A recent trip with the Canal Junction tug Greenman was to the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum to tow their ancient horse-drawn icebreaker Marbury for an outing up the Shropshire Union Canal, to a canal society rally at Ellesmere town proper.

Moving Marbury

The trip was interesting and without major problems, and this unusual craft caused a considerable amount of interest as we worked up the canal. Those that recognised it for what it was were encouraging and pleased to see her on the move (for the first time in a few years) “Expecting a hard winter down south are they?” shouted one houseboat dweller. “Big lifeboat for a small tug isn’t it?” said another. But they were comments from those in the know. Far more common were the simple questions—what is it? what’s it for? where’s it’s engine? How quickly the everyday needs of a working canal become obscure ancient history in an age of leisure and pleasure boats…

In the 1940s there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of icebreakers scattered all over the canal system. In summer they were sunk out of the way, keeping watertight and awaiting their few weeks of essential work in the winter, rocking and smashing their way through the ice ahead of the carrying boats, keeping the traffic moving, keeping the canal open and earning its living. For that concentrated time the icebreaker was queen, and as much money, manpower and horsepower was hung on it as necessary to keep the channel open for trade. For the rest of the year it lay in waiting, costing maintenance money and effort, but doing nothing. As traffic dwindled the importance of icebreakers became less crucial. By the 1960s a fair number still remained in existence but their age and lack of maintenance meant they were disintegrating fast, particularly the wooden ones. Some were rescued and converted to pleasure boats and several of those still cruise the canals in the care of loving owners. Most, however, rotted away in the reeds.

Marbury was lucky. She was kept on general maintenance work around the Ellesmere depot for longer than most and thus survived better than most. Her historical importance was recognised early by members of the young Shropshire Union Canal Society and in 1964 she was bought and rescued from the Prees branch of the Llangollen canal and taken to Market Drayton were she lay under the roof of the warehouse for some years. Eventually Marbury was transferred to the new museum at Ellesmere Port where she underwent major restoration and rebuilding, and where she has remained as an important exhibit ever since. Thanks to that rebuilding she is still canalworthy enough to be able to travel and meet and amaze a new generation of waterway users on her home waters.

The basic idea of this trip was to continue the publicity campaign for Saturn, the 1906 S.U. fly boat now under restoration at Sandbach. Because she is now on the bank and dismantled the Saturn committee decided that the project could be best promoted by touring and displaying one of the other few surviving Shropshire Union boats instead, as well as publicising the Waterways Trust collection at Ellesmere Port. It certainly generated interest. Marbury was in the prime display position at the end of the Ellesmere arm, close to the old warehouse, and was a highlight of the whole canal festival. Several locals remembered her from forty years ago and were clearly touched and pleased that she still survives. It certainly made the effort of getting her there seem worthwhile. One British Waterways man remembered her particularly well. One of his earliest jobs when he started work was to load Marbury’s deck with a lot of steel piles and ferry them across the canal from the yard. Half way across he stepped on to the gunwhale, the round bilged icebreaker rolled seriously and all the piles slid off into the canal. It took two days to get them all out again, and that’s the last time he remembers it being used. Hmm, surprise.


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

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