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Timber Carrying on the Waterways

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Spring 2018

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones explores the carriage of timber by boat – one of the most useful and adaptable materials transported by canal and river craft.

In the heyday of Britain’s canals, one of the most important cargoes transported by boat was timber, which was needed for a wide variety of uses in many different industries.

Types of timber

Timber was a general term that referred to different types of wood in an ‘unconverted’ or ‘converted’ state. Unconverted timber was the unsawn tree trunk, sometimes called round timber, and converted timber was wood sawn into planks or other shapes and sizes. Beyond these two basic categories it got very complicated, which caused complaints from canal companies when timber-laden craft were gauged for the calculation of tolls.

Other terms were used to describe timber cargoes. Deals were the most common. These were fir softwoods sawn 7in to 9in in width, 3in thick and 6ft or over in length, and were often used in the building industry. Pieces less than 7in wide were known as battens, and those over 10in as planks. Boards were under 3in thick. Smaller cuts of wood were known as scantling: timber sawn into quartering under 5in, or timber of small section. Laths were timber cut into strips to support roof tiles and plaster walls. Oak barrel or cask timbers were called staves, which also meant wood used for making the rungs of a ladder. A less common term was slabs – these were outer pieces of the tree trunk after conversion to into planks.

Tree branches and twigs also formed cargoes. Besoms were bunches of twigs made into traditional brooms, and withys were willow twigs and branches harvested annually for basket and hurdle making. Withys were cut from trees along the upper Thames and Oxford Canal, making an ideal backload for boats returning to the Midlands coalfields after deliveries along the Thames Valley and in the city of Oxford.

Many small carriers were involved in the transport of imported timber at all the country’s major ports that connected to waterways, including Gloucester. Henry Rice of Gloucester owned several narrowboats, working one himself while the rest were operated by other boatmen. Success, shown here on the left, was built in 1918 to replace an earlier boat of the same name and was captained by James Shellam. This is Blackpole factory and wharf, situated north of Worcester, which was taken over by Cadbury’s in 1920. Imported timber was used for manufacturing packing cases and boxes, which were transported to their main works at Bournville. Cadbury Brothers Ltd.

In Leicestershire withys were harvested between Cossington on the Leicester Navigation and Kegworth on the Loughborough Navigation, a distance of 14 miles. The willow withys were loaded and piled up into the boat before being towed to a basket-maker in Kegworth by coal-boaters returning to collieries in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire from Leicester and Market Harborough.

Branches were also used as fuel, referred to as firewood, faggots or cordwood (a pile of wood sold by the cord, measuring 128 cu ft). At Frenchay Road Wharf in Oxford, Thomas Hambridge brought these materials in by boat along the Oxford Canal and sold them to local residents as a cheap alternative to coal.

Poles had a multitude of uses, including making pottery crates, which were packed with straw and used for transporting finished ceramics from the Potteries to Runcorn for export. Several merchants based in the Severn Valley around Bewdley traded in poles, which were harvested locally and transported by boat to manufacturers in the Potteries.

Other categories of timber included pit props or pitwood, sometimes called tops. In the early 1870s ownerboatmen from the Coventry area carrying coal to John Dickinson’s paper mills in Hertfordshire often returned with timber sourced from the Leighton Buzzard area for the Warwickshire and Staffordshire coal mines. Such timber was not uniform in size and varied in length and diameter, and recorded examples show props were often made of softwood such as larch.

Measurement weight

Every variety of tree had its own cubic or solid measure: softwoods produced more wood per ton than hardwoods. Each individual variety also had different cubic measures depending on whether it had just been felled or was fully seasoned. Newly felled timber contained sap, making it heavier than the same species of wood one year after felling. For example, newly felled oak was 30 cu ft per ton, but seasoned oak was cu ft per ton. The weight of unconverted round timber was determined by measuring it with callipers then using a special ready reckoner to calculate the cubic weight of irregular objects.

Timber was a light cargo and a full load of converted timber on a narrowboat was estimated at 15 tons, so half the weight of coal. It was said that the dead weight of timber was always more than the measurement weight, leaving the canal companies short on their tolls.

In order to have parity between all those involved in a particular trip, some traders used a statutory declaration giving an agreed specific weight for a load. The declaration was a legal document under the Statutory Declaration Act of 1835, signed by a commissioner for oaths or other legal representation, and could be used asan official sworn declaration of the weight of cargo that could be accepted by all concerned. During the 20th century ‘standards’ were commonly accepted as a measure of timber, with one standard equalling 50cwt.

