For our Vic­to­rian an­ces­tors, the rise of plea­sure boat­ing was a break from the cares and con­cerns of city life, as Caro­line Roope ex­plains

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - NEWS - Caro­line Roope is a writer in­ter­ested in so­cial his­tory, folk­lore and nos­tal­gia. Find out more at car­riecre­

Why your Vic­to­rian an­ces­tors loved mess­ing about on the wa­ter

The Bri­tish are a sea­far­ing na­tion, and away from the coast we love our lakes, streams and rivers too. What bet­ter way for our an­ces­tors to en­joy a dreamy sum­mer’s day than on the wa­ter, en­gaged in a quintessen­tially Bri­tish pas­time like plea­sure boat­ing? From punt­ing on the Cam to the great paddle-steam­ers of the Bristol Chan­nel, the sim­ple plea­sure of a few hours or even days on the deck of a boat opened up a whole new leisure pas­time.

As early as the 1760s, canals were be­ing used to carry pas­sen­gers. Pas­sen­ger ser­vices on the Bridge­wa­ter Canal com­menced in 1769 us­ing the Duke of Bridge­wa­ter’s own horse-drawn boats. In 1774 two new ‘packet boats’ were in­tro­duced, and by 1781 there was a reg­u­lar ser­vice be­tween Manch­ester and Worsley. Some 55 years later, dur­ing A Home Tour Through the Man­u­fac­tur­ing Dis­tricts of Eng­land in the Sum­mer of 1835, Sir Ge­orge Head took a packet boat from Manch­ester to Liver­pool, re­mark­ing: “Break­fast and din­ner were pro­vided on board at one shilling each meal… At din­ner we had a salted sir­loin of beef, gar­nished with a pro­fu­sion of fried onions.” The jour­ney was not with­out in­ci­dent, how­ever, be­cause one un­lucky pas­sen­ger mis­judged the dis­tance from the boat to the shore when dis­em­bark­ing, and fell into the wa­ter: “He was soon pulled on deck and stood help­lessly stream­ing and snuf­fling. The ma­noeu­vre was so un­pro­voked and un­called for, that he ex­cited no­body’s pity, not even that of his wife – who, on the con­trary, scolded him un­mer­ci­fully.”

Refuge from a rev­o­lu­tion

As the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion raced on through­out the 19th cen­tury, im­prove­ments in trans­porta­tion sys­tems led to the ad­vent of the rail­way and then the mo­tor car. How­ever, the pace of life on Bri­tain’s wa­ter­ways re­mained the same. Early canals were built to a nar­row width re­quir­ing

‘nar­row boats’, which were un­able to in­crease their ca­pac­ity to carry loads. Hence the rail­ways could trans­port freight faster and more ef­fi­ciently.

The fail­ure to evolve to com­pete with the cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy of the day may have been dis­as­trous for com­mer­cial water­way traf­fic, but the quiet sim­plic­ity and re­spect for tra­di­tion in­her­ent in canal life were per­fect for those search­ing for plea­sure and a taste of the rus­tic. No won­der the as­pir­ing mid­dle classes be­gan to see plea­sure boat­ing as a taste­ful pas­time that con­firmed their so­cial po­si­tion and pros­per­ity.

Lux­ury on the wa­ter

The Broad­land Mem­o­ries Ar­chive holds a leaflet pro­duced in 1888 ad­ver­tis­ing Wherry Yachts on the Nor­folk Broads, which claims the ves­sels are “fit­ted with every Con­ve­nience for the En­joy­ment of Par­ties” and con­tain, among other things, “blinds, soft cush­ions, plenty of rugs” as well as a “Jolly Boat” for row­ing ex­cur­sions. For an ad­di­tional 15s a piano could also be pro­vided, along with two men “to look after and sail the yachts... they will at­tend to the cook­ing, clean­ing, and wash­ing up, and to the wants of the Party on board”.

