Illustration of Mersey River Flats, the Graphic 1877

Life on the canals and the Canal Boats Act 1877


Life on the canals and the Canal Boats Act 1877

The Morning Chronicle, Dec 13th 1849

Labour and the Poor

The Manufacturing districts, Leeds

"I should devote a few words to the life and toil of the men, who, before the era of railroads, were chiefly concerned in the conveyance of heavy goods from place to place, and who still transport by water-carriage a very considerable portion of our manufactured and mineral wealth - I mean the bargemen engaged in navigating our inland canals. The railway passenger will be familiar with the aspect of these men and their boats. The canal and the rail often run together for many a mile, each crossing the other in its windings. Thus, as the train puffs across the viaduct, the passenger may often mark the shining course of the canal, glittering in its long serpentine undulations beneath him, the unruffled clayey water, the mud-trampled towing path, and the green meadows sloping on either hand to the brink, with here and there a fringe of willows or rushy plants rising from the water. Gliding along these tranquil channels come barges, which, creeping, slowly but surely along, make their gradual way from Lancashire to Surrey, and from the Thames to the Severn. The boats are long and narrow, and deeply laden. A tarpaulin covers the cargo stowed amidships, and sometimes in the bow, sometimes in the stern, sometimes in both bow and stern rise one or two funnels, the number being according to the size of the boat, smoking cheerily, and proclaiming that the cabins of captain and crew lie beneath. As a general rule, a single horse draws these boats along, the driver being frequently seated complacently upon its back, with both feet towards the water. This individual belongs to a class often talked of but seldom seen. In the slang of the canals he is called the "Horse Marine" The "marine" is, indeed his regular trade appellation. Sometimes a man or a couple of men, lounge idly on the barge's deck, occasionally a woman taking a "trick" at the helm is the only person visible.

Let us descend into the after cabin of one of the larger class of barges, one carrying from 40-50 tons. It is a hot, choky, little box, between 4 and 5 ft high, near the scuttle is a stove. On either side run berths made after the usual fashion afloat. One is generally constructed broad enough to contain a couple of persons, the other often only room for one. Beneath them are lockers which serve for seats, and at the stern, just forward of the rudder opens the little cupboard, wherein the, "sea-stock" is deposited. Even with the scuttle open you will often find the air close and oppressive, but the captain will generally tell you that two, some three people sleep there with the hatch on. "We move it so as to make a chink, if we feel it over hot."

The larger boats are normally navigated by a captain and two "mates", and helped, of course by the "marine" The average wages of the captain amounts to about 22s, those of the mates and marine to 18s weekly. The captain has often his wife on board, but sometimes one of the mates gives his "missus" a trip, the skipper on these occasions gallantly giving up the use of the cabin and sleeping with the other mate in the forecastle. Only one lady, however, is allowed to be on board at a time. The usual speed of the barge is from 2-3miles and a half an hour. The "fly" barges, which are commonly the larger sort, proceed night and day, never stopping, except at the locks, and to deliver goods.

Each horse performs a stage of from 20 to 25 miles. The marine in charge of the relay knows when the barge will be up, "to an hour or two", a latitude reminding one of the very old coaching days. The smaller barges have only a single horse, which goes the whole journey. These boats "tie up" at nights. The bargemen always sleep on board. The marine looks after his steed and sleeps ashore. There do not seem to be any regular watches on board these barges, as at sea. The turns of deputy depend upon the circumstances and varying arrangements. Three hours is reckoned a fair spell at the helm, and if there is a woman on board she always steers when the men are at their dinners. In passing a lock, however, all hands must be on deck, by day or night


Liverpool Journal Sept 15th 1877

Canal Life

"The Canal Boat Act and the bargemen"

From Special correspondent of the Standard :-

The condition of things on the Bridgewater Canal at the point where it joins the Mersey.

