Monday, 23 June 2014

Canal Cuttings (27)

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. 

Morning Star
Saturday 6th July 1912


The canals that wind about between London and the Midlands were most exceptionally busy during the recent strike. But probably a good many people would be surprised to know that many hundreds of barges are constantly going up and down these leisurely inland waterways, both by day and night and that they still succeed in competing with the railways. The fastest canal barge needs a week to go from London to Birmingham and back, but the number of such barges increases every year.


So says Mr R Damper, who works as a missioner on the canals and has his headquarters at the Boatmen's Institute Brentford. Probably he knows more about canals, and their people than anyone else in the country, he has worked, for nearly 30 years among them, and in a report just issued he says that last year, he spent 1109 hours in visiting the hundreds, of barges that the public know only from the train.

Canal boatmen, he said, live a strangely separated life. They live only on their barges, and every night is spent in the utter silence and darkness of their floating homes. Usually their children are born in the little cabins, and they grow up on the towpath and eventually become boatmen, themselves. Almost as soon as they can walk they help in driving the horse. Their customs and dress are wholly different from those of the land, population, with whom they have but little intercourse.

The education of canal children has always been a problem, and no entirely satisfactory solution has yet been found. There are at least 300 families living on the canals and they are always moving. How are the children to be educated.

In many cases they are not educated at all. There are scores of young men, who are quite unable to read or write. Mr Damper visited several barges, at the canal slide at Brentford recently, and in most cases was prevented from giving any books and magazines by the inability of the crews to read them. Every time he had to say, let me see, can you read? and usually the answer was a reluctant No. They were young men of little over 20, and it was clear that they by no means enjoyed admitting they could not read.

One young giant said apologetically, it isn't my fault. I was walking behind the old horse along the towpath when I ought by rights to have been at school. Never mind, said Mr. Damper who is some thing of a poet you can always read the book of Nature, and if you read it properly you needn't want much also. But great efforts are made at the Boatmen's Institute to ensure that the present generation of canal children shall be educated. A school is held there, and there, are already 288 names on the books, but the attendance fluctuates considerably, the highest being 53 and the lowest - one.


Mr Damper emphasises the importance, of the educational side. He has nothing but good to say for the canal workers. He finds them as fine a body, of men and women as any in the country. He knows them all, and is welcome in every cabin. He says that they are the only pictures people left in England. Certainly their only rivals the Gypsies of the road are rapidly disappearing. The agricultural labourer, too, is no longer, the artist's subject that he used to be. The fisherman is not guiltless of the bowler hat. Only the canal workers have still a costume and character of their own.

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