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