Friday, 16 December 2011

A Merry Christmas to all.


Compliments of the season to everyone and a quick blog. I have not been able to ramble on about my books since the summer as I sold my beloved boat in July and my collections had to go into storage. Life has been pretty hectic since then and I have been mainly preoccupied with finding somewhere to live. I have at last found a tiny secluded cottage not too far from family and friends and still in the countryside. I move my books in sometime in the new year.

I will miss the ‘cut’ but compensations include  having a garden and a bit more space. I can still boat as all my 3 kids have boats so its not too bad.

October was an eventful month as I journeyed to Holland to bring back a Dutch ‘Tjalk’ which my youngest son  had just bought. A really great trip from Utrecht down the Lek and Maas and estuaries to Stellandam and from there out into the North Sea and an adventurous trip down the Dutch and Belgium coasts in beautiful October sunshine. Off Dunkirk we turned to make the crossing to Ramsgate but bad weather after a couple of hours forced us to retreat and seek shelter at Calais which after battling some really rough seas all night we finally made at 5am in the morning.We had really left it too late in the year for any continuous spells of good weather so we had to leave the boat at Calais for a couple of weeks before a day produced calm enough seas for the boat to finally complete her trip to ‘Blighty’.

Again Best Wishes for Christmas & the New Year to everyone and to anyone who enjoys reading my stuff you can look forward to more of it sometime in the New Year!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Croggans Roofing Asphalt. (Engraving of the week)

camping out036
‘Camping out’  from –Life on the Upper Thames by H R Robinson. 1875

Robinson and his companions had some dire views on the virtues of camping out alongside the river and much preferred wherever possible to stay in riverside inns. He says…..’The risk of rheumatism and concomitant evils is, in our opinion too serious to be encountered for a whim….’
Whilst acknowledging that ‘….when the days are at their longest and the moon is full, then, indeed, if the weather should be perfectly fine, we will grant that the river is most beautiful after sunset. To take a boat then, and lazily drop down the river, listening to the measured splash of the oars, has given us a sense of tranquil enjoyment , in its way unrivalled.’  However the merits of camping out amongst all this beauty are not even to be considered unless   ‘…especial attention is paid to the selection of a suitable piece of land (that on a slight incline is preferable), but, above all, the exclusion of damp, the forerunner of acute rheumatism, should be carefully studied. A most terrible result may arise if this be not carefully attended to.’
The author also recommends  ‘…a plentiful supply of travelling rugs for coverings…’ as otherwise ‘….without plentiful covering, the (tents) occupants would possibly receive a chill that might be productive of evil results’.
The answer to all these dire warnings was of course ‘Croggan’s Roofing Asphalt’  , which it would would appear should be an indispensable part of any riverside campers kit. For  ‘….although rather large in bulk, is very light, and forms, when laid down, a most comfortable substitute for a mattress, and is thoroughly waterproof.’
So the next time you encounter riverside campers carrying rolls of roofing felt along the tow path you will know that Robinsons words of wisdom are still being adhered to even today 135 years later. However a word of warning for  those of you intending to try a little incautious camping for yourselves - You may be tempted to evade the carriage of the said  felt to your chosen camping site, so you should be reminded that substitutes will not do for ‘…the ordinary mackintosh, though smaller in bulk, is not so well suited for the purpose.’
It seems that only Croggan’s will do!!!
water rails037

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Water Gipsies. (1930)

water gipsies 1st uk        
     The Water Gipsies by A P Herbert. 1930. First edition with its colourful art deco dust wrapper.