Timber carrying on the Severn

Timber carrying on the River Severn and adjoining canals has been recorded since the early 19th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, in 1810, barges and trows working the Stroudwater and Thames & Severn canals occasionally carried locally sourced timber up the Severn to Stourport, where their cargoes were transhipped into narrowboats for delivery to the Black Country. These cargoes might be round beech, ash, or beech poles, oak staves, pitwood for the coal mines, or converted timber of walnut, beech and yew. Barges often returned south carrying Bilston coal from the south Staffordshire coalfield, transhipped from narrowboats. Similar timber traffic was taken further north up the Severn into Shropshire, with barges returning with Shropshiresourced coal.

As narrowboats started to be used more along the Severn route, they carried these local timber loads directly to their destinations in Birmingham or the Black Country via the Worcester & Birmingham or Staffordshire & Worcestershire routes. Timber bedsteads and boards became an increasingly common cargo to Birmingham or Wolverhampton. Boats returned with south Staffordshire coal, and also took aboard salt at Hanbury Wharf, near Worcester, as the salt trade increased from the mid-1820s. Salt from works at Stoke Prior was carried too. Gloucestershire was a centre for both imported and locally sourced timber, some of it from the surrounding counties, which was transported by canal along the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire, Wilts & Berks and Kennet & Avon canals. The Midlands was a frequent destination for narrowboats loaded with this timber, usually heading north along the Severn Valley. In the 1870s, Thames & Severn carrier James Smart of Chalford also regularly took timber eastward onto the Oxford Canal. Many canals elsewhere in the country had their own local timber traffic, which would be taken to a nearby town or transported to a centre of industry.

Railway timber

Round or unconverted timber was carried by barge and boat, as shown here at Goring Lock on the Thames. This particular load was likely to be part of an extended journey as the wheeled-cart mounted aboard is a timber carriage, and will probably be unloaded with the trees to transport them by road to their destination. Note the forked shafts mounted at either end of the boat, known as ryepecks, which were carried by both barges and narrowboats on the Thames. Ryepecks were forced into the river bed and lashed against the boat to support and hold the vessel against the bank, as most of the land along the river was privately owned and there were not many built-up wharves, meaning that unloading was often done against sloping river banks. Christopher M. Jones Collection

The initial railway-building period during the 1830s and ’40s created extra canal traffic for the transportation of coal, iron and timber. The Great Western Railway used large quantities of timber during its construction through Berkshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, which was brought in by boats on the Wilts & Berks, North Wilts and Thames & Severn canals.

The GWR line was built using Brunel’s broad-gauge track design, with each rail laid on continuous longitudinal sleepers, which were bolted to transverse sleepers laid every 15ft. Cargoes were often referred to as sleepers, transoms and ties in canal toll books, and were made mainly of beech and larch.

Some of this timber was sourced from local merchants but a lot came from outside the area and was loaded at Gloucester. Boats bringing coal from the south Staffordshire coalfield in the Black Country would pick up loads of railway sleepers as backloads for delivery to the railway construction sites. Once unloaded, some boats might pick up another timber backload, consisting of ash and beech poles, oak staves, planks, timber for mouldings or tent bedsteads, which were destined for Birmingham or the Black Country.

This short period of railway building attracted a number of carriers onto these canals that did not normally venture so far south. Some of these were owner-boatmen who usually operated along the River Severn and Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal into the Midlands via the Worcester & Birmingham or Staffordshire & Worcestershire routes.

Local traders were also engaged in carrying railway timber, such as George Jefferies, coal merchant of Oakridge near Chalford, with his boat Ann, and Ezra Wheeler of Framilode with his boat Victory. Local wide-beam barges working on the River Severn and the Stroudwater and Thames & Severn canals also carried railway timber to destinations along the Thames Valley.

In a second period of railway construction, the East Gloucestershire Railway was built from Witney to Fairford during the late 1860s and early ’70s, passing through the Thames village of Lechlade less than a mile from the eastern junction of the Thames & Severn Canal.

Gloucester carrier James Fellows & Co subcontracted the carriage of railway sleepers and rails from Gloucester to Lechlade to several boat-owners. The single-track branch line opened in 1873. This line was an extension to the Witney railway built in 1860–61, and evidence suggests that several thousand tons of railway timber were carried to Eynsham on the upper Thames from London, either via the Oxford Canal, or direct via the Thames when the river had sufficient depth.

