tales from the old cut 3

christmases past

From almost the moment that the clock strikes midnight on November 30th, Christmas seems to begin. We are bombarded with gaudy decorations and impassioned adverts from shops vying for our money, and the concept thrust at us from all angles is that, in fact, the world is going to come to a halt for everyone to sit and do nothing apart from perhaps roll face-first off the sofa and into a tin of brightly wrapped chocolates.

Christmas card from Canal River Trust archivesAlthough many people decry this as a modern phenomena, it's actually harking back to the festivities of the gilded Georgian era, when the festivities could start as early as the last Sunday before advent (Stir up Sunday, which this year falls on November 24th ), but usually it was December 6th (St Nicholas' day) that kicked off a month long round of intermittent parties, feasts,dances and general merrymaking, punctuated by heavy church attendance on Christmas day and ending on January 6th (Twelfth Night). Even poorer people would have joined in, with villages holding their own assemblies, fairs or other events. Work would have continued, but the slow pace of country life bent easily to accommodate the inevitable raging hangovers. 

The Georgian boatmen and canal employees would have enjoyed quite a bit of time off during the festive period compared to their descendants; asides from the waterways regularly freezing over, it wasn't until the industrial revolution really started to take it up a gear around 1800 that boats began to get permission to move on a Sunday at all, and few employers would have expected any of their men to work on days such as Christmas. Boatmen at this time weren't the independent breed of floating peasant that Tom Rolt* liked to imagine; they were quite high up the working man's social ladder. They had homes of bricks and mortar to return to at the end of the trip, and those trips weren't very long either, a day here and a few days there. They were fairly well paid, so could afford to join in with food and gifts; one Hannah Hopkiss earned over £177 in a year between 1777-78 for her boating enterprises, and in 1791 an estimate of 2s 8d a day was given as a day rate for a Birmingham boatman. For comparison, a master craftsman building a house in Birmingham was receiving 2s 4d a day.

 Working canal boat family at Christmas CRT archivesThere is something of a debate between historians  as to how popular Christmas was during the Regency era (1811-1837).

Jane Austen talks of it with a casual disinterest, and as people migrated from countryside there would have been a definite change in how Christmas was celebrated by the individual, but it would be unfair to say that it was ignored. 

Certainly in the canal world, Christmas was of note. Companies and owners distributed money to loyal employees, although this may have been less out of general goodwill and more out of charity as the canals would regularly freeze beyond breaking.

By the time Victoria took the throne in 1837 however, Christmas was beginning to take on the sentimental form we recognise today. It can be argued that the canals can take a heavy share of the blame for this, as this festive re-branding, with revival of 'old'  (some actually brand new) traditions and the increased pressure on charity and goodwill a response to the modernisation of life wrought by the industrial revolution, which couldn't have happened without the canals.

By 1840, the pressures of industry were turning the boatman into what we would recognise. By now the concept of Sunday off had all but vanished into the long grass for both the fly-boat and slow-boat man. The turn-around of a fly-boat was minutes, and their crew were expected to stay on board for as long as the boat had work. One fly-boater in 1840 said that he had only once visited his home in 11 years, although things appeared to have improved somewhat by 1858 when a fly-boat captain reported he was able to go home to his house in Stoke maybe 3 times a year. It will be of no surprise to say that most fly-boaters were unmarried.

The slow-boat men fared little better. Their boats were not fast so each trip took longer, and despite the official line being that they didn't have to be moving all the time, the boatmen rarely worked less than 12 hours each and every day, and in Birmingham as many as 20. 

As machines were invented to replace manpower, companies came to realise that if one boatman ​didn't like the terms, they could easily find a new one from the thousands of men and boys desperately looking for employment. It was around this time that families start to appear on the boats; the boatmen began to make the shrewd financial decision to bring their wives with them, in one fell swoop saving on both rent and crew costs – the family boat was born.

