NarrowBoat Logo

Aspects of Wooden-Boat-Building

Unearthing History: NarrowBoat, Winter 2016

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones examines the small boatyards that produced and maintained large numbers of working craft.

Of all the boatyards operating in the 20th century, Lees & Atkins of Polesworth Docks on the Coventry Canal is among the best known. The firm was a partnership founded in 1910 between Henry Atkins and a local shopkeeper, and became famous for the quality of its workmanship and boat decoration. However, like many other yards, it could easily have fallen victim to financial pressures. One way the company avoided this was to own a large number of old boats bought cheaply, repair them, then hire them out for a weekly fee to boatmen and carriers. This created a cash flow that offset the variable boat-building and repair side of the business. In this postcard view, the sloping dock area is next to the new boat Mary, with a flat raised wooden platform on which new boats were built. Note the movable shed for working in poor weather and the workshop behind, with its large open hearth, the chimney of which protrudes above the gable-end.

Colin Such Collection

During the 19th and 20th centuries, there were generally three types of boat-builders operating on the canals: privately owned businesses, often by an individual, family or partners; boatyards owned by carriers to serve their own fleet but taking on outside work; and large manufacturers, such as boiler-makers or timber merchants, building boats as a sideline. Of these it was the latter two that were in the most secure financial position, as they were subsidised by carrying activities or their stock-in-trade. The privately owned yards dedicated entirely to boat-building were always subject to the vagaries of the carrying trade and the wider economy.


Small boatyards were generally set up and run on the tightest of budgets. Buildings and sheds were sometimes constructed from old boats and other recycled timber, with old wooden beams laid on sloping banks to create slipways so that boats could be hauled out by hand-winches. Most of the costs of setting up such enterprises went onwinches, steam chests, pitch boilers, jacks and other tools, with the most significant outlay being the blackmith’s forge. The more money spent on buildings, equipment and stock meant the more capital that was tied up, so some small yards set up sidelines to bring in a regular income such as selling coal, lime, building supplies, rope and twine, or making boat cloths, or rick cloths for local farmers. Some were also timber merchants, wheelwrights or pub landlords, while several BCN boatbuilders occasionally worked as steerage contractors with horses and tugs.

Old wooden boats were not just recycled for the odd building but also for equipment and ironwork, with iron knees, stem and stern irons and guard irons being taken off and reused. Old timbers were burned and the iron nails retrieved from the ashes, cleaned, straightened and sharpened for reuse. One wonders how many of the surviving wooden boats have a history that goes back much further than their actual build date, if only the origins of their ironwork could be traced. In later years some of these smaller yardsdeveloped skills to repair iron-boats, replacing worn plates by riveting new ones in their place, or riveting on iron patches, sometimes using scrap plates from various sources. All traditional boatyards were models of recycling with virtually nothing going to waste.


As with many businesses, location was an important consideration. Sometimes a yard might be established on what was considered a prime spot, but after many years and various changes in traffics, the location might not be quite as convenient for customers. If the owner was unwilling to relocate his business, it could spell financial decline and eventual collapse.

On the southern Oxford Canal there were several yards in business during the 19th century, taking advantage of the coal trade to Oxford and the Thames Valley. But with its decline in the latter half of the century, boat-building at Oxford ceased in the 1860s, leaving only the yard at Banbury. From the late 1890s onwards, the yard was facing problems as carrying continued to decline. In 1905 former owner-boatman George Tooley began running the dock and he managed to struggle on through the declining years of trade. He was helped in this by the Oxford Canal Company, which, unknowingly, paid Tooley’s rates for his first 24 years of occupation. When this was eventually discovered in 1929, the Oxford Canal Company realised that in recovering the money it would put Tooley out of business, so he only began paying rates from then onwards.

Some did move, however. Peter Keay’s dock was set up at Daw End near Catshill Junction on the BCN in 1919, but the effects of the recession of the early 1930s caused trade to tail off, so he moved to Pratt’s Bridge, Walsall, in 1931 to pick up work repairing tugs as well as from carrying boats.

The Banbury and Oxford yards largely depended on the independent boatmen-contractors and small coal merchants that dominated the Oxford trade. On the Grand Junction Canal too, the coal trade was largely the preserve of small independent carriers. At Braunston there were three docks at work in the 1870s, run by two firms, but following the disbanding of the Grand Junction Canal Carrying fleet in 1876, on which two of the docks depended, boat-building went into decline.

That year a local publican and experienced boat-builder, William Nurser, set up his own boat-building business at Braunston Wharf and eventually saw off all his local competitors. Being based on a major through-route, Nurser also attracted orders from large carrying companies as well as small independents. His business thrived with his sons carrying it on after his death in 1899 until the 1920s when a decline in trade saw traffic start to dry up, from which it never recovered.

