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The Story of Eileen: ‘Imagining Aston’s Iron Boat Dock 1.’

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Previous research into the history of our old Birmingham Canal Navigation (BCN) day boat ‘Eileen’ built in July 1903 had revealed that she was manufactured by iron boat builder Eli Aston at the Iron Boat Dock, Alexandra Road, Tipton. To date I’ve been unable to source any images of the dock beyond the tantalising outlines of buildings shown on the 1904 map reproduced by Alan Godfrey.

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The buildings can be seen gathered around the top corner of the BASIN in the centre of this detail of the 1904 adjacent to the figures 147.871.

However, perhaps through imagination it’s possible to begin to create a sense of what the two dimensional outlines on the map might represent.

I’ve two wonderful resources to help in my imagining. One is the sketchbook by Ken Keays (reviewed HERE) which shows the character of a canalside yard on the BCN (albeit one that specilaised in the construction of wooden day boats) in evocative and exquisitely detailed drawings; and the restored Castle Fields Boat Dock at the Black Country Living Museum.

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Ken Keays drawings show in fastidicious and loving detail day boat pulled directly from the canal onto land adjacent to the water, there were often no complex covered sheds or expensive dry docks, simply a section of relatively level firm ground upon which boats could be built or maintained.

Castlefields Boat Dock fills in even more of the details in that it’s set up as a dock serving iron or composite day boats.

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Castlefields Boat Dock is typical of many on the Black Country or BCN system in the late 19th and early 20th C. It’s equipped to build new working craft and to repair those of iron or composite (iron/wood) construction.

The dock can accommodate three boats, drawn sideways out of the water by winches onto the slip.

It’s a place defined by purpose, nothing on a boat dock would have been wasted and the buildings surrounding the boats would have made use of reclaimed boat timbers and ironwork not able to be re-used on the boats.

The main buildings would have included a blacksmith’s forge containing a large general-purpose hearth with hand-operated bellows, a nail and rivet store, a woodshed, paint store and stable.

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I sense there are echoes of Iron Boat Dock here in the dignity and economy of the structures and in the general arrangement of buildings clustered around the level ground crowded with boats.

The two black corrugated iron structures straddling the day boat in the middle ground of the photo above are four-wheeled ‘rolling sheds’ which could be moved up and down the length of the boatyard on rails to provide shelter and allow work to continue ‘outdoors’ in all weather.

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The function of a rolling shed is wonderfully expressed in Ken Keays drawing…
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The chimney of a stove pushes through the roof of one of the sheds, would Eli Aston, in his late fifties when ‘Eileen’ was built have run the Boat Dock from such a canalside office?

Would the Iron Boat Dock buildings have mainly been constructed of recycled timbers clad in corrugated iron as those at Castle Fields? I suspect they were.

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The general arrangement at Castle Fields feels right, they are perhaps as close as it’s now possible to come to the birthplace of the boat. The basin, alongside which the Iron Boat Dock was located, having long ago been filled in and lost.

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Finally the allensregister website (HERE) provides this enigmatic b/w image of Ken Keay’s yard, the base of a wooden day boat laid out on trestles, a rolling shed in the middle ground and the yard set against an typically BCN industrial skyline.

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