NarrowBoat Logo

Memories of Horse-drawn Boating

Life Afloat: NarrowBoat, Spring 2018

Graham Guest

Graham Guest provides personal recollections of working horse-boats on the BCN as a youth in the late 1950s and early ’60s

Jim Arnold with Betty at Ryders Green Locks. Note the muzzle hanging from Betty’s collar, which was to prevent her stopping to eat grass. Graham Guest Collection

I was 12 years old and lived in Summit Crescent, Smethwick, between two canals, the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Old Line (built by Brindley) and the Birmingham to Wolverhampton New Line (built by Telford). We could not venture far without crossing a canal and as kids we would make a swing with a rope tied under the impressive Galton Bridge, and swing out over the water.

Joining a boat crew

I was always interested in canal boats, and particularly the horses, but could not find a way to get to know the boat people. Then, one day in 1958, a boat was coming up Spon Lane Locks drawn by a horse. As the boat came into the top lock it bumped the lock gate and the boatman’s milk, contained in a Camp Coffee bottle, tipped over on the cabin top. The boatman asked if I lived nearby and if he could have some milk, so I rushed home on my bike with the bottle, filled it, and returned it to him.

Thus my friendship with George Arnold began. Following this meeting, all my spare time and school holidays were spent with George and his son Jim, who worked for Ernest Thomas of Walsall, canal contractor (and also chairman of Walsall FC at the time).

Working for ‘Ernie’ Thomas were George and Jim Arnold with their horse Betty, Jack and Don Price with horse Jim, and Jack Edwards and Sam Hickson with another horse called Betty. The horses were stabled at Moxley where Ernie Thomas had a refuse tip.

George, Jim, Jack and Don were employed to collect slack from Sandwell Colliery Wharf in Roebuck Lane, Smethwick, and take the boats to Ocker Hill Power Station for unloading.

Jack and Sam collected rubbish by boat from canalside factories in the Birmingham area and took the boats to the tip at Moxley for unloading.

A day in the life

A typical day for George and Jim would be as follows. They lived in Portway Road, Wednesbury, so George would get up about 5am and walk to the stable at Moxley, harness up Betty, give her a drink and some corn, and then walk her along the canal to Ocker Hill Power Station. In the meantime, Jim would have walked to Ocker Hill, lit the coal fire in the cabin, and be waiting for his father.

George Arnold with Betty at Ryders Green Locks on the Wednesbury Old Canal. Graham Guest Collection

George Arnold’s son Jim with horse Betty running light up Ryders Green Locks, heading for Sandwell Colliery Wharf with boat Tom. Although the boat was owned by the Central Electricity Authority, the steerage contracting work was undertaken by Ernest Thomas of Walsall, who arranged the trips and employed the boatmen. Graham Guest Collection

On arrival they would hitch the boatline to Betty and start their run to Sandwell Colliery Wharf. At first, the boat would be facing the wrong way, so after a few hundred yards it would be winded at the Walsall Canal’s junction with the Tame Valley Canal. George would get on the boat and steer while Jim would drive Betty to Ryders Green Locks, known as ‘th’eight’, at Great Bridge. While going up the eight locks, George would make the tea and thick toast on the open stove. By the time we reached the top lock, George would have finished his breakfast and taken over handling Betty while Jim steered and had his breakfast.

On reaching the bottom of Spon Lane Locks they would change over again, with George steering and Jim driving the horse and drawing the lock paddles. At the top of Spon Lane Locks the boat would be winded once again for the short journey to Sandwell Wharf.

At the wharf, Betty would be led to the horse shelter while George and Jim swapped the empty boat for a loaded one. This involved changing over the tackle, i.e. the mast, lines, straps, coal box, stove (with the fire still alight), helm (rudder) and tiller.

The return journey would then start. From the bottom of Spon Lane Locks we would approach Bromford Stop to ascertain the tolls. As we neared the toll house George would shout out the gauging number of the boat and the cargo, for instance “2207 – 28 tons dry slack”. At the toll house the boat would be strapped to a stop and Harold the toll clerk would come out with his gauging stick and measure the freeboard on both sides to confirm the weight of the dry slack. After a minute or so in the toll office, he would return with a ticket in immaculate handwriting confirming the details (boat number, weight and cargo).

