Ever wondered what it would be like to boat to Newtown or to Shrewsbury, or to work round the clock on a Shroppie Fly boat?
A long-awaited working boatman’s autobiography was launched at the Gathering of Historic Boats at the Audlem Festival of Transport recently. Shropshire Union Fly-boats – The Jack Roberts Story is a unique personal record of the days of working these fast narrow boats from the turn of the 20th century until services ceased after World War 1 and of Jack’s later boating life. The detail of his days as a fly-boat skipper and of the Shropshire Union network is quite amazing and the 176-page book is fully illustrated with contemporary and later location photographs.
Only a few canal boatmen have ever written about their work and life, and Jack Roberts’ hitherto unpublished autobiography, written in the 1960’s, tells us about canal carrying a century and more ago. It provides a unique and fascinating insight into the world of the fly-boatmen on the extensive Shropshire Union Canal system before, and until just after, the First World War. Fly-boats worked 24 hours a day to a timetable, with a change of crew, carrying all kinds of cargo, including perishable goods such as cheese. His remarkable memory describes journeys up long lost waterways, such as the Wem and Weston Arms of the Llangollen canal, the Shrewsbury Canal and the Montgomery Canal down to Newtown, of the people he met and worked with, the cargoes he carried and the horses he relied on and obviously cared for well.
The book will appeal to both canal and working boat enthusiasts, and also those interested in transport history and the lives of canal boaters. But this isn’t a dry historical tome, it’s filled with real people and real places.
We delivered our coal and then washed the boat out, after which we took our dusty clothes off and jumped into the canal for a bath, it had been a very hot day. The water here was very clean – you could see the bed of the canal and also the fish. When our load had been signed for, the Skipper decided to remain for the night. It was Tuesday. After our usual meal, we relaxed, leaving Dick on the towing path for the night. He would not leave the boat as he knew where his food was kept! (Dick was their horse.)
And Jack Roberts describes real lives, happy, hard working, and often tragic as he recalls the drownings of friends and family, when canals were worked hard around the clock.
Published by the Canal Book Shop, working with the Roberts family and volunteer members of the Shropshire Union Fly-boat Restoration Society, the book can be obtained now from the Audlem Mill Shop and will also be available from Amazon and other canal book suppliers. The published price is £16.95, the ISBN NUMBER is 978-0-9574037-4-1.