Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List

Top 100 Sites

Working Narrowboats

The narrowboats used during the commercial carrying days of the canals.


Admiral class boat

These were built for British Waterways by Isaac Pimblott & Sons of Northwich (except for the last two pairs which were built by Yarwoods) they are named after admirals from Anson to Mountbatten.Grand Union Main Line: Braunston Bottom Lock No 1 Mountbatten - Historic boats parade - 26 May 1997
Grand Union Main Line: Braunston Bottom Lock No 1 Mountbatten - Historic boats parade - 26 May 1997

Ampton boat

These unusual narrowboats with a length of 87 feet, were much longer than the normal boats as they only worked over a stretch of water without locks, between collieries on Cannock Chase and the Wolverhampton area.The beam was also increased from 7 to 8 foot.


Barlow boat

The stern cabins of these boats were usually flush-sided without the usual square or oblong panels with which many narrowboats were decorated. The front board or triangular cratch was noted for its colourful decorations but was more upright than on FMC boats and other types. Masts and stands above the cargo space, supported the tent-like side cloths and waterproof covers, and much higher than on other boats. They operated in the coal trade, mainly from Birmingham, and had planks or washboards (at the end near the stern cabin) to prevent small coal or coke from slipping into the water.


Butty

With dimensions of approximately 70 foot by 7 foot these narrowboats, without engines, were used for commercial carrying on narrow canals. Originally pulled by a horse, or donkey, but later towed by a motor boat, thus forming a pair of traditional working boats. The name butty, meaning mate, denotes a boat being the unpowered one of the pair.


Day boat

These were known in the Black Country as Joey boats and were mainly worked over the Birmingham Canal Navigations and adjacent waterways, usually on short day trips. Many were double ended and able to transfer the rudder from one end to the other to avoid turning in a confined space, for there were few turning places or winding holes in this area. With the advent of steam and diesel tugs the towing posts changed position and were eventually abandoned, often moved nearer the ends and away from the quarters. Long strings of day boats were lashed together by the dozen, only the last boat having a rudder. Horse-drawn day boats remained well into the twentieth century, especially the open rubbish boats used for factory waste in the Birmingham area. Horses were also used in assisting powered day boats and strings of unpowered boats drawn by tugs through various lock flights. The day boat. although sometimes without any form of shelter, usually had a small cabin in the stern. This was smaller than the of a family boat and furnished only with an L-shaped bench, a small locker or shelf and an upright bottle-stove. This was mainly a heating stove but had a bar or trivet in front of the firebox door on which a pot or kettle could be fixed. The main function was to provide a sheltered space in which to eat meals and brew hot drinks. Most cabins were 4 feet long by 6 feet wide but slightly narrower on the side nearest the double doors.


Family narrowboat

This refers not to the build type but to the use of a narrowboat. Competition with the railway companies in the 1840s and 1850s forced working boatman to leave their homes on the land and take their whole families to live in the tiny boat cabins. The standard living cabin was about 10 feet long and 6 feet 6 inches wide, entered through double doors or hatches from a small stern deck. The boat was steered from a footboard or step in the doorway. At night the tiller would be reversed, the double doors closed and a slide drawn over the top or well of the cockpit. On the left of the cabin entrance was a heating and cooking stove, sometimes raised above deck level on a low platform, surrounded by gleaming pots and pans. The stovepipe or chimney disappeared through a hole in the roof, bound at the top with brass rings or rims. Opposite the stove was a lengthwise bench that could be turned into a bed or bunk at night for use by a child. A crossbed let down from the side wall, at the upper end of the cabin; this part was divided from the living quarters at night by lace curtains and was known as the bedroom. What was termed the table-cupboard fitted into an angle between bed and stove, the table letting down from the front of a crock cupboard with drawers and cupboards underneath. The interiors of most boat cabins were grained and varnished, with ornamental panels displaying the traditional roses and castles. There were also lace and crochet work hangings and lace plates or brass ornaments filling every possible corner. The crock cupboard might have a display of Staffordshire china figures or the celebrated brown Measham ware, used mainly for teapots, milk jugs and water jugs. Some boats had a small fore cabin which could accommodate other children at night.


Fly boats

Narrowboats usually worked by men only, often working round the clock with perishable cargoes - see also Shroppie Fly. .


