. While it is easy to dismiss such images as an artistic interpretation of boats of the time, the proportions and shape are probably not too different from the real craft, which are shown in similar illustrations from the first half of the 19th century.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

To navigate the restricted height of either of the two Harecastle Tunnels, masts and stands needed to be lower than on the Oxford or Grand Junction canals. This is demonstrated here as Henry Rathbone’s horse-boat Percy prepares to enter the northern end of the older Brindley-built Harecastle Tunnel, which was closed to traffic after 1914. Percy was an old boat registered to builder Henry Rathbone of Plank Lane, Westleigh, on the Leigh Branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in October 1883.

Laurence Hogg

Narrowboats built for use on the broad Bridgewater and Leeds & Liverpool canals like Ann, shown here at Astley Wharf, were six planks deep instead of the usual five on the shallower Midland canals. Many also had fittings more associated with barges and other wide-beam craft, such as timber-heads, seen here either side of the hatches. Ann was registered at Leigh in January 1879 to the Tyldesley Coal Company Ltd.

Terry Waldron

Some boaters dispensed with stands altogether and laid the top planks down on the coal cargo, as shown here. Although this happened prior to World War II, it was seen more frequently in the post-war era, like this Samuel Barlow Coal Company pair, which includes butty Mary built in 1938. The boats are approaching Lock 15 at Stoke Bruerne in the latter half of the 1950s. Some boaters preferred to draw up the side cloths then tie-off the strings over the top plank to prevent water shipping over the sides at locks. This was most likely due to some boats carrying less weight aboard than in pre-World War II times because of neglect and lack of maintenance of the cut.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

These slow narrowboats on the River Thames at Wallingford, painted by Robert Havell in 1811, are similar in shape and proportions to those first photographed on the Thames in around 1860.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

The Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company boat Stourport is seen here at Kinver in the early 20th century, and shows the tall mast and stands common on many narrowboats at the time. This was especially good for carrying general merchandise, which was relatively light in weight and could be stacked up almost to the top planks. Stourport was built in 1880 and first registered under the Canal Boats Act for the SUR&CC at Wolverhampton. At the time of this photo it was serving the London & North Western Railway, as the SUR&CC was operating its boat services.

David McDougall

The Illustrated London News of 10th October 1874 featured this engraving ‘A Canal Barge for Carrying Powder and Petroleum’. It was part of an article about the catastrophic explosion the previous week on the Regent’s Canal at Macclesfield Bridge at Regent’s Park, when the boat Tilbury, towed behind the steam tug Ready and partly laden with gunpowder and petroleum, blew up. The shape and distinctive curved gang planks of the boat above is little different to many craft of the same period.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Living cabin

When people see ex-working narrowboats for the first time, the main object of curiosity tends to be the living cabin. The traditional arrangement of lockers, cupboards, and bunks is more or less the same on most working boats. However, in the years leading up to the passing of the Canal Boats Act of 1877, many boats had a slightly different and more claustrophobic cabin.

Early images and records of canal boats are rare but those that do exist show that long-distance narrowboats were open, without cabins or even a fore-deck. The Old Stratford Company had one such boat weighed by the Grand Junction Canal in September 1802, which was used to carry hay and coal from Stoke Bruerne to London.

Others show them with semi-circular bow-topped cabins, which may be wooden frames with canvas stretched over them. The carrier, Roper, Barnes & Company, had one boat weighed in August 1802 that was described as having a new cabin not covered in. She too was involved in the southbound coal trade from Stoke Bruerne before the Blisworth Tunnel was opened.

A canvas tarpaulin stretched over bowed wooden supports was certainly common on craft working commercially between the Medway and the upper Thames, then onto the Thames & Severn Canal in the Cotswolds. These large, now extinct, punt-shaped craft were known as ‘West Country Barges’, and are the most well-illustrated inland waterways craft of the 18th and early 19th centuries, featuring in the drawings and paintings of Constable, Turner, Canaletto, and a multitude of other artists.

Illustrations show similar smaller barges with wood and canvas cabins being used on the GJC. It’s not hard to see how in the early days of narrowboat construction, boat builders copied the construction of existing barges before the recognisable narrowboat design evolved. Wooden cabins on narrowboats were much cheaper to build than on a wide barge and so were likely to be adopted fairly quickly in the late 18th century.

