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Starting with the Romans

Britain's canals today are no longer the functional working canals of former centuries; instead, these water highways provide visitors and holidaymakers an opportunity to enjoy the tranquillity of the countryside.   A few professional boatmen still live in communities on canal boats throughout Britain - gliding easily through the locks, keeping their self-decorated boats in good nick and going about their daily lives.

Waterways and canals have been a lifeline for British industry and agriculture for far longer than we might know.  Canals can be traced as far back as Roman times when the Romans used canals for irrigation purposes and to connect existing waterways with one another. Romans built the Foss Dyke in Lincolnshire for drainage and navigation and the Caer Dyke around AD50 shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD by the armies of Emperor Claudius.

During the Middle Ages (approximately 500 CE to 1500 CE) traders transported goods and products mainly by sea and then by horse and cart through a network of muddy roads connected to main towns. The weather was unpredictable and piracy at sea was dangerous.  Once on land, pack horses struggled along the muddy and pitted medieval road system; too often the goods were damaged before arrival.

Using existing British waterways offered a favourable alternative and allowed larger quantities of goods to be transported safely through navigable rivers. Nevertheless, some rivers were too shallow or perhaps too fast flowing.  In some areas, industries and millers were already using the water to turn their water wheels needed for production and milling flour, etc.  And they had ancient rights over the water. 

Because the rivers were not always where they were needed, canals were built specifically to join up key areas of production (coal mines, quarries and mills) with large towns or ports. Canal boats and barges that were towed by horse along the waterways could carry heavy supplies to sites where new castles, churches and monasteries were being built. At Windsor, a “cut” was dug to bring the Thames closer to the castle.


Building the Canals

During the years of the Tudor monarchs (1486-1603), Britain grew as an economic and political power and increases in population and industry required the expansion of the use of British waterways. The flash lock was especially helpful in getting canal boats and barges to move up stretches of rivers that were stepped.  In the mid-1700s, after the first canals were successful, landowners, business owners, local people and the government became part of the process to approve expanding the building of canals. Landowners and businesses paid for the canal and owned shares in it. Sometimes it was a successful money-making venture, sometimes not.


Some canals served a particular purpose: the Caledonian Canal in Scotland allowed boats to go across the country rather than all the way around the coast through dangerous seas. When complete, the Grand Junction Canal shortened the earlier route between London and the Midlands by some 60 miles and not being prone to the vagaries of the Thames, it also provided a more reliable waterway.  As a result, the new canal thrived: in 1810 it carried 343,560 tons of goods through London, with roughly equal amounts into and out of the capital. Although Parliament approved even more canal plans after the required survey was completed, some were never built.

Canals that were approved for building took years to complete. Even in the early 19th century they were cut using pick axes, shovels, hammers and wheelbarrows by the workforce known as “navvies” – though sometimes gun powder was used to blast a way through a rocky area. After the channel was dug out, the sides had to be supported with wooden frames and lined by such limestone or clay as was available in the area. Men - or sometimes cows - tramped over the base to make it as waterproof as possible before the water from reservoirs was added to keep the water levels constant in the canals.

Meanwhile stonemasons, bricklayers and blacksmiths created the locks, guided by the supervising engineers, some of whom remain well known to this day.  Thomas Telford (1757 – 1843) who gave his name to the town of Telford in Shropshire was a stonemason, surveyor and famous engineer. He was responsible with William Jessop for the impressive Pontcysylite Aqueduct in Wales which opened in 1805.  Telford also supervised the Caledonian Canal in Scotland among other canal building projects. 

James Brindley (1716 – 1772) was also another famous engineer who became an expert on inland waterways as well as designing new bridges. Between 1760 and 1829 over 100 canals were built and the system expanded to over 4,000 miles in length. 

Some companies owned and operated fleets of boats.  Work and pay were regular and oorganised by the company. However, 0nly the captain was paid if the crew were members of his family, living on board. There was then no need to hire and to pay day laborers.  The company also paid the tolls and charges collected for maintenance of the canal systems. Tolls charges depended on the cargo, boat weight and distance travelled.  Lock keepers were often the toll collectors who were then responsible for issuing a toll ticket or receipt to the boatman. This was an important reason for captains to know their numbers. Any handwriting on these receipts was notoriously difficult to decipher.

