Rumour has it that British Waterways are discussing– or at least considering discussing– the reinstatement of some strapping posts around the locks on the Shropshire Union Canal. Good. What an excellent idea from all possible viewpoints- utility, safety and heritage. Bold simple technology, what could possibly go wrong?

Strapping post
Old strapping post at Welsh Frankton bottom lock on the Montgomery Canal.

Well, the first problem seems to be that they don’t know where they ought to be and the reason for that is that the connection has been so long broken in the chain of practical knowledge that used to underpin the whole structure of the waterway system, the raison d’etre, the working boat. If only they would start from there everything else would drop into place again—into its correct historical place.

Strapping posts were important pieces of equipment for working loaded horseboats efficiently and safely along the waterways. They are vertical posts for wrapping the strap round, and the ‘strap’ is the canal boat word for the rope used to stop the loaded boat. A horseboat has a lot of momentum and no brakes so strapping posts were essential. Where do you want to stop it? Well, about six inches from the lock gate please, so there is no bumping and no damage to the gate, the boat or the cargo. Everything else follows from that– the position and distance, the size and the shape– all are related to the shape and purpose of the working boat. That was the module around which all the canal architecture and engineering was designed and modified, and is still the unseen spirit lurking under what’s left of the historic parts of the canal system. It’s also what drew many earlier canal enthusiasts in to the preservation movement in the first place, that utilitarian ghost that shaped the whole canal atmosphere, visually and philosophically.

strapping post

Hmmm, let’s get back to humble strapping posts. The rope from the boat is wrapped once round the post whilst the boatman or woman holds on to the free end and controls the tension around the post. That post is providing an area of friction for the rope to rub against, multiplying the power of the person hanging on the end of the rope enormously. The thicker the post the greater the circumference; the bigger it is the greater the length of rope that’s rubbing against it, and the greater the friction. More power to the elbow means more control of the boat and a quicker and safer passage. Wood is good—cheap, easily shaped and installed, provides perfect friction and lasts for donkey’s years. The accidental bonus is that it can wear and weather into sculptural forms of great organic grace, a simple utilitarian beauty that was recognised and celebrated in the superb photographs of Eric De Mare in his book ‘The Canals Of England’ published back in 1950 but still inspirational. Iron posts work just as well but being shiny and smooth two or three turns of rope will be needed for the same braking power. But they’ll last for ever.

Where? Set back five or six foot from the lockside and about eighteen to twenty foot from the lockgates at either end is about average. As the boat comes into the lock at full speed with maximum steerage, the horse driver will then either pick up a strap from the fore end or flick the slack towline over the front tee stud and take a turn of that rope round the strapping post. As the boat passes the post the slack is taken in, the line pulls the boat against the lock side and the driver is able to stop the boat with absolute precision to within an inch or two of the gate or the cill. The steerer meanwhile is off at the other end closing the gates. Fast and efficient, and they could be just as useful and safe today as they were in horseboating days. Another post twenty foot or so above the top gate was common too, to hold the boat back from the gate, especially when the lock’s filling so the gate can be opened without having to move the boat back again.

Coventry Lock

On many narrow canals the single top gate of the lock is fitted with its own strapping post, built in as part of the structure. With this system it is the boat steerer who stops the boat, not the horse driver. As the boat enters the lock, working downhill, the steerer steps off the boat with a rope attached to the stern stud and takes a turn or two round the strapping post on the end of the gate. As the tension comes on to the strap it pulls the gate closed behind the boat at the same time as it stops it from hitting the bottom gates, another thoroughly efficient working practise, refined through the canal age. Alternatively the steerer might stay on the boat as it enters the lock, simply dropping a loop of rope over the post as it passes, and controlling the whole process from the tee-stud on the boat.

Different canals had different designs of gate and strapping post, with the Shropshire Union Company providing perhaps the most refined examples of all. The outer main timber of the gate frame extends upwards above the level of the balance beam as with most top gates but it is then capped with an iron casting with smoothly rounded corners for the rope to grip without wearing away the wood, and lipped at the top so the rope won’t slip off by accident. It is a fine piece of practical design, and really quite beautiful to my eyes, and to the great credit of British Waterways they have re-introduced this localised design on a number of new replacement gates in the area. But dear oh dear, that’s where the compliments have to stop. The gatemakers, clearly practical craftsmen of a high standard are equally clearly unaware of what it’s all for. They’ve fitted some of the castings so high on the post that any rope put over them drops below the ironwork and cuts into the wood and jams and in many cases they have fitted the handrail so close to the post that there’s no room for a rope anyway. It’s all such a waste of good intentions and resources, such a waste of history and it’s so sad that nobody in British Waterways has the basic understanding to put it right. It’s window dressing instead of conservation. So sad.

Shropshire style
Shropshire Union pattern iron strapping post made impossible to use by handrail in wrong position. Frankton top lock.

For goodness’ sake let’s get any new strapping posts right. There are loads of photographs, lots of evidence, still plenty of people to ask and even a few originals surviving. Please, let’s get it right in the traditional way this time.

Staffs style
Strapping from the boat on the Staffs and Worcester Canal. Line illustration by Tony Lewery from Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'Illustrated History of Canal and River Navigations' 1993.

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

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