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BCN Day Boat Series : setting the scene

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“At the centre of the English waterway network is a tight knot of canals, built largely to carry coal from the mines to the manufacturing industries of Birmingham and the Black Country, whose appetite for fuel was voracious throughout the canal age.

These canals, the Birmingham Canal Navigations, developed a style of craft all of their own, slab-sided open boats often with a straight stem and stern, strongly built but with a minimum of fancy frills. They could be double-ended so that the rudder could be hung on either end to avoid the need to turn them around and, although they were certainly ‘narrow boats’ in the strict measurement sense, they were treated very differently to the graceful long distance cabin boats with their lace curtains, painted castles and house proud crews.

In this area the boatman and his mate would deliver a loaded boat to the factory wharf, immediately transfer the rudder and all their essential boating tools on to an empty boat and set off back to the colliery to reload. There was not, therefore, any personal involvement with any one boat. Distances were relatively short and most journeys would be completed in a day (although they were very long days…) so the crews would generally arrange to spend most nights back at home, in a house. If there were cabins on these boats they were small and sparsely furnished and not designed to be lived in, although the boatmen would spend a night or two on board when necessary. These day boats or joey-boats as they were rather disdainfully called, were fantastically important to the canal industry of the Midlands, and it is a sad fact that only a tiny proportion of the thousands that were still at work in the 1950s now exist at all. Of those only one single wooden joey boat is afloat in anything like carrying condition, the Birchills in the Black Country Museum in Dudley.

As elsewhere, the horse was the prime motive power for most of the joey boats’ history, and a few animals were working until the end of regular coal carrying in the 1960s. However, because a very large proportion of the BCN was built on two main levels, separated by just three locks, it was far more practical and economic to pull trains of boats with tugs here than elsewhere on the system. When reliable diesel engines became available in the twentieth century many small canal tugs were built especially for this traffic, powerful enough to pull three or four loaded boats into Wolverhampton and Birmingham, or a whole chain of empty ones back to the pits.”

Paraphrased from Canal Junction website, click HERE 

Caggy Stevens Day Boat #2
Caggy Steven’s boat with Don Payne and horse ‘Candy’ taken in the mid-1970s along the Birmingham Canal new Main Line near Spon Lane Bridge

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