Trib­ute to stal­wart Mary Sex­ton

Canal Boat - - Contents - TIM COGH­LAN

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

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