Monday, 20 December 2010

Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Forgotten Canal Books No.2Illustrationfrom Rob Rat081
SNOW  & ICE may be with us but soon…………………we can all be looking forward to……….our holiday1

So until then A Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year to all my 5 readers and anyone else who may happen across my blog and decide to follow it in the New Year. When they ………
Will thrill to my forthcoming old book ramblings!!……….…….
Discover.!!!!………"Who Was Amy"………………………………………
Experience.!!!!………"Yet more War Time Ephemera"………………
Gasp at.!!!!………"Women of the Barges"…………………
Wallow in Nostalgia with.!!!!!………"A History of Children’s Canal Books"………….and much more in the New Year.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

On the Canals in 1858.

Household Words                      
‘Household Words ‘  1858.
Up early on this very frosty morning just as dawn was breaking over the top of the towpath hedge next to my mooring. Two dark shapes moving behind the hedge caught my eye,their outlines silhouetted against the dawn by the rays of light made me realise that they were a pair of donkeys.
For a Christian this might have been a deeply symbolic moment what with the time of year and all !.Instead my thoughts turned to the proximity of the towpath to the animals and reminded me of how once on certain canals these donkeys would have lived a very different life.
No such romantic thoughts would have passed through Captain Randle’s mind when he left London on board the fly boat ‘Stourport’ in the early hours of an August day in 1858. Instead I feel sure that he would have been preoccupied with thoughts of the unusual cargo he was carrying and although he didn’t know it, Captain Randle was about to make a little bit of Canal history.   
For the ‘Stourport’  belonging to the Grand Junction Canal Carrying Co was that morning carrying, apart from the usual various boxes, barrels and packets destined for various up-country wharfs, a journalist and his friend together with a large meat pie brought along for sustenance on their journey to Birmingham.
John Hollingshead was a freelance journalist writing for Charles Dicken’s topical magazine ‘Household Words’. This magazine had been founded by Dickens in 1850 who used it to express his social concerns. Priced at only 2d it was nevertheless aimed at concentrating the minds of a predominantly middle class audience towards the  evils of poverty,working class housing and (with the River Thames at that time an open sewer) the sanitation of the metropolis. To popularize the magazine Dickens found he had to include more popular subjects such as travel and in particular serialized fiction. Some of his first novels and those of Wilkie Collins first saw the light of day here.
Hollingshead had previously written on the state of the gipsy population and had lived with and reported on the railway navvy gangs before now turning his attention to Britain’s floating population on the canals.Household Words (2)
Title heading of First part of ‘On The Canal’’   Saturday September 11th 1858.

That Holingshead wrote this article at this particular time is a fact that all succeeding generations of canal lovers, historians and in particular students of popular British Folk Art have reason to be grateful for because it is generally recognized to be the first detailed written account of canal boat life in the UK. The boaters and their life,dress,food,social habits as well as a description of the boat are all given in some detail. Although it has to be remembered that this was a fly boat with an all male crew of 4 travelling night and day that is being described and not a ‘family boat’.
‘The Stourport is rather faded in its decorations,and is not a gay specimen of the fly-barge in all its glory of cabin paint and varnish; but still enough remains to show what it was in its younger days,and what will be again when it gets a week in dock for repairs in Birmingham. The boatman lavishes all his taste; all his rude,uncultivated love for the fine arts upon the external and internal ornaments of his floating home. His chosen colours are red,yellow and blue; ………….The two sides of the cabin,seen from the bank and the towing path, present a couple of landscapes in which there is a  lake,a castle,a sailing boat and a range of mountains painted after the style of the great teaboard style of art.
It is the underlined portion of the above quote from the article that has excited the most interest over the years as it is as far as is known the very first indication of the existence of the now famous ‘rose and castle’ decoration on the boats. What a pity that this article like all the others in the magazine was unillustrated. We have to wait until 1873 for this.
Hollingshead goes on to describe the painted water can and amongst other topics he gives details of – the boaters clothing and habits,diet,living quarters and possessions are all described in some detail. The journey and people encountered are discussed and most illuminating of all, some brief chats with the boaters are given.
The article takes up some 17 pages spread over 3 consecutive issues – those for 11th Sept, 18th Sept and 25th Sept 1858.
Hollingshead’s article like all those in ‘Household Words’ is unattributed and we would not have known of his authorship but for the fact that a paybook has survived listing all contributors and their articles.
The author went on to theatre management and became quite a famous music hall promoter and manager bringing Gilbert & Sullivan together for the first time and presenting their first operetta.
If you want to read the whole article – the Waterways Museum brought out a copy in thin card covers in 1973. Otherwise the Dickens Journals Online has down loaded the whole of the 9 years of production of the mag and you should be able to sort out the relevant issues. Try . Go to Vol 18 and the start pages are 289,318 & 354.