Christmas for working canal boat families CRT archivesAlthough sources are scarce, there is is evidence that shows that the family-boats tried to make merry in exactly the same way as any of the other working class families. Stockings for children were popular by 1860 (with the recipient holding out for an apple and a penny in the toe), and from the Edwardian era to the end of carrying, various Charities (most notably the London Mission and the Salvation Army) would organise a visit by Father Christmas to children moored at inner city depots. Gifts between the adults appear to have been of the small trinket variety or handmade clothing, with boatwomen labouring for months in secret on intricate pieces like colourful spider-web belts.

Stoppages for maintenance and weather played as big a part in the location of a boats Christmas as what cargo she was handling at the time, but like all people the boaters strove to be near family for the day. Very few would move on Christmas day itself, unless it was to complete the journey to the chosen location, and many boaters would attend church. Indeed, a study of Victorian parish registers shows that, like the rest of the working class, the Christmas period was a popular time for marriages as it was the only time of the year when all the family were together.

In keeping with the rest of the poorer class, Christmas dinner was often Rabbit, poached during the journey, and cooked on the stalwart coal range. Some boatwomen successfully managed to obtain a small chicken, although history doesn't relate how. Once the meal was over, a visit to the pub was usually called for. Someone might bring a melodion and the boaters would sing and dance, with each man contributing some form of entertainment. Women, surprisingly, were not banned from these occasions. Although the rest of Victorian England tended to have very firm views on what kind on woman entered a pub, the canalside communities didn't bother at all.

But the peace of Christmas only lasted for that one day. Come dawn of Boxing Day, the normal push to 'Get 'em ahead” resumed and families regretfully parted until their next meeting. This wasn't
unusual for the working class; one only has to think of Bob Cratchett getting the whole day off on the proviso he will be in “all the earlier (the) next morning.” 

Like Cratchett though, surviving sources show the boaters bearing no ill-will to this. Indeed it makes Christmas all the more precious to them for it's scarcity.

Perhaps this is what the modern world overlooks.

*Tom Rolt (1910-1974) One of founders and first honorary secretary of IWA. Author of Narrow Boat (1944) Green & Silver (1949)

Kerry Dainty author of Tales from the Old CutKerry Dainty

Kez has never lived in a house and has spent her life on the family's old wooden narrowboat. She divides her time between working the coal boat on the Bridgewater canal, spending too much time in the archives reading random history and teaching her menagerie of animals useless tricks.

You may contact Kerry direct by email:  writing@linnets-circus.co.uk


widcombe lock


tales from the old cut - 2 

widcombe lock

On the 30 October 1880, a 23 year old boatman named Thomas Ames stands calmly in Bristol Assizes. He is accused of murder and if he is found guilty, he will surely hang. In an unusual turn of events, he does not. He is charged with manslaughter and sentenced only to 7 years in prison. He takes this information "stolidly" and leaves walking "firmly". It's like he doesn't care that a child is no longer on this earth because of him, and in all probability, he doesn't.

What happened to bring this young man to such a condition though?

On the 24th August 1880, 2 young boys went out fishing on the Kennet and Avon canal at Widcombe, near Bath. Francis Hawkins, aged 10, and his friend, Albert Edward Miles, had climbed onto the cill of Widcombe Bottom lock and were catching trying to catch eels with their bare hands. Close to the next lock, James Hillier, 18, and William Vowles, 13, were fishing quietly.

History doesn't relate whether the two boys in the lock knew there was a pair of boats coming, but Albert went to climb out of the lock, slipped off the gate and into the water. Unable to swim, he was immediately in trouble and his panicked friend shot up the gate screaming for help.

The two young men fishing ran to the aid of the struggling child, quickly getting into the water. The levels must have been down as the newspapers note that the cill was 3ft above the water itself, and the two gallant young men grabbed Albert under the arms and started swimming with him towards the open bottom gates, the easiest route to getting back out to the land before the installation of safety ladders.

Widcombe lock By this time, there are at least two other people at the lockside encouraging the the swimmers (one newspaper says there were hundreds. This is unlikely though as no one attempts to prevent what happens next); Edward Weston, aged 15, who had been walking by when Francis started screaming and Mrs Betsy Cox.

Our boatman, Thomas Ames, had been sent ahead to set the lock. From what transpires later, it is fairly safe to assume he is what gets known as 'Ninepence in the Bob'. He walks to the open gate and laughs at Edward Weston when he asks if Ames isn't going to jump in to help (it was often assumed that boatmen could swim) "Let the bastard get out the best way he can."