Thomas Monk of Tipton, who was born in 1765, is the man credited with the design of the traditional narrowboat cabin. His name is also said to be the origin of the term ‘Monkey Boat’ commonly used on the southern GJC, along the Thames and around the London area. An article in the Canals and Waterways Journal of November 1920, written from information supplied by Thomas Monk’s great-grandson, relates the story of this boat-builder, canal-carrier and packet-boat operator. His early efforts were a mere shelter at the stern, where a man could sleep among the hay and corn kept for the boat’s horse, mule or donkey. This later evolved into accommodation for the boatman and his wife.

It appears that in the mid-19th century, the cabin furniture aboard a number of craft was more enclosed than we are familiar with today. In particular, the cross­-bed which had cupboards above the bed’ole on both sides, with access to the bed through a fixed wooden archway the width of the central gangway in the middle of the cabin. In some cases the drop-down flap of the cross-bed, which normally rests on a lip along the right-hand bench when used, was fixed permanently in place too. In 1898 one old boatman said that one child would sleep in a cupboard over the top of his bed while another would sleep in a cupboard over thefoot of his bed. Much earlier in 1858, John Hollingshead described a similar cabin interior in ‘On The Canal’ in Household Words magazine.

These cabin fixtures reduced the cubic air capacity of the interior to well below that required by the Canal Boats Act, and prompted some canal boat inspectors to demand the cupboard above the bed’ole be removed. The early arrangement gave the boatman and his wife a good deal more privacy from their children when in bed, but, following the Act, their privacy was reduced to a small hinged wooden ‘modesty flap’ fixed to the cabin frame – an anachronistic remnant of earlier days. Only a curtain fixed across the cabin could now protect the parents from their children’s attention.

At Stoke Works on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in the beginning of January 1879, the first 14 boats were inspected for what would become the Birmingham Register of Canal Boats. All failed to comply with the acts due to lack of free air space and the amount of cupboards in their cabins. However, not all boats were compelled to make alterations to conform with the Act upon their initial registration, much to the annoyance of other canal boat inspectors when these craft ventured into other parts of the canal system. At Wolverhampton, a number of visiting boats were inspected and found to be fitted with bed’ole cupboards and fixed cross-beds and had already been registered elsewhere contrary to the Act. Nonetheless, the owners of these boats were subsequently warned about these infringements and ordered to fix them.

Not all boats were constructed with the traditional layout of furniture. One example in 1922 was for the Midlands & Coast Canal Carriers Limited of Wolverhampton, which ordered the first of a new type of all-steel canal boat, and the first one was fitted up with a different arrangement of cabin furniture. It was described as having a hinged table attached to a bulkhead, two shelves, a stern cupboard and a cross-bed locker. This was an exception, though, and in general most boats were constructed with the usual traditional arrangement.

Powered narrowboats

This engraving by Herbert Johnson of 1875 illustrates the narrowboat cabin interior prior to the passing of the Canal Boats Act in 1877. It shows the fixed archway and enclosed bed’ole which had cupboards either side above the main bed. Sometimes the bed itself was permanently fixed in place. After the passing of the Act, boats had the archway and cupboard above the main bed on the right-hand side removed, leaving a wooden ‘modesty flap’ to separate the bed from the side bunk.

The most significant innovation to occur in narrowboat design was the development of steam-powered craft, with a screw propeller, and their motor-powered successors. One of the first narrowboat steamers working was fly-boat Pioneer. Its construction was authorised in October 1859 and it was built especially by, and for, the Grand Junction Canal Company carrying department as a protoype. Its helmsman stood in a small steering position just big enough to swing the tiller over, which was described as an “ordinary tiller” suggesting it was similar to a horse-boat’s. In front, where the cabin would normally be, was a raised deck with two light iron railings either side that offered a small degree of safety. Through this deck its cone-shaped coal-fired boiler protruded (and presumably had itssteam plant below) and was partially open to the elements. In front of the raised deck was the boatman’s cabin, then the cargo space under a tall erection of mast, stands and cloths that stretched from the cabin top to the fore-deck.

