A Brief History of Narrowboats

Those of you who visited The Crick Boat Show recently will know that the history of narrowboats and their heritage is celebrated there. It always features some narrowboats with interesting stories to tell. The history of narrowboats is intertwined with the history of our canals so we thought we’d take a look at this part of our industrial heritage and see how we arrived at the canals and narrowboats that we have today.

The history of narrowboats starts in the 18th century and the boom in canal building. Narrowboats were originally built as working boats to carry cargo. With the onset of the industrial revolution and growth of towns and cities, food and other agricultural products needed to be moved from the countryside to the new urban areas. With the growth of towns such as Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester in some of the country’s industrial heartland came the need to transport coal, as well as textiles and finished products.

The current beam width of six foot ten inches for narrowboats came about because of a deal struck between the influential canal engineer James Brindley and The Trent and Mersey Canal Company. They reached an agreement to build the locks on the canal to accommodate boats approximately seven foot wide by seventy foot long. These dimensions were much narrower than boats using the surrounding rivers and canals but may have been due to specific topography in the area. This became the standard size of lock built on the Midlands canals and hence the standard size of narrowboats.

Early narrowboat operation

Narrowboats were originally powered by horses, which enabled goods to be transported both locally and further afield. Many narrowboats operated on a single day, but longer distances typically meant that the men went to work on the boats and their families would stay behind at home. The narrowboat companies would usually employ a man to steer the boat and a boy to lead the horse. The employees and horses would stay overnight at canal-side inns when the horse needed a rest, before travelling onward or returning with a different cargo.

Later on, as competition increased and wages were minimal, boatmen couldn’t afford the upkeep of their houses on land. Consequently, the families of long-distance boatmen moved onboard and became unpaid crew.

To increase the cargo capacity, a second boat, known as a butty, was towed by the first. This also increased the living accommodation as there were two cabins, which was often required by the boatman’s large family.

By 1850, approximately 4,800 miles of inland waterways had been constructed. This compares with 2,000 miles of inland waterways for which the Canal & River Trust is responsible today.

Horses started to be replaced by steam power in the late 19th century. Steam engines were often fitted to boats that had previously been drawn by horses. Steam powered narrowboats were often used on longer routes, travelling non-stop day and night. They needed larger crews but the engines could be run non-stop, unlike the horses who needed food and rest.

However, the steam engines, along with the coal to power them and the crew to work them, took up more space on board, which meant less space for cargo.

The early 20th century saw the introduction of diesel engines.

Nationalisation of the waterways

In 1948, the waterways were nationalised and the British Transport Commission was founded. The individual canal cargo companies were taken over by the British Transport Commission, which at its height, had a total of 368 boats. This was probably the largest fleet of narrowboats that has existed.

Unfortunately, there had been a lack of maintenance during the war and the rise in road transport meant that demand for canal transportation was falling. Traffic reached an all-time low and in 1963 The British Waterways Board was formed. It made the decision to stop cargo operations on the waterways.

It was expected that many of the smaller canals would close, but this required legislation and the post-war government had other priorities. Although the canals were significantly under-funded.

Regeneration of the canals

The survival and later regeneration of the canals has been attributed to a book called ‘Narrow Boat’ by Tom Rolt. He describes the traditional way of life on the canals, and this nostalgic view had much appeal as Britain recovered from World War II. In 1946 the Inland Waterways Association was formed to preserve Britain’s canals.

The change in focus from industrial transport to leisure was a slow one, but in 1968 Barbara Castle’s Transport Act recognised the leisure potential of canals and public money was allocated to support their use for recreation.

The regeneration of city centres (Birmingham is a prime example) has been enhanced by the restoration of the canals that run through them. Warehouses have been converted to stylish apartments and the areas surrounding canals have become desirable places to live, work and socialise.

In addition, the canals have become valuable wildlife corridors and breathing spaces for cities. They are much loved by boaters, both as long and short-term residences as well as for leisure.

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