Users of canal transport could if they wished, own and operate their own boats.  This was particularly useful for manufacturers such as the Cadbury Brothers who had more than one water-side property in Birmingham and needed to transport goods and materials from one to another.  To expand their chocolate powders and drinks and in hopes of replacing alcoholic beverages, this abstentionist Quaker family built their own canal arm in 1847. Cadbury’s was unique in that it hired women to help with the loading as well as captaining the day boats. 

In 1920, there were still 567 factories in Birmingham dependent on canal water in this way and on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, 157 cotton mills, 10 flour mills, 15 iron works, 28 wool and dye works, 9 electricity works, and 117 other works of various kinds.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) was born into a Potteries family. They helped to promote the building of a local canal to expand the Wedgwood Pottery business.  Josiah became a strong supporter of what eventually became the Trent and Mersey Canal. In Staffordshire, Wedgwood recognized that canals provided an opportunity to move cargoes of clay to his factory doors and to transport his fragile finished goods to market safely.  Pottery had to be packed in straw and then into wooden barrels, and if loaded with coal or salt or other heavy cargo, care had to be taken to balance the load.  Loaded boats were sometimes covered with tarpaulins and ropes to protect the cargo from weather and theft.

The structure and organization of the inland waterways carrying industry in England was (and still is) complicated by the great variety of waterways, the variety of vessels designed to work them and the various differences in operational practices designed to suit different regional conditions.

The Boats

“Slow” boats on the canals worked twelve to fourteen hours each day, and in some cases tied up on Sundays. On the narrow canals these boats were operated by one man and a boy, occasionally two men, and later one man and his family. Slow boats did not operate with a strict timetable and would usually wait until they had a full load before starting out.  This distinguished them from the faster, lighter so-called “fly” boats which were first introduced on the Glasgow, Paisley and Ardrossan Canal in 1830 to provide and “express” service for some commodities.

The narrowboat, a canal boat of less than 7 feet in width, would be pulled by a single horse. Often the horse had to be found by the boatman himself and would not be changed during a journey.

The fly boat trade tended to be concentrated in the hands of big public carriers such as Pickfords who operated large fleets of boats and employed many men and horses.  Pickfords’ vans of course became very common in the 20th century as house content removers. At its height in 1838, Pickfords’ canal fleet consisted of 116 boats and 398 horses.  After 1840 much of this kind of canal trade was lost to the railway companies, though the 1841 census of England and Wales still recorded 26,611 men and women employed as inland boatmen.

In 1847 the Grand Junction Canal formed a carrying department and picked up what was left of the Pickfords’ working stock and premises when it announced its intentions to cease canal carrying. By 1853, the Grand Junction Canal was carrying 75% of its own merchandise on its canal. When this venture failed in 1876, a new company, Fellows, Morton & Clayton took over. Sadly it too failed, resulting in that company’s bankruptcy in 1948 – though its name and livery are still to be found nostalgically on boats on the canals to this day.

Boats were specially designed for the waterways being used. Narrowboats were traditionally 21 m (70ft) long but short enough to fit in the locks, which are usually 22 m (72 ft) long.  Most carried a load of approximately 25 tons. Even as late as World War I,  they were usually horse drawn. The steam engines which some boats used were considered to take up too much space. Diesel engines began to take over in some boats in the 1920s. Until engines were introduced, a horse on the towpath pulled the boat loaded with cargo.

Barges are wider than 7 feet and often have flat bottoms to avoid scraping the canal or riverbed when fully loaded. Sometimes a sail powered the barge rather than being towed by a horse.  Living accommodations were sparse, crowded and often unsanitary, especially if the families included several children.


Boat People and Communities


The canal construction “navvies” came from all parts of the British Isles and even from Europe.  Out of their harsh working conditions and communal living there gradually evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language.  They also acquired a reputation for hard living, hard drinking (alcohol probably providing a temporary release from the toil and privation of their daily lives) and fighting, which often led the local communities within which they worked to regard them as degenerate and a threat to the social order.