After this, we would carry on down Ryders Green Locks with George steering the boat, and strapping the lock gate shut. That latter technique meant you did not have to get off the boat, and it also had the advantage of slowing the craft down before it reached the bottom lock gate. I never knew George to miss a ‘strap’.

Pulling a loaded boat out of a lock is quite hard for the horse at the start of the pull, therefore we had a pulleyblock fixed to one end of the boatline. This gave the horse a 2:1 advantage on the first pull from the lock. Sometimes, if there was a boat following close behind, we would ‘flush’ the boat out of the lock. i.e. draw one of the top paddles and then close the bottom lock gate when the boat had left the lock. This had two advantages: it helped the horse and also made the lock ready for the following boat.

After the bottom lock of Ryders Green, we went the short distance to Ocker Hill Power Station, and the second trip of the day was carried out as previously described. The only difference being on the return run George would cook dinner at about 12 noon – usually bacon, a chop and thick bread cooked on the open stove.

In brief, George and Jim did two runs a day from Ocker Hill to Sandwell Wharf, five days a week, plus one run on Saturday, delivering about 310 tons of slack to fuel the power station. At that time they would each be paid about £9 per week.

On Saturdays we would finish about noon. On the way back to the stable, George would stop for a pint in the Bush in Leabrook Road, Ocker Hill. I would carry on to the stable with Betty, where I would set about ‘mucking out’ and giving her a good brush and clean following a week’s work. About once a fortnight I gave her a real good grooming till her coat really shone.

Horse care

After a short time with George and Jim I picked up most of the things boatmen do. I was their ‘hobbler’, that is I would go ahead by bike and prepare the locks for them, drive the horse, steer the boat, fetch George ten Park Drive cigarettes and take Betty to the blacksmith for shoeing. At first we used a blacksmith in Elwell Street, Great Bridge, and later Billinge’s in Union Street, Smethwick. When we had her shod at Billinge’s, we would stop at Sandwell Wharf. I would then ride Betty to Brasshouse Lane Bridge, and then walk her to the forge in Union Street. It always amazed me how Albert Billinge could pick up Betty’s large hoof with one hand, a red hot horseshoe in the other and have a cigarette in his mouth and still talk at the same time (usually swearing at the horse to ‘stand up’).

Sometimes while going to Billinge’s, we would take a coal boat from Sandwell Wharf to Cooper’s coalyard in Rolfe Street, Smethwick, for which George would usually receive 2/6d (13p). At this time I recall that the price for having Betty shod with four shoes was £1.2s.6d. (£1.13p)

One day while Jim and I were waiting in the boat at Ocker Hill for George and Betty, we were getting worried when they did not show up. After a while I got on my bike and cycled towards the stable. By the Bush in Leabrook Road I saw a crowd of people and firemen, and I found that Betty’s back legs had slipped through the timber side bridge over the canal basin. After the firemen had hoisted Betty to her feet and she’d been inspected by a vet, she was returned to the stable to rest. After a couple of days she was back at work, none the worse for her ordeal.

At Bromford Stop near the bottom of Spon Lane Locks, George Arnold and his horse Betty wait for a boat load of slack to the gauged. The craft was carrying slack from Sandwell Colliery to Ocker Hill and this was the only gauging stop encountered on this twice-a-day trip. Betty has been muzzled to stop her grazing. Graham Guest Collection

Although my education at Holly Lodge Grammar School was not progressing very well, my education of life certainly was. I used to dress the part, wearing hobnail boots or clogs, a thick leather belt and a cap. I never saw George or Jim remove their caps or waistcoats, even on the hottest summer days.

Although this was nearing the end of commercial traffic on the canal, there were still quite a few firms with horses and boats apart from Ernie Thomas. Birmingham Corporation Salvage Department had four horses, Dolly, Jim, Mac and Peter. T. & S. Element had one horse at Oldbury and one or two at Gravelly Hill, Birmingham. Thomas Clayton, Oldbury, had three horses; Joseph Holloway, Oldbury had three or four horses; R. B. Tudor of West Bromwich had one horse, and the Birmingham Canal Navigations (or British Waterways) had two horses with dredging boats.

George had certain perks in his job. I remember he would sell a quarter sack of corn to a rag and bone man who stabled his horse in Spon Lane Locks. Hewould charge a shilling (5p) for this, or sometimes coal found its way into the slack shoot and then the boat. He would sell this for 2 shillings (10p) a bag. In September 1960 Sandwell Wharf closed. Jack Price left the canal, and his son Don had a spell with Thomas Clayton driving a motor-boat. Sam Hickson also left the canal while Jack Edwards went to work at Walsall delivering slack from Holly Bank Wharf at Willenhall to Birchills Power Station, Walsall.