FMC boat

These were narrowboats, sometimes known as Joshers after Joshua Fellows, one of the founders of the haulage firm of Fellows Morton and Clayton that owned them. Seldom used for dirty cargoes such as coal or coke, these light, fast boats, often worked 'fly' or night-time services with perishable goods. The tumblehome of the cabin sides sloped inwards more than on other boats and they were well raked at stem and stern, being fairly low in the water. FMC boats might be termed the aristocrats of the narrow waterways the Josher style being still very popular with buyers of new narrowboats.


Gas boat

A number of narrowboats were converted to convey bulk liquids. The largest number operated for Thomas Clayton of Oldbury for about eighty years until 1966, mainly carrying cargoes of gas-water, oil and tar on the Midland canals. The tank space was decked over with double layers of planking and the fillers were sealed before each trip. Interior swillboards broke the free flow of liquids. Many were family boats with large stem and fore cabins, although the fore cabin was also a storage space. The family boats had painted cabins but day boats, on shorter hauls, were all black . There were both powered and horse boats. One of the last horse boats, Gifford, restored in 1971, is now owned by the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port. This was sold to a private trader in 1966 and mule-hauled for several trips. Fodder for the horse or mule was kept under a form of cratch near the fore end.


Grand Union Canal boat

The Grand Union Canal Company was a major carrier on its own line from the 1930s to the Second World War. It pioneered the use of steel and composite boats (steel sides with an elm bottom) to replace former wooden boats. Like the earlier Ricky boats, they a high freeboard to keep out waves and wash on tidal reaches of the Thames. As part of a programme of widening, dredging and modernisation on the line of the canal, between London and Birmingham in the 1930s, the GUCC launched a fleet of new boats. They were of extra depth and stronger construction than most other boats of the period. They were divided into various classes, the smallest being the 'Star' class, all named after stars or heavenly bodies. This type was slightly larger than the FMC boats. The 'Town' class was much larger, with a hold about 5 feet deep and having a deep freeboard. It was designed for loading directly to or from large ships either in the Thames or in the London docks. The largest of all were the 'Royalty' class, named after kings and queens, of which only six were, constructed. These were slightly larger than 'Town' class boats but even sturdier. One of the few survivors is Victoria.


Joey boat

Day boats in the Black Country were known as Joey boats and were mainly worked over the Birmingham Canal Navigations and adjacent waterways, usually on short day trips. Due to the lack of turning places, or winding holes, in this area many were double ended and able to transfer the rudder from one end to the other to avoid turning. With the advent of steam and diesel tugs the towing posts changed position and eventually disappeared. Long strings of day boats were tied together by the dozen, only the last boat having a rudder. In the Birmingham area horse-drawn day boats remained well into the twentieth century, many used as rubbish boats for factory waste. The day boat usually had a small cabin in the stern which was 4 feet long by 6 feet wide but slightly narrower on the side nearest the double door. As this was smaller than the of a family boat it was furnished only with an L-shaped bench, a small locker or shelf and an upright bottle-stove. This was mainly a heating stove but was fitted with a bar or trivet in front of the firebox door on which a pot or kettle could be fixed. The main function was to provide a sheltered space in which to eat meals and brew hot drinks.


Josher

These were narrowboats, were called Joshers after Joshua Fellows, one of the founders of the haulage firm of Fellows Morton and Clayton that owned them. Seldom used for dirty cargoes such as coal or coke, these light, fast boats, often worked 'fly' or night-time services with perishable goods. The tumblehome of the cabin sides sloped inwards more than on other boats and they were well raked at stem and stern, being fairly low in the water. FMC boats might be termed the aristocrats of the narrow waterways the Josher style being still very popular with buyers of new narrowboats.


Ricky boat

These wooden narrowboats were built by Walkers Limited of Rickmansworth for use on the Grand Union Canal. They worked mainly south of Birmingham and had higher sides and stands than most narrowboats of the Midlands. The cabin sides were fairly high and straight but with deeply recessed side panels. Because of their high sides they had more freeboard than most narrowboats and were easier to navigate on broad rivers, frequently working over tidal reaches of the Thames below Brentford.


River class boat (BW)

These narrowboats were designed for and used by the British Waterways Authority in 1959. They were butties or powered by a harbourmaster four cylinder outboard diesel unit. Known as blue tops because of their unusual blue covers of fibreglass, which replaced the traditional side cloths and tarpaulins of earlier craft, they were blunt or bluff-ended and made from sheets of welded light-gauge steel. Intended to be a revolutionary type of craft, they arrived too late have the desired result.