I walked on to the canal bank at Runcorn and jumped onto the first barge alongside the wharf. Its cabin accommodation was very bad indeed, there was a woman on board and I asked her how many children she had.

"One of her own and one given to her." "Given to you!" said I, "What do you mean?"

"Well this ere lad," said the woman, pointing to a boy about 12yrs of age, "he was giv to me."

Later in the day I happened to mention this incident to a gentleman whose knowledge of the barge people is extensive, he had laboured as a missionary among them, preached every Sunday at a mission chapel on the canal bank to the boatmen and was in every way qualified to give me trustworthy information.

"it's a very common thing for them to be lending their children from one boat to another," he said, "boys and girls both. For instance we had a little girl who used to attend our Sunday School. She was about seven and attended school for eight consecutive Sundays and gained eight good attendance tickets. The child was looking forward to gaining a ninth ticket by attending on the ninth Sunday. During the week she was lent by her parents to another boat, the poor child fell off into the cut and was drowned. We never saw anything else of her after she left school." "Good heavens" said I, "Do you mean such things have been permitted by these people?" "How was it to be prevented?" he replied.

Up to the present no one has taken the slightest interest in the condition of the boatmen. George SMITH of Coalville has been the man mainly instrumental in drawing public attention to the matter and thank God we have got the Act. Now we shall see what has to be done.

The state of the barges on the Grand Junction Canal struck me as being paradise compared with the state of many of the barges on the canal side in the neighbourhood of Runcorn. They were filthy and in many cases unfit for human habitation.

I ascertain of all the boats plying the Bridgewater Canal the Wigan "flats" are out and out the very worst and the Wigan boat people the most depraved. As was said to me, "They are more immoral, more dirty, and that would be quite mild to say of some of their boats, and the more difficult to labour amongst. Other barge people are bad, and very bad some of them, but the Wiganers are more depraved in every way, shape and form."

I am merely repeating word for word what was said to me by a gentleman of great experience among the boat people on the Bridgewater Canal and the statement was confirmed by many.

I made some inquiries during my stay at Runcorn concerning the rate of wages paid to the boatmen, and ascertained, two men working one of the "broad" boats earned between them 50s a week. No women are allowed to live on board this description pf barge, which is worked by a skipper and mate. The skipper earns on an average 27s the mate 23s a week. The accommodation provided seems to be ample, and the ventilation with a little improvement may be made all that is to be desired.

I took occasion to ask a man who had served first as a boatman on the canal and then as an able seaman in the merchant service, and afterwards in the same capacity in the Royal Navy, a man of wide practical acquaintance with shipboard accommodation, I asked what hands in his opinion the barges might reasonably be allowed to carry.

He thought on board the "broad" boats two, and on the "flats" three, the "narrow" boats might likewise be permitted to carry three.

The space in the cabin of the "broad" boats was about 5ft 6ins high, 9ft long and 9ft wide, the sleeping berth 9ft by 3ft.

While walking along the canal bank at Runcorn a man came over and said he would like me to come over to his barge. I stood on his barge deck, the centre of a circle of brawny-armed women, shaggy headed children, and very frouzy-clothed men. An Amazon with tanned face and goodly beard put her arms a-kimbo, and stood forth the champion of the party, what she had to say was received with bargee cheers thus;-

"Ers right" "Sal knows on t." "Leave er alone for knowin" about us." "Its right what she's a-sayin master. Listen to her master." and soon.

The Amazon was very clear and decided in her manner. She looked round now and again upon the circle around her, much as a great speaker looks upon an audience, and gave an appropriate shrug of the shoulders here and a nudge of the head there, and a lusty bang of her fist at that portion of the speech which was very telling in point of oratorical action.

"Master", she began, "they's got to recompense us, They's got to gi us more money. They'll ave to do som'at for us when they take the childr'n out of the boats, or us can never live. The masters will ave to find the orses to pull the boats and they'll ave to pay the boatmen reg'lar weekly wages. That's what theys got to do, we'd like to be ashore and ave the childr'n to school, but us can't live ashore without more wages."

