This week we remember the service men and women who gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy today. Whilst many Hollywood movies have been made about wartime stories, the contributions of England’s canal boaters to the war effort are not so well-known. Here are some surprising stories about the realities of life on the canals during the wars.

1) Narrow boats thrived in WW1

Independent single boat owner/skippers (known as the ‘Number Ones’) flourished in the first war. After years of competing with the railways and then motor lorries, suddenly railways were needed for carrying soldiers. Motor fuel was expensive and horse drawn transport was cheaper. Sons of boatmen went off to the front line and some boat families lost up to four or five sons*. Some families’ boats tried to avoid taking loads to places like Coventry or Birmingham as big cities attracted the zeppelins. Most boaters couldn’t read newspapers and didn’t have a wireless, so at first the boaters knew little about the war. Most boaters couldn’t write so husbands at the front line for extended periods could not write home to their wives on the boats.

2) Boaters in Blackout

During the Second World War bombs fell in to the canals, particularly in the cities, and working the boats during the blackout was dangerous because it was difficult to see. Bridge arches and lock sides were painted white to help the boaters working at night, but it was still dangerous especially when lock gates were slippery with frost. There was plenty of work and the government paid half the tolls to keep the canals working during the war effort. Lock keepers were also ARP wardens, so during an air raid they’d be off away from the locks, and boats were held up until their return.

3) Memorial Plaque in Birmingham

In 2013 the Canal and River Trust unveiled a plaque to commemorate boaters’ efforts during the two world wars. Author Alice Lapworth was a supporter of the commemoration. Her book ‘A Horse, A Boat, And You’ tells her personal story about life on the canals as a working boater. Written accounts of the war years on the canals are relatively rare as many working boaters could not read or write.

Sheila Stewart interviewed several working boatwomen to create her fact-based novel, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story, which reveals much of the realities and dangers of cargo carrying on the canals during the wars. Maiden’s Trip by Emma Smith is a book based on the author’s experience of working the boats during wartime, and The Amateur Boatwomen by Eily Gayford describes the lives of the first women trainees who began working the boats when the men were called up to fight.

So this weekend, if you’re enjoying the canals, remember the men and women who kept them working throughout the wars, and also remember the boaters who left their boats behind and went to war.

Love waterways heritage and beautiful old vessels?

Check out our Dutch Barges for sale in UK and France (some are 100 years old) or search for more traditional English narrowboats with or without moorings. Find a Boatshed near you.

Peggy Melmoth

(*Ramlin Rose, the Boatwoman’s Story, by Sheila Stewart.)

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