Topcloth and Tippet

Atlas, Leo, Sampson Road warehouse, working boats project

July has seen the completion of the first stage in the making of another of the series of films about canal life from the Sight Seen Partnership stable, about ‘clothing-up’ loaded narrow boats this time.

Working with a big team of volunteers from British Waterways’ Midlands-based Working Boats Project we loaded the restored boats Atlas and Leo with 40 tons of gravel ballast and assorted ironwork, dressed them up to look as if they were loaded with bags of grain and then filmed the detailed process of weatherproofing the cargo. Working under the precise advice of one ex-boatman of exceptional memory we have tried to accurately record the precise techniques of sidecloths, topcloths, tippet and topstrings in detail, every fold and every knot. It was very hard work, but fun and fascinating as well, and involved a huge amount of preparatory work and some heavy duty lockwork to get all the boats to and from the chosen location at the Sampson Road warehouse in Birmingham (below left) directly after their public appearances at the National Waterways Exhibition. Everything went exceptionally well, thanks to all the volunteers and the total support of the British Waterways team who underpin the project, with efforts well beyond the call of duty.

It was a surprise to me to discover that the Working Boats Project is co-ordinated by an archaeologist. When questioned about her motivation for taking this job on in the first place, with little previous experience of working narrow boats she simply said that it was just another extension of the basic role of the archaeologist, discovering and preserving the evidence of the lives of people of the past. Because they are no longer here, whether by five thousand years or just five, their voice is only to be heard in the stuff they have left behind, the hard evidence of their lives having been lived. But hold on, these boat people aren’t dead—I was talking to some of them last week… but then again two hundred and fifty years’ worth of them are, and anyone who can clearly remember the last regular traffics of the British Waterways fleet have to be in their mid fifties at least, and most are much older than that. But archaeology? Well, OK, maybe…

This jolt to my internal understanding of the meaning of archaeology sent me back to the dictionary…ah, right, here it is: “the scientific study of human antiquities”, yes that’s more like it. But it is a very old dictionary and the last thirty years has also seen the rise and respectful acceptance of industrial archaeology as a valuable discipline. Mines and Victorian mills and machinery are fine, and of course our eighteenth century canals, but boats? Quite recent boats, built in the mid twentieth century? Is this really archaeology? The project officer prefers the more modern definition—“the study of material culture of the past” and of course that past need only have finished yesterday.

Another modern dictionary definition, of etymology this time, of the origins of the meanings… archaeology as “the scientific study of ancient people, customs, and life, especially by unearthing and examining artefacts where written records do not exist appeared in English in 1837”. Which brings me back to my conversation with the project co-ordinator again, for she says that her underlying attitude to the boats is that they need to be regarded as floating listed buildings, maintained as eloquent evidence of the lives of the people that worked them. The fact that so many of the boating population were so poorly educated in the academic sense, “not scholar’d” as they would put it, makes that evidence even more important, for the boats are indeed ”artefacts where written records do not exist”. Hmmm, yes, now we’re getting close…

But there is a big but here. The boats clearly record something about the boatbuilders’ work and life but the footprint of the boating population is far more subtle. It was so much more about the ways of doing things, reacting to the constraints of the tiny living spaces, the conventions of an insular trade population isolated from the rest of the community by their job and, increasingly as time went by, their illiteracy and lack of formal education. Does the basic boat reflect any of that? No, hardly at all, but it is the absolutely essential backdrop and framework within which their lives were built, the structure on which their pride and self esteem was expressed in fancy ropework, ostentatious cleanliness, polished brass and painted flowers. Luckily most of those elements are attractively photogenic and are pretty well documented in a static kind of way, but the day-to-day reality of gritty boat life is far more difficult to record. So of course it is even more important that we try, especially whilst we still have that information available to us from the memories of those that were there.

Happily the project officer strongly agrees and sees the boats in her care as far more than mere artefacts. With all the information still available from all the retired boatpeople avidly collected and documented the boats are used as working tools to try to record and celebrate the homes and working lives of the boat population. Hence the film. Please wish us luck, and look out for the finished result early next year when the long and boring process of editing a couple of hours of videotape is distilled into a short piece of, hopefully, interesting and watchable film. Hopefully too it will offer another note of respect to the generations of men and women who worked the boats, the real people that underly our interests, whether through archaeology, social history or folk art.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, July 31 2002


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