I asked the woman what she considered fair wages for the husband to earn and she replied,

"Thirty two shillin a week, and to find nothing."

"Look you, master, I wants to know, what's to come o' the poor women as works the boats?"

The Amazon gave a nod of the head sideways, and an inquiring look around, as much as to say, "Now, friends I have him." and continued.

"You go to'ards Wigan and what do you see? You'll see lots of poor women, captains, and they works the boats to maintain their childr'n, whats to come o' them?"

"Why workus to be sure" exclaimed a sinewy sister of the barge, "What else?" "Four out o' six boats as comes from Wigan is worked by the women who've lost their usbands. What'll come to them poor craters?" asked the spokeswoman of the assembly. "Who's to support the childr'n as the mothers is took away from their boats?"

"It is not intended" , I said, "to prevent the women working in the boats if the accommodation is sufficient, and things would be better for them all, they would find this time next year."

"We opes so, I'm sure master." was the chorus in reply, and with that I took my departure.

Burslem Monday, I have arrived at the following conclusions of the experiences of my canal boat journey, first, that a great difference exists in the social conditions of the boat people in different canals, secondly, that the Canal Boat Act is received with favour by the barge owners, boat people and canal companies alike, and thirdly, that there will not be such difficulty in carrying the Act into operation as might at first appeared.

My observations lead me to consider that the condition of the boatwomen and children, the accommodation on the barges, their cleanliness and the habits of the boatsmen themselves are altogether worse in this district than in London. I saw nothing nearly so offensive on my journey down the Grand Junction Canal as I met within my walk on the canal side at Runcorn, and more recently on the banks of the Trent and Mersey canal in the vicinity of Burslem. This may be accounted for by the fact that the boats congregating about these places are as a rule coal boats, which are more difficult to be kept clean and neat in the cabins as those carrying, general merchandise, timber and hay. These latter are mostly to be met on the canals running through Worcestershire and Herefordshire and the Grand Junction Canal on sections on which the country passed through is open and attractive, void of dense smoky atmosphere common in the manufacturing districts.

There is much needs looking into in the canals of North and South Staffordshire, it is in these districts as well as Wigan in Lancashire that the authorities will find the most work to do in connection with the Canal Boats Act. They will have to cope with the most fearful ignorance, the result of too long neglect of the condition of our canal population, they may first encounter resistance and obstacles to their work on the part of the canal-boat people. If the wages question didn’t crop up in the matter it would be plain sailing in carrying the various classes of the Act into operation, but as it is, the wages question is in fact the one great hinge on which everything seems to turn, let this be adjusted satisfactorily and the boat men and women will welcome with gladness the efforts being made by the Government to improve their condition.

I have been curious to ascertain some statistical particulars of the population on the Bridgewater Canal, Mr BEDDOWS the company agent at Runcorn has been good enough to give me the following information ;-

At present the Bridgewater Navigation Company owns 335 boats, employed on these are 662 men, of these 422 are married, only 6 women are employed on the boats of the company, only 10 children are living on board any of their craft. More than three-fourths of the men can read and write, 105 are total abstainers, 576 of the men proved to be sober. Out of the whole men and women 646 have a home on shore, but, 35 have not. If the accommodation on board the craft will bear as close inspection as the above stated, the Bridgewater Canal proprietors have reason to congratulate themselves and the help they will be able to afford the Government.

I am told however that the boatmen working for this company as of other companies are deficient in sanitary knowledge.

A boat owner informed me that it is not uncommon for some boatmen to drive their horses for 30 consecutive hours without resting them. The following admission will cap this act of cruelty.

