Tribute to stalwart Mary Sexton
Mary Sexton ( Smith), who has died aged 89, was one of a now dwindling band of former working boatmen and women who had first hand memories of horsedrawn boating and World War Two.
She was only on the canals for 13 years but her memory of those years remained strong, and her childhood was so typical of the tough lot of boatmen children in the interwar years. Her oldest brother George became well known in the annals of the canals through his sixyear marriage to Sonia South, between 1945 and 1951, before she left him to marry Tom Rolt, author of Narrow Boat. The break-up of that marriage was the great canal triangular-love story.
Mary was born at Stoke Bruerne in 1928, officially per her birth certificate on the narrowboat Caroline 443 - the number 443 to avoid confusion with other boats of the same name. It was one of a pair of horse-drawn butties, pulled by one horse, which was worked by her parents George and Hannah (Annie) and Mary’s older siblings for the canal carrier John Griffiths Canal Carrier of Bedworth.
This was once a major concern which had bases at Bedworth and Brentford, and a recorded fleet of over 100 boats during its last 50 years of trading. Thereafter it would appear the family went to work for the new and rapidly expanding Grand Union Canal Carrying Company.
Mary later told her children that she was born in a house on the Stoke Bruerne quayside. It was most probably the large Georgian redbrick house by the top lock, now a popular Indian restaurant, which was then the home and unofficial surgery of the trained but unqualified Sister Mary Ward, the legendary canal people’s nurse.
The family would have stayed at Stoke Bruerne for a week or two before Annie felt well enough to continue working.
By the time Mary was born, her parents were already in their forties and having married at Bedworth in 1908, had been so for some 20 years. They had been relatively slow in having children, but on 7th November, 1911, Annie gave birth to their first child Eliza.
When only a few months old, the infant died of the silent killer, carbon monoxide poisoning, when she was in the cabin and her mother was out steering the boat. The result was that when George came along in 1915, nearly four years later, he was kept on the cabin roof in his carrycot in all weathers, when his mother needed to be outside the cabin.
And the same regime was applied to her subsequent six children. It seemed successful as there were no more deaths and by the time Mary arrived in 1926, there were six children on that pair of boats, with one more daughter still to come. With so many children, the ten-year-old George was farmed out to work for another canal family, as his younger brother could now do his job. Mary recalled she saw almost nothing of George during her childhood.
Mary’s memories of the canal were of relentless hard work, with only the briefest of schooling which gave her little enthusiasm to go boating again after she left the canals. When she was two and half, she fell off a wall and banged her head. Her mother would do nothing about it and a few months later she was having violent headaches and a detached retina was detected which had already resulted in Mary losing the sight in one eye.
On a later occasion, Mary recalled a sister falling into the canal wearing a crinoline dress which, with the air trapped beneath her, allowed her to float along the canal before her anxious mother pulled her out.
In 1939, and in November 1940, Mary witnessed the bombing of Coventry from the canal to the north of it. She recalled seeing the awesome fireball that the city centre became.
In 1941, when Mary was aged 13, she was taken off the boats and sent to look after an ageing grandmother, who had worked the canals in her time and now widowed, lived in the village of Barnacle, two miles to the east of Coventry. Mary needed to earn money, so lying about her age she took employment at the Dunlop Bicycle Company in Coventry, polishing the rims of newly cast wheels. In the war years she saw little of her parents and
siblings. In 1956 Mary met Raymond Sexton, a machine setter. They were happily married for 54 years until he died in 2010. They had two children, Brian and Pauline.
In the 1950s Mary’s siblings all came off the canal, settling mainly in north Coventry near the Oxford and Coventry Canals. In 1956 they now included George who had a new partner called Anne, who took his surname, as George did not divorce Sonia until 1969. Canal walks with Mary’s children to see relatives were popular, as were visits to Stoke Bruerne where they would enjoy rides on the trip boat. But unlike George, Mary never took the helm again.
Mary later began attending boat rallies. In 2000 she and her family, and George and Anne all went to the IWA 50th Anniversary Rally of the first National Rally at Market Harborough, which was appropriately held there, where they met Sonia Rolt. George and Sonia had already made up in the early 1990s when she had contacted him to help her identify some of the boatmen when she was working on her book A Canal People –a collection of the late 1940s photographs of Robert Longden. ( Her husband Tom Rolt had died in 1972.) Anne had been receptive to the reunion at their house, and the book when published, was discreetly dedicated ‘For George and Anne’.
At the Market Harborough Rally, George and Sonia were feted on stage as they had been at that first rally in 1950, when they ran boat trips on their pair of working boats Cairo & Warwick. Sonia, George, Anne, Mary and her family all then went on the trip boat used at that rally. It was the first time Mary had met her former sister-in-law Sonia.
In December 2012, George died aged 96, his partner Anne, to whom he was never married, having predeceased him some years earlier. At his funeral, the former IWA Chairman David Stevenson, representing Sonia Rolt, read an affectionate farewell message from her.
In the following January, Nick Wolfe kindly brought his working narrowboat Aldgate from its mooring at Braunston up to Hawkesbury Junction, and in a simple ceremony, Mary, Brian and Pauline were taken out to beneath the famous iron bridge, where they scattered George’s ashes at the junction of the Oxford and Coventry Canals. On the bank was David Stevenson, representing Sonia Rolt.
Sonia Rolt died the following year in October 2014. A commemorative plaque was added to the ‘Braunston Wall of Fame’ on the outside wall of the Fellows Morton & Clayton covered floating dock at the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally of 2015. The plaque commemorated the five years that Sonia Rolt and George Smith worked for Samuel Barlows as husband and wife between 1946 and 1951, based at what is today Braunston Marina. The plaque was unveiled by the distinguished actors and canal enthusiasts Timothy West and Prunella Scales, in the presence of Mary Sexton and her children Pauline and Brian, and Sonia Rolt’s older son Richard.
They then all joined the official guests for formal opening of the 2015 Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally, parading in hold of the FMC butty Northolt which was towed for this rally by President the last steam-working narrowboat. It was the final time Mary visited Braunston, a place she had known well in her canal working days.
Sonia Rolt’s son Richard, actors and canal enthusiasts Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Mary Sexton and her daughter Pauline and son Brian