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A Boatman's Diary

Waterways World, January 2019

Robert Davies reads the diaries of boatman Charlie Foster who worked on short-haul traffics in the West Midlands in the 20th century

In the late 1920s, as a boy of eight, I used to go with different members of my family on the boats. They carried coal from the coalfields to factories and wharves all over the country. During these years, the crews worked long hours, and most of the boats were horse drawn. In my school holidays I used to go with my brothers, and spent much of the time on the towing path driving the horses. And, as the years went by, I seemed to get the call of the canal in my blood. Nevertheless, because the hours were very long, I thought it wise on leaving school to take an office job. Maybe it wasn’t so wise after all.

Early work

After three months with a company, while walking home for lunch, Ernie Thomas (the Walsall canal carrier) drew up in his car and gave me a lift home, as I lived in a house on his coal wharf. My father at this time was his horse fettler and foreman. While in the car, Ernie asked me if I would like to work for him on one of his tugs. This proposition pleased me no end, and I started the following week.

The first boat I went on was Tiny, and I was mate to Len Wilson who was the driver. Our first jobs were travelling from our base at Walsall Top Lock over to Aldridge Colliery, waiting while the boat-loaders filled the four boats with slack – shovelling it off the backs of rail trucks – and then towing them to Walsall (Birchills) power station. The working day was usually about 12 to 14 hours long. Once at the power station, the boats were all emptied by overhead grabs, and we were then ready for a repeat trip.

After six months, I was transferred to another tug and driver, and we did trips from the Hednesford and Cannock collieries. This was transporting coal and slack to the tar works in Oldbury.

After a year doing this on the motor-boats, I decided that it would be nice to have a change, so I went to work with my uncle Charlie Bates from Tividale, who ran horse-boats for the Oldbury-based firm of Kimberley Beddows.

My two brothers also worked for this company, and it wasn’t long before I was working with the eldest. Now, I was boating from Oldbury to Hednesford and back, taking slack to Danks Boiler Works, Brades Steel, and the Patent Shaft & Axle works in Wednesbury. During the 1930s there were many boats on the Birmingham Canal Navigations, and we often had to wait ages at the locks where there could be as many as 20 boats at the top or bottom of each flight. Also, during these years, there were as many as 150 horse-boats each day on the Cannock Extension Canal alone. It was a very busy waterway.

On 9th December 1937, we experienced one of those extremely foggy days when you couldn’t see more than 20 yards in front and, as dusk came on, things got even worse. First the horse fell in, and later on so did my brother and I. Fortunately we were able to clamber out, but sadly the horse drowned, which was distressing to us both. We found some kind assistance from one of the nearby houses, and the family were good enough to let us have a bath and change of clothes. My brother then phoned someone who would be able to contact my father and, as all the buses were offdue to the fog, they walked to meet us at Perry Barr. When we were all together at about five in the morning, my father and brothers went to sort out the horse, but I was still too upset to help drag it from the murky waters of the canal.

After a couple of weeks off work I first went as mate to my uncle, as two of my brothers were now working together; and then some time later I came into contact with my third brother who was still working for Ernie Thomas – you see boating really was a family affair. He told me that his mate was leaving, and asked if I would consider going back to Thomas’s. Well, in those days you quickly weighed up who was paying the best wages, and it didn’t take me long to make my mind up to return to the yard at Walsall Top Lock.

On the Daw End branch in the 1960s, carrying coal from Anglesey Basin to GEC at Witton, Charlie steers Princess Anne with 23 tons, towing son Horace on the first day-boat Charles and brother Bill on the Sapphire, both carrying 28 tons.

Charlie Foster on Princess Anne in Worcester Bar Stop Lock, Gas Street Basin, Birmingham, as he appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine.

Now we were collecting coal from Hampstead Colliery on the Tame Valley Canal and boating it to Lester Brothers at Acocks Green on the Grand Union Canal. This voyage, going from one side of Birmingham to the other, involved working 50 locks each day and a round trip of some 20 miles. I was back doing 12 to 14 hours a day. I worked this routine until the war broke out in 1939, when Ernie put us on to other jobs.

World War II

I was now boating to lots of different places, and because everyone was putting in a special effort for the war, we even boated through the night. This included the nights when air raids were on and bombs were dropping all around Birmingham. Of course, we were not allowed to show any lights and, believe me, horseboating in the dark takes some getting used to.

As the war went on, the raids got worse, so the canal company decided that it was best to put stop planks at certain positions so that if a bomb did hit the banks, the loss of water would be limited. This policy meant that we could now only travel between 6am and 6pm, which forced us to spend two or three nights a week away from home, sleeping in our tiny cabins. Of course, we had free coal, so we kept our stoves going.