Ames shuts the open gate on the swimmers and flings the paddle up. Water pours into the chamber and slams into the trapped boys. Albert is dragged from the grasp of his rescuers and swept beneath the swirling water. Mrs Cox yells at Ames as he's lifting the paddle; "Good God, you'll drown the lot!" and he stops winding, but water is still pouring in.

The noise has drawn more people, including a man named Baynton, from the nearby pub "The Boatman's Arms". Baynton has the presence of mind to grab a pole and ladder, and fish Hilliers and Vowle from where they're clinging to the wall of the rapidly filling lock, and the coroner noted that this action probably saved their lives.

The accounts don't tell us much of what happens next. One newspaper describes that PC William Whippey arrived at the scene as they had just recovered Albert's bedraggled body, and he arrested Ames, who was stoically leaning on the lock. At the police station Ames apparently volunteered that "he had seen the boys in the water and let the water in", and answered "yes" when he asked if he understood he was being charged with causing the death of the boy.

widcombe lockThe Coroner held an inquest at the pub that lasted 2 days. Throughout all of it, Ames offered no defence or rebuttal; the nearest he got was saying he dropped the paddle. The PC who arrested Ames said that he had known him by sight for several years, and the inquest confirmed that Ames was a "bargeman, and had been travelling with the barge for several years."

The coroner appears to look at the case as though Ames was 'normal', and he was damning, encouraging the jury to consider how Ames had behaved with"Wilfulness, deliberateness, and intention throughout." He even went so far as to interrupt the jury when he found out that they were inclined to offer a verdict corresponding with the fact that Albert had fallen in accidentally in the first place, and reiterated that if the gates hadn't been shut on and water let in, the rescuers would probably have succeeded in saving the child's life.

The jury went away again and came back an hour and a half later. Their decision was that Ames had been the cause of death, but it had not been done with malice aforethought- their verdict was manslaughter.

By the 30th October, Ames stood charged with wilful murder.

It would appear that Ames barrister pushes straight away for manslaughter, using an argument that we would know as diminished responsibility. The initial facts certainly paint a picture of a cruel and callous murder, but the jury settles on manslaughter. The judge is given a testimony from someone who knows the prisoner and is respectable enough to be taken seriously; another newspaper notes that it is a former employer. This man's testimony accounts Ames being "less intelligent than ordinary", "Somewhat stupid and ignorant, and of a low type of intelligence".

This testimony is taken into a account as well and Judge Denman sentences Ames to 7 years.

He is taken away and it appears he serves his sentence out in Pentonville Prison, and in 1896 dies in the Wiltshire County Lunatic Asylum, having been there for at least 5 years.

James Hillier and William Vowles were commended for their bravery and given £3 each from a subscription, and The Royal Humane Society awarded them with medals.

Albert Edward Miles was buried 3 days later after the tragedy in the Lyncombe, Widcombe, and St James’ Cemetery in plot M.C.48, where eventually he would be joined by his parents.

There are more records out there that will tell more of this story, and might even give us some faces of those involved, but for now this is all. Perhaps the ghost of a man by the locks who vanishes when questioned might rest easier when the whole story is known...

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tales from the old cut - 1



  • boat horse courtesy Canal JunctionAs long as there has been inland waterway navigation, there has been equine motive power. It makes sense; by water, the weight of the load is significantly reduced. In 1810 someone did the calculations and came to the conclusion that one horse and three men could move as much by water as sixty horses and ten men could by road. 

