Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Canal Cuttings (30)

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. 

 The Australian Women's Weekly
Saturday 28 October 1950
Festival of Boats
By Anne Matheson, of our London staff.
England's water gipsies, the bargees and their families, took a boatman's holiday when they held their first Festival of the Boats at the old town of Market Harborough. They came up from the Fens, along forgotten waterways, up the Grand Union Canal, and the busy Liverpool and Manchester Canals. Dressed in their brightest colours the boats with their Romany decorations converged on the town and tied up for the festival.

The main object of the rally was not merrymaking. The rally was held primarily to draw attention to the plight of these picturesque boatmen and their families. With once navigable rivers and the canals which connected them choked by weeds, there is a prospect that England's water gipsies will be forced ashore. The Inland Waterways Association has been formed to prevent this and to work for the improvement of the canals and rivers until the word derelict is removed from inland navigation charts.


Elizabeth Jane Howard, actress, authoress, and model, pushes off with a pole from the roof of Beatrice, her husband's barge, at England's first Festival of the Boats, at Market Harborough. Her husband, artist Peter Scott, is vice-president of the Inland Waterways Association of England. As well as organising a great deal of the Festival, Mr. Scott took a leading part in a play produced by his wife for the occasion.

Sir Alan (A.P.) Herbert is pres¡dent, and noted artist and author Peter Scott, M.B.E., D.S.C., vice president. Mr. Scott is the son of famous Polar explorer Scott of the Antarctic. He has explored part of the Canadian Arctic with an ornithological expedition. He is noted for his paintings of wildfowl, and as founder and director of the Severn Wildfowl Trust uses his barge Beatrice to accommodate and transport visitors on the Severn.

Mr. Scott illustrated, among other books, Paul Gallico's "Snow Goose." It was ironic that Sir Alan Herbert, pressed for time, and arranging his Australian tour, had to arrive at the rally by train, as the British railways, which own the canals, are considered to be the arch enemies of water transport. Boatmen claim that the railway companies have neglected the waterways. About 5000 visitors, including myself, also arrived in the little town of Market Harborough by rail, taxing accommodation to thc limit.

Mr. Scott and his wife, who is an authoress, a talented actress, and model, lived in Beatrice. Mr. Scott took the leading role in "A Marriage has been Arranged," which his wife produced for the festival. He also organised carnivals, fireworks displays, and a ball, which ended the programme.

From early morning, when the warm August sun first caught the gleaming brass bands on the barge funnels, till late evening, when the water gipsies had swapped their last piece of river lore, the festival moved with a verve and rhythm that stemmed from spontaneous acts. Not all relished the gusto of the merry go rounds or found artistic satisfaction in the theatre curtains sent by actor-producer Anthony Quayle, also a member of the association.

Many barge owners, like Mr and Mrs. L. T. C. Rolt on Cressey love river life so much that they have made a working barge into a snug little home, with armchairs, book lined shelves, and efficient little galley. While I was a guest on board Cressey, dipping into Mr. Rolt's book "The Waterways of England," the Sacheverell Sitwells called, and Sir Alan Herbert dropped in for a Scotch. Then Gerald Barry, Festival of Britain director, arrived.

There is an amity among river folk that is traditional. And at the boat rally one is caught up in the warmth and kindliness radiating from the tiny cabins. From students of waterways legend I learned that cabin decorations are evidence of Romany influence, the whole cabin being exactly the same as a gipsy wagon. It proved, they said, there was a migration from gipsy wagon to canal boat, "for nothing about a barge derives from any marine tradition."

Gleaming brass rails, ornamental knobs, stove chimney bands, and chains revealed the delight in brightly polished metals which bargees have undoubtedly inherited from Romany coppersmiths. The fancy plates are traditionally handed down from mother to daughter on the working barges. The gipsies do this too to perpetuate the strong matriarch influence.

Bright primary colours, beloved by the gipsy, are used to paint the barges. And if you have time to linger along the towpath at Market Harborough you could hear from some lover of gipsy lore how the canal boat d├ęcor of castles and roses is to be found almost in replica on the carts of Balkan peasants. 

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