Mud, Sweat and Old Wrecks

Shropshire Union working boat, Coxbank, Audlem locks

Archaeology, particularly marine archaeology, is a destructive business and should not be undertaken just on a whim. Digging up the past may bring some knowledge into the present but it also lays the evidence open to the very destructive forces of decay and damage that its previously buried state had protected it from. If you are going to do it at all the job needs thinking through first. Does it need doing? Are we the right people and are we prepared to record and document the results properly? The act of digging out preserved evidence means that nobody else will ever be able to interpret it afresh, any time in the future. We’ve only got one chance to get it right. Oh Lord, what a responsibility!

These sort of thoughts and reservations were very much on my mind over the last weekend in November when a group of like-minded masochists and I had arranged to have another dig in the Shropshire Union mud at Coxbank on the Audlem flight. Our task was to see what more information we could glean from the wrecks of two old fly boats, sunk sometime before the Second World War as landing stages for the deep laden carrying boats to tie to, away from the towpath. We had already investigated the southernmost one back in February but the second lay untouched, just detectable by the tips of the iron knees of one side sticking out of the mud and the rushes. This one was this weekend’s project. (For more details of our first try see the Off The Main Line article for March 2003 ‘A Touch of Time Team’.) Once more British Waterways were entirely co-operative and had drained the pound down for us, so once more into the slutch dear friends…

In the light of the first paragraph I felt that my first job had to be another close look at the first boat again, to see whether our diggings had hastened the collapse of what we had uncovered then, and how much the natural silting of a summer season’s boat movements had filled in the excavation again, helping to preserve the remnants once more. In general things looked fine—little seemed to have changed substantially and the holes were filling up nicely. OK, let’s tackle the second one. At least this time we had the advantage of our previous experience of February, so we knew roughly what to expect and what might be under the mud. This time we had a small mechanical digger and driver which, although it couldn’t reach right in to the boat, was invaluable in clearing the hand shovellings back out of the way, an enormous saving of time and energy. We also had an on-site catering tent which was extremely heart-warming, and against all the dire warnings of the forecasters the weather was quite kind to us. As expected the job was cold and very muddy, but it was challenging, interesting and fun.

The results? Well, there were no huge surprises but that in itself was a positive relief. The reason for doing this exploratory work now is that it is the last chance to uncover any more information that can be helpful for the restoration and rebuilding of the fly boat Saturn, now underway and proceeding apace at Malkins Bank. So it would have been embarrassing in the extreme if our mud-larking had offered any evidence that we were doing it wrong. But no, thankfully, the timber sizes are as we expected- planking, shearing and frames, and the nails and bolts we’re using seem to be the right ones. The ubiquitous red oxide paint was again in evidence, on shearing, cabin front and keelson covering board. We measured everything that we could and took lots of photographs which we hope will be of use to future historians, some of which accompany these words this month, with many thanks to the photographer Maree Lawrence. Some loose bits of the boat were removed for safe keeping and for some more accurate measured drawings later on, and as I write a muddy sketchbook full of notes and measurements still awaits sorting and rewriting so that somebody else could understand it too.

There were oddities and puzzles certainly, like the heavy-duty fillets of timber fitted in the inside corners between the bottom boards and the lower strake near the fore end. Ken Keay, the Black Country joey boat builder would have called them ‘compass pieces’ in a BCN boat, inserted to strengthen and waterproof the sharp chine of an old worn out coal boat, but in our Shropshire Union boat they were massive bits of wood, 10 inches wide by 3 inches thick, shaped to fit and neatly notched over the iron knees in the hold, and at that size presumably steamed into place. What was that all about then? Yes, the graceful barrel sided shape of the wreck confirmed that it had been built as a fly boat of the slimmest sort but what was it doing in its last years? If it was to be dumped, simply sunk as a mooring jetty, then it was clearly at the end of its profitable working life. Did it end up as a humble mud boat, a spoondredger or a bricklayer’s boat with a raised floor in it? Will we ever know? We still don’t even know its name. Shucks, every answer poses at least three more questions, which feels a bit like walking backwards… Happy New Year!

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, December 30th 2003


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