For our Victorian ancestors, the rise of pleasure boating was a break from the cares and concerns of city life, as Caroline Roope explains
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”.
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 bit.ly/ holidays-at-home and bit.ly/river-folk.
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