Several other yards along the GJC were in a similar position, such as High House dock at Nether Heyford. This was in use until a few years before World War I when declining trade forced it to close. In many respects both Braunston and High House were in the wrong place, situated in the middle of a through-route; several other yards serving those same customers were in a more advantageous position near the terminus of a route.

This view, taken in 1938, shows a boat under repair at Lees & Atkins yard at Polesworth Docks. The craft has had some extensive re-planking carried out, including a new stem post, the top of which remains to be finally rounded off along the white mark. The positions of four rubbing guards are clearly marked; the upper one, which would run parallel to the bottom edge of the top plank, was usually fixed through a strip of wood in between for extra reinforcement. Note the typical dockyard hand-winch next to the man on the left, and, behind the boat, an open-sided shed on wheels so dockmen could work undercover.

Waterways Archive

Carriers that operated a sizable fleet of wooden-craft often had their own boat repair facilities. One such carrier was Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd, which set up its own dock at Stone Street Wharf, Oldbury in 1935, next to the junction with the Titford Canal. On the bank are two movable wooden and iron sheds with curved roofs to protect the working area. The boats are motor Spey, built by FMC at its Uxbridge dock in November 1937, and, in the foreground, Ribble, which was originally a horse-boat but converted to a motor at Braunston in January 1942. Note the newly fitted top plank on Spey, which has yet to be tarred.

Richard M. Courtenay Lord

One carrier that had several docks to service its fleet was T&S Element Ltd. This image shows the company’s premises on the Grand Union Canal at Salford Bridge near the junction with the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. The boat on the bank waiting to be worked upon is Thomas Raymond, built in the spring of 1942. Another of Element’s horse-boats is Joan in the foreground, built early in 1941. The large Belfast wooden truss roof gave a 90ft span, ideal for boat-building, and was used at a number of dockyards due to its cheapness.

Richard M. Courtenay Lord

Boatyards often appeared the same regardless of where they were situated. Simpson, Davies & Sons’ yard at Runcorn in April 1959 could have been located anywhere at any time over many decades, with its working area open to the elements, untidy stacks of wood and ramshackle appearance. The six-plank Bridgewater narrowboat Jonathan was registered in November 1909 to Jonathan Horsefield, a coal dealer and canal carrier of Canal Street, Runcorn. Although bluff and deep in appearance, she has a very long swim stretching from either end almost to the middle of her hold. She is raised on stacks of hefty baulks of timber, with wooden slips in between, upon which she has been winched from the water’s edge to the back of the dock. Handling such a heavy boat out of water took a great deal of skill.

Waterways Archive

Iron-boat building in the Midlands was often in the hands of boiler-makers and large carrying concerns such as Fellows, Morton & Clayton, as shown in this 1903 image of its dock at Park Wharf, Saltley in Birmingham. It was only such boatyards that had a sufficient number of boat-building and docking commissions to support a large workforce, and the specialist equipment necessary to build metal-hulled boats. Even so, FMC contracted out some of its boat-building work to other docks for both metal and wooden craft. The boat nearing completion to the right, with a dockman kneeling on the cabin roof, is Natal, and the bottoms and keelson in the foreground belong to butty Egypt. The man standing on a wooden beam near to the winch and rudder of the boat on the left is Mark Gould, the dock foreman.

Waterways Archive

Looking towards Priestley’s Bridge on the Coventry Canal in the mid-1890s, with the line of buildings in the distance indicating Stoney Stanton Road. It shows a typical small canalside boatyard from the perspective of a passing boat. Notice the ramshackle workshop made out of bits of old boats and scrap materials, with derelict sunken craft and odd bits lying around. The bank here on the offside was the location of several limekilns, which is probably the cause of the smoke behind the boat. This craft, Why Not, was owned by Joseph Collett, a Coventry shopkeeper, and was rather old when registered at Coventry in March 1893. This type of boat, with its bulky appearance and small cabin, was common on this canal up to World War I, and was superseded by typical BCN day-boats afterwards. It likely earned its keep being hired out to local carriers and merchants.

Waterways Archive

The Sephton family were prolific in the boat-building trade, having three yards in work at one time, which was reduced to two during the 20th century: one at Sutton Stop on the Coventry Canal, the other 1 mile away at Tusses or Tushes Bridge on the northern Oxford Canal. In this image of Tusses Bridge, Florence is nearing completion. She was built for J&E Morton, chemical manufacturers of Pollard Street, Milnsbridge, near Huddersfield, and launched on 23rd September 1911. Built shorter than most narrowboats, she was intended to work on the Calder & Hebble Navigation and Huddersfield Broad Canal, with their short 57ft 6in locks. Florence was also designed to carry tar under a decked hold which has been partitioned internally to prevent the movement of liquid when underway. Also in view is one of Alfred Simpson’s coal-boats Arthur. Simpson was a frequent customer of the Sephton family up until the end of WWI.

