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Day Boat Decoration 1. Introduction

Stewart__Lloyds_2Alan Fincher c1975
Stewart & Lloyds OI or open iron day boats moored at Coombeswood with a tug in the background c. 1975 (Photo by Alan Fincher)

This series is not about the construction of day boats but rather an attempt to describe what a Birmingham Canal Navigation day boat actually looked like – their external appearance – their liveries and colour schemes, and explore how their painted decoration and numbering was used for boat identification.

In order to understand how their external appearance evolved it’s necessary first of all to understand something of the working life of a day boat.

Day boats were used to transport raw materials from the Midlands coalfields and quarries to factories or foundries and then move finished products to ports, rail transfer wharves and other transhipment points. The vast majority of day boats across the Black Country worked on short routes with the longest regular runs often no more than 25 to 30 miles.

As a result of the distances travelled, general practice dictated that the boats were manned without a permanent crew, but rather by steerers / boatmen who’d collect a different boat each day.

Crews could vary in size, for a single horse-drawn boat a crew of two would be normal, one on the bank, one on the boat; whereas where trains of day boats were towed by a tug (see HERE) each boat would have just a single helmsman/steerer.

Once orders were received to move a day boat the crew would identify the boat by reference to its exterior painted decoration and set it up for the day. Individual boats could have laid unattended (whilst waiting to be emptied and loaded) for some time, so the crew would often have to carry with them all they needed for the day.

Setting up was achieved quickly and efficiently, there simply wasn’t time for elaborate preparations.

Day boats fell into three main categories in terms of construction materials: wooden boats, iron boats and composite boats (a combination of the two). Each of these categories could then be further sub-divided into three sub-categories:

a). single-ended boats (ie. those with similar lines to a long distance narrow boat, round stemmed with a distinct bow and stern) or double-ended boats (boats with vertical stem and stern posts that could have the elum or rudder transferred to and hung on either end, saving the necessity to turn the boat in the often confined spaces of colliery and factory wharves)

b). open boat (no cabin) or cabin boats

c). horse-drawn boat or towed boats.

Regardless of which descriptive category a particular boat fell into, setting-up for a working day was pretty standard and basically involved providing the boat with a means of propulsion, a means of steerage and, if the crew was particularly fortunate, a means of shelter (ie. a basic cabin where the crew might light a bottle stove to provide warmth and a means of boiling a brew or sheltering from the weather whilst awaiting orders).

If we take as an example the most basic day boat – a horse-drawn, double-ended open day boat, the crew would lift the (relatively) lightweight elum and attach it to the appropriate end; the (towing) mast would be set in the mast chock at an appropriate angle for the load, in order to keep the boat from the bank. For a horse-drawn, single-ended cabin boat the process would be similar, the towing mast would also be set, in addition perhaps the stove would be lit.

Day boat were solidly built, with few frills. They were necessarily built to last, and cope with with minimum maintenance and general neglect. Battered, with rainwater pooling in the bilges, and in the case of iron boats often rusting, they were rarely docked. These were hard worked and purposeful boats, their form defined by function. There was no superfluous detail, in fact every element of a day boat’s design and decoration was there for a reason.

In terms of painted decoration, the other posts in this series will show that there was little added value for BCN companies in having a costly and complex colour scheme; in fact companies wouldn’t have dreamt of lavishing the kind of attention on a day boat that perhaps an owner-boatmen would have done on their  long distance family boat.

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

Painted decoration, where it existed at all, was there to help steerers identify a specific company’s boats from the countless boats lying at often crowded wharves. This utilitarianism and the much simpler, more formal and stylised decoration gave BCN day boats a distinct and different character to a long-distance narrow boat.

It’s this decoration that I’ll explore in subsequent posts in the series.

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