Despite their way of life, it was the navvies who carried the gruelling physical burden of construction work, usually in appalling conditions.  When not on the ‘tramp’ between jobs, some lived in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings on which they worked.  For this they were relatively well paid, a good navvy earning up to 30 shillings a week, three times the wage of an agricultural labourer, but it was dangerous work. Sometimes navvies were able to lodge in nearby towns and villages, but even if suitable accommodation was available nearby, their reputation for thieving and not paying the rent made them undesirable tenants.

Boat Horses

Because very few early canal tunnels had towpaths, boat horses were led over the ground above and then returned to the side the canal, travelling at about 2 ½ miles an hour.  Boatmen would ‘leg’ the boat through the canal tunnel by lying on their backs and pushing with their feet against the tunnel roof. To push with their legs against the tunnel walls, the boatmen would lie on planks extending from the boat’s sides and push with their legs, moving the boat through the tunnel.  Legging was a slow and arduous job, often taking two or three hours in a long tunnel and causing considerable bottlenecks, especially in narrow tunnels.  Later, steam or electric tugs were used before powered narrow boats became common; there were few engines until the 20th century. 


To protect and deliver the cargo safely and as quickly as possible, the boatman captain needed to steer a barge or keep a horse moving on the towpath.  The faster he got the cargo to its destination, the quicker he got paid.  The boat captain could earn extra money if he (and/or his family) could unload the cargo as well.  Throughout the history of canal carrying, boatmen were able to earn money wages on a par with or even in excess of those paid to manual workers in other old staple industries. In a thesis, Canal Boat People, 1840 – 1970,  submitted to the University of Nottingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in May 1991, Wendy Freer shows that the decision to live on board a barge was a matter of regional custom and personal choice; approximately 30 percent lived permanently on their barge.  Nevertheless, those who did choose to live on board with their families did so at considerable social cost, including social deprivation and some forms of poverty.

A bargee had every inducement to marry young and to bring up his family in the small cabin of his barge so extra workers were not necessary to hire and pay.  It was not uncommon for girls to give birth to their first child in their late teens when the husband was only two to five years older.  A boatman was paid the same rate for a trip regardless of his age. Although most boatmen had homes in settled places, these hard-working boatmen- sometimes called “bargees”- gained a rather bad reputation, not unlike the navvies. The Victorians grew suspicious of the boaters who rarely left the towpath and branded them; drinkers, criminals, scruffy and violent people. Some of these labels were warranted as they did drink intoxicating liquors and their appearance was not the cleanest due to the work and living conditions they were subjected to. Fights would sometimes break out when a dispute was had at the locks, giving them the reputation of being violent people. The first Chief Canal Boat Inspector, an office established under the Canal Boats Acts of 1877 and 1884, remarked on the hardiness of the boat people, many of whom, he claimed, had not known a day’s sickness in their lives.   



Boatmen who were women

A woman who lived on board the barge with her husband was expected to steer the boat occasionally and sometimes lead the horse on the towpath.  In addition to these and her other household cooking and cleaning duties, boatwomen decorated the interiors of the boats with lace and rag rugs and decorated the exteriors with the distinctive rose and castle paintings. The occupational tables in the 1851 Census show 1,638 women employed on canal boats in selected counties, but the real number was certainly higher, and as Wendy Freer reported in her 1991 thesis,  cannot be a full picture when only selected counties were canvassed.  


At other times, the Canal Association attempted to conduct surveys by lockkeepers who were expected to identify the number of women as occupants of canal boats as the boats passed through the locks.  The survey results of 1884 showed that “females over 16 years of age made up no more than 20 percent of the labour force on long-distance cabin boats.  Reformers who sought to remove female and child labour from the boats focused their attention exclusively on boats with living accommodations, suggesting that there were few women on other types of boats.  Reformers were concerned with sanitation, morality and education rather than working conditions.  It is known that women were recruited during the First World War to load day boats carrying coal from collieries, although there was some union resistance to women labourers, suggesting that female labour was not a part of customary practice. 