Friday, 10 December 2010

One of the best films ever? DVD Review.

Bss photo033
With the cut iced over for days now and Christmas fast approaching my thoughts turned to an old movie shot during the winter months on the canals of Paris over 70 years ago.It might make an unusual gift for someone this Xmas.So this time not a book but a DVD containing the film L'Atalante for review.

I will say straight away – If you don’t like world Cinema , French Films, Art House films, subtitled films, very old films  or films that do not have a strong story line then forget about this blog and look at another one instead !
However if you are interested in acquiring a copy of the film that came third in the Guardians list of best ever Art House & Drama films then read on.
For non film buffs you may just like the shots of peniche's working on the canals of Paris in the early 1930;s.

The story is a very loose one and concerns a French barge skipper and his new wife and the trials and tribulations of married life in the confines of a peniches cabin. Wife runs away – husband sets out to win her back from the streets of depression era Paris and the characters she has met in her flight.
L'Atalante was shot in the Bassin de la Villette and the Canal de St Martin and the street scenes – in and around Paris. The result  is a film of tremendous beauty and poetry . It’s a Romantic film and so for me any way the story is not important. It is above all an artistic film painted with a camera rather than a brush.
The movie Is an artistic collaboration between the director Vigo and the cinephotographer who was a renowned expert and who went on to shoot ‘On the Waterfront’ with Marlon Brando. The film is full of eccentric characters performing in ordinary working class locations and is beautiful in its simplicity.
I guess you will either love it or be distinctly underwhelmed and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Many others have loved this film over the years and it has regularly featured in Top 100 movie lists e.g it came 6th in ‘Sight & Sounds’ 1992 Greatest films of all time poll.
The film was made in 1934 by Jean Vigo who only ever made 4 films and died aged just 29 just as this his greatest film was released.
For those interested, greater details of his life and work can be found at or try and search for jean vigo.
The ‘Artificial Eye’ DVD shown in the picture contains documentaries, biographies and the 3 other films that he made. I have had my copy for some time and so I was amazed at the price being asked for it now. However it is available cheaply as a video or the DVD can be rented.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

A forgotten book from the 1930's.

The gentleman who appears to be asleep sitting in his canoe in a lock on the Thames & Severn canal ,is one of my favourite canal writers. Actually I think he is probably reading or perhaps making notes for the book he is about to publish - 'The Heart Of England By Waterway'; a book that I have read many times for the sheer enjoyment of the quality of the writing.

The literature of the early years of British canal voyaging for pleasure is peppered with accounts of canoe cruises which for obvious reasons were the chosen means of voyaging through UK waterways in the latter half of the 19th century. In fact canoe touring enjoyed quite a vogue for many years after its initial popularization with the publication of the 'Rob Roy' series of books by John MacGregor. One such voyager and probably the most vociferous proponent of canoeing for pleasure during the 20th century was William Bliss.

His book whose full title is 'The Heart of England by Waterway - A canoeing chronicle by River & Canal' was published by Witherby in 1933. If you have got this far in reading this article and have decided that books on canoeing and canoeing technique are not your cup of tea then I beg you to persevere for there is little in the book on these subjects.
Title Page 
My copy of this book has a signed presentation note in the authors hand. The mame of the recipient has been erased but the inscription continues'......(to) a lover of England and of English Country from the author - who loves her too. William Bliss - 15 Nov 1933.'

This presentation dedication sums it up really - Bliss was a lover of the English countryside in general and of Canals and Waterways in particular.
The book is a delight to read because as I have said his descriptive prose is second to none. The man is obviously a romantic and what lover of waterways is not.His book is full of anecdotes and reminiscences from a long boating life written in a compelling and utterly charming way. The voyages in many instances took place over canals which are now derelict, so there is lots of contemporary interest here.
The author seems to have been born in the 1860's (I can find few references to him anywhere), so he must have been quite a young man when he canoed over derelict waterways like the Thames & Severn and Wilts & Berks canals. A flavour of the man is found in the first paragraph of the introductory chapter - 'One by One our English Canals are becoming derelict; each lustre sees another go. Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, it was possible to travel all over England, north, south, east and west, by river and canal; there was not a county you could not visit, hardly a town you could not reach by water, if you liked and if you were not (and what lover of boats and rivers ever was or will be?) in any particular hurry to get there.'  Again later in the same chapter he writes ' ........but these canals have long been derelict, and only here and there a line of sedge or a patch of golden iris or a tangle of alder or a row of willows, looking lost without the water at their knees, mark its course. They are going one by one, and I am writing thus about them before they go, so that anybody who reads and who has never yet experienced the peaceful beauty, the sleepy contentment that is peculiar to these English waterways, may do so before it is too late.'

