Canal Folk Art – its roots

There was an extraordinary flowering of a new folk art at a time during the Industrial Revolution when many other old trades and traditional ways of life were withering away. What on earth was so special about canals? The answer is perhaps the people that worked the canal boats, and their unusual way of life.

The building of a new network of entirely artificial waterways linking the existing river navigations together created a new trade, a new class of tradesman, and a peculiar style of inland cargo boat, the horse-drawn narrow boat with a carrying capacity of about twenty five tons.

This was a huge improvement on the old pack horse system and the main canals made everyone a good deal of money in the early days, but at the peak of their prosperity they were faced very suddenly with the invention of their greatest rival, the railways. For a few years railways were all the rage and any new investment money was diverted away from water to rail.

Waterways were not instantly uneconomic, but were just not so tempting to the fickle investor out for a quick profit. The result was that although they stayed in business, they did not expand or develop very radically (except in a few isolated cases) and the English midland canals of the twentieth century are still basically the same size as those of the late eighteenth century.

Roses & Castles

The boats are therefore no bigger than they used to be, and nor are their minute living cabins, squashed in at the back where they wouldn’t get in the way of the loads they had to carry. It was these tiny cabins that shaped and constrained the lifestyle of the boat people that lived in them, and a significant part of that resulting lifestyle was their unusual decorative art. It takes two people to work a horse boat – someone to steer it and someone to make sure the horse keeps going. When times were good the canal boat captain would employ a crew to work with him, and he could still afford to keep his wife and family in a house ashore, but when the wages dropped the balance altered. It made economic sense to take his wife along as unpaid crew, and for them to live on the boat as their only home, and this practice seemed to grow as the railway competition bit. By 1858 it was certainly common, and a journalist of the time wrote of the ” …. family barges …. which pass us at every turn” on the canal between London and Birmingham.

The cabins, just nine or ten foot long and a little over six foot wide, had become homes to large families, and a complete separate trade population was afloat on the waterways. They had little social contact with any other section of society, and with the difficulty of getting any regular schooling they remained largely illiterate. By the time they were a generation older they were distinctly different, itinerants who were almost universally feared and disliked by the people on the land. It was a life of potential despair.

Their response to this situation seemed to be to develop an even stronger trade mystique, to brazen out the common perception with a display to confound their critics. These ‘dirty bargees’ turned their boats into models of ostentatious cleanliness with polished brasswork and woodwork scrubbed to snowy whiteness, and their squalid little box cabins were transformed into domestic palaces of lace edged curtains and china plates. If they could not impress with quantity on their tiny floating homes they would dazzled with quality, and every surface was painted, every moulding picked out with strong colour, and every tin utensil smothered in painted roses and romantic landscapes.

If they were regarded as old-fashioned they would choose to be out-of-date with style, retaining and reshaping past fashions into something special for their own embattled group, the women wearing elaborate pleated sunbonnets and long white aprons fifty years after working townswomen had given them up, the men in old style fall front corduroy trousers and carefully knotted neckscarves. They invented a trade uniform for themselves as distinctive as a shepherd or a parlourmaid.

Their whole life became a proud statement of separateness, of self-esteem, a ‘traditional’ way of doing things that established them as part of a respected elite. The result was a fascinating and successful blend of unsophisticated art and transport history, an amazing mixture that can still be experienced in the world of the canals today.

Back cabin door

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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