There are in fact three works of fiction entitled The Water Gipsies whose contents are based on the English canal system. All three were successful books which interestingly and entirely coincidentally were produced at the very beginning, in the middle of and at the very end of a 100 year period of English Canal Fiction.W Gip Illus
     ‘The Water Gipsies or The Adventures of Tag, Rag & Bobtail’  by L T Meade first appeared as a serialization in an English magazine in 1878 and in fact can boast of being the first work of fiction in England devoted solely to a canal theme. Up to this time canals had only enjoyed brief mentions in novels devoted to other subjects.
      Meade’s book was the first of many books to publicise (In the years 1880-1900) , the subject of the moral & social conditions of the canal working population. For more on this book & others see my article at
   Frontispiece illustration from L T Meade’s – ‘The Water Gipsies’
water gipsies 1st uk
For a good read of an interesting period piece you could do worse than find one of the innumerable copies of this book which are available and which is really the subject of this article.
A P Herbert's book came out in 1930 and was an immediate hit with the public. It spawned a musical and then a film starring Anne Todd which although like the book –long forgotten, is I am told, possible to see online.
The book tells the story of Jane Bell a working girl in service who dreams of joining ‘the bright young things’ of 1930’s London. From her home on a Spritsail barge on the river somewhere in west London Jane becomes an artists model and finally begins to enjoy the parties,fashion and fun of her dreams. Only after many adventures does she find what the reader has long suspected, that this world is not what it seems and so she finally returns to long suffering boy friend Fred (A boatman on the Grand Union Canal) and finds true happiness as she sails off into the sunset on a working boat.
Set against the contemporary world of the depression years of the 1930’s the book is really a social comment of the times albeit written in a humorous and very readable manner. A comment on the title page describes the book –‘as a sympathetic and intimate study of the lives of poor people’  . A comment that today might raise the eyebrows of those concerned with political correctness, one feels.Water Gipsies 1st US Edtn
      Herbert for all that, had his heart in the right place, as he loved the river and portrays it absolutely authentically. He was an MP for many years and a member of the Thames Conservancy and was a very early president of the Inland Waterways Association. He could always be relied on to represent the views of those who loved the waterways and wrote for instance No Boats on the River in 1932, The Thames in 1966 and Singing Swan (About Thames Barges) in 1968.

     Water Gipsies. First American Edition 1930.                                     
All the many editions over the years, with  Penguin paperback  editions appearing in 1960 and 1973, have proved the popularity of this book so do read it if you get a chance.
water gyp PB
One last note – If such bibliographic details mean anything to you and you want to acquire the book in first edition form then look out for the tiny printers collation number 330 at the bottom of the last page of adverts at the rear of the book. Such pedantic details are I am sure wearisome to those unafflicted with the book collecting disease but for those sufferers like myself any other number than 330 is not a true first edition (there were several other printings in 1930). Anyway whatever edition you read either one picked up for pennies at a flea market or charity shop or a true first edition with its lovely art deco dust wrapper and signed by the author (Available on the web as I write for £50) I am sure you will enjoy it.                       

Water Gipsies Annie Murrey      
Last and by no means least, and I suspect a lot of canal lovers will have read this one if only because so recently published, Annie Murray’s book which came out in 1992 tells a wartime story of a boatwoman, who after her husband is injured, goes on to run a pair of boats with other women in a manner suggested by the experiences of women in the Grand Junction Canals wartime training scheme.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Engraving of the week

Weir with movable bridge010

'Weir with movable bridge'  from 'Life on the Upper Thames' 1875. Author –H R Robinson.