The number of women working on canal boats increased during the First World War to make up the gaps in the labour force which were created by men leaving to join the armed forces.  The canal carrying trade suffered irrevocable blows during the First World War and the immediate aftermath was a period of extreme financial difficulty and poor trade.  The number of men working independently on their own account appeared to double after the first World War.  The size of the female labour force as a whole increased by 50 percent, indicating that the proportion of females to males on dwelling boats (barges) remained high until after the Second World War.


Eily Gayford (1903-1991) wrote a most engaging book, published in 2008 of her experiences as a boatwoman in 1941, after the start of World War II.  She became successful at handling boats, delivering cargoes, and living within the canal boating community as captain and one other boatwoman, sometimes two.  In their limited space, they catered for themselves with their allowance of £1.50 a week each for food and expenses.  A bit of crockery, a kettle, saucepan and frying pan completed their kitchenware.  She writes that “…the hand bowl was the only piece of moveable equipment in the cabins supplied by the firm that owned the boat; it was strongly made and invaluable for all washing purposes.”  Fresh water from the supply can filled from the tap at the lock was used for all washing purposes.  She writes of the boat women “They learned certain economies, like filling a hot water bottle with the vegetable water, and in the morning boiling the eggs in it, and when I boiled an egg in fresh water, I often used it to make a cup of cocoa, with apparently no ill effects.” 


One of Eily’s proudest possessions was about an inch of steel wool, which she only used when the brass bands and chains were needed polishing.  She thought it strange how these bits were gleaming and glittering when everything else throughout the wartime country was blacked out and darkened.  “Not a chink of light must be shown from a cabin slide, or a slightly open cabin door, but the moon could wink and sparkle all over our shining brasses.”  Eily (known as Kitty throughout the canal boating community), described a visit to a pub before leaving Paddington with her boat loaded with cement in bags.  The pub’s windows were blacked out, but kind and friendly patrons were there, and the evening was  “free from any air-raids.  Despite all the bombing during the war the canals were comparatively free from damage, and loss of life.”  She reported “having a good nucleus of steady workers…” and …”at one time we had eleven pairs working, all manned by girls.  When the war ended there were six of us still working, all of whom had joined in 1942. “  


So successful was Eily Gayford that she began to train other women to handle boats.  In 1945 she was designated a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire for her exceptional service to the canal boating industry.  For each Census (usually taken in April) year from 1911 to 1951 inclusive, the Grand Junction Canal shows the highest proportion of females on board canal boats. 



From 1800 to 1840, when the canals were hives of activity, the Boat People website estimates there were around 18,000 families working and living on working canal boats, with 3,000 women making up this number.  Children older than 10 learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses. Boat families had very little leisure time as a day trip could last up to 17 hours and were obliged for keeping the cargo safe until delivery.  Boating families made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life.  Outside observers often commented that their distinctive mode of dress added to the idea that the boat families were a separate class.  The men wore fustian trousers, plus jackets, waistcoats, thick blanket coats and fur caps with side flaps. The most distinctive part of the women’s dress was their quilted cowled bonnets. 


Nearly all (95%) of all boat community members lived with at least one other person to whom they were related by marriage or blood.  Some boatmen’s wives lived alone while their husbands were away; some were widowed persons living alone or living with lodgers.  If not working on a boat, children often left to become servants.  Sometimes children lived with grandparents while their parents were away boating. Co-residing kin reflected the worsening economic situation.  Very few elderly people or widows lived on canal boats and if they did, they were with their own families. The organisation of kinship structures seems to have maximized the efficiency and prosperity of the community. Because educational and religious influences were minimal, the boating community remained a highly insular group even at a time when the state of the canal carrying industry exerted pressure on members of the labour force to leave and seek to better themselves.


Washing and laundry facilities on shore were also minimal and often refused even for children. For some, there was a service which washed clothes but returned them damp and unironed.