With their liveli­hoods on the line, boat­builders such as Keay’s Boat­yard in Wal­sall and Har­ris Broth­ers of Bum­ble­hole, Dud­ley, di­ver­si­fied into plea­sure craft, or ‘noddy boats’ as they were re­ferred to by the canal fra­ter­nity. Com­pa­nies sprang up solely pro­mot­ing plea­sure boat­ing, par­tic­u­larly on the larger rivers and canals. Sal­ter Bros, which worked the up­per sec­tions of the Thames from 1858, suc­cess­fully in­cor­po­rated the build­ing and hire of plea­sure boats into its reper­toire, with more than 200 plea­sure craft in its rental fleet by the late 1870s, peak­ing at over 400 be­tween 1887 and 1904.

Boat­ing on the Thames ac­tu­ally ben­e­fited from the ex­pan­sion of the rail network. Founded in 1833, the Great Western Rail­way im­proved ac­cess to the river for wealthy Lon­don­ers look­ing to es­cape the city for an out­ing. Notes from the diary of jour­nal­ist RD Blu­men­feld on his jour­ney from London to Maiden­head in June 1887 state that there were at least 5,000 peo­ple dressed in boat­ing attire wait­ing on the plat­forms at Padding­ton. He was told the scene was re­peated every Satur­day and Sun­day, from 8am un­til noon.

As the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion picked up pace, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a place where time seemed to have stood still be­came im­mensely ap­peal­ing. An in­crease in wealth and the avail­abil­ity of free time for many led to a drive in so­ci­ety to­wards new leisure, bring­ing in a golden age of plea­sure boat­ing in the 1880s.

But this taste­ful pas­time – of pianos, soft fur­nish­ings and a crew to cater to every whim – was a far cry from the re­al­i­ties of life on a work­ing canal. For those who wanted a more au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, there were other op­tions avail­able that tapped into nos­tal­gia for a dis­ap­pear­ing way of life. Au­thors such as Wil­liam Mor­ris and Thomas Hardy did much to pop­u­larise the pur­suit of idyl­lic

The Great Western Rail­way im­proved ac­cess to the Thames for wealthy Lon­don­ers look­ing to es­cape the city

ex­cur­sions to the coun­try­side with a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence life on a com­mer­cial water­way. Early hol­i­day­mak­ers such as V Ce­cil Coates, who wrote Two Girls on a Barge in 1891, de­scribes her ex­pe­ri­ence: “We were all lean­ing on the bul­wark in more or less re­cep­tive at­ti­tudes, wait­ing for ideas of barge life to come along the bank. For London had al­ready closed into it­self, and might have been 100 years away.”

The up­per reaches of the Thames re­mained a pop­u­lar choice for hol­i­day­mak­ers and daytrip­pers alike, be­cause of good trans­port links and prox­im­ity to London. The Nor­folk Broads was equally in de­mand, par­tic­u­larly for any­one seek­ing a bu­colic ex­pe­ri­ence, with its sweep­ing coun­try­side and farm­land. The Great East­ern Rail­way even com­mis­sioned pho­to­graphs of these scenes for dis­play in their car­riages, pro­mot­ing rail travel to the area as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion.

An Amer­i­can hol­i­day­maker to the Broads, au­thor Anna Bow­man Dodd, de­scribed in The Cen­tury

Mag­a­zine in 1895 “the heart of a rus­tic vil­lage… an ad­mirable col­lec­tion of thatched cot­tages, tall hedges, rose-gar­dens, rus­tics and cluck­ing hens” where “the charm and beauty of this river life be­gan to work their spell”.

It is lit­tle won­der that such lyri­cal de­scrip­tions pop­u­larised plea­sure boat­ing. Even chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture such as Wind in the

Wil­lows (1908) and its pas­toral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ed­war­dian Eng­land pro­moted the idea of “sim­ply mess­ing about in boats”.

