Notes on Day Boat Decoration


“Rose and castles were unknown in the day-boats and only appeared latterly on some of the tugs of the coal hauliers, where the same captain used the same boat every day and occasionally lived aboard. There were however, other conventions of decorative painting on these boats, although with more of a trade mark quality compared to the family cabin boats. The standard would seem to have been set for the esteem of the company rather than the pride of the boatman.” [1.]

Given that many day boats within the Black Country worked on short routes (with the longest regular runs in the coal trade often no more than 25 tor 30 miles) without a permanent crew, and often lay unattended while waiting to be emptied and loaded, the boats were severely utiliarian, with less money spent on decoration than their long-distance cousins. That said, the basic elements found on long-distance boats were still there, but often in a much simpler, more formal and stylised manner. This gave the day boats a different character to a long-distance narrow boat.

As many day boats had no cabin, all the decoration was confined to the top strake around the fore-end and stern. Often with the boat name or number on one side and the owner’s on the other.


This was often combined with an elaborate pattern of varicoloured circles, crescents and diamonds, often quartered into four separate colours on, usually, a bright red background, they presented a very symbolic appearance, with many companies having a different design.



IMG_2832The practice probably helped a poorly educated boatman to pick out one of his employer’s boats from the many hundreds that could be waiting for collection. As mentioned above the common background colour for the design was red, while the gunwales above the painted strake and the fore-deck were often coloured green or grey, with any chafers picked out in red. Inevitably this is a broad generalisation, smaller yards would paint boats with any cheap bulk paint they could readily source.


BCN 2369 test
(above) although this image, part of a photo on pg. 31 of E. Paget-Tolinson’s ‘Britains’ Canal & River Craft’,shows a non-typical BCN boat ie. a wharf boat or ‘Ampton (Wolverhampton)boat that could be longer (up to 86ft.) and wider (7ft 9in) than usual: it also captures so many of the unique features of a BCN craft. The shape of the ‘box’ cabin; the sans serif / grotesque lettering on the cabin sides; and the characteristic day boat cabin-end and door decoration used for recognition purposes.

When the boats had cabins, these were usually a much more rudimentary affair than those on long distance boats – small ‘box’ cabins sufficient to shelter the steerer and others, and house a coal-fired bottle stove for brewing up hot drinks and fixed side benches or occasionally a basic cross-bed for an overnight stay if required.

On cabin boats the fore-end decoration was similar, except that it rarely included any lettering, the owners name being transferred to the cabin sides and the boat name – if it had one – appearing only on the stern. Lettering used for the boat and owners name was normally grotesque (sans serif) either shadowed or unshadowed, and sometimes an unshadowed Roman style was used.


The cabin side, as it tended to be shorter than long-distance boats – five to six feet long – was either plain painted or given the appearance of panels through using coach lines. The most common colour for the panel was green, occasionally grey, with a cream seperating coach line, and perhaps an outer band of red. Although these colours predominated, again there were many local variations. Alfred Matty’s boats had pale yellow cabins, Laurence Millers were slate grey and white, and a few were even gas tarred black all over.

loaded BCN No. 108
BCN No 108 a BCN Joey boat, built in iron in 1883 following restoration in 2007 [http://www.phobox.com/boats_w/No_108.htm]
Until the Second World War great care was taken with lettering on the cabin side. Then, as the economic climate surrounding the boats deteriorated, less money was available for decoration and many boats just carried the initials of the owner in simple, quickly painted, although often still shadowed block capitals.

Cabin back designs appeared at first glance to be similar to those found on the long-distance boats, and some were in fact the same, but most were more complicated. Each dock had its own designs, and larger companie had their own patterns, again to aid recognition of the boats. The common colours were green and white, with a red centre.

The rudder of the day boat was a crude, lightweight affair, which had a rough life, being changed from boat to boat with the boatment. It was rare to find any decoration beyond painting the separate parts – stock, tingle and brackets – in different colours. Usually the owner’s initials eg. PK & S for Peter Keay & Sons of Walsall, were carved into the stock, so that the rudder could not be easily mistaken.

(above) rudder of BCN 108

This section is not complete, however a huge debt is owed to Robert J. Wilson who’s wonderful ‘Roses & Castles’ first published in 1976 forms the basis of the notes above…

[1.] from pg. 122 Lewery, A.J. The Art of the Narrow Boat Painters’  David & Charles 2005 ISBN 0 7153 2140 4

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