the wooden canal boat society
One of the attractions of the waterways are the former working boats, often gaily painted, covered in shiny brass and lovingly maintained by their owners. Every year there are several gatherings of ex working boats. Some are converted, some still clothed up and ready to carry another load, but, there’s one thing that nearly all have in common- they’re made of metal.
100 years ago metal boats were the exception. Most were made of wood, oak for the sides, 3 inch elm for the bottom. Sadly, though many gained a new lease of life as pleasure boats after they finished carrying, the enormous cost of maintenance meant that most ended up being destroyed or simply abandoned.
Based in Greater Manchester, the Wooden Canal Boat Society is busy not only saving a small fleet of wooden narrow boats, but also putting them to good use. Museums are all well and good, but boats were made to be used.
It all started back in the 1980s as a project to restore the wooden motor boat “Forget me Not” and make use of the former joey boat “Lilith”. Whilst “Forget me Not” was being stripped down and put back together again at Guide Bridge, on the Ashton Canal, “Lilith” was bow hauled and hitch hiked around the network carrying buskers to raise funds for tree planting in Africa.
Before “Forget me Not” was finished a third boat was offered, “Hazel”. Built (probably) in 1913, she turned out to be the last Runcorn wooden header narrow boat afloat. She made an epic journey from London to Ashton in 1988. She was slipped for inspection at the Ashton Packet Boat Co. Almost every part of the boat was on its way out. The only possibility was to save up the pennies for an eventual complete rejuvenation.
In 1992 the ‘big ricky’ “Southam” was purchased from BWB for £525, sunk at Hillmorton. This was followed by “Elton”, donated by BW sunk in Southall in 1993 and “Queen”, the oldest surviving wooden motor narrow boat, sunk at Denham, in 1994. These boats were hitch hiked to the Boat & Butty yard in Runcorn.
After “Forget me Not” was launched a recycling project was begun in 1996 using “Forget me Not” and “Lilith” to collect unwanted goods from canalside homes for resale and recycling. Initially these goods were sold on a flea market stall. Now the society runs the biggest charity shop in Ashton, though recycling trips have been suspended during the covid crisis.
Tameside council has given the charity huge amounts of help. The boats were moved to the local history museum, Portland Basin, in the late 1990s and work on a Heritage Boatyard in Stalybridge started in 2000. The ground here had to be lowered by 2 metres to canal level.
A “Hazel” sponsorship scheme encouraged supporters to make annual contributions to a fund for her renovation and maintenance. In 2011 this reached £23000. A further donation of £75000 from Tameside council enabled work to begin on her. Boatbuilder Stuart Hughes flew in from America to take charge of the work. She was launched in 2013 and entered service in 2016.
Every boat has to have a purpose. “Hazel” is a well being boat, enabling people suffering mental stress to spend time on the canals (an idea later pinched by CRT!) She has been restored to her original unpowered condition, so guests can enjoy the peace of a canal journey being towed by a distant motor boat or, possibly in the future, a horse. Currently she is funded by the National Lottery to provide time afloat for NHS and care workers who have worked hard through the covid pandemic.
“Lilith” has been the recycling boat since 1996, though she’s currently idle until this project resumes. As it is nearly 40 years since her restoration was completed she is in need of some serious work as soon as the resources are available. She’s recently celebrated her 120th birthday.
“Forget me Not” , built at Polesworth in 1927, does the towing on wellbeing trips and, when they resume, on recycling trips.
“Southam”, 1936, was originally a butty. Motorised and converted in 1965 she has also been used for towing. She had new planks fitted in 2019 but the reconstruction of her cabins has been delayed by the pandemic. Her 1965 fitted BMC 3.8 engine is to be replaced with a similar unit donated by Tameside College. Her future will be as a spare tug, volunteer accommodation, representing the WCBS at events and possibly as a mobile craft shop.
At present a priority is clearing “Elton”, 1937, of recyclable metals that have built up on board so that she can be tidied up and used as workshop space. In the longer term plans will be made for her restoration and a project for her to work on. Ideas are being bandied about at present.
Similarly “Queen”, 1917, is awaiting restoration. After some recent submarine adventures work is underway to make her float more reliably. Short term she will be used as a craft workshop. Like “Elton”, ideas for her post restoration use are under discussion. A water drip Bolinder, similar to the one that powered her between 1924 and 1947, is being restored for her at the Anson Engine Museum.
This collection of boats is of national importance but they've been maintained on a shoestring budget. In order to ensure their survival and future usefulness the WCBS needs to grow into a well funded national organisation.
The society would like to hear from people interested in helping with this, whether it's project planning, fundraising, business development, publicity, administration or just helping out at ground level. You don't necessarily have to live near Tameside to help.
For more information, or to volunteer, please visit our website
Chris Leah, 2022