     It sounds rather like the state of the canals when I first started boating! However the last paragraph quoted illustrates, I think, the fact that along with one or two earlier 20th century writers; Bliss was that rare thing at that time - a visionary for the possibility of canals for pleasure and recreation, although he does not preclude the possibilities of their resuscitation for trade.

I hope the couple of quotes already given illustrate the fact that we have a man of some sensibility here, and an educated man (References to Oxford University life are not uncommon) but its not all serious stuff, far from it. There are comic  (especially for 21st century eyes) moments in the book as for instance when voyaging up the Oxford canal he discovers a patch of white violets -' I had found Spring and would celebrate the discovery. I had provided for lunch , I remember, a fillet steak, cooked over-night and cold with bread and salt and a bottle of Burgundy.......'Sun and water and a Cotswold wind and beef and burgundy and white violets'........ I was thinking how well the scent of white violets blended with and enhanced the scent of burgundy (it was I remember, a Nuit St George, not the greatest of burgundies, but quite good enough for out-of-doors)...'  There are other comic references, as for instance when he encounters the bell ringers in the Red Lion at Cropredy. Some of the prose may be archaic to our eyes but it is of its time and class and as such, for me any way quite charming.

'You must cart your canoe from Chalford to Cricklade'

The book had but one edition and has never been republished as far as I know.The 9 chapters deal with the Thames above Oxford and Cotswold waters, River Severn, Gloucester & Berkely canal, Stroudwater canal, River Cherwell, Oxford canal, Warwick & Napton canal, River Avon, River Teme & Thames & Severn canal. There are three photographs and a folding map.

Its incredible to think that in his youth Bliss had canoed over the Wilts & Berks and Thames & Severn canals. It was whilst he was travelling on the latter and had camped at the mouth of Sapperton tunnel that he took a twilight walk and attracted by the heavy scent, found a huge patch of Butterfly orchids (now a very rare native plant).
I wonder if they are still there?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Wartime Ephemera. 'The War Illustrated'. April 1944.

'War Illustrated' April1944.

'War Illustrated' was published weekly throughout the second world war and was a popular morale raising magazine of war events and news.The cover illustration shows a butty belonging to the Grand Union Canal Co with two of the famous 'Idle Women' posing for the photographer. During the early days of the war the GUCC ran a recruiting campaign aimed at attracting female workers to man the boats in their fleet as many of their male employees had enlisted in the armed forces. The National Service badge that these women wore had the initials I W (Inland Waterways) as part of its design, but this was soon given the derogatory title of 'Idle Women' and the name stuck

The recruiting campaign started in 1942 and was organized by Eily (Kit) Gayford who went on to write about these years in her book 'The Amateur Boatwomen' published in 1973. Emma Smith's 'Maidens Trip' and Susan Woolfitt's ' Idle Women' , both published in the immediate post war years are books based on the authors experiences whilst working on this scheme.

The caption underneath the cover photo reads ' Handling her boat hook like a professional bargee is this girl now training under a Ministry Of War Transport scheme designed to make still greater use of our inland waterways for carrying vital supplies when the Allied Western Offensive opens. Barges work in pairs, with a crew of three each; six pairs of boats on regular runs are now operated by women. An average round trip takes 16 days, and crews sometimes work a 16 hour day'. Those looking for an article inside the magazine will be disappointed but if you do come across the item it looks very good mounted and framed and provides an unusual topic for conversation!

In recent years the invaluable war work of the 'Idle Women' has at long last received the recognition that it so justly deserved. Talks, interviews with the survivors and even the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in their honour has ensured a place in the history of Britain's canals and in the wider context of our countries war history.

The two ladies shown in the photograph are believed to be Audrey Harper (holding the shaft) and Evelyn Hunt (in the cabin doorway). The obviously posed photograph was one of a series taken at the end of March 1944 when there was a big press call to back the recruiting campaign. I am indebted to Mike Constable for this information (his information on the I W's is truly encyclopedic).

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Oodles of Icecream & Fizzy Pop (Oh! & Canals)

Explorers Afloat By Garry Hogg. 1940.

English canal literature from Victorian times on is littered with accounts of voyages made in craft from canoes  to narrow boats. Intrepid voyages along semi derelict waterways in dinghies, converted lifeboats and garden sheds mounted on pontoons were almost de-riguer. A spirit of adventure, a pioneering outlook coupled with a cheerful English insouciance were all that was required for the completion of a successful trip.

Between July and December 1939 Tom Rolt in 'Cressy' travelled the midland waterways and accomplished what was to become the most famous of all canal voyages. This trip has been chronicled elsewhere and many times so suffice it to say  that'Narrow Boat' the book resulting from this trip led to an interest in Britains neglected waterways which eventually saved them for posterity.