Poles used for crate manufacturing were sourced from Worcestershire, around Bewdley, on the River Severn. Thomas Gardner, a coal, timber and crate wood dealer and shopkeeper, owned several Severn longboats to serve his business. One of them is shown moored on the Wribbenhall side of the town and is in the process of being loaded with poles, which are lying on the bank to the right. The loaders have erected several poles vertically either side of the hold so that they can be stacked above the gunwale when fully loaded. Note the wooden extension projecting from the rear of the rudder blade to give extra purchase on the water. This was one of a number of adaptations to make working on rivers more practical. Disruption due to World War I had put an end to this traffic from Bewdley by the early 1920s. Christopher M. Jones Collection

Hull was another port for foreign timber. Because timber was bulky, it could be stacked up high either side of a boat’s hull, as shown on the keel Ashcroft at Victoria Dock in around 1913. The craft was built in the summer of 1897 for Henry Newsum, Sons & Co Ltd of Hull and Gainsborough, and was used to carry imported timber to Newsum’s huge Ashcroft Saw Mills on the bank of the River Trent at Gainsborough. Square-rigged sailing ships that carried timber from the Baltic Sea sometimes had large, watertight doors built into their bows either side of the stempost, so fir tree trunks could be unloaded horizontally out of the hold instead of more awkwardly through the deck hatches.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Imported timber from the South West

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was an increase in imported softwood from the Americas and the Baltic region. The Baltic trade had been halted during the war. Barges and trows loaded at Bristol for delivery along the canals, including the Thames & Severn. Gloucester later became a major inland port for timber.

One firm engaged in the Gloucestershire timber trade was Barkworth & Spaldin. The business was established at another major timber port at Hull in Yorkshire during the 18th century. After the opening of the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal in April 1827, the firm established a bonded timber yard at Victoria Dock canal basin at Gloucester and began trading there in 1829. It used both rail and canal to transport timber into Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Black Country, and by 1879 owned seven narrowboats for this trade.

Barkworth & Spaldin’s cargoes were predominantly Baltic, American and Canadian timber, which was imported between September andNovember to the southern entrance of the ship canal at Sharpness, then lightered to Gloucester in barges. Timber from Scandinavia was a seasonal traffic due to winter ice freezing the Baltic sea. Boats were employed to carry it to the Midlands as the railways struggled to find enough wagons for such large volumes, but this was only suitable if the merchants receiving the cargo had waterside premises. Smaller consignments that could not fill a narrowboat went by rail, but canals were preferred as the timber load was less exposed to the weather in the hold and there was less damage to it in transit. The time taken to complete the trip was more or less the same. Heavy frost would force all the traffic onto rail.

The large number of carriers operating boats in Gloucestershire, whether carrying companies or independent boatmen contractors, meant there were always boats available for a cargo. Timber was also imported through Bristol and taken inland along the River Avon to Bath and destinations on the adjoining Kennet & Avon and Wilts & Berks canals.

Imported timber from the South East

On the other side of the country, timber imported through London became a backload for narrowboats that had brought manufactured iron and fire clay products from the Black Country. In November 1816 the Oxford Canal offered a drawback, or rebate, on tolls for boats carrying iron products to Brentford or Paddington, as long as they back-loaded with full loads of timber, deals, grain or hides.

With the growth of this import trade, a number of London-based timber merchants became engaged in the forwarding of imported timber and deals along the canals. Joseph Dowson & Co of Letts Wharf, Lambeth, imported timber from the Baltic. Gabriel & Sons was also based at Lambeth, and lighterage and forwarding agents, such as Keen & Blake of London and Brentford, were also involved in timber transport. The latter firm became the Thames Steam Tug & Lighterage Co Ltd in 1856 and grew to be one of the largest companies bringing cargoes from the London docks to Brentford. These merchants and companies did not own narrowboats and relied on canal carriers to take cargoes to their final destinations.

A large amount of timber passed through Brentford on its way to Midlands timber yards. In the ‘Meadow’ at Brentford is George Henry Collier’s barge Oak, stacked up with converted timber. Collier was a lighterman and barge-owner of Brentford and Oak was acquired by his father George Charles Collier in 1886 and passed to his son in 1905. Their barges carried sleepers to the GWR creosoting works at Hayes Bridge and timber to other wharves. The nearest pair of narrowboats moored in front of Oak are also loaded with timber covered over with cloths. Note the high freeboard.