When underway with a cargo of timber and groceries, and towing a butty, Pioneer was said to be twice the speed of a horse-drawn boat. Her butty was steered over to one side so as not to ride into her stern should she have to slacken speed, which also suggests that she may have had a horse-boatstyle elum and rudder.

Like the development of early railway locomotives, each new canal steamer was essentially the next prototype until the familiar counter-sterned steam-powered canal boat was finally perfected, and this form was only subtlety altered when internal combustion engines replaced the steam plant.

Working rig

Another traditional narrowboat feature is their working rig, but the general appearance of the working boat has evolved and changed quite subtlety over many decades. In the middleto-late 19th century a typical horsedrawn boat working the Midlands region and as far south as the Kennet & Avon Canal would have a distinctive curvature to the top plank from the back of the cabin to the forward beam. The middle stand was taller than both the after stand and the box mast, so the gang planks formed a gentle curve peaking at the middle stand, with the forward plank from the mast to the forward beam often resting on a large block of wood rather than a deckboard or cratch.

This arrangement changed over time and evolved into a straight and level run of top planks placed over a very tall mast and stands, sometimes with a slight downward slope from the aft stand all the way to the cratch. How this came about is not certain, but a clue could be the increased use of narrow-beam steamers operated by several carriers in the latter half of the 19th century. Many were built with tall cabins and engine rooms, and when the top planks were laid from a rather short cabin block on the forward engine room bulkhead to the deckboard, which was a few inches taller than the bulkhead, a level run of top planks was the result. It’s not too much to speculate that the butties and horsedrawn craft contemporary with these steamers should subsequently adopt a similar rig, but with a profoundly curving aft top plank from the aft stand to a tall cabin block at the back of the cabin. This version lasted for most of the first half of the 20th century with the last boat carrying it being Joe Skinner’s Friendship in the 1950s.

In this pre-World War I view of the Top Lock at Stoke Bruerne, two different ways of rigging a loaded boat are shown. The leading craft is a typical coal-carrying boat seen on the Grand Junction and Oxford canals at that time; note the short length of top cloth to protect the horse feed underneath. Just visible behind is the butty, which has no stands or cloths to protect the boat, most likely due to having a higher freeboard than the lead boat, making it less likely to ship water aboard in locks.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

The old 19th-century method of rigging boats was still apparent in the early years of the 20th century. Here owner-boatman John Arnold of Oxford takes his boats Why Not and Melinda southbound along the Grand Junction Canal with two loads of coal. The method of rigging the boats is clearly shown, including the use of running blocks to create less strain for his single horse when towing his butty out of locks. Melinda dates from 1898, and replaced an earlier boat of the same name, while Why Not is a more recent craft dating from 1903. When Melinda was subsequently sold to carrier L. B. Faulkner and renamed Quail, she was given a straight run of top planks after docking.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Even the deep-hulled Grand Union Canal Carrying Company boats, built in the 1930s, originally had a taller cratch, mast and stands with the top planks resting on a cabin block on both motor boats and butties – although not as high as FMC or some of the coalcarrying boats. But after World War II the height of the mast and stands on these and other boats was reduced, so the height of the gang planks on motors was level with the forward bulkhead of the motor-boat’s engine room, and the butty’s mast and stands were correspondingly reduced to match. This may have been due to the change in traffic after the war, when the main cargo was coal. Boats often returned to the collieries running lightand it made life easier to have a lower rig, especially for larger GUCCC boats. This also affected Barlows’, and other carriers’, boats, and their working rig was reduced after the war too. Some boatmen removed the two stands when loaded and merely laid the gang planks over the coal from mast to cabin, which were sometimes held fast by tying down the side cloth strings over the planks. This method was used increasingly during the post-war years for both motors and butties.

A lot more research still has to be done to uncover all the different aspects of narrowboat design over their entire history, as well as the many local conditions and traffics that affected this, and not mentioned here.

On the North Staffs Canal, boats had a working rig much reduced in height to allow for Harecastle Tunnel and various low bridges caused by subsidence. The rig on this boat on the Caldon Canal near Cheddleton in the early years of the 20th century was typical of many engaged in the transport of minerals for the pottery industry.

Christopher M. Jones Collection