A couple of months prior to the start of Rolt's voyage, another canal trip took place which in its own unassuming way publicised canals to a section of the British public who were unlikely to read 'Narrow Boat' , namely children. Local boatmen and anyone visiting Nursers boatyard early in April 1939 would have noticed the unlikely sight of a 30ft, 6 berth, Thames Cabin cruiser tied up to the wharf. This boat the 'Venturer' was to be the boat used by an aspiring travel writer Garry Hogg to travel from Braunston down the Grand Union Canal and River Thames to Oxford.

Garry Hogg (1902 - 76) is best remembered as a schoolmaster and travel writer greatly interested in the English countryside with its customs and traditions, its country crafts and great houses etc. He is remembered now for his prolific output of books and also his radio broadcasts on these subjects throughout the 1940's and 50's but what is not so well known is the fact that he also wrote four books for children earlier in his career, two of which have waterway themes.

'Explorers Afloat' was published in July 1940 and was the third in his so called 'Explorers' series of childrens books and was a direct result of the Braunston - Oxford boat trip undertaken the previous year between the 14th - 27th April 1939. The book was a first in every sense.

Although many other books with waterway settings had been published prior to this e.g Arthur Ransome's famous series of books published in the 1930's usually set in the Lake District or Norfolk Broads; or Brian O'Farrell's 'Mystery on the River' of 1936 set on the Thames and most importantly Mark Harborough's book 'Fossil the Scout' 1933 which was almost certainly the first children's book since early Edwardian times to have an English canal setting. Garry Hogg's book was however quite different because it quite comprehensively dealt with canals and everything about canals. It was not just an adventure story with a canal setting. The canal was a subject for discussion in its own right!.

Ostensibly cast as an adventure story, the four fictional children in the book together with their uncle undertake to deliver a boat by canal to the Thames. As with most children's books at this time the characters are all impeccably middle class. Father works in town, Prep schools are the norm, servants abound, station porters on the local (now long vanished) rural branch line know the children intimately and address them as Master David etc as does the village postmistress.

Food and the provisioning of the boat seems to take an inordinate amount of time (a theme common to many children's adventure stories of the period, with a great deal of prominence being placed on Ginger Pop and Trifles and Jelly. Finally the adventure is allowed to begin after 'Agate' the chauffeur in "the long low Sunbeam car" deposits them on the Daventry road outside the entrance to the boatyard.

'Explorers afloat' is a strange book in that it is partly a fictional children's adventure story and partly a straightforward canal  travelogue. Real places and well known canal locations are mentioned, lock keepers dispense advice, boat and lock handling techniques are taught and the canal section takes up a good two thirds of the book.

The book is illustrated throughout with line drawings which give an added 'period' charm. Anyone interested in 'Art Deco' book illustration would appreciate this. Unfortunately however they don't give us much idea of the boat or its surroundings. Bruce Roberts the illustrator was well known for the posters he designed for London Transport in the mid 1950's so it is unfortunate to say the least that he appears not to have been inside the back cabin of the working boat he illustrates.

The author gives good descriptions of meeting pairs of boats, a good description of a pair ascending Stoke Bruerne locks and descriptions of commercial lock usage etc. The end papers at the front and back of the book have a good descriptive map of the route taken and working diagrams occur throughout the book .

'Explorers Afloat' is an important book in the history of children's canal literature because apart from being one of the first books of the modern era to use canals as a setting it was the first 'how to do it' or 'do it yourself' book to appear on the subject. As with Malcolm Saville's children's books set on the canals of post war England (the first - Riddle of the Painted Box 1948), children are positively encouraged to get out and explore and discover for themselves. Adventures occur in the latter part of the book when their boat gets stuck on a weir and the children get trapped in a mill wheel. I wonder if these 'adventures' actually happened on the real voyage of preparation for the book or whether they were all a fiction. I suppose we will never know.

As the book is part of the 'Explorers' series it is well collected by children's book collectors who are interested in it for reasons other than its canal content so it is quite a hard book to find even though a second edition was published in 1952. The Publisher for those interested in such things was Nelson.

Bibliographic Note...- In the 1940 first edition of this book a frontispiece is called for in the list of illustrations but which does not seem to be included (At least in my copy). It is present in the 1952 second edition and as it is coloured I have a feeling that with the outbreak of war at the time of the 1st editions printing wartime, colour printing controls might explain its absence The two editions are pretty identical except that the First Ed has coloured maps inside the covers front and rear whereas the Second only has them at the rear. There are a couple of illustrations from the book in my other blog go to Part 6 - Childrens books of the 1940's.