The government and the local authorities did everything they could to keep the wheels of industry turning. During the winter of 1940, and not long after the Battle of Britain, we had another battle to contend with: ice on the cut. Canal transport was vital, so many of us went to work on the ice-boats.

These boats were narrow and short, and plated with metal on the outside of the hull for protection against theice. The boats were pulled by not just one horse, but up to 20. A dozen or more men got on the ice-boat and stood holding a thick rope fixed between two short masts. They would then rock the boat from side to side as they were pulled into the ice sheets. The horses were often run at a gallop, so it was a dangerous and exciting operation. The bad weather lasted the best part of ten weeks, and everyone, especially the bosses, was glad when the thaw finally came.

At work, there was the occasional dispute, and my brother Horace and I had a particular grievance with the boss Ernie Thomas, so I left to work with my uncle again. One afternoon in the October of 1941, while returning from a delivery of slack to the General Electricity Company at Witton, my brother fell into one of the Perry Barr locks and drowned at the age of 32. After that, one of my cousins came to work with me until 1943.

Some time later, my uncle lost some horse-boat work so he decided to move to J. Holloway who was running motor-boats along the Wyrley & Essington Canal. Meanwhile, my other two brothers, Tom and Bill, were now working for the boat-builder and repairer Peter Keay, who also carried out a canal transport service. Men were always on the move in those days from one company to another if they could improve their pay and conditions, so I went to join Bill. We were still moving coal but this time it was to pastures new. We were collecting, as in the past, from East Cannock Colliery, but taking it to the Stuart Glass Company in Stourbridge on the other side of the Rowley Ridge.

Starting on Monday morning, we used to travel from Pratt’s Bridge (Walsall) where Keay operated from, to Cannock with an empty boat. We would collect a 28-ton loaded boat at the colliery and bring it back to Walsall Bottom Lock. On Tuesday morning we would start the second half of the journey via Factory Locks at Tipton, Netherton Tunnel, Delph Locks, and finally the Stourbridge Sixteen. On arrival at Stuarts we would then have to empty the coal from the boat onto their wharf with shovels. This alone would take about 3½ hours. After unloading, it was time to take the horse to the stable and feed and groom it. Finally we had some time to ourselves, and we would cook a meal and then go along to the Stuarts social club for a hard-earned hour or two.

Birchills Power Station at Walsall in 1958, to where Ernie Thomas had the contract of delivering coal from Holly Bank pit.

Occasionally we went into the heat of the glass cone to watch the glass blowers at work. The men would be arranged around the central furnace in teams, gathering, working and blowing the glass items, and we always found this interesting. Sometimes, if they felt generous, they would make us an ornament, a jug or maybe a few glasses to hang in the cabin. After that it was time to grab some sleep in the cabin.

Next morning we would set off for Littleton Colliery on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, continuing along the Stourbridge Canal until we came to Stourton Junction, where we turned right. It was then north up the Staffs & Worcs to the very busy basin just beyond Penkridge, where we dropped off the empty boat and swapped our gear onto a loaded boat that was full of what was called washed cobbles – there were lots of different types of coal. We then boated south to Aldersley, up the 21 to Wolverhampton, and then on to a brass factory at Winson Green via Bilston, Tipton and West Bromwich. Thankfully, there was no unloading at this place; we just dropped off the full boat and returned with an empty.

In 1943, during the middle of the war years, we went on to a new contract. This entailed four voyages each week from East Cannock Colliery to Smith, Stone & Knight’s paper mills in Saltley. For the final years of the war, we were on many varied contracts, which all kept the job interesting and enjoyable.

In 1945, I was tempted to go and work for the Birmingham firm of T&S Element, which advertised itself as ‘Haulage & Steering Contractors’. They too had a wide variety of contracts with differing journeys, and scenic routes like the aforementioned Staffs & Worcs run. One local run was picking up coal-boats from Oozells Street basin and taking them to the Yardley Co-op coal yard. You could do one trip per day, but it was a tiring job. Tugs would drop the boats offat Oozells Street, and we would pick them up at 6am; pass through Farmers Bridge flight, and on to Ashted and Camp Hill. We usually arrived at about 12 noon. After tying the horse to the fence and feeding him, we emptied the boat and made our way back to Oozells Street for roughly 6.30pm.

Bad winters

The winter of 1946 was bad for everyone, with thick snow and ice lingering from the November of that year right through to April 1947. I joined others on the ice-boats, but this only worked for a while and then everything was solidly frozen into the banks. Elements were forward thinking, and had purchased some lorries which they used for city council contract work. And I did some work with these, helping to grit and salt the roads.

