Friendship Remembered

Joe Skinner. Rose Skinner. narrowboat Friendship, last number ones, last of the long distance horse boatmen

So I said I think I will write something about Joe Skinner this month, and Mary said hadn’t it all been written already? Hmm, yes, certainly it has, and written by better informed writers than me at a time closer to his real life.

But he still stands in my memory as a symbol of something so special about the canals that I think we could do with being reminded yet again of this iconic man and the vanished world that he came to represent. Happily the recent publication of a new book about his life offers a perfect excuse for reappraisal and a bit of nostalgia.

I only had the pleasure of meeting Joe a very few times, on two or three occasions at Sutton Stop and a couple more when Friendship was being towed around to various IWA National rallies in the 1960s. He made a big impression on me then, as he did on most of the people that got to meet him in those formative times. Partly it was the man himself, unpretentious, gentlemanly and generous with his knowledge, but partly it was for what he was and what he had come to epitomise-- the last horse-boatman. This was not actually strictly true for there were still a scattering of horse boats working in the Black Country, but he had certainly been the last of the long distance horse boatmen, working his own boat southwards to Oxford and London. Even more importantly he stayed with his canal life in retirement, continued to live on his boat and became known and respected by the new generation of canal enthusiast as an epitome of the true canal tradition, from trilby hat to roses and castles.

Because I was brought up on the south coast my youthful knowledge of the Midland canals was minuscule. However, as my interest in popular art increased I kept stumbling over references to the decoration of English canal boats, although what I read was -- from my southern regional perspective -- frankly unbelievable. A separate class of people living on tiny barges painted with flowers and landscapes? In England?! Ridiculous! I loved the idea but as I cycled north to have a look I expected to be profoundly disappointed. Arriving at Braunston on a sunny day in May my conversion was utter and virtually instantaneous. Here were the boats and the traffic, the boatyard and the boatpeople as well as the paintings and the painter, all as promised in the books.

In the 1960s there were still relatively few canal books in existence and of those in print it was L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, originally written in 1939, that seduced the imagination of romantics like me. But there was a bit of a backlash going on in some quarters even then, a feeling that his pre-war elegaic writing was already too nostalgic, too steeped in a romantic version of the past to be useful to the developing pleasure boat industry. Like the home of a Great Crested Newt getting in the way of a modern housing development they did not want too much old-fashioned tradition and philosophy getting in the way of new hire boats. But for me his book was still the evidence for what I thought I believed in, a simple but satisfying way of life, steeped in tradition but doing a useful job. But was it true? Had it ever been true? Was it too good to be true? I certainly wanted it to be true but I suppose there were seeds of doubt even in my newly obsessed mind.

But a first meeting with Joe and Rose Skinner was quite enough to calm fears and settle doubts. They were self evidently the real thing, unpretentious but solid proof of Rolt’s writing about the Oxford canal boatmen that he got to know at Banbury, Joseph Skinner of the Friendship, old John Harwood of the Searchlight, Townsend of Abingdon and Beauchamp of Oxford… “fine men of the old school who still kept their own boats. Three generations of Hones worked three boats between them, Alfred Hone senior and his wife the Cylgate, his son and daughter-in-law the White City, and his granddaughters the Rose and Betty, which was named after them. These boats were kept in spotless condition… All the paintwork was mopped down and the brasswork polished at every available opportunity, and on one boat there were canvas sheets which could be let down to protect the varnish on the cabin sides from the sun. In addition to the customary binding of pipe-clayed turk’s heads, there floated from the ‘ram’s head’ of the White City a long horses tail.” This was the canal world I hankered after, and still regret not having seen.

Joe and Rose in retirement at Hawksbury Junction were a clear window back to that world that Rolt recorded, and represented the traditional way things had been done for a hundred and fifty years before that. They were the complete tradition although they were indeed the last of a line. Today it is easy to forget how radical the changes had been in the preceding twenty years before Narrow Boat and the Second World War, the traffic trickling away, the development of motors towing butties and steel boats replacing wooden ones. Until their deaths in the mid 1970s they were the perfect link from that world to this, courteous and accommodating, inspiring and ordinary. Luckily that inspiration was recognised by many at the time and they allowed themselves to be well documented, to become gentle legends in their own lifetimes

The new book is called ‘The Last Number Ones’, a compilation of articles and references about Joe and Rose Skinner and their boat, edited together by Hugh Potter, and illustrated with a mass of photographs. One of the key components of the book is the transcript of recordings made by Brian Vaughton in 1961 but due to the miracle of modern technology this book now comes complete with a full 70 minute CD of the actual recordings included in the price. Absolutely essential listening for anyone interested in canal history, and thoroughly recommended by me. It is available direct from the publishers at Waterways World – go to the online shop at  price £19.99 plus postage.

©Tony Lewery,
The Brow,
29th February 2008

Above, at Polesworth in the 1950's
Below, 1964 photos courtesy Boris Haworth

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