The working life of the boat painter

Narrowboat painters, roses and castles, Ellesmere Arm, Llangollen canal

Complaining, always complaining… the working life of the boat painter.

The classic advice to young authors is always “write about what you know about.” Well, after painting canal boats for at least part of my living for over thirty five years, a subject seems to have suggested itself. If only I was young enough. Oh rats! here goes anyway.

A nice little job was recently asked of me, some traditional ‘roses and castles’ decoration on and in the cabin of a well restored butty-boat, the Gosport, (right) already handsomely painted in the colourful livery of Fellows, Morton and Clayton. She could be brought very conveniently for me to the basin at Ellesmere where a couple of days work should see the job complete, given reasonable weather. She arrived to plan, Fate was kind and the work was done in just slightly over the allotted time.

FMC Gosport
ruin castle castle

A traditional narrowboat castle taking shape on the cabin doors.
Left, a 'ruin' just inside the Boatman's cabin.
Below right, the finished decorations with the SU warehouse behind.

I quite like actually doing it too, at least for that tiny proportion of the time that things aren’t going wrong, when the paint’s not drying too fast, or running, or I’m not sitting awkwardly with a crick in the neck, or I’m not cold, or too hot…The towpath along the Ellesmere arm is a very well used public path, walked by locals, boaters and hikers, and working in public like this I expected a fair amount of scrutiny and comment. That’s OK, that’s the nature of the job but the Sod’s Law drawback is that if things are going to go seriously wrong it will probably be when someone’s watching. Superstition then suggests that therefore the more people that watch the more things are likely to go wrong… Huh! I needn’t have worried—slightly to my keyed-up chagrin hardly anyone took any notice at all!

How could they continue to walk by discussing their daughter’s wedding plans or the World Cup when some of England’s historic folk art was actually being practised within touching distance? How could boat owners and holidaymakers walk by this smart original working boat, complete with ram’s head rudder and tiller festooned in scrubbed white ropework, and not even notice it, never mind the scruffy artist scrunched up in the hatches, painting roses on the doors? Surely it is not possible that there is anybody who does not regard the art of the canal boat as of prime cultural significance in the 21st century, or at least not in Ellesmere, at the heart of the Shropshire Union system? But so, it seems, I have to report—hardly anyone took any notice. Huh!

There is a serious worry niggling away at the back of these facetious remarks. I wasn’t after compliments, although they are always nice. I was simply expecting some acknowledgement that this interesting and unusual working boat was recognised as an important piece of canal culture, and that the decorative art associated with it was worth a nod. My dismay was how few modern canal users even noticed it, never mind offered it respect, and I am concerned that those of us working on the historic fringe are losing the battle to keep the really vital history of the canals and their people alive. Note: must try harder.

cabin doors
Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, June 2002


back to our main menu.


off the mainline index

comments to Tony


canal heritage

All materials and images
© Canal Junction Ltd.
No unauthorised reproduction.