Shopping too could be challenging.  Shops near the canals were often out of food, or shop keepers tended to reserve their goods for their regular local customers. Shops that catered to boat people were often half beer houses along with a half general store and butchers.  Sometimes missionaries visited the boats to distribute tracts and to exhort the boaters to give up the evils of intoxicating liquor and embrace the faith. Obviously a successful practice when many of the canal boat families could not read.



A third significant component of the labour force, and one which was the subject of much controversy, was made up of children.  Here, the Census figures are not very helpful as parents were anxious to conceal from the authorities that their children aged 10 and older were involved in long and arduous daily toil on the canal boats.  The Canal Association figures indicate that in 1854 about a quarter of those people living on board were children under the age of sixteen.  From 1905, the Board of Education asked local education authorities to send in returns stating how many children of school age had been seen on canal boats in their area during the year.  Because the returns contained many omissions and duplications, the data is incomplete and may be unreliable.  However, the figures from the annual returns to the Board of Education from local attendance officers showing the number of canal boat children of school age seen between 1905 and 1934 are:


              1909                   15

              1918                      5

              1919                      4

              1920                   14

              1921                   15

              1922                   12

              1923                   16

              1924                   17

              1925                   26

              1926                   25

              1927                   18

              1928                   8

              1929                   15

              1932                   37

              1933                   46

              1934                   39


Where children are found on boats other than those of their parents it is safe to assume that they were operational members of the crew; children did not leave the family boat to work for outsiders until the age of ten years, and more usually between the ages of 12 and 14.  Many boys worked with their fathers, either on the father’s boat or on another boat working in tandem with him.  Only occasionally were two children working the boats themselves without an adult.


The only body to have attempted to quantify children working on canal boats was the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and their efforts did not get underway until the beginning of the 20 Century.  In a report on canal boat children published by the NSPCC in 1910 it was noted that a special inspector had seen boys as young as six years of age and girls of eight driving the horse and steering the boat.  In 1920, the NSPCC established a post of special inspector for canal boat children - the first holder of that post being named as one V. Hackett. 

During the Victorian era (1837-1901) children were expected to work in factories and mines. The canal children were on the bottom of the list when it came to safeguarding them and having any form of education. Eventually the Parliament did recognise the need for children to have schooling and play time and the man who helped make those changes was the “children’s friend” George Smith. from Coalville. He was a dedicated and passionate man who never gave up and suffered personal financial problems in order to protect all working children. He worked for many long years to have his “wish list” of improvements put into place for working children:

  • No boys on boats under 13 years old to work or sleep on the boat

  • No girls under the age of 18

  • Minimum space for sleeping in cabins

  • Cabin inspections to improve conditions

  • Canal boat children to pass a basic standard of education


Finally, Parliament passed a law to protect the canal children. The Canal Boats Act of 1877 gave power to registration authorities to inspect boats and to restrict the number of people who could live on board. However, the legislation simply permitted this to happen rather than required it to happen and little changed until the Act was amended in 1884. 

Much later, laws were passed to enable canal children to gain an education. One of the schools was held on a boat called the Elsdale, which opened in 1930 and could accommodate about 40 children. This made it easier for boat children to attend some classes while their parents were awaiting orders, but they still did not attend every day. When the boat was loaded, they left with the family and the cargo.

When travelling the canal, children were able to attend schools where they only had to mix with their own kind like on the Elsdale. This suited the children, and they enjoyed the novelty of attending school. However, when the boats were moored, the children were expected to go to the main-stream schools, at which some of the children experienced bullying from the local children which didn’t make it such a pleasant experience for them.

By 1939 the Elsdale had become unsound and was hoisted onto the canal bank where schooling continued alongside the depot buildings until the 1950s. By 1918, education for all children up to the age of 14 was compulsory.  Nevertheless, sometimes the boat children would just turn up to clock in, but then move on with the family, if they didn’t settle in or if the family had to move on to find more work.  On 7 February 1930, the Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette, reported “The House of Commons has given a second reading to a Bill that is designed to remove children entirely from canal boats. It is a proposal from one of the electors in the Uxbridge Division.  The chief arguments fur the Bill are that a canal barge is no fit home for children, as the cabins are ill-ventilated and cramped for room, damp, and unsanitary, and the boats often carry dirty and unhealthy cargoes. Most of the 2,000 children concerned get little or no education and are consequently restricted in their future range of livelihood. The latter point is considered a merit by some opponents of the measure, who argue that the position of a bargee is hereditary, and the youngsters learn "navigation" by instinct. The chief argument against is that the Bill as it stands will "break up the family life" by forcing the women as well as the children to live away from the barge, and the head of the family; and the usual reply to this is that the well-to-do people send their children away to boarding school without breaking up the family life.”

