Canal and River Working Narrowboats and Barges

Canal boats, river barges and canal barges of England and the UK

One of the fascinations of the British inland waterways is the wide variety of boats and barges that populate them. Section written and illustrated by Tony Lewery.

Today the great majority are holiday cruisers custom-built for the purpose, but until the 1950’s the sight of a ‘pleasure boat’, as the working boatman would rather quaintly call it, was still unusual. Working boats were the norm, associated with the tiring stress of work rather than the pleasure of leisure, and most of the boat population were simply bemused by the idea that their commercial working waterways would ever become the preserve of a leisure boat business. But so it has become and although a small proportion of the old carrying boats survive as reminders of those utilitarian days, thousands more have rotted into the rushes leaving nothing but memories and faded photo.


Most of these survivors have been altered or converted to some degree, with extra cabins and home comforts to suit modern sensibilities, but a significant number have been preserved or restored to their original appearance by dedicated enthusiasts. A few even manage to earn a living delivering coal and fuel oil, and attempts are constantly being made to develop new traffics that will again prove the commercial sense of water-borne transport. But the twenty odd ton payload of a Midland canal boat is very small in modern terms, although the bigger barges on the Humber, Thames and Severn rivers might still provide the breakthrough that the waterways need, the renaissance of canal transport. In the meantime we can continue to admire the traditional skills of the boatbuilder in the examples that are left travelling the canals, preserved in museums or tucked away in odd corners of the waterway system.

The variety of styles and sizes of the old working boats is so diverse that the uninitiated visitor, however interested, can become quickly and understandably confused. The intention here is to offer a very general introduction to what is a complicated subject with some broad subdivisions that might help your understanding and enjoyment of our extraordinary waterway history.

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

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