LIVING on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, we often enjoy walks along the Staffs and Worcester canal. Our Jack Russell loves it, too - except for the time she fell in, when she was a pup. Older and wiser now, she stays away from the edge of the towpath.
On one of our recent towpath rambles, we spotted several working narrow boats, reminding us that, even in the 21st century, our canals aren’t just for ramblers, cyclists, dog walkers and leisure boats.
In the late 18th century, Wolverhampton was at the forefront of a transport revolution. Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, such as Telford and Brindley, were creating modern roads and a canal network that would take Black Country products to all corners of the nation, and beyond.
We all know the history, how the transport of goods on our waterways declined with the subsequent arrival of railways and then motorways.
For decades, many of our canals lay forgotten, choked with weeds and debris. Happily, that’s all in the past, thanks to the work of the countless volunteers instrumental in restoring our waterways.
Now, we have the best of both worlds - a fantastic leisure resource preserving a proud, industrial heritage – that can still serve the needs of industry.
When our canals were in their heyday, life on the cut could be very hard. In the early days, many of the boats were male only, and these men, transporting mainly coals, timber and other heavy materials, acquired a reputation for drunkenness and fighting.
Working with filthy cargoes like coal also increased concerns that it was no life for women and families.
These attitudes persisted, but in the usual way of things, of necessity, families took to the nomadic life working the waterways.
Like other travelling folk, boat people often met unwarranted criticism and prejudice. Landlubbers were quick to label them as dirty and ignorant, yet most boat families were intensely proud of their floating homes. And, while young children did work as part of the family unit, bonds between parent and child were just as strong as those between landlubbers.
Family affections and loyalty were very strong in these close knit canal communities.
Up until the 1920s, the boats were horse drawn. We tend to assume these patient draught animals were Shire horses. But, for many boat families, that was not the case. Shires and other heavy breeds were too expensive, so many boat men relied on smaller draught horses costing just three to four pounds. It was not unusual to see mules or donkeys being used.
These animals were highly valued by the boat families, and, usually, were well-treated. Women with needle skills crocheted dainty ear caps for their equine workers, to protect them from buzzing flies, dust and heat. And, the children fed, petted and rode on their backs. The boatmen did have whips, but, generally, these were not used aggressively on the horses. Instead, the boatman cracked the whip to signal different messages or warnings to the horse. In the silent days before boats had engines, a crack of the whip could also be used in foggy weather, to warn oncoming boats of your presence. It was also used as a warning signal when approaching blind bends. Or, at locks, where an oncoming vessel might be at a higher level, and not see a boat in a lower position.
On our recent ramble along the Staffs and Worcester, we saw two boats negotiating the famous flight of locks at the Bratch, in Wombourne.
You could see how, in the age of horse power, whips would have been useful in such a situation.
Quarters The narrow width of our old Midlands canals dictated the size of the boat families’ living quarters.
Boats had to be narrow enough to pass through the seven foot wide locks. Hence, cabins were only about ten feet long by six feet wide, with a height of about five and a half feet. This was in the horse drawn days. When boatmen added engines, accommodation could be greatly reduced as the engine would be situated between the cabin and the hold.
Large families were the norm in those days, so every inch of space counted. Children, numbers sometimes running into the teens, slept in a small cabin at the front of the boat, and some families towed a second boat for additional living space. Others, who concentrated on short haul journeys might have had a small, canal side cottage, enabling the children to attend a local school.
But, in many cases, the whole family lived on board, the children attending school at various stops along the route. With irregular schooling, many boat children received only a basic education, and rates of illiteracy among the boat community remained high.
By the 1870s, well-meaning but prudish Victorians were shocked by the living conditions, requiring families to install a “modesty curtain” between the parents’ and childrens’ sleeping quarters.
Strangely, they seemed unaware that countless families in one bedroomed slums, slept in similar conditions.
Likewise, the boat children were not the only ones who failed to attend school regularly, since the 1870 Education Act had made schooling compulsory for children aged between five and twelve. In many Black Country families, especially in trades like chainmaking and nailing, children were expected to work alongside the family from around the age of six.
A regular education, compulsory or not, had to go on the back burner when feeding and clothing the family was at stake.
As soon as they were old enough, children on the canals were expected to contribute to the family business, with daily tasks on the boat. Girls helped their mothers with domestic chores, while boys helped fathers with the boat.
Often, younger boys had the job of looking after the horse, leading it along the towpath, and guiding it over bridges when there were no tow paths. The rest of the family helped with the exhausting business of “legging” the boat through the tunnels.
Sometimes there were accidents, where children drowned. Such tragedies might occur when a child rode on the back of the horse, unsupervised, while passing under a low bridge. Other accidents might happen during loading or unloading, despite regulations governing these processes. Loading heavy cargoes such as coal had to be done very carefully to avoid capsizing the boat. There were also restrictions governing how many persons the boat could carry on top of its maximum load.
Nevertheless, drowning was a fact of life on the cut, especially given the heavy fabrics the boat families’ clothes were made from.
Like their sisters, young boys wore dresses until they were past toddler stage. If women or children fell into the canal, their voluminous skirts and petticoats soaked up the water like blotting paper.
Also, both sexes wore sturdy boots, which, when waterlogged, could drag them under.
Practical Above all, boaters’ clothing needed to be practical. Generally, women and girls wore ankle length skirts with a blouse on top. The skirt had to be full enough to let them step on and off boats easily, but not so full as to get in the way.
And, the blouse had to be loose enough round the sleeves to allow full movement. An apron, usually white, protected the skirt, and shawls and bonnets helped keep the worst of the weather off.
Younger girls often wore shorter skirts than the women, and their bonnets were also smaller than the larger, much heavier ones their mothers wore. These bonnets were a trademark of the boat women, often highly frilled and decorated with hand -made lace or crochet.
Like the aprons, the bonnets were often white. But, from 1902 following the death of Queen Victoria, many boatwomen started wearing black bonnets.
The boatwomen were fiercely house - proud, always working to keep their tiny cabins spotless. A thankless task if your cargo was coal. Many were skilled needlewomen, making all the family’s clothes and furnishings. Even with one hand on the tiller, women would crochet pieces to adorn clothes and cabin. Some women could steer the boat with their feet, leaving both hands free for relaxing crochet work while they sat on the cabin roof. Inside and out, the traditional decorative art of canal painting, known as “roses and castles”, was also in evidence. Many families also collected and displayed pretty ribbon plates and highly decorated teapots. Despite the daily drudgery, they did everything possible to make life in a tiny space, pleasurable.