More poetic rot.

I have been given an old cabin door—a very tatty cabin door it has to be said, but one that pleases my soul more than it has any logical right to.


It is the starboard door of a pair from the wooden motor narrow boat Seal which ended its working days in the late 1950s when it was converted to a pleasure cruiser by the late John Bowles, a stalwart of the early IWA in Merseyside. Originally built at Uxbridge in 1920 for Fellows Morton and Clayton, Seal had found its last traffic with Gordon Waddington on the Bridgewater Canal, and had acquired the name Enterprise along the way. It had also acquired some of the decorative paintwork of the renowned boat painter Frank Jones of Leighton Buzzard, which suggests that the boat may have served some time with L.B.Faulkner’s fleet on the Grand Junction canal as well. John stripped off the old rotten cabin and shortened the boat when he converted it but several pieces of the decorated cabin survived. The weatherboard just inside the doors, the door through to the engine room and the ticket drawer came to me as a gift in the 1960s whilst John kept the table-cupboard on the wall of his new cabin on the Seal, and his later boat Titania. That table cupboard flap has now happily found a permanent home in the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum collection, a masterpiece of the genre. This surviving door somehow got left at Taylors Yard in Chester after John had some work done there and has lurked about in the workshop for many years since then. It became part of the atmospheric patina of the place, part of the historic clutter that expresses the working life of the dock so dramatically. But it suffered a bit, got knocked about and very dirty, and David Jones finally gave in to my covetous glances and sly hints and has recently given it to me to look after and pass on to posterity.

There may be a little doubt over whether posterity will actually want it. As you have read above its provenance is very good and interesting from both its working history and its personal associations but it is very shabby indeed. It is split, there are bits missing and some of it is very rotten. The outside paint has faded and crazed and the painted decorations are under layers of dirt and darkened varnish. And yet it speaks to me very eloquently about the quality of working canal boats and the canals as I first found them. It still expresses to me many of the attitudes to work and boat life that I and so many others wanted so desperately to preserve as the canals changed from traffic to leisure industry, attitudes so subtle and understated that most people don’t know what I’m wittering about. Clearly I need to explain myself better. Perhaps if I can critically analyse my feelings for this shabby old door something more coherent will emerge.


It is a wooden door of course, a single vertical plank a full imperial inch thick by ten inches wide, braced on the inside with two cross pieces of a similar size in the usual canal boat pattern. The wood was well chosen and well seasoned for it is still flat without serious cracks or shakes. The rebate down the edge where it married up to the other door suffered some damage at the top in the distant past and a neat little piece was scarfed and nailed into place. That too has now suffered rot, and perhaps a break-in, and the top is broken away and missing. On the outside one backflap hinge hangs on and the staple fitting for the locking chain from the cabin slide is in place, although an old recess shows that it has been replaced at least once, (at the time of the break-in?). The old red paint has faded to a pale brown although it is holding on to the red lead primer, but the green at the top is still bright, polished with a patina of finger grease and wear to a hard glaze from the repeated actions of thousands of door openings. Along the top a well-worn brass strip is screwed down to the woodwork, a little remnant of boatman ‘flash’ at the steering position, at the entrance to his home.


On the inside a whole essay on the narrow boat painting tradition glows through the darkened varnish of over half a century– pattern and picture, colour and texture. Simple rich steel combed oak graining covers most of it, with a strong and dignified star flower design on the lower cross board in dark red-brown. This is in itself a little gem, an example of a craftsman’s balance between care and confidence, a piece of brushstroke calligraphy that perfectly fills the space with a neat but obviously freehand motif. The centre of the door is a very dark green panel edged with thin battening with a lamb’s tongue moulding planed along the inside, recessing the panel into a miniature picture frame. The moulding is picked out with a deep yellow to contrast with the green, but an extra brown line edges it to ensure an extra decorative clarity against the orange of the oak grained border. The main cross-boards at top and bottom each have their four edges steeply chamfered inwards with the resulting extra framing surfaces painted red, with yet another yellow line round the castle. This essentially practical constructional design is both comfortable to handle and rub past, and satisfying to look at. And I’ve barely mentioned the paintings yet.


Frank Jones was a masterly boat painter. Born in 1904 he served an apprenticeship under William Allen before becoming the dock foreman and resident boat artist at Linslade in the 1930s. His work was liked and respected by the boat population and the trade and in the 1940s and 50s he became quite a canal celebrity. His work was in steady demand and, with practise making perfect an obvious natural talent, he became one of the finest folk artists of the canal world. This old door offers the perfect unpretentious evidence for that claim to me, confident but careful paintwork exactly fulfilling the needs of the tradition, satisfying the needs of the boat population and the conservative pride of the canal transport business. The paintwork is quick but not slapdash, the style is confident and flowing and the colours are rich and thick. The castle picture is interesting and compositionally well balanced and his formalised flowers fill the central panel with a lively intensity of graceful brushwork. It is the result of a quality job done as a necessary part of the boatbuilders trade rather than one done for a slick souvenir or an artwork in its own right. As such this magical blend seems to sum up so much of the quality that entranced me when I was converted to the canal religion in the 1960s. That balanced mixture of craftsmanship, applied art and a functioning transport industry was, I now realise, already anachronistic, but at the time it seemed to offer an escape from a dull present and even some guiding principles for a future world. Today, even my most optimistic bits have difficulty recapturing that hope but this lovely door remains as mute testimony to the real canal history that inspired me and many others at the time. Please take another look.


All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 27/01/2023.

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