Quick, before it’s too late!

Two new video titles are available from Sight Seen Partnerships this month – ‘A Tanner a Night’ and ‘Topcloth and Tippet.’ The first describes the old boat horse stable at Wheelock at work, filled with horseflesh and harness, whilst the second is a detailed recording of the process of clothing up a pair of British Waterways working boats, 1950s style.

Quick, before it

This now brings our film portfolio up to five titles, with two more working manuals for the Working Boats Project in the Midlands made as well and those of us involved in the project have suddenly become more aware of the size and value of this body of work. We are therefore making more of an effort this year to publicise and sell our efforts, to get them out to the public they are intended for. Could that be you? (Could this column be an advert?)

Sight Seen Partnerships emerged into existence almost by accident in 1996, squeezed into being by necessity, by the need to record another bit of canal history that was likely to be destroyed by development. Broad Street Warehouse in Wolverhampton was going to be turned into a nightclub. The interior was practically untouched since it finished work in the 1960s, complete with its entire vintage belt driven hoist machinery up in the roof, so a group of enthusiasts came together to get it all going one more time and to record the result on film for the archives, simply as an industrial archaeological record. The job was done– it was ‘in the can’ as they say– but it remained in there unedited for a couple more years before it finally arrived as ‘Warehouse at Work’ in 1998. The second– ‘Towpath Encounter’- was slightly more considered and planned, an attempt to record some of the old horse boating techniques of the Worcester and Birmingham canal, guided by the deep knowledge and enthusiasm of the late Tom Mayo. Just in time. This was followed by ‘Last Coal Run,’ an in-depth look at the coal traffic in the Midlands, using a tug pulling a train of coal boats. Once again it was the pressure of circumstance that pushed us into action, the imminent alteration of the old loading basin by the new M6 toll road.

In part the style of these videos has been shaped by the frustrations of watching old archive film where one can see interesting boats being worked, but not being able to see quite how they’re being worked. Boats fly up and down locks, sometimes in both directions at once, horses fleetingly haul past, gloriously painted cabins gleam and pass and are gone in an instant. How frustrating to know that the cameraman probably filmed everything that you could possibly want to know, but that all the interesting practical bits were probably dropped on the cutting room floor as the film editor pushed his storyline along. Thank goodness for video and the freeze frame button where the amateur enthusiast can stop the plot and study the knots and the paintwork. But if only one could have access to all the ancient original– how many more questions could be answered! How frustrating! Sight Seen has set out to find some of the answers from the boat population whilst their practical knowledge is still available, and then to make a visual record of these techniques for the future. One showing is worth a thousand words they say. Processes are filmed carefully and slowly so that you can see what’s going on, a rather unfashionable idea in today’s televisual jump-cut age. We’ve only tried to answer a few questions but we’ve attempted to answer them well and in detail. Hopefully our archive viewer in a hundred years time will find our pictures clear and self explanatory, and will thank us then. But there is so much to be done, and soon.

What next? Regular visitors to this site will already be aware that I am something of an anorak enthusiast over the subject of the humble B.C.N. boat, the straight stemmed simple ‘joey’ boats of the Black Country canals. Happily I am not quite alone in this fetish, and Nigel and I were leaning appreciatively on the gunwhale of ‘Birchills’ one year at the Black Country Museum. “Nigel”, says I, “do you know how to rig up a joey boat towing mast?” Yes,” says he, “I think so. There’s one in the shed — let’s do it ….” Right. A joey boat mast is an unprepossessing thing, a massive piece of wood like a slightly tapered chunk of telegraph pole. When the boat’s loaded down in the water it stands vertically in the middle of the boat, the base set in a recess in a block on the keelson, whilst a third of the way up it is chained tight behind the mast beam, a quarter of the way back down the boat. When the boat’s travelling empty however it is a different matter. Vertical it would be too high to get under the bridges so it is fixed at the front of the beam, laid back at an angle with the base resting in the chine of the boat, the angle between bottom and side. The top is then much lower, the forward pull of the horse keeps everything tightly in position and in the case of a really low bridge the bottom can kick up, without major damage. This, then, was the basic task that we had set ourselves, just to rig a simple joey boat mast, and we set to with enthusiasm and with what we thought we knew.


Twenty minutes later I said “Nigel, I don’t think we do know how to do this, do we?” ”No,” says he, “but I think I know a man who does. I’ll go and get him ….” A few minutes later he returned with Horace and Joe, both born to boating with years of joey boating experience in their youth. “Please gentlemen, could you show us how to rig up this joey boat towing mast?” “’Course we can – piece of piss”, and with what seemed to me the foolish courage of a few pints taken they walked along the four inch gunwhales to the mast beam and set to work. There were grunts and laughter and pauses and considerable banter and argument but basically, after several minutes, they didn’t seem to be getting very far. They couldn’t remember! They were kidding us!

“Hey, hold back a minute, it’s forty years since I last did this”. And suddenly their hands remembered how to do it more than their minds, and everything fell into place. There was no doubt. The practised flick of the towline under the beam, and the swift hitch to secure it, the tug on the line to check it, all clearly done hundreds of times before, even if it was forty years ago. This, to me, was canal history at its most practical and pictorial, the precise grace of a trade skill. And this is the sort of material that we must try and film while we still can, whilst we still have the equipment and the inherent knowledge available to guide our demonstration. It won’t be there for ever.


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

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