Peace­ful place

The plea­sure-boat­ing com­pa­nies em­pha­sised the ru­ral theme, even us­ing the op­por­tu­nity to crit­i­cise the com­pe­ti­tion. Sal­ter Bros be­came adept at this in its pro­mo­tional lit­er­a­ture. Pub­lic­ity from the 1920s found in the com­pany ar­chives ar­gued, “The mo­tor car and char-à-banc have opened up the ru­ral parts of Eng­land and their old world charm has in many ways been se­ri­ously in­ter­fered with. Not so with the river. It is still the same peace­ful place that it has been for cen­turies and it is a re­lief to get away from the noisy traf­fic of a mod­ern town.”

As com­mer­cial water­way traf­fic waned in the 20th cen­tury, plea­sure craft came to the fore. The clo­sure of south­ern and east­ern sea­side re­sorts dur­ing the Sec­ond World War meant that hol­i­day­mak­ers needed an al­ter­na­tive to their sum­mer jaunt to the beach, and in­land wa­ter­ways pro­vided just the ticket. Agen­cies such as Pathé News pro­moted this idea with shorts such as Hol­i­days at Home This Year (1942) and River Folk (1943), avail­able on YouTube at hol­i­days-at-home and

By the time LTC Rolt wrote Nar­row Boat, pub­lished in 1944, the death knell was al­ready sound­ing for the coun­try’s in­dus­trial wa­ter­ways. His prophetic clos­ing para­graphs in­spired a gen­er­a­tion into tak­ing ac­tion: “But if the canals are left to the mer­cies of econ­o­mists and sci­en­tific plan­ners, be­fore many years are past the last of them will be­come a weedy, stag­nant ditch, and the bright boats will rot at the wharves, to live on only in old men’s mem­o­ries.”

By win­ter 1962/1963 the boat­man’s oldest en­emy – ice – pre­vented the wa­ter­ways

be­ing used com­mer­cially for months. Nearly 20 years after Rolt’s warn­ing, and with sig­nif­i­cant un­der­fund­ing from the Gov­ern­ment caus­ing fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, time was called on com­mer­cial traf­fic.

New lease of life

Or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion did a lot to raise the pro­file of the his­toric wa­ter­ways and their plight. The im­por­tance of canals, wa­ter­ways and their as­so­ci­ated build­ings to com­mu­nity co­he­sion and ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion be­gan to be recog­nised. The iconic nar­row­boats and barges, so long a com­mer­cial fea­ture of the in­dus­trial land­scape, were given a new lease of life as ho­tel-boats and cruis­ers. By the new mil­len­nium, Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways stated that 35,000 li­censed boats were us­ing the canals alone for leisure pur­poses, and that there were “more boats on the network than at the heart of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion”.

The re­nais­sance was al­most com­plete. Even to­day restora­tion work con­tin­ues on stretches of the older canals, and tra­di­tions such as ‘Roses and Cas­tles’ folk art and Vic­to­rian sail­ing re­gat­tas still sur­vive.

Our in­land wa­ter­ways network was de­vel­oped to fa­cil­i­tate in­dus­try, yet trag­i­cally it was in­dus­try that even­tu­ally put the wa­ter­ways into de­cline. How­ever, it al­lowed plea­sure boat­ing to thrive in the gap that was left. Our fore­bears wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence a dream-like haven away from the hec­tic stress and sen­sory over­load of the mod­ern world, and the prom­ise of sim­ple plea­sures and the charm of rus­tic life re­main great at­trac­tions to this day.

Plea­sure boats and row­ing boats on the Thames, with col­lege barges in the back­ground

These sketches de­pict­ing Vic­to­ri­ans on hol­i­day ap­peared in the news­pa­per The Graphic in 1888

Women travel on a horse­drawn barge on the Shrop­shire Union Canal in Au­gust 1939

Rail­way com­pa­nies used river­side scenes to pro­mote their ser­vices to leisure des­ti­na­tions

This am­brotype of a fam­ily en­joy­ing a trip in a row­ing boat was taken c1865

Vesta Til­ley, here with her hus­band Wal­ter de Frece, was a mu­sichall singer and male im­per­son­ator

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