Just pitch and rust, and a memory.
The phone call came on the Sunday evening –“we’ve found the remains of an old narrow boat at Crickheath. Are you interested in coming to have a look before we drive a digger through it?” Indeed I was! Crickheath is on the Montgomery Canal just beyond the section that has recently been re-watered to Redwith Bridge, quite near Oswestry, and is hopefully the next section to be tackled in the long slow restoration towards Newtown. But it has been closed since 1936 so any old boat in this length is a very old boat indeed, and well worth investigating to a canal nerd like me. But even more excitingly and miraculously I thought I knew which boat it was!
Back in the 1960s an ex Shropshire Union boatman called Jack Roberts wrote an autobiography. It is unpublished at present (although we have hopes…) but it is a very remarkable record of a boatman’s life in Shropshire Union days, packed with details. One of the first chapters details his first trip to Newtown with his father when he was about ten, round 1904, and he describes a boat sunk just beyond the limestone wharf at Crickheath “practically a skeleton, but you could see the name, the knees and the helm.” His father told him it was the Usk, a Trench boat, narrow enough to go up the tub boat locks to the bottom of the incline plane near Wellington. The story was that a boatman had been decapitated on this boat whilst working under the guillotine gates of this branch and it was thereafter regarded as somewhat jinxed. It ended up as a privately owned coal boat on the Montgomery and finally “the worse for wear, it was placed to sink at the point mentioned, and the remains it are still there” Jack wrote in 1969.
Now it can very properly be argued that an old man’s reminiscences should not be regarded as proof positive of anything but Jack certainly did have a remarkable memory and, furthermore, he was born a boatman. Most of the boat population were illiterate, but that meant that their verbal storytelling was of even more importance– family history learnt by rote and repeated for the next generation. Truths were handed down that way, and although Jack was not illiterate that traditional accuracy of boatman storytelling means I immediately believe 80% of what he says anyway, regardless of embellishment or exaggerations. Could I prove the rest by what we could find in the canal?
No, not really. The remains were very skimpy and fragile and difficult to get any meaningful data from. Knowing about the possibility of this boat I have walked this length many times, summer and winter, and never managed to see any remains, or even a clue as to its whereabouts. But a work party from the Waterways Recovery Group found the signposts when they cleared the vegetation down to ground level, prior to rebuilding a wharf wall. There was a line of nails sticking out of the ground and amazingly one iron knee deeply embedded vertically in a tree trunk. From there we did some digging and quite soon found some ironwork from the sternpost, the bottom gudgeons for the rudder pintle and the skeg plate. From there we could work out where the bow ought to have been and soon discovered the guard irons and some iceplating at the front of the port side under a few inches of soil. So we now knew where it was and Jack was right so far, of course.
The main problem is that that canal has been dry so long that absolutely all the wood has rotted away. Even that which was buried has only been under a few inches of dry mud for half a century and has completely reverted to soil. All that remains in places is the fragile layer of tar and pitch that was sandwiched between the bottom boards and the shearing which gives us a fossilised printout of the wood grain on both sides. Most of the iron work was presumably robbed for scrap many years ago, although we did manage to find two more iron knees still in the dirt towards the bow, where the hold would have been. From the shape of these we can be sure it was a very round sided boat, as we now know many of the Shropshire Union fly boats to have been, but it was impossible to measure anything to judge the overall width. Was it was actually a Trench boat, or the Usk? Well I still believe Jack Roberts. Two thirds of the boat has now been bulldozed into history but some of the bow still remains, reburied and untouched, and it could be excavated more fully and carefully in the future. Is it worth it? It may be the last chance to learn something about a boat that could date back to the 1850s. Hmm.