Search This Blog

Monday, 7 November 2011

Canal Ancestors

The canals were once the lifeblood of Britain’s trade. Ireland’s Newry Canal, built in 1742, was perhaps the first truly artificial waterway in Britain. Engineer Thomas Steers (1672–1750), a Lancashire man, helped to construct it.

Britain’s canal success story really began when the pioneering Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgwater (1736-1803) proved he could make a profit transporting coal by canal.
The Bridgewater Canal, which opened in 1761, brought immense wealth to the ‘Canal Duke.’‘Canal mania’ gripped the nation, and a great network of canals was cut through the British countryside by the first canal workers: the navvies and engineers like James Brindley who transformed our landscape.
Canal boats were mostly owned by big carrying companies; only a few canal boatmen could afford to own their own boat: the ‘Number Ones’. Speedy ‘fly’ boats carried time-dependent cargoes, and these boats had four-man crews.
The ‘slow’ narrow-boats on the narrow canals of the Midlands were crewed by men or by families. The big ‘scows’ and ‘lighters’ on the Scottish and Irish canals were worked by men.
Writer John Hollingshead said the boatmen wore: ‘short fustian trousers, heavy boots, red plush jackets, waistcoats with pearl buttons and fustian sleeves, and gay silk handkerchiefs … round their necks’ (Odd Journeys In and Out of London, (1860)).
My new book Tracing Your Canal Ancestors for Pen & Sword explores the history of the canals and the boatmen’s way of life, and explains how to trace canal workers, whether they worked on the waterways or on the land.

Images: Canal engineer James Brindley (1716 – 1772). Lives of the Engineers: Brindley and the Early Engineers, (John Murray, 1874.)

A Fellows, Morton and Clayton boat, and a canal boat family in the 1920s: Cassell’s Book of Knowledge (Waverley Book Co., no date, c.1924).
‘Neptune’s Staircase’: Thomas Telford’s impressive series of eight locks at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal. Mountain Moor and Loch Illustrated by Pen and Pencil, (Sir Joseph Causton & Sons, 1894).

No comments: