Towing? Try a tractor
If you thought towing barges was simply the preserve of horses and ‘motors’, think again
Try to picture London’s canals in their busy freight-carrying days, and you’ll probably conjure up images of pairs of narrow boats coming up from the docks, a diesel-powered motor pulling an unpowered butty, perhaps a tug towing a string of lighters or, longer ago, the towpath busy with boat horses.
But for a few years from the mid-20th Century there was another form of motive power in use on the capital’s canals – the towpath tractor. Now, half a century after these diminutive vehicles were last used to haul freight, a chance meeting on the towpath at Rickmansworth has led to a booklet recounting the memories of Tony Byfield, probably the only man alive who drove one for a living.
The Regent’s Canal carried a mix of long-distance and local traffic. The long-distance trade up the Grand Union to the Midlands was the preserve of narrow boats, in latter years often working in pairs with a motor towing a butty. By contrast, the local traffic was mostly carried in lighters – unpowered barges – which needed to be hauled by tug or horse.
By the early 1950s, British Waterways’ predecessors were looking at alternatives to horses and began experimenting with towing the barges using small tractors on the towpath. The first ones they tried were agricultural or ex-military machines
(for example some had been used by the Royal Air Force for bomb-loading), but it was difficult to find a vehicle small enough to turn around on an 8ft wide towpath and stable enough not to fall over on the steep slopes found by lock tails and tunnel mouths.
Faced with the problem of not finding anything suitable, they eventually had their own purpose-built tractors designed. Initially they were petrol-powered (with a JAP engine) and later there was a Listerpowered diesel version built by Wickhams.
Various handy features helped the tractor drivers get out of problems: for example, you could lock all four wheels together for a really strong pull (provided you didn’t mind not being able to steer), and there was a place for loading them down with weights if you needed extra traction.
They were ideal for the job, but even so, it wasn’t easy. “What’s hard about that? A lot, believe me,” as Tony puts it. Not only were they a tight fit on the towpaths, but working a heavily loaded barge on an 80ft towrope through a lock meant knowing exactly when to when to start and stop pulling.
Then there was passing another tractor towing a barge in the opposite direction, coping with barges going aground, and dealing with London’s worst weather – from driving along in thick fog, with your outstretched hand rubbing on the towpath wall to tell you where you are, to icebreaking in the hard winter of 1962-3.
For new drivers there was ‘six weeks of basic training, like the Army’, in the words of Tony who was taken on in 1957. At the end of it, they had to pass a test: through Commercial Road Bridge with inches to spare, turn it around and back through the bridge – any scratches on the paintwork, and they failed. But once a driver had his ticket, the tractor was effectively his: it was his responsibility to check it and oil it, he took a pride in it and kept it polished, and “you were your own governor – start when you start, and finish when you’re done”. Hence the name of the booklet: The canal belongs to me.
Readers familiar with the Regent’s Canal will know that it has a couple of tunnels with no towpath. This effectively divided it into three sections, with tugs
taking over to haul the barges through the tunnels. So there were tractors based on the length from Limehouse up to Islington Tunnel; others covered the length from Islington Tunnel through St Pancras and Camden to Maida Hill Tunnel; and a third set operating from Maida Hill west to Little Venice, Paddington Basin and out along the Paddington Arm towards the Grand Union Main Line.
Tractors and drivers tended to stay on one section – but some of them were road legal, so they could be driven over the top of the tunnels to help out elsewhere. And a separate set were based on the southern Grand Union main line, working right up to Berkhamsted.
By the 1960s the trade in lighters was in decline and the remaining tractor driving jobs were combined with those of the lock-keepers. Tony found himself on the Islington to Camden length, still hauling what little traffic there was, but spending more time looking after the locks and controlling water levels, an important job in the days before the duplicate locks were converted into overflow weirs.
By the time use of the tractors ended, he was bringing up a family and had moved out of London, to become a lengthsman based at Watford and living in a lock cottage. Retired since 2002, he still lives in that cottage. And it just so happened that when the London Canal Museum acquired one of the old tractors in 2013, the easiest way to deliver it from its previous owner to the Inland Waterways Association’s festival at Cassiobury Park (where the museum had a display) was to drive it along the towpath, past that cottage…
“I was sitting in my living room and I heard a sound. I thought ‘I know that sound’.” A minute later he was on the towpath asking “What are you doing with my tractor?” and the museum staff were noting down his address, realising that he must be one of the last of the tractor drivers – and the rest is history.
Four years on, following a great deal of audio recording of Tony’s memories and co-operation between him and the museum, this booklet is the result. It brings the story to life in the way that only a first-hand account can – whether it’s the day-to-day work, with the many long-gone industries which still relied on the canal 60 years ago; the times when things went wrong, from tractors falling in the cut (one a week on average, Tony reckons) to snapped towropes, boats sinking and the odd body found in the cut; or local characters like Ma Parker whose café would serve you “a breakfast that would feed an ’orse”.
And running through all of it is the enjoyment and pride in the job of a man for whom “The canal belongs to me”.
Above: Tony is pictured on his beloved tractor and, below, Twig Folly Green Street Bridge looking south with a barge on tow ( picture Historic England)
Towpath tractors pictured in 1967
Tony today signing books