Waterways Archive

This image of Sephton Brothers’ boatyard at Tusses Bridge shows all the usual features: the movable open-sided shed with boat underneath, the slipway and, on the left, a boat in for repair that has been tipped over on wooden props with jacks to allow workmen access to the bottom planks. Judging by the large number of tin patches nailed and tarred on the hull, this craft was of some age. The beautifully painted boat We’ll Try was owned by boatman-contractor James Hambridge, one of two he eventually had that bore the name. This was his first, built by Sephton Brothers in the summer of 1925, but sold to Fellows, Morton & Clayton early the following December for £248, and renamed Devon.

WW Collection

Near Coventry, at the southern end of the Warwickshire coalfield, two yards were run by the Sephton family, which had the advantage of serving small customers working on the Coventry and Ashby canals, some of whom used day-boats.

Frederick Sephton was established at Polesworth, at the northern end of the coalfield, but it was a later tenant here, Lees & Atkins, which became one of the more successful boatbuilding firms of the 20th century. The company, which was established at Polesworth in 1910, had a great advantage in being situated not only in the coalfield but near the large carrying firms of S.E. Barlow and Samuel Barlow (Tamworth) Limited. These carriers had their own yards at Glascote and Hopley’s Farm, but hired boats from Polesworth. During the 1920s and ’30s an increasing number of old boats were becoming available as boatmen-contractors found it difficult to earn enough money to repair their craft. Lees & Atkins bought many old boats, docked them and let them out on hire back to the contractors and firms like Barlows. This brought in a regular weekly income to bolster the less reliable earnings generated by docking and boat-building.

Docking costs

A series of receipts has recently come to light from the King Family Collection, detailing the building and subsequent docking of the wide-boat Chesham for owner-boatman Harry King of Apsley. She was built in 1898 and docked at W.E. Costin’s dock at Berkhamsted, then later altered and docked at Fellows, Morton & Clayton’s dock at Uxbridge. For the seven years Harry King owned Chesham, the docking costs averaged just over £15 per annum. The figures included any work on the cloths or their replacement, the purchase of paint and the construction of the forecabin in 1901, and works out at almost 7% of Harry’s gross annual income. As a comparison, the average cost of docking one of his narrowboats between 1897 and 1914 was getting on for £19, which was almost 8% of his gross income. It should be pointed out that Harry earned more on average with narrowboats than he did with his wide-boat.

A receipt for new wide-boat Chesham, built by W.E Costin Ltd for owner boatman Harry King who bought it using his two narrowboats in part exchange, which were valued at a combined £60. Even with this reduction, it shows the major financial commitment boatmen made in acquiring their craft. Surviving examples of paperwork like this are rare.

King Family Collection

Francis, William and Andrew Sephton, boat-builders at Sutton Stop, took over the business of Francis Sephton in November 1893. This 1906 invoice entry to Emma Simpson details repairs to her two boats, including the hire of change boats. Her husband Alfred had died on 7th December 1905, and she took over ownership of his boats. Her daughter Annie married boat-builder William Frederick Sephton of Sephton Brothers, Tusses Bridge. Payment was made quite promptly compared to other customers.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

A receipt showing some of the extra costs associated with owning a boat, which, in this case, consists of cloths for Chesham, paid by owner Harry King. He regularly carried cargoes of grain so a good quality set of cloths was absolutely essential and had to be kept in top condition if he was to continue getting contracts. Boatmen contractors and large carriers rarely had insurance, so if the cargo was damaged by damp any charge for compensation would have had to come out of his own pocket.

King Family Collection

The open working area of Bushell Brothers yard at Gamnel Wharf, Tring, on the Wendover Arm, shows just how hardy dock workers had to be in standing outside all day. Here a narrowboat is receiving the finishing touches from the dock painter while a wide-boat is starting to take shape from the bottom up. Apart from the keelson, the stem and stern posts were the most substantial single pieces of solid timber used in boat construction.

Waterways Archive

The average cost of docking a narrowboat at Sephtons of Sutton Stop at the same period was almost £14. Bearing in mind Chesham was larger than a narrowboat, with a bigger carrying capacity and therefore more commercially advantageous, the average cost of docking was very similar. Obviously, the initial purchase cost is greater for a wide-boat as it is a bigger vessel, but its larger capacity has a greater earning potential for its owner, albeit limited to the lower Grand Junction and Regent’s canals. Harry King and his father Edward, who was also an owner-boatman, patronised a number of boatyards along the Grand Junction, Oxford and Coventry canals, using them not only to dock their boats but to obtain various items such as cabin chimneys, nose baskets, water pumps, cloths, and even rollers or bobbins for the horse gears.

