Canal Narrowboat Boatman’s Cabin Life

The secret heart of all the arts of the narrow boat world was the tiny boat cabin. It was secret because it was such a private space, the personal home and possessions of the boating family, but it was the heart because it shaped and controlled the working lives of the boat people, and the folk art of the canal is the result of that historic lifestyle.


When the midland canals failed to attract investment for expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, when first faced with serious competition from the railways, they effectively sentenced all future boatmen to working the old fashioned size of narrow boat for evermore, boats narrow enough to pass through the seven foot wide locks of the old canals. This in turn meant the tiny cabin at the stern could never be bigger than it ever had been either, a sort of historic gauge for two centuries of working life. Coping with living in that tiny space was the biggest single influence on the boating family’s taste in decorative art.

 

The basics of a bearable human existence are simply some food, drink and warmth, but in a British winter that means a fire and somewhere dry to sleep. Comfort in these basic terms is a bed, a chair, a table, a stove to boil the kettle and cook food on, and delight is space enough to share these things with a lover. By ingenuity and evolution the narrow boat living cabin came to satisfy all these demands and more, in a space little bigger than a packing case, rarely more than ten foot long and barely high enough to stand up in.


Bunk seats are built in as storage boxes, the bed folds up into a cupboard, another cupboard folds down to become a table and a coal fired stove or cooking range in the corner keeps it as warm as a bake oven. Every available bit of space is utilized, the very complexity of it all tricking the mind into believing it must be bigger than its measurements, just to get everything in. Add a family, and curtains, saucepans, clothes and ornaments and the result is a truly extraordinary living space by any criteria, a situation with the potential to be wonderfully rich and complex or appallingly squalid. It was both of these things at different times to different people.


The artistic taste of the boat people, as with so much else on the canal, was largely formulated in Victorian England, a land of frills and furbelows and the fashion for conspicuous respectability expressed in decorative quantity rather than quality – ornate profusion more than graceful simplicity. This intricacy was the key to making life in a tiny box cabin bearable, and possibly the secret of that life’s survival into the mid twentieth century. It started back in the boatyard, because when the built-in cabin furniture was constructed each cupboard door was made with recessed centre panels and every area of wood work was framed with decorative wooden mouldings. Then everything was painted and grained to look like figured oak or feathered mahogany, and the mouldings picked out in colour like bright picture frames. Painted roses and castles were added to the walls and doors, and the floor and coal box were painted with diamonds, hearts and circles. Already the new living space had a dark, slightly mysterious richness even before the boatman and his wife moved in. They brought flowered curtains with lace edges, deep pelmets of white crocheted lace hanging from every shelf, brass doorknobs, oil lamp, towel rails and ornaments galore, all kept brightly polished, and a traditional rag rug laid on the floor. The coal stove was cleaned and polished with black lead, and the boat woman’s pride and joy, her collection of pierced edge china plates with their printed flowers and ‘present from Blackpool’ messages were hung all over the walls, tied together for safety with coloured ribbons and neat bows. All is delicacy and fragility, a miniaturised stage set for a domestic life that cannot occupy more space than the cabin allows, a cabin that cannot be wider than the boat or take up any space that will stop the boat earning its living carrying cargo. It was an extraordinary display of determination overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.

Linocut of backcabin stove and plates - Eric Gaskell
Linocut of backcabin stove and plates - Eric Gaskell

The creation and maintenance of that domestic beauty, despite the pressures of unremitting boatwork, grubby children, dirty cargoes and clumsy boatmen was the major art form of the women of the narrow canals. An obvious, even ostentatious display of cleanliness was a major part of their self expression, statements made through scrubbed white woodwork and glittering brasswork to be read and understood by her peers and partner, a regimented collage of the domestic traditions of her trade. Many were accomplished needlewomen too, in the normal housewifely tradition of the times, but a number developed great skill making complex lace crochet work to decorate their cabins, turning them into an art form of their own. There is a strange poetic perversity in the fact that the boatwoman’s hobby should be delicate white lacework to hang on boats whose regular cargo was often bulk coal.

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