Rubbish work

George and Jim took over the rubbish work, which involved a boat being tied up at a canalside factory. The boat would be filled with rubbish, before being collected and replaced with an empty one. The different factories we visited were Phillips Cycles, Bridge Street, Smethwick; Raleigh Cycles, Cornwall Road, Smethwick; Highway Foundry, Phoenix Street, West Bromwich; Johnson Iron & Steel, Church Lane, West Bromwich; Earle Bourne, Dudley Road, Birmingham; Davenports Brewery, Bath Row, Birmingham; and Pearce & Cutler, Broad Street, Birmingham.

When collecting rubbish from Pearce & Cutler we had to load the boat ourselves. This meant leaving Betty overnight in the stables in Gas Street (the stables later became the Opposite Lock nightclub).

Sometimes we would also collect a boat load of nuts (small coal) from Cannock Chase or Brownhills Colliery, and deliver to Bellis & Morcom in Ladywood, Birmingham, or Baxter’s Nuts and Bolts nearby.

At about this time I met another boatman, Alan ‘Caggy’ Stevens of Oldbury, who had two horses at the time: Bonnie (the kicking mare) and Jean. Caggy was doing four runs a day from Holly Bank Wharf to Wolverhampton Power Station. The horses were stabled at Evan’s Coalyard in Wolverhampton. On one particular run we were in Wednesfield on the Wyrley & Essington Canal bound for Wolverhampton with a boat full of slack, when suddenly the boat line broke and Bonnie bolted off down the towpath. We had no idea where she would end up. We were stranded with a loaded boat, and eventually a tug of Mitchard’s coal merchants, Tipton, came along and gave us a tow to the power station at Wolverhampton. As we reached Evans’s we found Bonnie quietly eating grass on the canalside. We stabled Bonnie that day and carried on to the power station with Mitchard’s tug.

Caggy would have Bonnie re-shod at the canalside blacksmith’s by the United Kingdom pub in Willenhall. Although Bonnie was a kicking mare, she was as gentle as a lamb when having new shoes.

In this 1958 image, boat BCN gauging number 2207 is laden with slack near Bromford toll stop, destined for Ocker Hill Power Station. She was built in November 1939 for the Shropshire, Worcestershire & Staffordshire Electric Power Company of Stourport and named Tom. In July 1949 she was transferred to the Ocker Hill run for the new British Electricity Authority, which was renamed the Central Electricity Authority in 1954.

Graham Guest Collection

The Smiths

With the canal trade slowing down I then made friends with the Smith family who worked for Thomas Clayton of Oldbury. They were cabin boat people, that is they lived on the boat, whereas George and Jim were day boatmen who went back to a house every night.

The Smith family comprised captain Ben Smith, his wife Mary Ann, stepson Jack Taylor and daughter Violet, together with Fred King. At this time they had the motor-boat Severn and butty Gifford. The latter is now maintained in its original state at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, and has even hosted HM the Queen aboard.

The Smith family were very kind to me, and Ben, who was 74 years old with bad eyesight, would recall the various runs he had done during his boating life on the Shropshire Union, Trent & Mersey and Grand Union up to London. Gifford had a forecabin at the front of the boat, which was Jack’s bedroom. In the stern cabin, Ben, Mary Ann and Violet slept, while Fred slept on Severn.

At this time the Smiths’ job was collecting tar from the local gasworksand returning to the Midland Tar Distillers works in Oldbury for emptying.

Families I remember working there at the time were: Annie Tolley with her sons John and Fred on Usk; George Clowes and family on Ribble; Charlie Roberts and family on Towy & Orwell; Tommy Powell and family on Tay; and the Beecheys on Stour & Gipping. Also working for Claytons was Enoch Clowes, who operated Dane with Billy Beechey.

On the yard at Claytons was a man called Dick Gibbs, known as Gibbie, who lived in a house nearby, and his job was to look after the horses. He would issue the horses’ corn each day and also give instructions where the boats had to go next. Additionally, he was the ‘snatcher’, meaning when a boat loaded with tar was approaching Oldbury, he would jump on the front end of the boat and guide it into the Midland Tar Distillers canal basin for unloading. With regard to giving instructions for the next run, he would walk from the officeand just shout to the various boatmen, “Tipton”, “Walsall”, “Smethwick” etc, referring to the gasworks that Claytons collected tar from.

