Friday, 13 June 2014

Canal Cuttings (24)

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 articles over the last 200 years or so based on the inland waterways. With particular interest taken in the 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 inland waterways to reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of 'asset stripping' actually had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were thinking, saying and doing at the time. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent on the canals 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. 

The Sketcher was a regular column in the newspaper that would comment on current affairs. You must remember that there will be some journalistic 'licence' in the article. But it does give some idea of how people on the bank regarded those working upon the inland waterways. It also gives some idea of the life of the boating families some 125 years ago.

The Scrutineer
Wednesday 22 August 1900


An express at four or five miles an hour! That is something like the rate at which the canal greyhound, the misnamed 'fly' boat, travels through the water. Yet, contrasted with the slow craft, she is really swift, for some inland waterways, there speed is less than a mile an hour.

But there is a considerable difference even in the fly boats. Not a few, owing to the weight of cargo, bending the middle, drawing more water there than at the bow or stern, and then drag terribly. A good deal depends, also, on the character of the canal. When, as is sometimes the case, there is a lock every half-mile, a good ratio of speed is impossible even in the best of circumstances; while, if a boat cannot get a clear way, her progress is slow indeed.

Some years ago a 'fly' was considerably hindered at Berkhampstead where there I are several locks only a short distance apart by a couple of boats, which were being worked by their owner. At last the captain of the greyhound went up to the other skipper and offered him a shilling and a feed of corn for the horse if he would shunt and let the express go by. The man who had the road declined to make way, and then the two pelted each ; other with choice bargee language for close upon an hour. Meanwhile, other narrow boats had come up, and the canal was blocked, At last there was a general fight, during which two men pitched into the cut peace was not restored for at least three hours, and until a long string of craft had come to a standstill.

'Fly' boats are used for the conveyance of material when time is a consideration, corresponding to fast goods trains. Usually they are drawn by horse power in the familiar way seen on most canals, but sometimes the horse is fitted with a saddle on which the driver rides. In some cases steam tugs are employed. Those are now used at a tunnel on the Bridgewater Canal, which formerly had to be ' legged ' through. There being no towpath, men had to lay on their back on the boat and push with their foot against the roof, as is still done at Dudley. But now special tugs take boats through. Some 'flys' can make journeys that most people would think impossible, Thus, one of suitable size can start from London and go to Liverpool by twelve different waterways, covering in the aggregate 2G0 miles. There are, however, several through routes between the Thames and the Mersey. A boat can also go from London, and, travelling via Birmingham or passing it by, reach Manchester. Leeds, or beyond. Forty years I ago there was a fast canal packet service between Cottonpolis and London. Leeds and Birmingham are similarly connected by water.

The two cities are joined by the largest, and in some respects the most remarkable, canal in England— a canal whose sinuous course extends to about 140 miles and there is a regular service of boat expresses from the one to the other. Merchandise can even be sent right across England by water from the Thames to the Severn, from the Irish Sea at Liverpool to the German Ocean at Hull. The first route swarms with locks. Fourteen have to be passed in the rise from Lechlade to Sapperton Tunnel, and there are forty-four between that navigation and the Severn, which is joined at Sharpness Point. By the other route the first stretch of canal begins at Runcorn, where there are ten locks one after another between the level of the Mersey and that of the cut. This is an unpopular bit with boatmen, because they have to work it themselves without aid from horse or tug. How long would it take to go from west to east by the more northerly route? The distance by more or less fresh water is enormous. From end to end of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal is a tiresome journey. 'Fly' boats make the round trip in eight days, going ahead steadily all the time, except when loading or unloading cargo.
The men working them got no regular rest, though they are not a bit worse off in this respect than most of their follows. Those engaged in one fast service, for instance, have frequently been awake for fifty-six hours when they reach their destination. But if their boats are wanted to return, they are allowed no more than six hours' sleep. They must set off back, working at high pressure is, perhaps, inevitable, or the 'fly' would be out of the running entirely. As it is, goods can frequently be deliverer by canal as quickly as by the railway. This is often the case between Gloucester and Birmingham, while a 'fly' boat which leaves Manchester daily for the Potteries is not outstripped in the end by the iron horse. A slow craft of this kind is often tied up at night, be that those in charge of horses can got their full share of rest. In some parts of the country they have opportunities for poaching, while always they are able to obtain ample refreshments. During-closing hours they can pose as 'fly' boatmen; or, at all events, represent that their craft are going 'up' or down.

The stock dodge on Sunday morning is for a thirsty bargee to take off his jacket and hide it somewhere about a lock gate. Then he rushes to the nearest house of public refreshment within the meaning of the Act. 'A pint, quick he says. 'Taking a boat down is quite sufficient to constitute him a bona-fide traveller in the eyes of the landlord, who, as a general rule, serves him without the slightest demur. Only a month or two back a policeman caught a couple of men whose boat was tied up coming out of a public-house, I believe you've been having a drink he said, in a shocked voice. Not us replied the men stoutly 'we asked him to let us have some corn for our horse And that unsophisticated officer let them go without uttering another word. But the 'fly' boatman cannot take canal life at its easiest. He has to keep going, and his intervals of rest are few and short.

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