O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Harry Bentley, canal painter, knobstick, Anderton Canal Carrying Company, Trent & Mersey Canal

Matters concerned with the narrow boat Saturn took me to the Inland Waterways Association’s National Festival of Boats over the August bank holiday weekend, held this year at Preston Brook on the Bridgewater canal. It was a massive affair on a vast site and although I was present for the full three days there were still parts of the event that I missed altogether. Not being a fan or regular visitor to such events I am a poor judge of its ultimate success but it seemed to go extremely well with only a few organisational grumbles inevitable to such a complex enterprise. Socially it was great, meeting lots of friends old and new, whilst the newly restored fly boat Saturn was received very well, with many compliments.

But it was a money-making event designed for the general public and the generality of the modern canal industry and consequently and perhaps inevitably there was little to catch the imagination of an obsessive like me, concerned with that earlier historic atmosphere and rich quality that simply pervaded the canals before they were colonised by the holiday industry. There were a fine clutch of restored working boats on the canal moorings but little in the showground itself that wasn’t geared to pleasure cruising, or indeed totally unrelated to anything remotely associated with waterways at all. Disturbing. Happily there were all the usual canal society stalls promoting their own local projects with that endearing amateur enthusiasm that makes it all worthwhile and such a pleasure to be associated with such a movement.

Whilst walking by one of these stands a little model boat caught my eye, a model motor narrow boat. As I went back for a second look I became more and more interested. This was surely a typical boatman made model, slightly clumsy in its making and proportions but precise in all its practical details, the sort of information known to the working boatman from first-hand experience but so often missed by the professional model maker. And the paintwork was wonderful, rich colours, diamonds on all the stands and uprights, roses and castles all painted with delicate perfection in the ‘knobstick’ style so popular with the pottery boatmen of the Trent and Mersey canal. My obsessive excitement was just reaching fever pitch when the nice woman in charge of the stall said “look, we’ve got another one over here...” Oh, joy! a horse boat in all its detail, with all its equipment in place, cabin shaft, long shaft, gang plank and most miraculous of all, a pair of carefully modelled legging wings hooked into rings in the foredeck! And look, the inside of the cabin is painted too, castles on the doors and diamonds on the floor! My excitement and pleasure at this discovery was unrestrained to the point of silliness and certainly bemused and possibly alarmed the lady in charge.

I was pretty confident by this time that I recognised the style of the paintwork and subsequent conversations established that it was indeed the work of Harry Bentley, a potteries boatman that I had the pleasure of meeting many times before he died in 1999. On referring back to notes from a tape recorded conversation with him we can now be confident that the motor boat model was made by an ex-boatman called John Preston who worked as a mechanic at the Anderton Company dock, and that Harry painted it in 1954 or ’55. He did not mention the other model in that conversation but I am confident that it is all his own work, both modelling and painting, judging by the evidence of another model he made after he left the boats in the 1960s which is still in the care of his widow Sarah. The models came into the possession of the present owners, the Lancaster Canal Trust, through the good offices of the late Dr David Owen who was one of the founder members of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, where several examples of Harry Bentley’s full size boat painting are preserved.

For me, these models are marvellous. They are a combination of so many important things—the history of the working canal boat with all its practical equipment, the style and colour of the extraordinary folk art of the canals, the respect that the tradesman had for the tools of his trade, the attitude he had to his whole lifestyle expressed in miniature in a work of love and patience for the future. This, for me, is folk art of the highest standard and the greatest importance and was the high spot of my boat rally experience of the whole weekend. But I must admit to an amusing out-of-body experience as my spirit looked down on my contortions on the ground, trying to photograph inch high details of a model in the centre of the biggest boat showground in the middle of the biggest boat rally in the country. Is this really all he could get excited about? What sort of ravings are you reading, and from what sort of lunatic?

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
September 2005

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