River class boat (Thomas Clayton)

Tanker or gas boats owned by Thomas Clayton of Oldbury named after rivers. These narrowboats were converted to convey bulk liquids. Carrying cargoes of gas-water, oil and tar on the Midland canals. The tank space was decked over with double layers of planking and the fillers were sealed before each trip. Interior swillboards broke the free flow of liquids. .


Rodney boat

Rodney boats was a term of derision for family boats that were not kept in the spotless condition expected by the traditional canal boaters. It was not easy to keep boats up to standard when working long hours, living in cramped conditions and when the most common cargo was coal. Some boaters, especially those new to the canals, let their boats decline into floating slums and were shunned by clannish canal families.


Royalty class boat

As part of a programme of widening, dredging and modernisation on the line of the canal, between London and Birmingham in the 1930s, the Grand Union Canal Company launched a fleet of new boats, pioneering the use of steel and composite boats (steel sides with an elm bottom). They were of extra depth and stronger construction than most other boats of the period with a high freeboard to keep out waves and wash on tidal reaches of the Thames. They were divided into various classes, the smallest being the 'Star' class, the 'Town' class was much larger, and largest of all were the 'Royalty' class, named after kings and queens, of which only six were, constructed. These were slightly larger than 'Town' class boats but even sturdier. One of the few survivors is Victoria, renamed Linda around 1962, when she was part of the fleet of J S Brandt, a coal merchant on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.From 1965-71 she returned to long distance carrying for the Midland Canal Carrying Co. She has now reverted to her original name.


Runcorn boat

These huge canal boats had barrel-shaped holds and near-vertical stem and stern posts, instead of the normal raked stern posts, and had a style more like barges than ordinary narrowboats. They were owned by the Runcorn Company and operated on the Bridgewater and Shropshire Union Canals. They were converted to motorboats about 1914. Some worked into the Midlands and two of the 'converted' type having a propeller shaft through the stern post with false cheeks or side pieces (forming a counter stern), are preserved on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.


Shroppie fly

This was a long wooden narrowboat, round-bilged and streamlined. It was only 6 feet wide by 2 feet deep. They were used for urgent and perishable goods over the Shropshire Union Canal, between the Mersey ports and Birmingham or other Midland centres. They worked round the clock in the charge of young, single men and were towed by two galloping horses, worked in tandem and relays, and able to travel at well over ten miles an hour.


Star Class boats

As part of a programme of widening, dredging and modernisation on the line of the canal, between London and Birmingham in the 1930s, the Grand Union Canal Company launched a fleet of new boats, pioneering the use of steel and composite boats (steel sides with an elm bottom). They were of extra depth and stronger construction than most other boats of the period with a high freeboard to keep out waves and wash on tidal reaches of the Thames. They were divided into various classes, the smallest being the 'Star' class, all named after stars or heavenly bodies. This type was slightly larger than the FMC boats.


Station boat

These day narrowboats, with a very low freeboard and long forward decks, were built for the London Midland & Scotish Railway. Later many had boatmans cabins added.


Steam-powered narrowboat

Steamers were used mainly on the Grand Junction Canal during the second half of the nineteenth century. The 1860s saw the first wooden boats used by the Grand Junction Canal Company, these were eventually sold to Fellows Morton and Clayton. In 1910 FMC built a fleet of steel-hulled steamers for their own use. Although they had anti-dust curtains and floor coverings they were difficult to maintain to the general high standards of the FMC fleet. A large part of the cargo space was taken up by the engine, boiler and supply of solid fuel, leaving only 39 feet in length for cargo which was more than 12 feet less than on a horse-drawn narrowboat. Extra crewmen were also needed to stoke the fires and look after the engines. These disadvantages lead to most of the steam boats on the Grand Junction Canal being replaced by craft with internal-combustion engines by the 1920s. Many of the original steamers were fitted with internal-combustion engines, which made extra cargo space available.Grand Union Main Line: Braunston Bottom Lock No 1 Monarch - Historic boats parade - 26 May 1997
Grand Union Main Line: Braunston Bottom Lock No 1 Monarch - Historic boats parade - 26 May 1997

Town Class boat

As part of a programme of widening, dredging and modernisation on the line of the canal, between London and Birmingham in the 1930s, the Grand Union Canal Company launched a fleet of new boats, pioneering the use of steel and composite boats (steel sides with an elm bottom). They were of extra depth and stronger construction than most other boats of the period with a high freeboard to keep out waves and wash on tidal reaches of the Thames. They were divided into various classes, the smallest being the 'Star' class, slightly larger than the FMC boats. The 'Town' class was much larger, with a hold about 5 feet deep and having a deep freeboard. It was designed for loading directly to or from large ships either in the Thames or in the London docks.


