It can be very pleasant to walk along the towpath

On a fine summer afternoon it can be very pleasant to walk along the towpath of one of our nearby canals and watch the holiday makers working their hired canal boats through the locks. They stride purposefully out with their windlasses ready to open the lock gates; then one sees the long, sleek narrow-boats gradually going down or rising up to a new level and floating out into the pound, the pool between the locks. This is the epitome of the carefree go-as-you please holiday, aboard an attractive well-built boat with every modern convenience and plenty of picturesque old pubs and inns on the route if one doesn’t feel like cooking a meal.

How different were the lives of the boat people from the early eighteenth to the mid – twentieth century. During the eighteenth century the horse – drawn canal boats were only worked by men. The boats were usually owned by carrying companies who would hire each boat to a single man to work for them. He in turn would hire another man and a boy to help with the loading and unloading of whatever goods they were carrying. The Enclosure Acts which turned many workers off the land in the eighteenth century meant that many men went to work in the new factories being built in burgeoning industrial areas, but an increasing number went to work on the canals. Their wages were better than those of agricultural and factory workers and some men bought their own boats with their savings and set up as Boat Captains or “ Number Ones”.

The wives and children of the married men lived in small cottages on the edges of the towns near the canals. From time to time they would see the husband and father as he came through with his boat, but the delivery of the latest load took precedence over any personal relationship. At that time there was very little educational provision; mother and children would have been illiterate. Probably the wives and mothers took on jobs such as laundry, sewing, selling small articles or cleaning, to add to their income. They were poor, but kept their dwellings clean and tidy and even managed to acquire some little ornaments to decorate their homes.

With the nineteenth century came the railways and the first big threat to the canals. By the 1840s the railways were competing strenuously with the canals for the carrying trade. The big canal companies in an effort to cut costs, lowered the boatmens’ wages. The “Number One” boatmen now began to find it impossible to make enough money to hire a second man or a boy to help with the work. Also as money ran short the rent of the little cottage was hard to find. In the end all the boatmen’s wives and children went to live on the canal and share in all the work.

The tiny cabins or “cuddys” as they were known, had never been meant for family life, but rather for an eating and sleeping place for the male crew. In those days of large families it was not unusual to have mother, father and four or five children living in a tiny space. By careful interlocking of “bed-holes” sleeping space could be found. Some boats had another “butty-boat” attached to them in which space could be found for sleeping. All these people had to have food cooked and laundry done for them on the tiny stove in the cabin. Water for drinking and cooking had to be fetched from a wharf or other such public supply and kept, sparingly used, in a large jug. Water for personal ablutions and washing clothes came out of the canal or “cut” and went back in when finished with. Occasionally if the boat were delivering to a foundry, an opportunity would be taken to use the plentiful hot water always available.

There was of course no sanitation. The men and boys would manage along the canal bank, while the females would use a chamber pot, (affectionately known as the Po) in any tiny corner of privacy. The Po also needed to be emptied among the bushes on the bank, but in blizzard conditions it was easier to tip the contents into the cut. Most of the women had their babies on the boats and found breast-feeding them easier than trying to manage bottles. Except in cases of serious illness the mother dosed her husband and children with old-fashioned remedies, such as Russian tallow rubbed into the chest for a cough, or warm herbal oil dripped into an aching ear.

Besides all her domestic work the boatwoman would be needed to help to load and unload the boat, which could be carrying such diverse goods as coal, wheat, stone, timber, oakum, drainage pipes, cobble stones, sand, coke and pig-iron; all back-breaking work even for men.

Sometimes in difficult conditions the cargo would have to be barrowed along planks to the wharf and the woman would somehow manage to do it. She was also adept at caring for the horse and leading him round by the road wherever for some reason the towpath could not be used. Even the children were taught to work at an early age and a child could often be seen securely tied to prevent falling into the water while steering the boat on a straight course. The mother would take over to get the vessel through the “boat- hole ” or narrow passage under a bridge. It gradually became the custom for “spare” children to be sent to live on the boat of a friend or relation who needed full-time help.

The middle years of the nineteenth century saw a disastrous amount of suffering among the boat people. Not all the women were strong enough in physique or character to make a success of their new lives. Some of them just gave up after a while and either went away or muddled along on a dirty boat with ragged, unruly children and an overworked husband, who was sometimes driven to drink and violence by the situation. Accidents became common and over these years a distressing number of children died from drowning or disease. There was no legislation whatever to protect these people, and even when universal education began to be on the way, there was no provision for the boat children.

In 1877, largely due to the work of a reformer, George Smith, the Canal Boats Act was passed. However much of it was advisory and could not be enforced. A second Canal Boats Act was passed in 1884. This required local government boards to appoint Inspectors to supervise canal life and to begin setting up schools for children. Because of their itinerant way of life this took a very long time, but by the end of the nineteenth century conditions were gradually improving.

In the meantime, those indomitable women who had survived went on working day and night, winter and summer, in all weather conditions, slaving to keep the boats going. Many of them, when they moved to the boats, took precious possessions with them; things like ribbon plates, small brass ornaments, fairings, patchwork quilts lustre jugs and even small caged birds. While they could keep the “cuddy” decorated with things such as these, they had the pride and incentive to stay decent and respectable against all odds. The boatman’s wife was his “Best Mate” and her children’s “Best Mum”. Very few of them ever did learn to read, speaking among themselves almost a language of their own, pronouncing words and names as they heard other people say them. Even so, by memorising crochet and knitting patterns they could produce the most beautiful needlework, making knitted garments and things like edgings, shelvings, box covers and table runners. They also made “spider-work” boatie belts and braces for the men and elaborate earcaps and decorations for the horses. It was from their time also that the beautiful and now so much sought after paintings of roses and castles began to appear on the narrow boats.

The boatwomen’s bonnets became famous. They were intricately stitched and tucked, with low brims to shade the eyes from the glare of the sun on the water or the top of the cabin, and long “curtains” behind to shade the back of the neck. As conditions improved the boat families obtained the respect they deserved, right up to the demise of the old canal trade in the mid – 20th century. Today when we see the holidaymakers swarming through the locks, let us pay a mental tribute to those wonderful women who worked “on the cut” many years ago.


This article has been kindly written by Mary Rock

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Previous Articles Published before 2010
Article Name Author
> Twentieth Century Defences in Warwickshire Nimrod
> Warwickshire Murders District Advertisers
> Clerical activities Mary Rock
> The bake house oven Bill Griff
> Warwickshire county links Mary Rock
> Hot Oil, the drive that followed steam Bill Griff
> How can I get a quality tenant in the shortest possible time Jordans Rentals
> The fifty five rung ladder Bill Griff
> The poor are always with us Mary Rock
> Ensure the garden can cope with the heat of summer Farnborough Garden Centre
> It can be very pleasant to walk along the towpath Mary Rock
> With muscle power and a big hammer Bill Griffin
> July, a time to relax and enjoy your garden. Farnborough Garden Centre
> Most peoples daily transport was the bicycle Bill Griffin
> Not a Liberty Mary Rock
> May: the garden approaching its most exciting period Farnborough Garden Centre
> Farms in Southam in the 1900's Irene Cardali
> A few facts about Southam’s past Mary Rock
> April is one of the most exciting months for gardeners Farnborough Garden Centre
> Remembering the Warneford Irene Cardall
> Notable events in our vacinity during the last war Bill Griff
> Where is Southam or the Country Heading? Peter Crosby
> Christmas seems top fly past so quickly District Advertisers
> Christmas has changed little since the pre-war days Bill Griff
> Midwinter in the garden: January Farnborough Garden Centre
> Going to the post Irene Cardall

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