I helped my aunt move house recently; she needed to thin out her vast book collection. After describing the Hydro project to her, she gave me various books including a number about canals and canal people which she had used to help her in genealogical research. Apparently my 4x great grandfather (and possibly his father too) was a waterman; largely based on the Aire and Calder – mainly the Navigation. Six of his seven sons were born along the northern canals. Through text and some wonderful early photos the books provide a small indication of the life of such watermen and women as well as information on the canals of the UK. I particularly like ‘A Canalside Camera 1845-1930’ by Michael E. Ware (1975) showing the ‘heyday’ of the British canal system. Images provide a picture of the hard lives of the children, the navvies and the women and men working the waterways. What really struck me was that these photos show much non-human life: horses, mules, donkeys (known as ‘hanimals’ on the Stroudwater Navigation), dogs, cats and birds. This led me to wonder what the lives of animals used in and around the waterways was actually like.
Old photos show that the condition of both horses and
towpaths varied considerably (Source: Canal
Ware (1975) suggests ‘some boatmen would keep the same horse or mule for their entire lifetime, while others were born horse-traders and would be continually changing their animals’ (image 71). A loaded single horse-drawn boat could carry as much as 25 tons. The most gruesome photo in this book is of a drowned horse being hauled out of a canal. Erosion and collapse as well as keeping the canal sides secure from strays was a common problem and no doubt a lot of canal animals (as well as humans) suffered this kind of watery end. In a less grisly tale, I was reminded that a horse was much more recently rescued by fireman from a canal near Wolverhampton.
Rescued from Coseley Canal, 2012 (Source: see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2211751/Horse-rescued-5ft-deep-water-getting-trapped-Coseley-canal.htm).
Another picture in Ware (1975) shows a family with a dog and a bird in a cage; the caption suggests that many families had such pets. In Ware’s (1989) ‘Narrow Boats at Work’ horses are shown with their nose-bowls eating on the move while working. Horses rarely went along the towpaths without a ‘backer’ walking behind them or on their back. Very often children fulfilled this role as seen by photos in the late 1890s (Ware, 1989). Overnight stabling was often associated with canalside pubs, but photos suggest the condition of these buildings were very variable. The Canal and Rivers Trust suggest that a boatman was only as good as his horse and so they were generally well-cared for (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/bingley-to-saltaire/canal-boat-horse) and Ware’s book also shows photos of animals in good condition. He suggests that the owner-boatmen who owned their horses did look after their animals, but in the system on some waterways where horses were shared, animals did not apparently fare so well. Boughey (1994) quotes Hutton (1783): ‘ The boats… are each drawn by something like the skeleton of a horse, covered with skin: whether he subsists upon the scent of the water, is a doubt; but whether his life is a scene of affliction, is not; for the unfeeling driver has no employment but to whip him from one end of the canal to the other. While the teams practised the turnpike road, the lash was divided among five unfortunate animals, but now the whole wrath of the driver falls upon one’ (pp45-46). There must have been a lot of unchecked cruelty before the first Act of Parliament to prevent cruelty to horses was passed in 1823 and the RSPCA established in 1824.
Cartwright’ Grey Mare (Source: Broadhead, I.E. (1994) Up the Cut: an anthology of waterways, Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud, pp.178)
By J. Chatwin
This is the story of Cartwright the Bold,
Who drove the Grey Mare up the cut so I’m told.
Out early morning and home the next day,
With a boat load of coal from out Anglesey way.
Now this old Grey Mare was just artful you see,
Wouldn’t ‘bacca’ a bit while they supped at their tea,
In vain they could shout, was she afraid?
The old Mare knew all the tricks of the trade.
Did she know ‘Bromwich Eight, and ‘Gansey’ did she!
Where a nose-tin of corn would be waiting you see,
Walsall Wood and Daw End where she knew she could rest,
And home the next day with a load of the Best.
But alack and alas, ‘tis said to recall,
One day she went and lay down in her stall,
And all that is left of this sad little tale
Is the Old Mare’s hind show that still hangs on the nail.
Note: to ‘bacca’ is for the horse to go forward by him/herself. ‘Bromwich Eight’ and ‘Gansey’ are Riders Green and Rushall Locks, respectively. Walsall Wood and Daw End are tying-up points on the way to Anglesey Canal Loading Basin.
Broadhead, I.E. (1994) Up the Cut: an anthology of waterways (Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing).
Boughey, J. (1994, orig. 1950) Hadfields’ British Canals: The Inland Waterways of Britain and Ireland (Stroud, Budding Books) 8th edn.
Hutton, W. (1783) A History of Birmingham [Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13926/13926-h/13926-h.htm]
Ware, M.E. (1989) Narrow Boats at Work (Ashbourne, MPC).
Ware, M.E. (1975) A Canalside Camera 1845-1930 (Newton Abbot, David & Charles).
Canal Junction http://www.canaljunction.com/craft/horsedrawn.htm
Canal & River Trust: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/
Horse rescued from 5ft-deep water after getting trapped up to its neck in canal when it was swept away by floods (2012). Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2211751/Horse-rescued-5ft-deep-water-getting-trapped-Coseley-canal.html#ixzz3SUK0PWUH