Christopher M. Jones Collection

Another such carrier was the Grand Junction Canal’s Carrying Department, set up after Pickfords gave up longdistance canal transport in 1847. There was also John Whitehouse & Sons of Dudley, which had premises in London at City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal and operated boats between Dudley and London, loading three days per week. James Fellows of West Bromwich, later at Tipton, operated as a rival carrier to Whitehouse, transporting similar cargoes. From the middle years of the 19th century much imported timber taken from London to Birmingham was transported by William Clayton of Saltley.

Banbury was a common destination for local and imported timber, the latter mainly from London docks, as shown here with ex-Fellows, Morton & Clayton pair Python & Fazeley moored at Bridge Wharf, Banbury in the 1950s in the ownership of British Waterways. This wharf had been the destination for timber since at least the 1830s, when timber and slate merchant Henry Adams Dalby was in business. His successor, Dalby & Co, was still trading there as builders and timber merchants when this pair were making a delivery some 120 years later.

Weaver Collection

Fellows, Morton & Clayton was another timber carrier from Brentford, as shown here at Harefield. The finer swim lines of its craft gave them less freeboard when fully loaded than other carriers’ boats. When this photograph was taken in the early years of the 20th century, Northampton was the main destination for timber carried by FMC, as there were several timber merchants based there. The boat horse and its driver are standing on the apex of a footbridge over the River Colne, leading to Horse Shoe Bay, situated between Black Jack’s Lock and Troy Arm bridge. Christopher M. Jones Collection

Although Regent’s Canal Dock had been principally a coal and metals port, this image from the 1930s shows that it was also a timber transhipment point. Timber was carried as a deck cargo aboard a ship, to take advantage of its light weight and make the voyage as financially viable as possible. Vertical timbers were stacked either side, with more laid fore and aft horizontally on top of the hatches. Once loaded, the barges and lighters were towed by horse or tug to many timber merchants’ wharves and sawmills along the Regent’s and Grand Union canals. Canal Transport-GUCC/Christopher M. Jones Collection

The main dock in London for imported timber was the Surrey Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe, as shown in this fascinating illustration from 1906, giving an idea of the magnitude of imports in the capital alone. Leading from these docks was the Grand Surrey Canal, the entrance of which can be seen on the extreme right, connected to Greenland Dock, and along this were many more timber yards. Timber was lightered from here and along the Grand Surrey Canal to other parts of London, Brentford and further up the Thames to Oxford, and from time to time narrowboats also entered the docks to load. One of the reasons these docks survived for so long is evident here; there is a noticeable lack of railway connections, meaning that the docks had a long life before road transport eventually took over. Museum of London/PLA Collection

This image of the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal is a good illustration of local timber traffic. It shows the yard and sawmill of A. Jones & Sons at Llangynidr, Breconshire, with a fully laden boat in around 1914. The business closed during World War I when the younger men were called up for military service. Ian L. Wright Collection

Once the railways were built, there was competition for timber traffic. Reduced tolls (or drawbacks) on whole timber cargoes were offered to encourage trade, and merchants with canalside premises continued to prefer water transport. However, timber traffic fluctuated between railway and canal depending on which was most profitable to the customer, in the same way as all other goods.

Coventry was a notable destination for imported timber, with several timber merchants established there. By the end of the 19th century John Griffiths of Bedworth had become the main carrier of timber.

Carrying in the Midlands

One of the most well known of the Coventry timber merchants was W.L. Cartwright & Co of Draper’s Field,Coventry, and Arbury Road Wharf, Nuneaton, which received timber from both London and Gloucester. The company used canal carriers like John Griffiths for the London traffic, and its Nuneaton timber yard manager William Burgess Fox for the Gloucester traffic. Fox operated a small fleet of at least five of his own boats, which he built up from 1903. He gave up the carrying trade in 1920 and two of his boats, Mary and Margaret, went to W.L. Cartwright so that the firm could continue the carrying work.

Although a grainy image, this photograph shows how a tall, timber-laden craft was steered along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal when loaded with imported timber. The craft is en route to Gloucester and is one of George Thomas Beard’s barges. He was a lighterman, stevedore and warehouseman of Gloucester Docks.

Willow Wren was one of the last carriers involved in carrying timber. Ex-Grand Union Canal Carrying Co boats Redshank and change-boat Drake were used while butty Greenshank was being docked. Crewed by Alec and Lil Purcell and two young assistants, the boats are transhipping beech blocks from a barge at Brentford in 1961. These blocks were destined for Beacon Brushes factory at Fenny Stratford. Other destinations for converted timber planks were further afield at Bedworth, Olton and Tailby & Cox’s sawmills at Great Bridge, Tipton.