Eventually the thaw came, and we were back to the boats, but there was a noticeable difference. Coal mines, wharves, and various other industries were continuing to close down as the coal trade either slowed or moved to road and rail transport, and the government decided to nationalise the waterways. As a consequence of this I decided to go long- distance boating and applied to the new British Waterways.

Charlie Foster towing loaded T&S Element boats on the Birmingham Canal New Main Line.

Charlie Foster hauls a day-boat laden with coal into Rushall Top Lock, heading for GEC at Witton.

My first trips were transporting cement from Southam up to Camphill in Birmingham – three trips per week. A few weeks down the line we had a problem with the motor-boat, which put it out of action for almost three weeks. So BW arranged for us to take two loads down the Grand Union to Nash paper mills. We loaded up at Pooley Hall Colliery, and this job entailed a boat swap at Bulls Bridge, where the company had a large depot. But I didn’t come straight back, as my mate decided to quit canal work; so the foremen put me on the dock for a few weeks to see if a mate could be found.

Things didn’t seem to be working out at BW, and I ended up returning to Ernie Thomas. He still had a lot of work transporting slack to power stations. By this time, many of the horse-boats had been replaced by motors and butties, and I went to work a pair, shifting coal from Anglesey Basin to Ocker Hill power station.

Things went well for a while until the day that the gaffer promised us that we would soon be having a brand-new boat. And then, when the boat arrived, he gave it to someone else, so me and my mate speedily put our notice in, and I went back to T&S Element. But as I mentioned earlier, we boatmen could see the writing on the wall as far as canal carrying was concerned. Fortunately Elements had other contracts such as regularly taking rubbish from a variety of firms over to Moxley on the Walsall Canal. Also there was plenty of repair work to places such as the Cannock Extension Canal that was then suffering from considerable land subsidence due to the extensive mining in the area (see Summer 2011 Narrow Boat).

The early 1950s

In 1950–53 I went through a succession of different mates who decided, after boating for a while, that the long hours were not worth doing. And then a chap came out of the army who had been a boatman before. He was already mentally and physically prepared for the job and, as we lived fairly close by, it turned out to be a good partnership.

We started by doing five journeys each week from Pooley Hall Colliery to the GEC at Witton. This was a 16-hour trip, and that didn’t include cycling to Salford Bridge every morning (this was where T&S Element had its second base of operations). Later we managed to cut the travel time when we started delivering to factories closer to Walsall. But, after a while, even he left for a better job, and I was forced to try out some school leavers without much success. So, in 1954, I applied for and got a job at Samuel Barlow Ltd of Braunston. My first pair of boats were motor Tiger and butty Mary.

My first journey was taking cobbles from Longford, Coventry, to what everyone called the “Jam ’Ole” (Kearley & Tonge’s jam factory) on the Paddington Arm. Once there, it was time to empty the boat but, as the grab had broken, it was all done by muscle and shovel. From there it was back empty to Braunston, where we changed Tiger for Beatty, as the lighting system on Tiger had packed up on us. This had caused some concerns as we came back through the long Grand Union tunnels. Both motors used the 12hp Petter hot bulb start engines, but Beatty was steel while Tiger had been wood. Next morning, we were off to Newdigate Colliery to load with slack for the Ovaltine works at Kings Langley. This round trip took exactly one week.

This working away from home was not good for a married man, so I returned to Peter Keay in Walsall as a tug driver. The tug often hauled five loaded boats from the mines, first to Wolverhampton, and then carrying on to Birmingham with the remaining three. But the coal contracts continued to dry up, so I made a last move back to Elements, where I did my final years of boating.

While I was there, my son Horace came to work alongside me as soon as he left school. We used to boat from Walsall Wood Colliery, where we loaded by shovel from the trucks, and then delivered the slack to Wilmot Breedon at Haymills near Yardley. This was two journeys each week. Road transport soon put an end to that job, so we then took slack to the GEC with horse-boats, after which we moved on to the motor Princess Anne. This boat carried a load, and towed two butties, usually to the GEC, but occasionally there was a load to the Birmingham Science Museum which in those days was halfway up the Farmers Bridge flight. Washed cobbles went into the boiler house.

Then Holly Bank Colliery closed, so we collected coal from Anglesey Basin. Here the boats were loaded from lorries down a chute, which saved a lot of manual labour. Horace and I worked up to 1967, when the pit told us that there would be no more loads, and that they had already gone 12 months over the contract. When we arrived back at the GEC, George Element was waiting with our redundancy notices, and that was the end of my life as a commercial boatman.

Charlie Foster did not give up his interest in canals after retirement. Here he is seen on his leisure boat Vulcan which he owned from 1971 to 1985.