Strangely Robinson does not use the term ‘Flash Lock’ in his description of this primitive contrivance for altering the levels of rivers in order to primarily facilitate navigation by boats and barges, although he does describe the operation as ‘flashing a weir’.
 I will let Robinson describe the whole procedure …. ‘ The most primitive way of overcoming the difficulty  (of shallows obstructing navigation) has been to erect a movable dam all across the river, below the shallow; the boards of the dam,being of course, high enough to keep back sufficient water to enable a boat to float over the shallow. By this means the boat descending the stream meets with no impediment till it reaches the dam or “weir”, (pronounced “wire” by the riverside people. The boards composing the dam are then removed and the boat proceeds with great rapidity, owing to the increased volume of water by which it is carried along. The temporary depth thus produced by the body of water descending enables the boat to descend over many shallows below the weir.
The different parts of the weir are first the cill or fixed beam , laid securely across the bottom of the stream; then, directly over this, but considerately above the surface of the water, is placed a second but movable beam. Against and in front of these parallel beams a set of loose boards  is placed upright and close together like a door. These loose boards are called paddles, and the long handles with which they are furnished rest against the upper beam, the pressure of the stream serving to hold them in their places. Between the paddles are placed upright supports termed “rimers;” and when a second set of paddles is employed above the first to obtain a greater depth of water,this set is called the “overfall”.
As the largest barge is far from occupying the fall width of the stream, it is practically found that only a portion of the bridge is required to be movable. In the illustration the man who is putting down the paddles is standing on the movable part called the “swing bridge”. It revolves on a pivot close to the edge of the water  and the weight is balanced by the increased thickness of the beam at the landward end on which is often placed a great stone or other heavy substance. The upper beam and hand rail across that part, are of course, removed before the bridge is swung round and it is for this purpose that the two handles which may be noticed are added.........'
The weir in its most primitive form was just a dam and there is evidence that the Vikings dammed the river in order to ease navigation. Later they were used by millers and fisheries and then adapted to the movable type discussed by Robinson to aid navigation.
Many rivers had flash locks and on the Thames ,some lasted into the 20th century –particularly above Oxford where the last at Eaton Hastings survived until 1938.The last surviving capstan used for hauling boats up river against the flow was found at Hurley recently and restored in 1999. Pictures of this and other interesting stuff can be found under locks  at

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Engraving of the week

rush cutting038
'Rush Cutting' - From Life on the Upper Thames (1875).

Rushes on the Thames were usually cut in the month of August and were used in the cooping (barrel making) trade, for the seats of chairs ,in basket making and for the poorest sort of thatching.
The rushes were tied in bundles called bolts and were then left to dry for 3 weeks before being stored. In 1875 a bolt cost 1 shilling (10p).
The rush was occasionally grown in plantations, the seed being sown in the flam (soft oozy ground) and then being allowed to grow for 6 years before harvesting, the crop being cut every alternate year.
                                                           rushes drying039

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Children’s Canal Books in England.(Part 7)

Adventure Stories from the 1950's.

The decade commenced with another Thames adventure –Eric Leyland’s ‘Discovery on the Thames’  published in 1950.

Discovery on the Thames121
Sunny Stories.The Old Canal 1954
Sunny Stories. Mystery of The Tunnel. 1954Sunny Stories. The Runaway Barge.1954
Sunny Stories. No’s 611, 618, 637. From March, May & September 1954.

For very young children – ‘Sunny Stories’  appeared in the UK throughout the 1940’s / 50’s and was edited by Enid Blyton for many years. As a shareholder in the magazine she seems to have taken exception to the appearance of advertisements in the magazine for books written by authors other than herself. This disagreement culminated in her resignation as editor in 1954. Her replacement was none other than Malcolm Saville who as we have seen had already written two canal adventure stories in the 1940’s. Knowing canal stories to be a ‘good thing’ he included these 3 stories in comics issued soon after the commencement of his editorship
Y John Bimbo Y John Bimbo PB
Young Johnnie Bimbo’  First Ed Dust Wrapper from 1955 and Paperback version from 1970.

Shown above, Malcolm Saville produced his third and last canal book - ‘Young Johnny Bimbo’  Published in 1955 it was again set on the Grand Union Canal but this time involving circus life.

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 Gunpowder Tunnel by Bruce Carter 1955.

A book with a new direction appeared in this same year – ‘Gunpowder Tunnel’  by Bruce Carter. Set in the 18th century this was the first book in the ‘Historical Adventure Story’ genre of books to appear with a canal setting. This setting was a device that was to become very popular in succeeding years for both adult and juvenile fiction works. The author had thoroughly researched his subject and chose to set his story around the building of Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames and Severn Canal. The result was an exciting and realistic adventure story for 10 –12 year olds.

 Marigold Cut111 canal cats106
Shown above – Two books for younger readers which appeared in 1955.

