Canal Tales

Pleasures of a Narrowboat Owner

By Anthony Jones

As the manager of a pair of narrowboats still in trade I have been asked to write something for the ‘Trow’ on the subject.  Five years of operation of our pair ‘Comet’ and Betelgeuse’ should be enough experience to write a book, yet when I sit down to consider the set backs and frustrations of those five years I wonder why I do it.  I doubt the book ‘Narrowboats for Pleasure and Profit’ will ever be written, and certainly not be me!  If the financial return is minimal then I must gain some sort of pleasure (a fellow boatman suggested once that we were all masochists) and shall attempt to record something of our experiences.


When we bought our boats in 1968 a fair number of working boats gave life to the Coventry, North Oxford and Grand Union canals with coal traffics to Croxley, Southall and Rickmansworth.  Our boats were fitted out at Charity Dock, Bedworth, and the boats passed by to and from the loading points at Atherstone and Gopsall.  Boats stopped at the Dock for repairs, and there and at nearby Sutton Stop (Hawksbury Junction) waiting orders, so we made early contact with the working boatmen and their families.  Much has been written of the boatmen and in some ways their life has been unduly idealised, but certainly their company was never dull!


During our time on the dock we slowly made friends, once the boatmen’s initial skepticism of our boating aspirations had been overcome they helped us in many ways.  Help was never thrust on one though, struggling with some task I would become aware of an audience, a diffident suggestion would be made that ‘it wasn’t done quite right’, and I would learn another trick of the trade.  Small items of gear would be donated, in fact one’s needs having been expressed lockers and ‘fore ends’ would be rummaged and the needful item would almost always be turned up.  No payment would be expected, it was taken for granted that one would return the favor when the opportunity presented itself, and as we became accomplished ‘tatters’ and spare items of gear accumulated we took pleasure in being able to produce ‘jest the thing needed’.


With boats lying side by side the boaters mutual respect of privacy was a notable thing.  Before crossing a neighbour's boat permission would be asked, to step across the cabin doors would be bad manners and you crossed foreward of the cabin.  Visiting was touchingly formal, to be invited into the boatman’s cabin was a rare event, tea would be served with the best crockery and family treasures and photos displayed.  The more informal social life centered on the pub, gossiping sitting on the boats gunwales or, in foul weather round the dock workshop stove or blacksmith’s shop.  Humour was direct and often ribald but never offensive, one was expected to give a good as one got.  As ‘trainees’ (the term for novice boatmen) we came in for much good-natured ribbing and practical jokes.


Few of the working boats had much money spent on them, but even so, the boatmen took great pride in them.  Paintwork may have been faded and scarred but it was constantly mopped down, brasswork was kept gleaming, tattered side cloths were carefully rolled (and even if the ‘top cloths’ were lettered from BWB to LMS, when the boats were ‘sheeted up’ they were carefully spread and roped down without a wrinkle) and worn decorative ropework and fenders scrubbed white.  Decrepit engines were nursed along by miracles of improvisation; the majority of boatmen couldn’t have read a maintenance manual if they had one but were accomplished fitters from hard necessity.  While some swore by a particular engine others were great experimenters and would be forever swopping engines with results that could be, to say the least, interesting!  Since in most cases diesel and luboil were ‘found’ from the boatmen’s tonnage payments they were often found by dubious means, siphoning off tanks was not unknown and cheap drums of diesel changed hands after closing time.


Slowly our boats were fitted out, and, in the early days of January 1969, we were ready to make our debut as canal carriers.


A E Jones


Trow: No 5: February 1974

This page was added by Iris Capps on 28/04/2011.
Comments about this page

Dear Tony 

Great to see your tales in the written word, can we have more please?


By Paul Barnett
On 04/05/2011

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