Monday, 28 October 2013

A Victorian Enigma. (Two Girls On A Barge–1891).

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‘Two Girls On A Barge’  by V Cecil Cotes. First Edition 1891.

As far as I can find out  V Cecil Cotes restricted his literary output to just this one book which is a shame as it is well written and authentic in tone. Nevertheless Cotes unknowingly managed to produce a ‘first’ in the world of British Canal Bibliography whilst at the same time leaving an enigma behind for future readers.
The ‘First’  -----The book describes a journey up the Grand Junction, Oxford & Coventry canals by a couple of female Cambridge graduates, an artist and the author. The Narrow Boat ‘ Industrious’  had temporary cabins fitted in the hold and was fitted out for a leisurely cruise of some weeks.It is the first full length book to describe a journey by converted narrow – boat, although journeys had been made and described as long ago as 1858 when reporter John Hollingshead made a similar journey up the Grand Junction on a cargo carrying boat ( His report was published in Charles Dickens magazine ‘Household Words’  and is also understandably famous for containing the first written description of Narrow Boat art decoration).
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The journey is well described and authentically illustrated with 44 drawings by W H Townsend.
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The Enigma------When the boat was in the vicinity of Blisworth the party came across the canal reformer George Smith who having succeeded with his canal bill was turning his attention to the gipsy population. Smith joins them on their journey and in the course of their conversations his recently published book ‘Canal Adventures by Moonlight’  is mentioned. Subsequently the boat diverts to Watford locks so that the party may walk across the fields to take tea with Smith & his wife who lived at Welton. Smith walks 12 miles to Buckby wharf to preach before again joining the boat and travelling as far as Hillmorton. The strange thing is that throughout these prolonged encounters with the canal evangelist the author refers to Smith as ‘Mr Gershom’. Why is this? I dont suppose we will ever know now.2 girls on a barge illus2284
Illustration from the book showing ‘George Smith’ in conversation in the boat.

The book was first published in 1891 with a second edition appearing in 1894. An American edition exists with the illustrated cover altered to show a wide beam barge.
As so often with many of the older books scarcity has elevated prices in recent years and this book is no exception. If you enjoy browsing and ferreting about in such secondhand bookshops that remain you can still be lucky. It is however one of the scarcest books to find and at the present time I can find only one copy for sale on the net and thats priced at £120.
Fortunately the British Library Historical Print Editions have reprinted the book and so it is available to one and all.
POSTSCRIPT ADDED 24/4/2014. ...... I have since discovered that V Cecil Cotes was actually the pseudonym of Sara Jeannette Duncan a Canadian Newspaper journalist and author of several other books. My thanks to the well known canal book author - Mr Hugh McKnight for this information which he published in an article on 'Two Girls on a Barge'; in the 'CANAL BOAT' magazine of 8th July 2010.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013



Everybody’s Magazine. 1955.


In the mid 1950’s the British Transport Commission were trying to abandon over 700 miles of the canal network including some of todays most popular canals e.g the Oxford & Peak Forest canals. The IWA were of course opposed to this and Sir John Betjeman, Britain’s most popular poet & a member of this organization published the above article in September 1955.

Interestingly the photographs caption reads ‘ Alfred Best has worked on Britain’s canals for  forty – seven years. Now he wonders if the future holds for them only stagnation.’

Myself and many others of a certain age will remember Alf Best on the local B W maintenance gang at Braunston and later he could often be seen in his retirement around the village.