The most elusive of children's canal books appeared in 1957 written by the established writer of juveniles – Winifred Finlay. ‘Canal Holiday’  seems to be exceptionally uncommon, in fact so rare that I have yet to find or even see a copy (In the unlikely event that you have a spare copy then I’m your man). So I am sorry that I cannot show you an illustration of this book.
Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Tom Rolt’s first book ‘Narrow Boat’ . It is said that Rolt wanted to illustrate his book with photographs but ‘Countryside book production’ conventions to which his publishers Eyre & Spottiswoode  adhered prevented this. I suppose it depends on your point of view but personally I find the scraperboard images produced by D J Watkins- Pitchford for this book perfectly complement the nostalgic melancholy of this text with its plea for the retention of a fast disappearing way of life.
At any rate judging by the rare book prices asked for any of Watkins- Pitchford’s books ,there must be a lot of admirers out there.He even has a society dedicated to his life and work. A Keen fisherman and countryman he also wrote several books for children one of which for very young readers involved badgers and a canal. Bill Badgers Winter Cruise  is illustrated below with its 1st edition dust wrapper and should you want a copy be prepared to pay £120 plus for it !!
First Edition Dust Wrapper from 1959.


One of the best children's books from the period  - John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel involves the imaginary Callender family in a series of adventures with yet another canal tunnel as a setting. John Verney was an established artist who illustrated his own books in the style of Edward Ardizonne.


Fridays Tunnel. First Edition 1959.

The Monkey on the Red Rose.1959
     The final book of the era was unusually set on a wide beam boat on the waterways of the North East. Well researched and with an authentic tone it describes the fight for survival of a No1 or bye trader against the larger carrying companies. It was the first book to be set on a wide boat since the publication of Jims Children in 1903.

The Monkey On The Red Rose 1st Ed.1959.

To follow and in preparation – Books of the 1960 – 70 period.

To read the whole 7 parts in this series in one go (1870-1960) go to my other blog -

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Engraving of the week

'Ballasting'  From 'Life on the Upper Thames' 1875.

Inexplicably H R Robinson the author has nothing to say about this engraving other than to state that it was an operation carried out to maintain a navigable channel .
Before the era of steam dredgers this was an obviously laborious way  of dredging and seems to be a similar but even more primitive technique than the old spoon dredgers used on the canals.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sorry for the delay in the appearance of new posts but a great trip down the M'cr Ship Canal, Mersey tideway and into Liverpool Docks and then through the Liverpool Link & Leeds and Liverpool over the last few days put all thoughts of blogs and posts out of my mind.

Engraving of the week

Osier Cutting004

Osier Cutting  from 'Life on the Upper Thames ' by H R Robinson 1875.
Robinson tells us that the term osier is applied to the various species of willow used in basket making and that these species can be differentiated from other willow species by the fact that osiers have their leaves opposite each other on the stem or 'rod'. The beds of osiers were called holts or hams and in the late 19th century about 7,000 acres were under cultivation.
The rods were harvested in March and after cutting were separated into different sizes and sorts with the strange and archaic names of Luke, Threepenny, Middleborough, and Great. A bundle of willow rods was called a bolt and was formed using two pieces of wood to hold the rods while being tied or 'winched'  into a bolt. In Robinsons time there were said to be over 300 different sorts and colours of osiers in cultivation.
Happily basket making in the UK is still alive and well but supplies of English willow now mainly come from the Somerset levels.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Engraving of the week.


'Boat - Building.'  From 'Life on the Upper Thames' 1875.

There can't be many boats being built in the traditional manner on the Thames these days. In Victorian times there were literally hundreds of boat-builders on the river producing dozens of different craft ranging in size from dinghies, canoes,skiffs,gigs,randans and punts' through to launches and steamers.
All this variety and the associated hand crafted boat- building skills involved nearly disappeared but being the tradition loving and society forming nation that we are , all was not lost with the appearance of the first Thames Traditional Boat Rally in 1978. If you want to see literally hundreds of lovingly restored boats from yesteryear then the weekend of July 16th/17th at Henley on Thames is the place for you. Their website contains hundreds of photos of restored craft. Go to
For a short video clip by Julia Bradbury first seen on BBC's Country file concerning Peter Freebodys boat yard at Hurley where traditional craft are built and restored, go to -

Monday, 4 April 2011

Engraving of the week.