Trench Boat

An extra narrow narrowboat designed to work through the Shrewsbury Canal which was a tub boat canal. These boats could carry about 17 tons were 70 foot long with a 6 foot 2 inch beam and a draught of 2 foot 8 inches.


Welsh narrowboat

These craft operated over the mainly industrial canals of South Wales, including the Swansea, Neath, Tennent, Glamgorganshire, Brecon and Monmouthshire Canals. The canals of South Wales were separate lines not connected with any other part of the system, nor generally with each other. This meant that there was no advantage in using the standards of unconnected canals. The Welsh narrowboats were shorter but much wider than the standard narrowboat. Like the Joey boats of the Birmingham Canal Navigations they were all day boats. They were mainly double ended, the rudder being transferred from one end to the other to save turning. Some were without any form of shelter, although the majority had a small cabin for the preparation and eating of meals. The bows of the Welsh boats were almost vertical and in some cases curved slightly forwards and outwards, the opposite of the raked bows on English narrowboats. A double row of heavy strakes or guards often ran down the entire length of each side. The boats were 60 to 65 feet long with a beam of between 7 feet 6 inches and 9 feet, depending on the size of locks on each waterway. During the 1920s when the Kennet and Avon Canal and several welsh canals were owned by the Great Western Railway Company some Welsh boats were transferred to the K&A for use as maintenance boats.


Working Narrowboat

A general term for the various types of narrowboats used on the narrow canals and limited by the gauge of the locks and other structures to dimensions of about 70 feet by 7 feet. They travelled to nearly all parts of the inland waterways, on both canals and rivers. Their length prevented full navigation of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and some other northern waterways but they could travel from the industrial heart of England to Mersey, Humber, Thames and Severn, even into North Wales along the Llangollen Canal. Sometimes they were worked the tidal reaches of the Thames, either breasted up (several side by side) or rigged with a temporary or jury mast and square sail. They were not, however, suitable for passage over broad rivers and estuaries in any but the calmest weather. The man sometimes credited with the design of commercial narrowboats was Thomas Monk of Tipton, in the Black Country, after whom they were nicknamed 'monkey boats'. In the West of England and on the Severn they were known as long boats. Originally narrowboats were mainly horse-drawn, working either in pairs or as singles, sometimes with two horses or mules or a pair of donkeys in tandem. Donkeys, known as 'animals' were popular on some navigations, being small enough to climb into the boat on reaching tunnels without towing paths.


Working pair

The traditional pair of narrowboats dates from the 1920s when many of the canal families changed from horse boats to diesel power, which was cheaper and almost trouble-free. The old wooden boat was then retained as a dumb boat or butty towed behind the motorboat. Swedish Bolinder two stroke engines were fitted in the first diesel-powered boats, which were often converted horse boats made of wood with elm bottoms and oak frameworks. Later all steel boats or composite boats(having steel sides and elm bottoms) were introduced. With a large family, the children often slept in the cabin of the motorboat. The interiors of the stern cabins on both horse boats and motorboats were very similar but the motorboat cabin often had a door opening into the engine room or 'hole'. The stern deck of the motorboat had a flat counter or rounded shape, while the tiller was a metal bar of Z shape, painted with stripes not unlike a barber's pole. The tiller on the butty or horse boat was curved or bow-shaped and fitted into a tall, backward-sloping rudder post or ram's head ornamented with cords and knots, scrubbed to snowy whiteness and known as the Turk's head and swan's neck. Most family boats were kept in spotless condition. From the 1930s motorboats were usually fitted with four-stroke twin engines. The modern engine room between cabin and cargo space was reached along catwalks about six inches wide, on both sides of the boat. These are known as gunnels, being along the upper line or gunwales, and greatly reduce the inner width of the engine room, which is normally about 8 feet 6 inches long and 5 feet 9 inches beam.Oxford Canal (Northern Section): Hillmorton Bottom Locks Nos 2 and 3 Working boats near Hillmorton - June 1968
Oxford Canal (Northern Section): Hillmorton Bottom Locks Nos 2 and 3 Working boats near Hillmorton - June 1968

 

Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List