Canal Horse and Boat Heritage

A bright windy day in winter, and the horse is plodding on, steadily pulling a full length narrow boat along an urban canal, one that had better remain un-named to officialdom.


It’s a head wind and hard work, which makes the steering a bit more of a challenge, but progress is good. We meet sturdily-anoraked and booted walkers who step aside amazed and interested, and a multitude of dog walkers who nervously pull their animals in on a tight leash, regardless of the fact that none of these beasts seem at all nervous or aggressive and just sniff the new scent appreciatively. Two or three elderly local ladies watch us go by with obvious nostalgia for they can still remember just such a scene on this canal in their youth., whilst the young kids are just plain pleased. We are driving carefully, thinking ahead and worrying around the next corner for this is the modern world and not a rose-tinted past. We negotiate the towline over poorly designed railings and steer the horse round a bad hole in the towpath, deep enough to break an ankle, or a fetlock. There�s a fishing match in progress so I stride on ahead to give each silent man a quiet word of warning and to check the towpaths clear. They’re all fine, perhaps even pleased by the break in their monotony as the line passes over their heads and the boat swishes by with gentle banter and conversation. Who can tell what they think..?

Canal Horse and Boat Heritage

An approaching family flock of brightly coloured cyclists stop and pull in to let us pass, and then we have to stop the horse for a moment to let another clutch of bikes overtake us. A young couple with a child in a pushchair are clearly nervous as we approach so we slow the horse to take the strain off the line and lead her past. A friendly nod here, an appreciative word there, the whole trip is a gentle adventure of interaction with other canal users. But it�s not easy by any means. It is a considered balance between the pleasures and the risks, but all made more vital by the thought that this is probably as close as one can get to the real thing today, the reality of the canals of the past.

Right – Sue Day and ‘Bonnie’ on their Year 2000 trip to London with the boat ‘Maria’.

From the 1760s to the 1920s the majority of inland waterway craft were moved by horses and mules, or more rarely, by pairs of donkeys, a practice that continued in a few places into the 1960s. Animals were therefore the main motive power on the canals for nearly two centuries, and represent a huge part of our waterway history that is rapidly being forgotten, a part that will be particularly difficult to re-create if we allow it to be lost altogether. A waterways system that takes a proper pride in its heritage needs the existence of horse boats for a number of important reasons. First they need to be there to illustrate the development of almost every other sort of boat and barge, for most powered carrying boats are actually derived from earlier horse-drawn or sail-driven ancestors, usually by a simple alteration to the stern to accommodate a propeller. Experience and a greater understanding of hydrodynamics gradually led to a distinct class of motor boat, but their derivation is still obvious whilst the comparisons can be made to a representative number of their earlier horse-drawn cousins.

Horse boats also need to exist as tools to demonstrate the proper historic techniques of working with canal horses, a way of life that is rapidly vanishing even from memory. There are a number of valuable written records and reminiscences in existence, but they only truly come to life when a boat and horse does the job– giving the practical demonstration of the description. Only then do you see how fast a horse-boat can work locks, and just how powerful and efficient one horsepower is when connected direct from the bank to the boat. Only then do you get some sense of just how radical canal transport was in the eighteenth century world of muddy turnpike roads and heavy six-horse wagons. This is visible evidence of history and fantastically important heritage.


Much canal architecture also needs a horse boat to explain itself for a good deal of the functional beauty that we now admire about our waterways is simply the direct result of the needs of its purpose. Its purpose was canal transport, so it was designed to cope with the complete transport unit the boat, its crew, the horse and the essential connecting link, the towline. Around that unit developed the infrastructure�the water channel, towpath, bridges, stables and warehouses, and the canal furniture that developed through generations of horse-boats the strapping posts so essential to control heavily loaded boats without brakes, raised brick paving and cobbles under bridges and around locks, and the bridge guards fitted to control the destructive cutting power of the towline. All of this subtle quality is only immediately obvious when the working horse boat is present. Without it these elemental details will gradually disappear, will be eroded away with ignorance.

3 photos right – Shropshire Union Canal. Cross-over Bridge, Brick paved lock approach, Bridge Guard.

And of course ignorance is gaining ground as what used to be everyday knowledge disappears into the past and ordinary common sense is no longer expected to be common.


Ask about a horse drawn boat officially and you will be faced with a risk assessment form – not, you must understand, to assess the risk to the horse but to assess the risk to the surface of the towpath, the risk of people slipping in the horseshit, the risk to cyclists using the towpath, the risk to walkers who are not now expected to have the common sense to step out of the way. This is the world turned upside down and the re-invention of the wheel in one. It does however point to possibly the most important reason why we need to keep a representative number of historic horse-boats in existence and mobile. They provide the best possible simple heritage check – a practical quality control on any future developments and refurbishments. If a loaded horse drawn boat can still work through safely then the development is almost bound to be in keeping with its original purpose. If it cannot it must be wrong and unacceptable. Simple heritage health-check logic. Simple.

Below Right – The Lewery family and ‘Billy’ at Norbury Junction in 1965 when they ran the tripboat ‘Iona’.



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

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