Canal Art – Signwriting narrowboats and barges

Hand painted signwriting is an important ingredient within the tradition of canal boat decoration, part of the overall painted texture, regardless of what the words say.

The owner’s name and home town are usually marked on either side of the cabin, and the boat’s name is painted on the top plank of the hull at the stern of a horse drawn boat, or on the sides of the engine room of a motor boat. In common with most other parts of this complicated tradition the origin of this sign writing is fairly mundane, merely fulfilling the demands of canal company bye-laws that the “owner’s name and boat’s name shall be painted on the head or stern of every such Boat, Barge or other Vessel, higher than the Place to which the same shall sink into the Water when full laden“. Some even specify the colour and size “… large White Capital Letters on a black ground, Three inches high at the least and of a proportionable Breadth ….” but some left it to commonsense. In an age when handpainted lettering was the norm however, a mixture of self esteem and the need to advertise respectability and reliability soon demanded a good standard of contemporary craftsmanship, well painted lettering set out in the conventional way on the cabin sides, which were panelled and framed like a notice board anyway.


The larger carrying companies continued to use their boats as advertising hoardings to the end of their days, filling the cabin sides with a stately statement of ownership in large handsome lettering. On the boats of the smaller companies however, and particularly on those belonging to individual boatmen, known in the trade as ‘Number Ones’, the lettering was also conscripted to become part of their own painted language, expressing far more than the basic message of the wording. It was treated as another painted pattern to enhance the boat, which is not so surprising when it is remembered that a majority of the boating population had always been illiterate. Needless to say the letter styles that found most favour with them were the more elaborate ones, those with strong serifs like the heavy ‘Egyptian’ style, or the leafy exuberance of Edwardian fairground lettering, all deeply shaded and blocked-out in another colour in a decorative pretence at three dimensions. With extra scrollwork or groups of painted flowers occupying any other available space, the effect was rich and colourful, a lovely statement of the boatman’s pride in his trade and his floating home.


The most common traditional layout on the cabin side is centrally placed, with the owner’s name arranged in a shallow arch at the top over the name of its home town painted straight along the lower part, parallel with the gunwhale. Adjectival phrases like ‘canal haulage’ or ‘coal contractor’ might feature too, but it was more important in carrying days to include all the official numbering in the layout, the fleet number, cabin registration details and sometimes the gauging number for specific canals from which the tonnage could be worked out. Painted roses also featured strongly on the fanciest boats, with extra borders painted to echo the mouldings, and most horse drawn boats had one or two small panels on the cabin sides carrying castle landscape pictures.


One or two of the bigger boatyards employed specialist sign-writers, but most canal boat letter painting was done by the ordinary boatbuilders who made and maintained the boats. The lettering did therefore often lack the fluency and polish of the work of a practising trade sign painter, but it made up of it in spirit. Pushed by practice and commercial pressure it was often dashed on with a handwritten flair that suited the nature and style of the canal boat tradition very well, far better than the sophisticated skill of a regular trade signwriter, another folk art skill of the canal.

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