Wartime canal boatmen

(An extended version of this article was published in the 'Waterways Journal, No.5' in 2003. See details on the home page for details of where to purchase a copy.)

That there were women boaters on the narrow canals during the Second World War is well known. Even those who ventured on to the Leeds and Liverpool have been acknowledged, doing their bit for the country at a time of labour shortage. But Britain in the 1940s was still very much male dominated, so why were women allowed to do a job that society saw as very much a male preserve. The answer is that men had already been used unsuccessfully to fill the gap left by young boatmen who had joined the armed services.

In both the First and Second World Wars canal transport had initially had a low priority. Goods were diverted to railways as it was impossible to keep boatmen on canals, where wages were low and conditions poor,. Many left for war work in factories. However, as conditions on the railways deteriorated through lack of maintenance, war damage during the Second World War, and the loss of skilled men, the government began to look round for ways of improving deliveries of materials and food. Eventually a Canal Control Committee was set up to co-ordinated traffic between canals and to help improve conditions and staffing. Income was guaranteed to the canal companies, but not to carrying companies, at pre-war rates. The railways, also, did not do terribly well, with losses incurred during the war contributing to amalgamation in 1923 and nationalisation in 1948. It is certain that government financial provision for canals during both wars was to result in the demise of carrying on many canals. Those involved with canals during the Second World War were sceptical of government attitudes. Mr. Rawsthorne, a director of Canal Transport Ltd., general carriers on the Leeds and Liverpool, was reported telling fellow directors "...that the knowledge gained during the last period of control by the government of the transport industry is sufficient for the experience not to be repeated." He was of the opinion that railway receipts would increase as traffic was forced onto them by petrol rationing etc. and that local railwaymen expected nationalisation when hostilities ceased.

The First World War

A Canal Control Committee was set up early in 1917, and had taken over the Leeds and Liverpool by 22 February. A tour of inspection was made, the lock keeper at Bank Newton noting that the government boat 293 (one of the L&L flyboats) passed through the locks on the 1st March with Henry Draper as captain. As a result of the inspection they must have decided to approach the army for help. There was already an Inland Waterways Battalion which operated in France, Belgium and the Near East, which had trained boatmen on the Basingstoke Canal. English canal boats had been sent abroad for the use of this battalion. For some reason these soldiers were not used on the Leeds and Liverpool, and instead three transport battalions were set up as part of the South Lancashire Regiment. Two were involved with dock work, while members of the 17th (Transport Workers) Battalion worked on canals.

It must have taken some time to set up as it was not until 19 November 1917 that the Bank Newton lock keeper noted that a steamer and six boats had passed with a sergeant and 20 men. The steamer had been converted into a house boat though sufficient accommodation could have been provided on the boats. There was a cook, so perhaps the steamer was also used as a mess. The men seem to have come from places such as London, Hull, Newcastle and Liverpool where they may have worked on the water before the war. Perhaps they were unfit for active service.

Over the next few months the boats crossed the canal's summit level several times as the men got to know the route. In March 1918 it was reported that 22 men were being trained and by September there were 37 soldier boatmen working out of a total of 493 boatmen on the canal. The original canal boatmen did not take too kindly to the army's boats, especially when the sergeant demanded priority at locks as they were on government service. The thought of fighting twenty odd men for a lock must have been too much even for the most hardened of boatmen! Eventually the soldier boatmen were sent to work as mates with an experienced boatman, though they continued to wear army uniform. At least two died whilst at work. Private James Jaques, from Poplar in London, was drowned on lock 13 at Wigan on 9 July 1918. A paddle was left open as the boat was descending the lock and he was knocked into the water when the tiller swung round due to the pressure of water. Later, on 9 October 1918, Private Charles Tullett was also drowned. Unusually, neither man is mentioned in official records as having died on active service.

The Second World War

Canals had been co-ordinated by a control committee right from the start of hostilities and were brought completely under government control in 1942. Prior to this, by the end of 1940, boats were already tied up for want of crews, and the Canal Carriers Association was pressing the Ministry of Labour to set up a canal training scheme. On the Leeds and Liverpool, Canal Transport Limited had nine boats unmanned, and 3 Belgian bargemen were offered a trial after being interviewed. They turned up for work at Wigan in January 1941 but were stopped by the local police, presumably as aliens. Norwegian seamen were also interviewed but nothing seems to have materialised, possibly as a result of the police action. By July 1941 soldiers from the Inland Water Transport Section, in uniform as in the First World War, were being employed on the Leeds and Liverpool to help with transporting goods. Although useful, their boats were reported regularly as damaged and constantly in dry dock, so management must have viewed their departure for other work in September with some relief. Damage to boats was a constant problem during this war as the blackout made travelling by night hazardous, particularly for bluff bowed barges on the northern waterways.