I was talking to a genial bargee at Tunstall on how he worked his boat, of which he was the owner, his two lads worked her he said, "and last night the lads came home from bottom of Wolverhampton locks to Tunstall, about 45 miles without stopping." Said I, "Was a horse drawing the boat?" "No it waren't a orse, it were a mule and when er come in to the stable er eat its meat and rolled about on the straw for all the orld like the donkeys does."

I ascertained the lads started at 3am and arrived home at 11pm, these men have not the slightest notion they are ill-using their beasts by over driving them. To "keep their bellies full" is the one great thing and to do the boatmen justice the tin provender cans tied to the noses of their horses, donkeys and mules are seldom empty. This man informed me he was paid for his work by the ton

When visiting Runcorn I visited some of the cottages of the boat-people, they were decent and fairly good, consisting of two rooms and a wash-house, for this a rent of 3s-6d a week was paid. The tenant generally well supplied with children, lived without exception in the boats on their "voyages" and whilst away locked up their cottages.

The wife counts as one hand in working boats, more particularly in the "narrow" boats. When the wife has to live wholly on shore as will probably be the case when the Canal Boats Act comes into operation, there will be so much taken away from the joint earnings of husband and wife and additional expense incurred for a hand to take the wife's place. This point will have to be carefully considered.

I personally would prefer to see the women with their husbands in the boats, narrow, broad or flat. I believe the wives exercise an influence for good over their husbands, keep them from spending their earnings in the beerhouses and endeavour to keep the cabins tidy and comfortable, and are generally useful in many ways.

Wigan, Paddington on the Grand Junction canal, Birmingham on the Birmingham and Warwick canal, Etruria as being the most central town on the Trent and Mersey canal, Wolverhampton on the Staffordshire and Worcester canal, Manchester the point of junction of the Bridgewater, Rochdale, Ashton and Peak Forest canals, Runcorn, Leeds, Liverpool, Blackburn, Coventry, Oxford and Stafford. It might be desirable to establish at some of these principal centres homes and schools combined for the accommodation of children during the absence of parents on the "voyage" and it would be a question for consideration whether the Government might not contribute to the support of such schools and homes. In the case of families being large it would be impossible for parents to pay out of their earnings the cost for maintaining and educating their children between the ages of 4 -12 yrs who are prohibited from joining the boats.


Misc inquests and snippets, concerning the canals

Manchester Times, Dec 14th, 1853

Fatality from fog

During the intense fog which prevailed on Tuesday night week, a boy named HINDLEY, employed as a horse-marine, fell into the Ashton Canal and was drowned. The boy had been to Dukinfield with a boat on Tuesday, and returned with his hauling horse in the evening along the canal bank towards Ashton. He rode in the boat for a part of the distance, letting his horse follow on the towing path. At Guidebridge he left the boat and mounted the horse, but he was seen to dismount near Jockey's Bridge, as a horse and boat were coming in the contrary way. It was very foggy and at this point he was lost sight of, and it was afterwards discovered that both he and his horse had fallen into the canal. The body of the deceased was found an hour and a half afterwards.


Preston Guardian, Aug 3rd 1861

A shocking accident, father and son drowned in the Lancaster and Preston Canal

Yesterday afternoon Mr M. MYERS, coroner, held an inquest at the Red Lion Hotel, Woodplumpton, over the bodies of Joseph NORMOND, boatman, and Robert NORMOND, his son

1st witness, Margaret NORMOND, said, "The deceased Joseph NORMOND was my husband, he was 41 yrs of age and a boatman on the canal. The deceased Robert NORMOND, was my son, he was 12 yrs of age. Yesterday about 4pm they were both drowned in the canal, Robert fell into the canal first. I heard my daughter scream out that he was in the canal, at that time I was on the canal bank, feeding the boat horse and my husband was shearing grass at the side. I did not see Robert fall into the water, but as soon as my husband heard my daughter scream,he walked into the canal after him. My husband swam for 2 or 3 minutes on his back, then he turned over and appeared to dive down, but he never rose again. James HARLING, boatman, who was not far from us tried to reach a hook shaft to my husband, but as my husband did not come up he was unable to rescue him. The accident happened near Black Leach Bridge. There was nobody on the boat when my son fell into the canal, I think he was reaching with a fishing rod and leaned too far over the boat side"