The writer conceded that there would have to be a compromise for. This could take the form of making more effective the existing education facilities provided, especially for those children connected with the Grand Union Canal. “Under the auspices of this well-managed Company, a barge-school exists at Brentford and Birmingham for children whilst their boats are in dock, but this must only allow an extremely limited time for schooling. so that a useful stage forward would be to compel attendance at school during term time only and incidentally, to grant no permits for children on unsanitary boats or those that carry unsavoury cargoes.  Some opponents argued that the children get all the education that is necessary for them, if they are to take their father's occupation. That has been the sort of argument used against every juvenile reform from the days when it used to be said that a boy who went down the pits at seven years old was being educated sufficiently by being enabled to follow his father's footsteps as a miner. Adaptation of conditions always accompanies, even when it does not enforce reforms. It is more than likely that the increase of motorboats and the speeding up of journeys will enable all that the Bill desires to be put into practice in a few years' time. For that reason, the compromises that have been suggested will suffice for the time being, and these, as far as we can see, are … that children under five might be allowed to remain with the parents, and the others sent to a school during term time.”


Health Issues

Braunston Northamptonshire, was known as the boatman’s spiritual home because many boaters chose this place for baptisms and burials.  Sadly, in the 1830s a deadly disease that had been carried along the canal from London struck the village. Filthy water was already a real hazard due on poorly kept waterways and typhoid was rife, but when cholera arrived in the 1830s the results were catastrophic. It had a devastating impact on families.  The church in Braunston, also known as the “Cathedral of the Canals” holds some of the secrets about what happened during this time. Victims of the disease were buried in the village and the disease was said to have arrived in the village via a narrow boat by a skipper who had brought his laundry ashore to the local washer women who did the washing, but then caught cholera and died. To deal with the outbreak, the yards and boats were cleansed, and five houses in the village were used to treat the sick; there were 70 cases in all and sadly 19 deaths. The outbreak of the disease did bring the boaters and land people together in their attempt to try and get the outbreak of Cholera under control.  The fear expressed in the community that canal boats would spread infectious diseases from one urban centre to another fortunately then proved to be ill-founded or highly exaggerated. 

About one hundred years later, during the 1930s to 1960 a woman known as Sister Mary became the Angel of the Waterways.  She was never professionally qualified as a nurse, but on a day-to-day basis, she dealt with problems caused by lack of health care and emergency situations caused by accidents, and more serious problems in her home village of Stoke Bruerne.  She was one of a kind and earned a British Empire Medal in 1951 for her selfless work. She retired in 1965. She was quoted as saying "You can't take me away from boat people. There isn't one of them wouldn't die for me, or one I wouldn't die for.” 

Voluntary bodies tried to meet the medical needs of the canal boat communities.  The Medical Mission set up a clinic in Birmingham and with minimal subscriptions was still operating in 1944.  Non-subscribers could obtain treatment for a small fee.  The private boat company Fellows Morton & Clayton paid £160 per annum to the Mission and in return for this the Mission agreed to send nurses to their boats to attend to confinements.


Possibly the greatest stride forward in the provision of medical treatment for boat people came in 1926 when, under the Education Act of 1921, boat children at the special schools in Paddington and Brentford began to be medically examined on a regular basis - once a term - and efforts were made to reach the parents by visiting the boats to discuss personal hygiene, dental treatment and the need for spectacles for their children.  Parents were not easily persuaded.  No special maternity services or care were available. The health visitor at Uxbridge reported in 1946 that most mothers were having their babies in hospital but confinements on board continued, and few mothers or infants attended the clinics.