The Ferry024


'The Ferry'  from Life on The Upper Thames by H R Robinson 1875 

The ferry as an everyday feature of Thames life and worked as in the illustration was only found on the upper reaches of the river. The rope which had to be raised for large vessels passing would have been too inconvenient where traffic was heavier in the lower reaches. Other ferries were worked by punting or by a chain on the bed of the river which passed round the axle of a wheel on board the boat.

Tolls for horses varied from one to three old pennies and on some Thames Conservancy ferries were free for barge horses. Passengers paid one halfpenny and amazingly this fee had remained unchanged for over 300 years!

Of the once many ferries there are now only six in operation, all needless to say now motorised and somewhat larger than their forebears.


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Engraving of the week .



Lowering Eel bucks058 

'Lowering the Eel Bucks ' - From Life on the Upper Thames (1875).


Eels once formed part of the basic diet of many riverside communities and they were beloved by Londons East Enders along with cockles and whelks.

The eel buck was peculiar to the Thames although eel fishing was practiced on many other English rivers. The wicker basket was made locally from willow harvested from the rivers banks and was then mounted on a wooden framework where it could be raised and lowered into the water.

There are many accounts of its hindrance to navigation and the buck is perpetuated in the names of a couple of islands - Buck Eyot and Handbuck Eyot  one near Shiplake and the other near Marsh Lock.

The Eel Buck passed out of use early in the last century and this could partly be due to an increase in living standards as the eel had always been considered as a food of the poor. Today with the stocks of eels being said to have declined by up to 95% the species is strictly protected. Environmental  factors, overfishing and global warming are said to be some of the reasons for this catastrophic decline although the presence of high levels of industrial chemicals in the fish could also be another potent reason for its scarcity.


Monday, 14 March 2011

Engraving of the week.

POLLING THE WILLOWS - from Life on the Upper Thames by H.R. Robertson. 1875.

Polling the Willows003

A characteristic tree of all riversides the willow is especially evocative of the Thames and Cherwell valleys. They are still pollarded today but in Robertson's time the the branches resulting from polling produced a useful crop and work for those engaged in harvesting it.
The trees used to be polled every seventh year in the middle of winter and the resulting trees were called pollards. The wood had been used from early times and produced such things as baskets, parts for carts and gun stocks, harrows, shoemakers lasts, clogs, forks, hay rakes, rafters, ladders, poles to make hurdles and lattices and for many other uses. It was particularly famed as the best wood for producing charcoal  and as the chosen wood for cricket bats.
In the Victorian era it supplied the timber for water wheels and for the floats of paddle steamers. It was also used in tanning leather.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The First Roses and Castles 1873.

Life on the Upper Thames 5 art journal
Illustration by H R Robinson in the Art Journal 1873.

My Dec 2110 blog ‘On the canal in 1858’  contained the first written description of Narrow Boat decoration. The illustration shown above depicts the first known illustration of this art.
Henry Robert Robinson made his sketching journey on the Upper Thames in the early 1870’s with the express intention of recording the life, lore, customs, crafts and the workers of the river. We are fortunate to day that Robinson was so ambitious in the scope of his enterprise because he has left us with a priceless collection of unique illustrations of riverside life in the mid 19th century.
The results of Robinsons work were published in a series of articles written for the British periodical the Art Journal during 1873. As well as showing obscure and long forgotten crafts the artist also includes detailed written observations which are invaluable for us today.
Life on the Upper Thames131spine

Gilt decorated and embossed front cover and spine of ‘Life on the Upper Thames’  1875.
A couple of years later in 1875 the artist collected his articles together and published them in book form.’ Virtues’ the art publishers produced the book and the result was as you can see a handsome volume which must have been quite an expensive item to buy and was I suppose the Victorian equivalent of a coffee table book. My copy is a presentation copy with the name of the collage on the front cover.
Life on the Upper Thames T Page
Title Page.