James HARLING, deposed, " I am a boatman and live in a boat I have charge of. Yesterday afternoon I was on the Lancaster and Preston Canal near to Black Leach Bridge, when I heard Dorothy NORMOND, daughter of the last witness scream out, "Oh dear, Robert is in the canal." I did not see him but went to the place. When I got there I saw the deceased Joseph NORMOND in the middle of the canal, just as I reached the place he was going down, I only saw the hair of his head. I never saw Robert NORMOND. As soon as I got to the place I got a boat hook and reached it towards the deceased Joseph, but, he never came up. Afterwards, we got two boat hooks, and after we had searched for the deceased about twenty minutes we found them and got them out. They were both dead. We were all going from Preston and both my boat and the deceased's were loaded. At Salwick the elder deceased and I had each a pint of ale, but he did not appear to be affected by it. When the deceased Robert went into the water his father was shearing, and his wife was feeding the horse. The deceased, Joseph threw his waistcoat off before he went into the canal, and kept his other clothes on. It was generally supposed he was a good swimmer. Verdict, "Accidental death." recorded in both cases.


Liverpool Mercury, Dec 24th 1891

Drowning case at Stretford

Yesterday morning Mr F. PRICE, county coroner, held an inquest at Patricroft on the body of William Henry STOTT, aged 18, a boat horse driver on the canal, who lived with his parents at 4 South View, Peel Green Rd, Barton. On Monday evening the deceased was in charge of a horse drawing a boat laden with coals on the Bridgewater Canal. The night was very foggy and when the boat arrived at Stretford, near Taylor's Bridge, the captain William WALKER, heard a splash in the water. He shouted to the deceased, "Now my lad are you safe?" but got no answer. WALKER got off the boat and procured a lamp, and after about half an hour's search found the deceased at the bottom of the canal in about 6ft of water, life was quite extinct. Verdict, "Accidental death." recorded


Birmingham Daily Post, July 17th, 1894

An inquest was held on the body of George SUMMERS, aged 56, boatman, of 2 court, 4 house, Holliday St. Deceased was riding on a boat, horse along the canal side at Aston on Wednesday last, and passing under Deykin's Ave, Bridge, his head struck against the bridge and he was thrown from the horse. He was badly injured and taken to the General Hospital where he died on the 13th inst. Mr GAMGEE stated that the 7th cervical vertebrae was broken, and the injury was fatal from the first, Verdict, "Accidental death." recorded


Liverpool Mercury, Nov 24th 1897

John JONES, a canal horse-driver, who lodged at Earlestown, and was employed by Messers R. EVANS and Co, of the Haydock Collieries, was drowned on Monday evening. JONES had come with a flat from Widnes to the Sankey Sugar Works, Earlestown, an at 6 0' clock had fastened up the boat. The horse arrived at the stable by itself, as the night was foggy information was given to the police, who dragged the canal and found the body about 11pm. It is supposed JONES, walked into the canal having missed his way in the fog.


Hampshire advertiser, Saturday May 7th 1892

Who are the Horse Marines ?

For generations the corps have been supposed to be a mythical embodiment of the Ananiases who had severed their connections with the Bluejackets, but it now appears they are a real corps of trustworthy men. Mr MALONEY has explained to the Labour Commissioners who met under the presidency of the Earl of Derby, that canal boatmen are of the opinion that the "horse-marines" ought to be paid by the boat-owner instead of the mate. "The horse-marine! Who are they?" asked a Commissioner, Mr MALONEY explained that this was the name applied to the drivers of the canal-boat horses in the upper reaches of our inland artificial waterways.

George SMITH of Coalville, "The children's friend"


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