During the war, factories were able to pay high wages, and it was a constant effort for Canal Transport Limited to keep boatmen with the low wages they could offer and strenuous conditions on the boats. At the beginning of November 1941 the boatmen went on strike for a week, increasing the problems of keeping traffic moving. Early in 1942 the company suggested to the Ministry of War Transport that boatmen should be released from the army, but this was not taken up. Instead another solution was tried.

In October 1942 Ben Walls, one of the directors of Canal Transport, went over to Ireland to assess whether Irish labour would be suitable for working on canals. In Dublin he talked to Mr. Scott of the Grand Canal who was not encouraging. With the shortage of fuel in Ireland, the government there was having 20 boats built for the turf trade. (At an Arklow boatyard, I was told that these boats had steel bows and sterns with wooden sides. The heavy and less buoyant end sections tended to cause leaks, but that's another story) Before returning to England, Ben Walls interviewed around 60 men and selected 20 to work on the Leeds and Liverpool. They had arrived in England by the end of the year. Walls returned to Ireland in November on behalf of the Canal Control Committee with a list of men required by canals, carriers and boatyards right across England. He not only visited Eire, but also Northern Ireland, though this time he was not so successful in obtaining labour. Representatives from many other industries were seeking labourers and skilled men, and canal men were in short supply. Once again the low wages paid by canal companies were a problem, though there was no difficulty recruiting for the Trent Navigation and for the Grand Union where good wages could be earned. Other industries offered better wages. For example the Great Western Railway was looking for 400 men and could guarantee 60 or 80 hours work each week.

Ben Walls continued to visit Ireland looking for men, but by early 1943 labour was even more difficult to obtain. Word was getting that the canal jobs were no good and that wages and conditions were poor. Some of the men sent to the Birmingham area complained that to get to work they had to travel several miles by bus and that there were no canteens. Wives were also bitter that their husbands were only sending 30/- a week to them, while men employed in other industries were sending UKP3 or more. Altogether 190 Irish men came to England to work on canals, but by December 1943 only 93 remained, 74 had asked to be released for other work or had returned to Ireland while 23 had just disappeared.

The largest numbers went to work on the Trent Navigation (24), on the Leeds and Liverpool for Canal Transport Ltd (22) and for the Grand Union (19), though others were scattered all over the English canal system with 49 working for various firms around the BCN and 35 on the north eastern waterways. Unfortunately the men did not settle down easily. In the north west they were considered inexperienced and were soon attracted by the higher rates of pay in factories, while in the west midlands they did not realise that they would have to work with horses on narrow, heavily locked canals.

Canal Transport had Irishmen working with four of their most experienced motor boat crews, each motor boat towing a loaded dumb boat, three Irishmen crewing this whilst learning from the experienced boatmen. The motor boats involved were Saturn, Lune, Nidd and Aire, steered by Captains Lamb, Melling, Baldwin and Abram respectively. The boatmen were paid a fixed wage of UKP5 per week to compensate for the time they lost teaching the Irishmen about boat handling etc. They were also to receive a bonus as the trainees were transferred to working independently. Not only Irishmen were to be trained. It was suggested that women and boys could also make up the crews of the dumb boats. Crews were needed desperately as younger boatmen were still being called up. Each pair of boats was to operate separately, Ben Walls reporting that this was "...to prevent them congregating too much, the results of which we know from experience are to the benefit of neither the men or the Company."

Although the Irishmen were not a success, there was a new training scheme for women operating at the beginning of 1945. By this time Canal Transport had 17 boats (out of a total fleet of 68) hired out to other firms or laid up as they could not find sufficient crews. The scheme was not to be widely publicised as steering boats on the wide northern canals was considered to be much harder work than on the narrow canals in the midlands. However it was considered that little could be lost by the trial.

There was some adverse comment about the quality of Ben Walls canal experience when hiring the Irishmen. In his report he states that he was conversant with all aspects of canals (His family had worked on the Leeds and Liverpool for several generations and he was a director of Canal Transport Ltd. and had been responsible for the running and maintenance their boats and their boatmen during the 1930s) and that he only sent men he thought were experienced in canal work. He wrote that: "A great deal depends on the way the men are handled on arrival here, and once you get an Irishman really upset he will never be satisfied until he has moved on to another job." It was also suggested that some of the men had deliberately misrepresented their experience in order to enter England so that the could obtain the more well paid factory jobs. Ben Walls was certainly disappointed with the results of his work, blaming the poor rates of pay and conditions as the main problem, while working during winter reduced the amount of overtime that could be earned. Of 49 boatmen taken on, only 9 remained by December 1943. The English "Idle Women" seem to have made a more lasting impression on our wartime canals.

Mike Clarke
8 Green Bank
BB18 6HX
last revised: 7 March 2014