Building costs

The building costs of new boats were dependent on the quality of materials used. For example, Costins quoted a price of £105 in 1893 to build a narrowboat with the middle portion made of softwood and the ends of oak. This might explain the disparity in prices of boats even from the same builder. At the yard of Sephtons of Sutton Stop, the cost of a boat varied from £95 to £130 between 1896 and1908, although the cheaper price was for boats carrying granite roadstone, which were bare craft fitted only with a mast, beams and planks.

The more expensive craft would be made of oak with cloths and all the fittings. In 1854, boat-builder William Bathurst of Tewkesbury quoted £112 for an oak boat, including box mast, stands and planks, legging wings, stove and tiller, with all cloths being£7 extra. This was most likely a Severn long-boat, built to be stronger than a Coventry boat as it would be working on the river. As a comparison, William Bird of Stourport built a river barge in 1850 for £140 cash. This measured 65ft long, 13ft wide and could carry 50 tons, and was constructed of red Quebec pine, with the bottom and sides made of English oak. The price included windlasses, cloths etc.

Wooden-wide-boats used on the southern sections of the Grand Junction Canal were very similar to narrowboats in their design, but their greater width gave rise to an attractive shape, with barrel sides and a fine swim, as seen here when Langley was being built for T. W. Toovey Ltd of Kings Langley in 1916. The carpentry skills needed for this level of work took many years to perfect and Bushell Brothers of Tring produced outstanding work for many decades, building wide-boats, narrowboats, river barges and tugs.

Waterways Archive

Prices started to rise before World War I: Harry King bought a new boat from Costins for £126, plus cloths for £16, in December 1907, and Lees & Atkins charged £140 for a boat in 1913. Prices rose further during the war in parallel with the general hike in living costs.

In the mid-1920s the price of a new boat at Lees & Atkins was between £250 and £325. Joe Skinner was charged £300 by Sephtons in December 1924 for his boat Friendship, and nearly four years later he bought another new boat, Elizabeth, from the same firm for £295.

In the 1930s some boat-owners had horse-boats converted to motors, and the price varied depending on the cost of the engine and condition of the boat, which could be half that of a new horse-boat. A second-hand wooden motor was about £250 to £280.

Hire purchase

When buying a boat, an agreement was drawn up, either for one or several large payments on hire purchase at a specified rate. If the hire purchase was over a long period of time, interest was added. When Joe Skinner bought Friendship he paid £140 as a down payment, with the balance at 10/- per week at 5% interest per annum until paid off, which would have taken him about six and a half years. When he bought Elizabeth from Sephtons in 1928 he paid £100 down with the balance again at 10/- per week at 5% interest, which would have taken over seven and three-quarter years to clear.

As such, the boat-builders also acted as an unofficial bank for the boatmen contractors, as an actual bank loan was out of the question for most of them. When purchasing a boat privately, it meant finance had to be arranged elsewhere. If the contractor worked for a regular employer and a degree of trust had been established between them, the employer may provide a loan with an agreed amount paid back per month. Otherwise, it was a case of saving up for a substantial down payment to purchase the boat, and hoping that the boat-builder would be happy to wait for the money, which was paid by instalments as a boat-hire fee at so much per month.

When a boat was brought in for docking, the owner may have hired a boat to retain an income. A hire fee was paid on a weekly rate, which wasabout 8/- early in the 20th century. By the 1920s, however, this had risen to between 10 to 13/- per week. Some boatmen-contractors hired from boatbuilders at these rates for years on end, rather than standing the cost of buying a boat and paying for all its subsequent dockings.

Nowadays, in the leisure age of boating, there is a tendency to regard the early boat-builders and their use of oak, elm and lead-based paints, as the epitome of traditionalcraftsmanship and values. But one wonders if they had access to mild steel plate, portable welding equipment, modern paints, and all manner of technological equipment, if they would have been more financially successful.


Thank you to Tom Foxon, Chris R. Jones and the King Family Collection.

Another essential part of docking and boat-building was painting, as shown here at Bulls Bridge Dock. All metal and wooden surfaces need protecting, so painting was more than just smartening a boat up, and the interior at least was supposed to be done every three years under the Canal Boats Act. If a boat needed painting, it might be some time before the owner was able to get it docked, and a proliferation of complaint notices from canal-boat inspectors about infringements of the acts would render craft unfit for service when they were reckoned to be perfectly usable. Note the three launching slips in the photograph.

Waterways Archive

Once all the hull planking had been finished a boat had to be caulked with oakum made from hemp to make it watertight. This was done using traditional shipwrighting tools such as caulking irons and mallets. Oakum was supplied by prisons as preparing the fibre was a form of hard labour punishment. After caulking all the seams and joints between planks, the hull was tarred with brushes as seen here on butty Seascale at Bulls Bridge Dock.

Waterways Archive