This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.
Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error.
Saturday 15 March 1930
CHILDREN OF THE CANALS THE BARGEE'S HOME
CHILDREN OF THE CANALS THE BARGEE'S HOME
From a Special Correspondent. London, February 6. 1930. A threepenny bus ride from Charring Cross, a short walk down a muddy alleyway, and you are in contact with a world of which the average Londoner is wholly ignorant, which has no counterpart in Australia, and which has so far survived the revolutions in transport which has changed the face of England. Here is Paddington Basin. and here, on the still, black waters of the canal, there float the barges which ply on England's inland waterways, carrying queer cargoes on long, leisurely voyages between the precipitous walls of factory buildings, through dark tunnels under the cities, and across the level, green countryside. They are not only bearers of cargo, these humble galleons of the shallow waters: they are the floating homes of the bargees and their families, and have been for generations, some of them. Children are born on them, and learn from their parents and in the hard school of experience the trade of canal navigation, until in the fullness of time the control of the tiller and the towrope may be handed down to them.
For a hundred and fifty years the canals have played their part in the commerce of the nation; only the roads, in the scheme of transportation, are older than they. In that long period the ancient supremacy of the highways has been challenged by the locomotive, and, with the coming of the motor, has been reasserted, but the barges still plod up and down the narrow channels, drawn by the patient horses on the towpath—though, indeed, the motor driven barge (ominous portent!) has appeared in recent years on the larger waterways. The Unlettered Water Folk The coming of the petrol engine Is not the only threat to the mode of life and the peace of mind of the bargee and the bargee's highly competent wife. The shadow of the schoolmaster has fallen athwart the barge. To the infinite scandal of various right-minded people, it has been shown that not only is the average bargee totally illiterate totally devoid of book-learning, that is to say, though he may be deeply versed in the ways of life and skilled in the ancient lore of his calling but his children are not being taught to read and write. Here is a tiny stratum of the population, scattered from Birmingham to Brentford, denied the blessings of popular education; here are perhaps 2,000 children of school-going age who cannot even read the titles in a cinema film.
Humanitarian members of Parliament have lately set out to remedy this outrageous state of affairs, at no matter what cost to the family life of the bargee, who does not send his children to school simply be cause the barge which is his home and theirs is forever moving up and down the canals, nowhere lingering long enough for the youngsters to go ashore to school. It is true that there are voluntary school organisations at Brentford and Paddington, but they are not regularly attended, and in any case nothing less than the stamping of the barge-dwellers in the State mould will suit their self-appointed champions, who are asking Parliament to say that no child under 15 shall live on a canal boat. Limelight on the Barge This drastic proposal, with its threat to the home-life of the waterman, is being stoutly resisted by interested and disinterested persons, some of whom have an eye to the cheap labour which the system, of living in on barges provides, and others of whom tend to idealise the class whose cause they are espousing. Whatever the rights of the matter, the battle in Parliament as the press has brought the bargee into unaccustomed and possibly undesired prominence. Bis ways of life have been exposed to the public gaze; members of Parliament, including a real, live duchess, have visited his humble abode; one member even took a long voyage on the canals. But. curiously, no unanimity of opinion has resulted from all this investigation. Labour members have hinted darkly at child slavery on the canals, and have described "the horrible cargoes of garbage" which some of the barges bear: while it has even been alleged that bargees sell or lend their children, according to whether there is a surplus or a shortage of labour on the boats!
On the other hand. Conservative speakers have pointed to the purity of the family life on the barges, to the healthy condition of the children, and to the cruelty of forcing the water woman to decide whether she shall live ashore with her children or afloat with her husband. Points of View I asked a stalwart and taciturn bargee on the wharfside at Paddington what he thought about it all He spat reflectively into the canal. "Why can't they leave us alone?" he said, with a, backward jerk of the thumb, doubtless intended for the direction of West minster. Book-learning's of no use on the towpath." Then, "What's wrong with them kids?" There was quite obviously nothing wrong with the three "kids" who were playing happily on the deck of the barge, where the family washing was hung out to dry. They compared, in fact, more than favourably with the white-faced, under-nourished children of the adjacent Paddington slums. Their play ground was small, but it was probably less dangerous than the streets. Their "home." glimpsed through the hatch, was extraordinarily tiny, but it was also extraordinarily clean. Neither they nor their parents seemed to be conscious of the misery in which they were supposed to live, nor of the lack of shore-going culture to which the conditions of their life condemned them. They were ignorant of all except that which pertained to the life of the canals, but they were not unhappy. The absence of education, it was said, forced the children to follow their father's calling: but are there not in twentieth century England worse callings than that of a bargee? "Why can't they leave us alone?' The waterman's simple question raised a whole train of reactionary reflections on the subject of compulsory education.
The Underused CanalsYou can't learn the language in a bowler hat wrote a contributor to The Times.Referring to the visits of Parliamentarians to the waterside. Neither can you learn all about the people of the canals from departmental literature. At H.M. Stationer Office I invested ninepence in the purchase of the "Report of the Departmental Committee on Living on Canal Boats," which was chiefly remarkable for its confession of the inability of the members to discover the number of boats in use as dwellings. statistics bearing on the health of the water-people, and so on. The bargee has eluded the census-collector as well as the board of education. But the committee was able to show that "so far as health, cleanliness, morality feeding and clothing are concerned, the canal dwellers are fully equal, if not superior, to town dwellers of a similar class." Most of those employed on canal boats "have been accustomed to the life from early youth, if not from birth, and they have been brought up in traditions handed down to them by generations of canal boat people, with the result that their contentions are different from those of shore dwellers. Life on board their boats appears to be of an almost patriarchal character, and the presence of the wife and mother on board hers to preserve a high standard of morality among the men and a kindly but efficient discipline among the children." The committee could find nothing wrong with the health or morals of the barge population, but it was forced to admit that the children were "scandalously under educated." If the children are removed ashore for the purpose of education, the mothers will mostly go with them, into the slums, and the "almost patriarchal" existence of the canal families will be broken up forever. It is a pretty problem for the House of Commons. The Chamberlain Committee, reporting nine years ago, left it largely unsolved. The casual observer of a picturesque phase of English life is disposed to wonder, the demands of progress notwithstanding, whether some things are not better left alone.