Fine Furnishings for a Boat Horse

Back in 1999 the old flyboat stable on the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal received planning permission for conversion to a house. This was historically sad but did provide a lifeline for the survival of an interesting piece of canal architecture that had become desperately derelict.

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Considering it was probably last used in the Second World War and had been used as something of a rubbish tip in the 1960s it was actually still remarkably complete. So with the full, if slightly bemused, co-operation of the local farmer who owned the building, a group of stalwart volunteers from the Boat Museum Society at Ellesmere Port mounted a work party to clean up and record what remained of the original fittings. A massive amount of muck was shifted and shit shovelled to reveal several stalls still in situ, wooden mangers in place and harness hooks on the wall. Photographs were taken and notes made before the team started to carefully dismantle as much as possible for removal to safe storage at Ellesmere Port. The idea was to keep the real stuff in store as detailed information for some restoration or accurate re-creation somewhere else in the future. It seemed a good plan at the time, if ambitious.

Flyboat stable on the Shropshire Union Canal

This stable seemed to me to be a very important piece of canal history. It wasn’t particularly ancient as it was only proposed and built in the 1890s to service the needs of the constant Shropshire Union non-stop traffic to and from the Potteries. But precisely because it was built at that time, built by the most progressive canal carrier dedicated to horse haulage it illustrated the practise and transport thinking of that prosperous period. It wasn’t a ramshackle cobbled shed at the back of a pub somewhere — it was new accommodation for prime company-owned horses, serviced by a company ostler who lived in a company cottage right next door. It was ventilated at high and low level, had concrete floors for cleanliness and zinc lined mangers to guard against disease — state-of-the-art horse technology of the time, already honed by a hundred years of canal experience. It was also built at a time when high quality craftsmanship was the expected norm instead of an expensive exception and all the surviving equipment showed a ferocious attention to high quality detail. The massive oak uprights at the end of the stalls were beautifully shaped and stop chamfered, the cross bars perfectly tenoned into them and oak pegged, the vertical pitch pine boards all given neat vee’d edges for the comfort of the horse and everything regularly whitewashed for light and cleanliness. Everything was then branded with the SUCo insignia, an almost infallible seal of a high standard. Some of this quality and patina we thought could be preserved for posterity by safe keeping under the mantle of a museum, but that too has proved to be over ambitious.

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The museum has been faced with far too many expensive problems to even think about it and looking after a pile of rotten old wood has not been on anyone’s priority list. So, ten years later I have taken back what has survived, before it was dumped in a skip in the next clean up and have regretfully turned most of it into firewood. A couple of big pieces of pitch pine have been recycled and re-used in Saturn, the restored SU flyboat, which seems quite apt, but most of it was now too rotten or worm eaten to be of any value. I have also kept a manger and all the harness hooks of course, and a few examples of the hand made nails used in the stall construction but I am left with considerable disappointment. I have a deep sadness inside that another chunk of canal reality is now just notes and photos and can’t be seen or stroked, that the subtle qualities of the old canal world are still not being recognised and are still slipping away.

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There were two styles of harness hook still in place at Minshull when we got there, big ones extending out about eighteen inches from the wall to take a full set of gears including the collar and some smaller ones that I assume were just for bridles and head stalls. Two of the big ones were still in place (the whole stable complex could accommodate thirteen animals in stalls and one sick horse in a loose box) and six of the small ones. I have recently cleaned some of the smaller ones back to bare metal and discovered a further surprise. They were fixed at intervals to a long wooden board which was in turn bolted to the wall. The bottom fixing for each bracket was a common square-headed coach screw. However, if they had used the same sort of coach screw at the top, the head would have jutted out into the hook space where the leather bridle would hang. So, presumably to minimise any possible extra damage or wear to the harness, the top fixing is a slot headed screw with a tapered recessed head that fits precisely back flush with the surface of the bracket. These are not just harness hooks – these are Shropshire Union harness hooks, and of course each one is individually stamped with the logo to prove it. What a company!

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