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A fascinating insight into the history of canals

Diane Inglis

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CanalsBritish WaterwaysBill WalkerHayfield Civic Trust

Bill at Marple Locks

Working on canals more than 100 years ago was a hard life usually associated with men, but a fascinating talk by a local canal enthusiast shows how women and children played their part too.

Bill Walker, who worked for British Waterways for many years, told members and guests of Hayfield Civic Trust how the men who captained the narrow boats started to take their wives and children on board with them in the 1800s.

“Boats were run by a captain who originally paid a mate to help him, but as money became tight in the 1830s onwards, the captain took his family with him, both to save money and to help with the loading, unloading and general day-to-day activities,” he said.

Life was hard for the families, who all slept in one tiny cabin, measuring just eight feet by seven feet. Bill explained that the father and mother would have the main bed, while their eldest child would sleep on the floor with his or her feet tucked under the parents’ bed. 

The next two children would top and tail on the cabin’s small side bench and the baby of the family would sleep in an orange box perched on the door of the pot cupboard which dropped down to make a table. Any subsequent babies would be placed in a makeshift hammock slung over the bed.

It was an extremely hard life, with the wife helping her husband with all his duties while the children worked as well, often walking with the horse for miles on end.

Washing was limited, with shared water carried in cans from standpipes along the canals and clothes were washed infrequently, when the boat stopped and there was room to hang the washing out on the canal bank or in the hold.

Education was also hit and miss and the boat children would take their books into different schools for teachers to look at as they sailed by.

The Hayfield audience were surprised to learn that parents sometimes gave children away when they felt they had too many. In an early form of unofficial adoption they would hand a child over to other boat families, in a process known as a giveaway. 

As well as being hard, this way of life was perilous and children were sometimes killed in accidents by either drowning or being crushed between the boat and the lock chamber walls.

Speaking after the talk, Bill told The Review: “There were women and children working all over the canals of this area and, at its height, Bugsworth Basin had 400 people working there mainly on the transport of limestone from the quarries at Dove Holes.

“Canals were used to transport goods all around the country at a time when the roads were rough and rutted and at the mercy of highwaymen in some areas.

“The canals offered a reliable and safe way of moving goods around and some of the main things transported were coal and limestone to serve the local mills and industries.

“Times were certainly very hard for everyone but in many ways, the boat people had more sanitary conditions than mill workers crammed into shared houses in the towns and they were in the fresh air all day rather than breathing in the fibres and being exposed to dangerous conditions in factories.

“For most of them, they made a life on the canal, which they valued above a life on the land and they would not swap it for anything,” he concluded.