Mike Stone Collection

This stoppage on the Grand Junction at the bottom of Stoke Bruerne locks in 1907 gives a good view of how narrowboats were loaded with converted timber and clothed up. The craft nearest is owned by boatman Joseph Pearsall and there is at least one other moored behind, also owned by Pearsall and loaded with timber. Like so many other owner-boatmen and small carriers transporting coal to destinations near London and the Home Counties, he took his empty boats to Brentford to pick up whatever backloads were available, including timber. Waterways Archive

Timber sent by water from Gloucester to destinations in Warwickshire and elsewhere in the south Midlands was not a rare occurrence. It depended on whether the cost was economic compared to rail. In May 1864 Gloucester timber merchant John Lyne Beach, who was also a boatowner, requested toll rates from canal companies as he wanted to send timber by water to Northampton, which he had hitherto sent by rail. Beach continued to use his own narrowboats until 1916.

Owner-boatmen based in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire carried for the timber merchants of those counties, taking their cargoes into Birmingham and elsewhere. One of the merchants of Birmingham receiving imported timber was William D. Rudder of Chester Street, Aston, which became Rudders & Paynes Ltd. Just like Cartwrights of Coventry, the company also bought boats, including Matilda and later Albion in 1920. The latter was named after the company’s Birmingham timber yard, situated beside the fifth and sixth locks on the Aston flight of the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. Timber merchants like Rudders also bought local timber for cash when available. Elm trees blown down near Stretton Wharf on the northern Oxford Canal in a severe gale on 24th March 1895 were purchased from the landowner and transported by boat to the Aston timber yard, making around 20 boatloads. The same gale brought loads of timber from the Warwick area.

An example of a timber merchant’s trade card, for Jarratt, Pyrah & Armitage of Huddersfield situated on Sir John Ramsden’s Canal, otherwise known as Huddersfield Broad Canal, in the 1940s. The ‘West Country’ keels shown at the wharf would be Calder & Hebble size, with a maximum length of 58ft. They would have brought the timber from East Yorkshire as the Rochdale Canal closed to through traffic in 1937. It is thought that Jarratt, Pyrah & Armitage did not have craft of its own, and it is likely that the boats shown belong to independent carriers or the Calder Carrying Co, the carrying subsidiary of the Calder & Hebble Navigation. Christopher M. Jones Collection

A few owner-boatmen specialised in transporting timber, including the Beck family, of which at least two generations carried the cargo around the Midlands canals. George Beck was based on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Alvechurch in the 1870s, and the next generation moved to the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal at Rowington. George’s son William bought Never Despair from a local trader in 1901 and worked the boat until the mid-1920s, carrying timber and also coal, bricks and hay.

Joseph Pooler of Bewdley, assisted and eventually followed by his three sons, William, James and Charles, worked boats carrying and trading timber from the local area. In the early 20th century, William, James and Charles jointly owned two Severn longboats, Avon and Robin, for this work. William, the oldest, also traded as a timber merchant.

Late 19th century onwards

After the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, John Griffiths of Bedworth started carrying timber from Salford, which was loaded directly into narrowboats and taken to Coventry more cheaply than timber brought down from London. From August 1894 the Coventry timber merchants preferred their imported timber to come fromManchester. Port charges and other factors determined which routes were economical, and the Midlands merchants could choose to have their timber brought in from London, Gloucester or Manchester.

In the 20th century, Griffiths was joined by Emanuel Smith, a lighterman, boat- and barge-owner from Brentford, who became a major carrier of timber along the River Thames and the Midlands canals. Smith specialised in Thames river haulage and regularly sent boats by tug downriver from Brentford to load at the Surrey Commercial Docks. This vast complex of docks and wharves, adjoining the Grand Surrey Canal, was the main timber import facility in London, with thousands of tons of imported timber awaiting transhipment for onward delivery by water.

Transporting timber by boat continued almost to the end of canal carrying by narrowboat, with Willow Wren being engaged in this work from London to several destinations for various different customers (NB, Winter 2012).


Thank you to Canal Families Historian, Lorna York.

This aerial view of Salford Docks, Manchester, illustrates the vast area devoted to timber wharves and storage either side of the eastern end of the Manchester Ship Canal. On the left is Salford Docks and on the right is Trafford Wharf, stretching away towards a distant swing-bridge. There were even more extensive timber yards out of view either side of the canal, served by railway sidings. Some of this timber was taken by narrowboat to the Midlands when it was economical to do so. Christopher M. Jones Collection