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Failsworth Wharf

Picturing the Past: NarrowBoat, Winter 2018

Christopher M. Jones

Chris M. Jones reveals the story of a family of textile workers who took up boating on the Rochdale Canal in the 1870s

The canal wharf off Old Road, Failsworth, on the Rochdale Canal in Lancashire, dating from the first half of the 1900s.

As canals weaved their way through towns and cities, many wharves came to be built on their banks, often serving large industrial premises. There were also smaller landing points, constructed for businesses such as coal and builders’ merchants. These might be no longer than one or two boat lengths, with minimal facilities, and a few outbuildings, including perhaps a wharfinger’s house.

One example is shown in this view of the canal wharf off Old Road, Failsworth, on the Rochdale Canal in Lancashire, dating from the first half of the 1900s. The photograph was taken on the ramp leading from Oldham Road Bridge, situated behind the photographer, and leading down to the towing path on the right, off the picture. On the extreme left, just visible, is a winding hole next to the open wharf area with stables and a house, with Old Road behind the perimeter wall and cart. Some 650ft further on from the wharf is Failsworth Top Lock.

The Winterbottoms

The house’s occupants were Elijah Winterbottom and his wife Alice who were in their late 60s or early 70s when this image was taken. He was a building-sand and coal dealer at the wharf, as well as a boat-owner. The couple shared the house with their son Alfred, who worked as a cotton spinner, and his wife Betsy, who was the housekeeper. It is probably Alice and Betsy standing on the wharf.

Elijah was born in about 1839 and came from a family of woollen weavers at Burn Edge, Saddleworth in Yorkshire, near the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, where there were many woollen mills in the vicinity. He continued in the woollen and, later, cotton spinning, trades with his sons and daughters following him into these industries. After several moves, they ended up near the Rochdale Canal at Miles Platting in Manchester in 1874, where Elijah still worked as a cotton spinner. Then, between 1876 and 1881, he had a complete change of occupation by becoming a canal boatman based further along the cut at Newton Heath, where the canal gradually climbs its way north-east towards Rochdale through numerous locks.

Elijah was not the only family member to do this. His older brother Johnson, in partnership with two younger brothers, Hugh and Edwin, formed Winterbottom Brothers coal and lime merchants at Royle Street Coal Wharf, Newton, Manchester. The wharf was situated on the Rochdale Canal in the short pound between the bottom of Coal Pit Lower Lock (No 80) and Cobler Lock (No 81). The business ended in bankruptcy in 1881, although Johnson continued as a coal merchant on his own account into the 20th century.

Quite unusually for a owner-boatman, Elijah Winterbottom advertised in a Manchester trade directory, which indicated his new independent status as a transport contractor for hire.

After a spell at Monton Green beside the Bridgewater Canal, where four of his sons, John, Giles, Thomas and Arthur, also switched from the cotton trades to boating, Elijah ended up back on the Rochdale Canal at Failsworth Wharf. Not all his children took up boating, and several were still employed in the local cotton mills. Failsworth was a suburb of Manchester, with old established mills lining the banks all around Elijah’s new home on the wharf. These mills grew in time to become towering landmarks.

Tom and other boats

The main focus of the image is Tom, a typical Bridgewater narrowboat loaded with what seems to be small coal. On the wharf next to the boat are heaps of building sand. These craft were six planks deep with massive timberheads fitted fore and aft, similar to wide-beam flats. Despite their bluff appearance,they had long swim lines underwater and were ideally suited to the Bridgewater and Rochdale canals. Elijah initially had two boats, the other being Arthur, and both were registered at Manchester on 12th July 1882.

Several years later he bought a third craft named Alf, registered on 28th April 1886, then Mary on 29th January 1890, to make two pairs. All his boats were named after his children and steered by his sons. By the time this photograph was taken, Elijah stayed at home managing his building-sand and coaldealing business. He died in 1922 aged 83.

The wharf house and the smaller one just visible behind still stand today in what is now Woodhall Street and, although much altered, the basic structures are the same.