Frankton, an Eightieth Anniversary

Funny stuff, history, especially as you get older and have more of it yourself. There was a simpler time when history was tidier – kings and queens, battles and dates, and a bit about the Romans. When I was young the idea that my own grandparents’ lives could be proper “history” was simply silly because they were still alive. History was certainly only about really dead stuff then.

Frankton, an Eightieth Anniversary

This was of course partly my own childish naïveté seen from the viewpoint of a very short life but I fancy it was also shaped somewhat by the different attitude of those times to these. Today my grandchildren are already studying the Second World War as so they should. But… but I was there, sort of, for a bit if it! How can that be proper history already?

These autumnal musings have just been brought into a very local focus for me by the loan of the black and white photographs that accompany this article. For comparison they are matched with a recent colour picture showing the junction (bottom right).

They are all of Welsh Frankton Junction in Shropshire, where the Montgomery Canal leaves the main line of the Llangollen Canal to head for Newtown in Powis. The top two pictures were taken in about 1928. They can be dated quite accurately for the little girl standing on the towpath is now a near neighbour of mine, Mrs Marie Powell, who has kindly given me permission to show these pictures to you here. Note the immaculate state of the canal and towpath, for although the canal company had ceased carrying back in 1921 there was still a healthy trade through Frankton, particularly grain to Maesbury and coal over the whole length. The boat tied on the offside may be one of Mr Hyde’s who had a domestic coal wharf and pub halfway down the locks. Note too the warehouse and crane, and the wharfinger’s toll office occupied by Mr Windsor who doubled up as the lockkeeper as well.

The third photograph is earlier still, with the tiny Dorothy Edwards, Mrs Powell’s sister, posed on a chair supported by her mother hiding behind her in 1923. They are outside Bridge Cottage where the Edward’s family lived, and where Mrs Edwards supplemented the family income by doing the laundry for many of the boatmen working the Llangollen Canal. Of especial interest to us is are the details of the Shropshire Union Company warehouse seen through the bridge, part of the elaborate collection and delivery service that the company operated throughout their network until 1921. This warehouse wasn’t actually very old then for the S.U.Co had been expanding and developing this service in the 1890s, perhaps the last canal company to concentrate on high value cargoes and fast delivery by their fly boats.


I discovered the inland waterways in the 1960s, a fairly Damascene conversion for a southern youth who had never seen a canal boat nor anything really resembling heavy industry until I went to the Black Country and Braunston looking for the fabled folk art of the canals. From there it was a short step to a fascination with canal history generally, particularly of canal carrying and the lives of the boating population. There was still some narrow boat traffic about but even I soon realised that we were witnessing the end of a way of life and the transformation of a transport system into something very different, a leisure industry for a very different class of customer. I was not alone of course in this awakening interest and found myself part of a movement to record this living history whilst we still could, spawning a rapidly expanding lexicon of books and a clutch of museums in the 1970s. Thank goodness it did, for in the spirit of the times there was a greater concentration on oral history and the reminiscences of the working people that really knew how it had been in their youth.


But there was already an important chunk of canal history in print, L.T.C.Rolt’s elegiac and inspiring Narrow Boat of 1944, although it actually recorded the pre-war narrow boat world of 1939, already much reduced from its full commercial heyday. Rolt’s own canal history was ten years older than that for his first narrow boat trip had been in 1929. But it was this book that eventually led to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association which itself has now celebrated over sixty years of its own history. Part of that history has been the long running struggle to restore and re-open the Montgomery Canal to traffic, following its closure in 1936 and official abandonment in 1944. Forty years of that restoration effort was marked recently with a commemorative event in Welshpool, but was it a celebration of success or mourning a failure? Progress has slowed down again lately and completion is still millions of pounds away even if the spirit is still undiminished.

Preparations are now in hand to celebrate the centenary of L.T.C.Rolt’s birth next year. It is therefore very appropriate that these old photographs of Welsh Frankton have come to light now for they exactly record the scene of Rolt’s very first canal experiences. In the first part of his autobiography Landscape with Machines he records visiting Mr Beech’s dock at Frankton to witness the progress of the installation of the steam engine in his uncle’s narrow boat Cressy, and the first steam trial on the canal towards Llangollen one Sunday afternoon in 1929. In March 1930 he spent a long weekend boating Cressy from Frankton to Stoke on Trent with his uncle and cousin, a trip that was to change his life. To quote; “…before we had covered many miles I had fallen head-over-heels in love with canals. This is it, I thought; this is what travel ought to be like.” Ten years later he owned the boat himself and had written Narrow Boat, and the rest is waterway history. So much change in one place in one lifetime – from thriving canal transport business to rural solitude and rediscovery, from near dereliction and closure in the 1950s to the most popular pleasure boat canal in the country today. Funny stuff, history, nowadays.

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

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