Perhaps the earliest mention of what we would recognise as a boathorse actually comes from around 37bc, when Horace writes of a mule drawn boat:

Now night was preparing to draw her shadows upon the earth and to spread constellations over the heavens: then our slaves began to hurl abuse at the boatmen, (and) the boatmen upon our slaves: 
"Bring (her) over here"; "You are letting in three hundred"; "Whoa! that is enough now." While the fare is collected, (and) while the mule is being harnessed, a whole hour goes by. The troublesome gnats and the marsh frogs make sleep impossible; a boatman, drenched with plenty of flat wine, sings of his absent mistress, and a traveller tries to vie (with him); at last, the weary traveller begins to fall asleep, and the lazy boatman fastens the halter of the mule, (which has been) turned out to graze, to a stone, and snores, (while) lying on his back. And now the day was at hand, when we see that the boat has made no progress at all, while one (of the travellers), an irritable (fellow), leaps out (of the boat) and wallops the head and the sides of the mule and the boatman with a stick of willow. (Satires Book 1, no
A journey to Brundisium)

While this takes place in Italy, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the Romans doing exactly the same on their British waterways, including what is now known as the Fossdyke and Witham 

Britain continued to bring horses to the side of the boats through the Tudor and Stuart period, with teams of horses being recorded alongside the gangs of bowhauliers working on the Thames in times of low water or wind.

boathorse - Tate gallery, Henderson photosWhen the industrial revolution began to arrive, the fact that separate companies built and controlled some of the towing paths, and that there were fights between bowhauliers and horse-hauliers (with one particular riot in 1832 getting so out of hand that the army had to be brought in the quell it), tells us that horse boats were a novel idea. The first ones were also, like Horace’s mule, ill-used without a thought. Constable’s 1825 painting “The Leaping Horse" shows a poor barge horse weighted down by his heavy harness being made to jump a stile by his ill-seated rider. The companies were supposed to fit swinging gates, but stiles being the cheaper option proved much more popular (and in some places remained so right up to the 20th century, with the 1904 Bradshaw guide noting their presence with disgust.)

As the century progressed however, people became more conscious of animal welfare. In 1836, the Mersey and Irwell Navigation committee appointed a inspector following reports that horses were “often unmercifully flogged and otherwise cruelly treated”, and by 1876 there was undisguised horror in the Warrington Examiner over a horse on the Bridgewater Canal found being forced to work covered in sores and wounds. 

Dolly the mule, unknown photo sourceThe Bridgewater, arguably the first true canal, opened the horseboating game in 1761 without actually using a horse. Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, was an idiosyncratic industrialist who smoked like a blast furnace, dressed like a scruff, swore like a sailor and had absolutely no time for frivolity, once scything the heads off of some flowers a servant innocently planted in the utilitarian gardens of Worsley in an attempt to brighten them up a little. The Duke, inspired by successful Canal du Midi in France, joined forces with James Brindley and John Gilbert to come up with an English version, and he recognised that mules were smarter, tougher and more agile than the horses available, and so the first boat to traverse the canal was ​hauled by a pair of mules working side by side. So certain that mules were the better choice for the canal work, he even had a small stud enterprise to try and supply the boats. The Duke was one of the few who recognised that a mule, although perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as a horse or pony, is usually superior to it’s donkey sire and horse dam, combining the better traits of both and putting them in a body that lives longer and works harder on less fuel. Despite this, the traditional prejudice of them being the poor man’s animal meant that they were not commonly chosen by boaters or companies. The Duke would probably be quite smug that some of the last horse boats were actually pulled by mules, ‘Gifford’ behind a grey mule belonging to Mr Bunford and ‘Friendship’ behind Dolly, belonging to Joe Skinner.

five rise locks, BingleyDonkeys too were used at times, in pairs or sometimes trios. A boater on the Stourport Canal used a pair of donkeys that were actually faster than most horses. Alf Edwards remembered: “They towed to Stourport and then rode on the boat on some straw which was thrown over the coal, whilst the current of the River took it to Gloucester.” The creature getting a lift on the boat wasn't that uncommon a practice. On the fenland waterways, turn-over bridges were uncommon as the horses were generally ferried across when the towpath changed sides; on the constructed waterways, where a family worked a pair of horse boats and an unevenly matched team of two (for example, a horse and a pony), the slower of the animals would be led into the hold of one the empty boats and allowed to ride in state so the boats were not held up.

There are many chapters and characters in the story of the boathorse who are now all but forgotten; the mighty barge horses towing with traces of forged chains, the stocky ponies and cobs stepping out in gaily painted bobbins, and all the others who have left their mark on the canals we see today.      

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