Tow­ing? Try a trac­tor

If you thought tow­ing barges was sim­ply the pre­serve of horses and ‘mo­tors’, think again

Canal Boat - - History -

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

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