By 1962 the operational narrow boat fleet had fallen to 45 pairs, with manning continuing to be a problem as crews retired or left the waterways for shore-based employment.  The position was exacerbated by the severe winter of 1962-63 during which the waterway was frozen over for three months.  Some of the canals’ remaining customers turned to road and rail haulage to ensure better reliability of supply, and they never returned. When taken with the continual losses incurred by their narrow boat fleet this was probably the last straw.  In 1964, a different transport services company took over about half of the fleet, carrying coal on the Oxford Canal and jam from a factory in Southall until the factory closed in 1970.  The last regular cargo was barrels of lime pulp shipped from Brentford to Rose’s factory at Boxmoor until it closed in 1981. 


Lock keepers

Lock-keepers usually kept an eye on their section of the river or canal and many of them were responsible for saving the lives of people who had fallen into the water, either from a passing boat or from the river bank. Most lock-keepers offered any aid they could to boats passing by which were in need of assistance.

Even as the roads of Britain were improved over the course of the eighteenth century, water transport remained the most efficient and cost-effective means by which to move large cargos. This method of transport was critical to the commerce and economy of England and therefore, it was necessary to ensure these waterways remained navigable at all times.  From the early decades of the 18th Century, when each lock was built, a neat and tidy cottage was built on the river bank nearby. These cottages were offered to a man who was willing to operate and maintain the lock as the major part of his compensation. There was a toll to be paid by anyone who wished to pass through one of these locks. In most cases, the lock-keeper was allowed to keep the tolls as his cash income. Those lock authorities who did not allow their lock-keepers to keep the tolls, usually included a modest cash stipend for their lock-keepers, along with the cottage. Even a single man would have found it difficult to subsist on the small cash income which a lock-keeper earned through tolls or a stipend. It would have been nearly impossible for a man with a wife and children. However, a sturdy, decent home was an important commodity for most people at that time, so there were many who were eager to take on the position of lock-keeper, despite the low cash pay and the fact that they were essentially on duty  24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The majority of lock-keepers and their families found ways to supplement their small cash income and they usually enjoyed a relatively comfortable life. Most lock-keepers’ cottages were situated on a generous plot of land, which was also available for the use of the lock-keeper. Many of them planted substantial kitchen gardens where they grew fruits, vegetables and herbs, primarily for their own use. But any surplus would be sold, usually to those passing by on the river, to bring in extra income. Chickens, rabbits, pigs, goats and sometimes, even a cow, might also be raised, for meat and milk, to supplement the fruits and vegetables from the garden. Surplus milk might be made into cheese and butter, again sold or traded to those on boats passing by the cottage. Fish inhabited most rivers, and even some canals, so fish certainly made up part of the diet of those who lived in a lock-keeper’s cottage. Records show that a number of lock-keepers were also bee-keepers, thus ensuring reliable pollination in their gardens. More importantly, the honey and beeswax which was produced could become a cash crop for the lock-keeper.

Though the bulk of the plantings in a lock-keeper’s garden were practical, comprising food for the table, quite a number of lock-keeper’s also planted flowers. Some lock-keepers obviously enjoyed flowers and their cottages might be partially covered by flowering vines or great clumps of colourful flowers could be seen dotting the surrounding green sward. Other lock-keepers planted only a few flowers on their property, usually near their front doors, just to add a touch of colour. It was common to see dozens of these lovely lock-keepers’ cottages, accented with flowers, along many quiet stretches of navigable rivers or canals across England. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that most lock-keepers, unlike toll-takers on roadways, were not reviled, but were usually considered to be helpful, kindly and amiable characters. Living in such attractive and bucolic surroundings may well have imbued lock-keepers with a perpetual sense of well-being and happiness.

