Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Bantam is No Spring Chicken is the copyright of Jim Shead - The story of the Bantam tugs built in the 1950's and 60's. First published in Waterways World September 2002.
Bantam is no spring chicken
During the fifties and sixties E C Jones & Son (Brentford) Ltd built a series of tugs which they called "Bantams". Several of these boats are now exhibited at various waterway museums but even more are still at work every day on navigations, in harbours and gravel pits throughout the country. The time is ripe to record something of the history of these work-a-day boats before the people who used them disappear and their documentation is finally cleared from the backs of dusty filing cabinets.
Production and Sales
The builders of these craft are no longer trading but over the years have produced 89 of these "Bantam" tugs as well as a whole range of other working boats including barges and dredgers. A number was allocated to each tug as it was built but for some reason numbers 13 and 15 were never used so the last tug, finished in April 1969, was number 91. At the time of peak production, in the 1950s, they produced as many as eight of these tugs a year, however after 1961, when they made 7, they never built more than two a year (see figure 1). Although all the Bantams had common design features they varied in length, beam, draught and in other minor ways as the basic craft was adapted to meet the requirements of individual customers and to allow the tugs to work on both deep open waters and on narrower and more confined canals.
The major single customer for Bantams was British Waterways (and its predecessors the Dock & Inland Waterways Executive and British Transport - Waterways) who bought 20 tugs between 1951 and 1969. They purchased the last one built, Robin Hood, a 38 foot long boat with a 13 foot 6 inches beam, which is still at work on the River Trent. At one time BW used several Bantams as part of the Compartment Fleet, towing the well known 'Tom Puddings' between local collieries and Goole Docks. Seventeen other customers also purchased more than one Bantam (see figure 2) the remaining 26 tugs being sold to companies that only took a single boat. Mineral extraction concerns were major buyers with sand, gravel, ballast, grit and aggregates appearing in the names of the purchasing companies.
The Docks & Inland Waterways Executive were impressed with the Bantam tugs, as they reported in Lock & Quay their in house journal in 1953. They report on the performance of Will Scarlet and Little John which had been in service for some months.
"One of these is of 30 h.p. and of standard type, with a fixed wheelhouse of low headroom, the other is a 40 h.p. vessel of an improved type, specially built to our requirements."
Later they say " In dredging operations both tugs have done useful work - previously the dredger has been a cumbersome craft to handle when towed, but with a Bantam coupled for pushing, a straight course has been kept without trouble and the larger vessel has handled an average of 2,000 tons of dredgings per week."
The BW "Waterfront" magazine featured their most modern Bantam, Robin Hood, in the Autumn 2000 issue. Robin Hood is over thirty years old but is not the only Bantam still in service with BW. Perhaps the oldest BW one still working is Will Scarlet, built in 1951. This vessel is still in service in the North East Region on the Grand Union Canal (North) where Will Stutely (1961) is another working Bantam, both boats having originated in the Nottingham area. Alan A Dale (1957) is still working on the South Yorkshire Navigation as is Eric of Lincoln (1957). These craft also started in the Nottingham area as you may guess from the names. Working on the tidal Trent with Robin Hood is Arthur A Bland (1961) and on the Grand Union, in the Hatton area, is Bantam 67 which concludes the BW Bantams which I know are still working although there are probably more out there waiting to be discovered.
Some ex-BW tugs have found their way to other organizations. One was the first of BW's Bantams, City, which was purchased in 1951 and worked on the Grand Union around Brentford. In 1963 it was decided that this tug was no longer needed and it was sold to the Lower Avon Trust, where it has been used in the restoration of the river, carrying new lock gates from Diglis, down the Severn and up the Avon, and continues to be used in maintenance work. Some BW tugs have been sold to commercial companies.
Other Bantams are also used for waterways restoration. The Chichester Canal Society have Bantam 6, bought from Portsmouth Harbour around 1987 and, like many other Bantams, fitted with a Lister JP engine. They also have Bantam 23, which they bought about three years later from ARC. I believe that there are also one or two of these tugs on the Basingstoke Canal but I have not been able to confirm this so far.
Land & Water Services Ltd., the dredging company, have a couple of Bantams and often hire others. They also have one of the few Bantams (number 42) that is a confirmed "write-off" although no doubt others have disappeared without notice. There are certainly still Bantams working in the quarries, sand and gravel pits that were their original homes. Many of the smaller firms have been taken over by larger companies during their long working life, making it more difficult to track them down.
Bantam 4 is one of the earliest examples of the class and is now an exhibit in the London Canal Museum. It has its original, Lister JP2 engine, with hand starting. Like most of the first dozen Bantams it has a 2l bhp engine. Starting in 1951 most Bantams were fitted with 30 bhp engines and the majority of those built after 1959 were 35 bhp. Bantam 4 was in a very poor condition when it was bought by Chris Gibson. He spent several years restoring it and used it for work on the Kennet & Avon Canal, a story which appeared in WW back in February 1987. In 1994 Chris donated the tug to the London Canal Museum where it can be seen as a floating exhibit. It not only floats it works too and is often shown, by the museum, at the National Waterways Festivals and is even entered in the illuminated boats competition. In addition to the tug Chris Gibson has also donated to the museum documents and photographs showing not only the restoration of the tug but also its original commissioning trials.
The Bantam tug Walsall is now a static exhibit at the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester Docks. Its chances of re-floating have been reduced by the large apertures cut in its hull to show the Lister air-cooled engine and gearbox. We are told that Walsall was built in the 1960's and was used around the Birmingham canal on BW dredging operations, however this was probably not what she was originally used for as BW Birmingham does not feature as one of E C Jones & Sons original customers. Walsall may be Bantam 77 as it is the only 1960s BW Bantam not accounted for.
Wheldale, one of the Bantams used with the "Tom Pudding" compartment boats, is now moored at Goole Waterway Museum, together with two compartment boats and a jebus (the false bows attached to the first boat in a train of compartment boats).
The Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port has the MSC Bantam II, which is Bantam number 20, supplied to the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1952. This is 23 foot 6 inches long with a 8 foot beam. and has a Lister JP3 engine.
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