The gasworks I went to with the Smiths were at Smethwick, Tipton, Albion (Oldbury), Walsall, Wolverhampton, Swan Village and Windsor Street in Birmingham. I also went through Netherton Tunnel to Rowley gasworks with George Bodley on motor-boat Dove. The motor-boats also went to Solihull gasworks.

The Smiths were a nice family who had a dog named Judy and a rabbit. Ben referred to himself as a scholar, as he had been to school and could read and write. Jack, his stepson, was illiterate, but could splice a rope and make a muzzle for the horse. The muzzle was not to stop the horse biting, but to prevent it eating grass. He also made what they called a smacking whip, which was used not to hit the horse but to make a loud noise to encourage it to go faster.

Ben Smith with horse, opposite Swan Village Gas Works in 1959. When on local work, his boat Gifford was horse-drawn. Here he is carrying tar from Swan Village Gas Works on the Ridgacre Branch to the tar distillery at Oldbury.

Graham Guest Collection

Ben Smith with his wife Mary Ann steering Gifford on the Gower Branch.

Graham Guest Collection

Violet Smith and her mother Mary Ann in 1959 at Oldbury aboard Gifford, built by William Nurser & Sons of Braunston in 1926. Moored next to her is the motor-boat Severn. The distinctive rose and castle paintwork on the cabin doors is that of Claytons’ dock painter Fred Winnett.

Graham Guest Collection

Violet Smith steering Thomas Clayton’s Severn at Brades Hall two-lock staircase on the Gower Branch in 1960. Severn is laden with tar from Tipton Gasworks and is on route to Oldbury.

Graham Guest Collection

Claytons’ yard in Oldbury was well organised, as they had their own blacksmith who would shoe the horses as well as make any ironwork required for the boats. They also had their own boat dock for repairing boats and painting them in the traditional colours, and the roses and castles decoration mentioned in canal books. The man who did the painting was Fred Winnett from Smethwick, who was a quiet and very skilled man. I have at home one of Claytons’ cabin stools painted by Fred and given to me by Violet Smith long ago. All of the boats also had the treasured china plates and brasses.

Breaking the ice

In the winter of 1961/62 the canal froze around Christmas time. I was supposed to be swotting for my mock GCE ‘O’ Level exams but instead I went down to the cut to what is known as the Albion Turn, between Oldbury and West Bromwich. I found the horse-drawn icebreaker boat, with a man steering and four men each side of a central 2in thick rope, together with a large fire bucket for warmth. The icebreaker was being pulled by three horses, Bonnie and Jean with Caggy Stevens, and Trigger with Jack Taylor of Claytons.

Jack Taylor with his horse in 1957 ascending the old 13 locks at Farmers Bridge in Birmingham, with Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd’s boat Mole fully laden. She is leaving the seventh lock down while Lock 6 is emptying. Note the iron gas lamp bracket projecting out over the towpath next to Mole, a remnant of busier times when lock work was carried out in the dark. The general public had no access to this secluded world at this time as doors leading to the towpath from the streets were locked.

Graham Guest Collection

I went aboard and we broke the ice by rocking the boat from side to side. This carried on for about four days until the canal thawed and the boats were able to get through. At the end of each day of icebreaking we would tie up at the top of Brades Hall Locks in Tividale for a mug of tea. I would say that I am possibly the last person alive to carry out icebreaking with horses on canals.

Later involvement

After that, I finished school with one ‘O’ Level and went to work. A few years later, by then married with two kids, I once again met up with Caggy Stevens in 1976. He had a horse called Nobby and also his tug Caggy, and I worked with him on Saturdays until about 1981.

Fortunately, in the 1950s and ’60s, I took about 40 photographs with a Box Brownie camera of some of the people mentioned earlier. Although having no active interest in canals these days, every time I drive over a canal bridge I always turn to have a look, and remember how it used to be.

Alan ‘Caggy’ Stevens of Oldbury aboard his tug Caggy at Bromford Junction. The bottom of Spon Lane Locks is just visible under the iron bridge. This more recent image shows the elevated M5 motorway in the distance.

Cliff Guttridge Collection