Canal maintenance craft, tugs, dredgers, ice-breakers

When the canals were in full commercial operation, carrying goods of all descriptions in all directions, the vast majority of canal boats obviously had to be cargo boats, carrying the stuff that paid the wages. But the canals had to be maintained to do their job and that required a supporting fleet of workboats, designed for specific tasks.

Tunnel tugs

Once powerful steam and the diesel engines became available they were stationed at most of the main tunnels to haul trains of boats through whilst the horses were walked over the top.

Tunnel Tug Worcester and Icebreaker Marbury at Ellesmere Port
Tunnel Tug Worcester and Icebreaker Marbury at Ellesmere Port


Required to maintain proper depth, from little ‘spoon’ dredgers operated by a crew of men with a big scoop on a long handle hung over the side to a variety of mechanical ones – steam operated grab cranes to giant endless chain bucket dredgers operating in the docks. Each needed its own mud boats and hoppers, whilst the carpenters and painters needed boats for their tools and their tea breaks.

Ice Breakers

The greatest threat of disruption to canal traffic was ice. A spell of severe cold weather could soon bring the canal to a halt if the ice was not kept broken, so most canal companies kept a number of specially built ice breakers to be brought into use in a freeze-up.

Icebreaker in warmer weather demonstration

Ice breakers were massively built, heavily plated with a long raking bow designed to ride up on the ice before smashing down through it. More and more horses were attached as the ice got thicker, and some old photographs record as many as sixteen horses dragging a single boat through the ice. These important emergency vehicles were kept working for as long as possible to keep the traffic moving. Finally the boat would come out on top of the ice and that was that. Traffic stopped, factories ran out of supplies, tonnage tolls were not paid and the boatmen had no way of earning a living. A severe canal freeze up was a very serious matter indeed. Travelling through even a thin sheet of ice could do considerable damage to the hull of wooden narrowboats. Iceplates made from small thin steel overlapping sheets were often nailed along the waterline at the bow and stern to give some protection.

Icebreaker and tub boat at Ironbridge Gorge Museum

The majority of the year canals were not frozen over of course and these strongly built boats usually did very little, and consequently, a lot of them survive in surprisingly good condition. A few complete canal icebreakers are in museums but many more have been motorised and converted and make canal cruisers of great character.

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

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