The book contains an engraved frontispiece titled ‘The Pride of the Thames’ which is absent in the art journal but which again clearly shows the boat decoration. Life on the Upper Thames
The artist writes in his chapter on the boat people that their trade is declining and that the boats were called besides the familiar ‘canal boat’,’ barge’ and ‘monkey boat’ -  ‘wussers’. I must admit that I hadn’t come across that title before!
There is much more of interest here and I hope to be able to blog about the written descriptions in a future blog.
Meanwhile in the coming weeks I will be blogging more of the 36 full page engravings from the 36 diverse chapters of this rare book 
Pride of the Thames.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Women of the Barges.Aug 29th 1942

illustrated mag42
‘Illustrated Magazine’. August 1942.                                                          

‘Illustrated Magazine’ was published throughout the 1940s /50s and was along with its great rival – ‘Picture Post’ a  very popular source of news and current affairs.
Of the three articles concerning Britain's canals in wartime published in these two magazines; the ‘Illustrated Mag’ shown above has a very early entry which might interest those interested in the origins of the ‘Idle Women’ and the wartime boat training scheme on the Grand Union.
illustrated mag 42 two  
Caption reads - ‘Empty; the – ‘Heather Bell’  heads for the collieries to take on a load of coal’.                                                                    
The March family from Worcestershire had owned the ‘Heather Bell’ for some years before war broke out in 1939 when they decided to help the war effort by carrying with the boat. The photograph shows Daphne March (Daughter) and a crew member with the boat at Tipton.. Initially Daphne’s elder brother was involved with the running of the boat but after he entered the armed forces Daphne and her mother ran the boat alone.
The boat carried coal from the Birmingham area for delivery to canal side premises in Worcester with a return trip with flour to Tipton. Occasional trips were made elsewhere.
illustrated mag 4
L T C Rolt living on his boat ‘Cressy’ at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham canal during the war years would have known this boat and its crew well. He mentions  a boat passing him in the dusk and the ‘Roedean’ accents of the female crew members  floating back to him as the boat passed by.
    The boat started its run to Tipton in February of 1941 but after her brother left to enter the armed forces Daphne advertised in the Times for a new crew member. Molly Trail joined the boat and she in turn introduced Kit Gayford as a crew member.Molly left in the autumn of 1941 but Kit Gayford stayed on until the boat sank in an accident in December of that year
After leaving the Heather Bell, Molly Trail was one of those involved in planning the wartime female boat training scheme for the GUCC and the Ministry of War Transport and in the summer of 1942 Kit Gayford joined her and they both started training the women who applied to join the scheme.
The March family were thus early forerunners of the all women wartime crews  although it should be said that it was not unknown,from early times on, for a wife (after the death of her husband) to steer the family boat perhaps with the help of a daughter.
The subject of Daphne March,the ‘Heather Bell’ and the ‘Idle Women’ boat training scheme is dealt with in much more detail in a great item by Mike Constable in a current article in the Historic Narrow Boat Owners Club newsletter. . Mike has researched this subject very thoroughly and is able to deal with it in some detail.

illustrated mag 3                               
Daphne March and her mother.                                                                        

Daphne features in another wartime publication which I will review shortly.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Promoting the canal in 1923.

Aire & Calder

The larger canal companies occasionally issued promotional material and the booklet shown above is one of the earliest  in my collection.


With its colour printed front cover and tasselled cord binding it looks  quite prestigious and was obviously designed by the Aire and Calder Navigation Co to impress potential customers with the size of their canal and its state of the art equipment.


Coal hoists are featured.                                                  


As are their tugs and carrying craft.                                            

Aire& Calder1

Their ‘tom pudding’ compartment boats for coal carrying.


& their very large modernised locks.

The  undated booklet has 30 pages and 20 plus photos and diagrams and seems to have been issued in the early 1920’s.