Enterprising lock-keepers found other ways to supplement their income. At least a couple of lock-keepers along the Thames are known to have built a substantial baking oven on their property. They used their ovens to bake large batches of bread which they sold each day to those traveling on the river. Others brewed beer or cider which they sold or traded to the boat and bargemen who passed through their locks. Generally, lock-keepers had families and their wives and children all contributed to the family income in some way. Wives and/or daughters would make cheese, butter or preserves, bake bread or brew beer, salt or smoke meat, all of which could be sold or traded for cash or needed supplies. The ladies might also have had a still room where they made medicinal preparations from their herbs and/or distilled scented oils or waters from the flowers in their gardens. Sons might tend the animals and the garden, fish the river and help their father operate and maintain the lock. During the early 1800s, most lock-keepers and their families enjoyed a pleasant and agreeable life.

Not all locks in all locations were the same in terms of traffic on the waterway on which they were situated. Locks along canals on which many commercial vessels regularly travelled were much busier than were locks situated in the upper reaches of rivers like the Thames, which got significantly less traffic. Many canal locks might have to be opened and closed more than a dozen times each day, while a lock well upstream from London on the Thames river might only have to be opened two or three times a day, sometimes less. Lock-keepers who preferred a tranquil life in a secluded location typically chose a position as a lock-keeper well upstream on a river which did not get much traffic. Some of the lock-keepers who were responsible for locks in quiet rural areas were also scholars, poets, artists, even scientists, who devoted their free time to their intellectual or artistic pursuits. Lock-keepers who were more extroverted and wanted more activity, which usually meant more cash in the form of tolls, and/or interaction with more boatmen, took positions keeping locks on well-travelled canals.

Lock-keeper positions often stayed in the same family and were handed down from father to son through the generations. However, not all lock-keepers were men. From well into the early 1800s, there were a number of widows of lock-keepers who took up the work when their husband died. There was no prohibition against female lock-keepers until March of 1831, when waterway authorities decreed that neither wives nor daughters could assume the position of a deceased lock-keeper. Initially, this regulation was not always observed and there were still a few female lock-keepers on duty well into the middle of the nineteenth century, especially at locks located in quiet sections of rivers which did not get a lot of traffic. There were 45 locks along the Thames river from its source to Teddington Lock, where the Thames becomes tidal. Most of these were in quiet, isolated locations where a female lock-keeper could operate a lock beyond the notice of waterway authorities.

Lock-keepers’ cottages were constructed from of a number of different materials, in a wide range of styles and sizes. Those cottages which were in use during the Regency era (from 1795 through 1837 when George, Prince Regent was the temporary King while his father George III was ill) might have been as much as fifty years old, while others would have been newly built. Some cottages were situated right next to the lock their occupants operated, while others could be set back from the river or canal bank by several feet or more.  Some English lock-keepers’ cottages have survived into the 21st Century.


On its website, reminds us that currently the 2,000 miles of canals and rivers play host to over 34,000 boats, more than when the canals supported thousands of boatmen and women and their families who continually transported goods from one end of the country through to the other.

Sources and notes:

Freer, Wendy Jane, B.A, Canal Boat People, 1840 – 1970, Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, May 1991.

Faulkner, Alan H. 1975, FMC: A Short History of Fellows, Morton and Clayton Limited, Robert Wilson Designs, Rothwell, Northants

Gayford, Eily, 2007, The Amateur Boatwomen, The ‘Working Waterways’ series, The Belmont Press, UK This site includes great logo from The British Transport Commission - includes “National Service IW pin”


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  includes good b/w photo

This site gives access to a very informative 48 page booklet written for children. - more easy to read resources


Commentary by Dr. Caroline Bressey Historical and Cultural Geographer about the legacies and links between canal companies and plantation interests  - see 42508-canal-stories-by-dr-caroline-bressey.pdf (


National Service Inland Waterways badge issued to trainees

The boatwomen's training scheme was an initiative in the United Kingdom during the Second world war to attract women to work on Britain's canal network. Initiated by the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company (GUCCC) in 1942 the scheme was taken over by the Ministry of War Transport in 1944. The scheme closed after the end of hostilities in 1945. Nicknamed the Idle Women due to the Inland Waterways badge they wore in lieu of a uniform, it is estimated that approximately 100 women joined the scheme but only about 45 completed the training and only six are recorded as having participated throughout the length of the scheme.

Life on Britain's Canals and Waterways

A history of the canals of Britain and their people

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