My grandmother on my father’s side was Lottie Owen. Her father, Frederick and at least five generations of the Owen line before him were brought up on narrow boats, working up and down the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Those five generations were born in Brinklow, Aylesbury, Harefield and Paddington – all stops on the Grand Union Canal.
The first working narrow boats played a key part in the economic changes accompanying the British Industrial Revolution. They were wooden boats drawn by a horse walking on the canal towpath led by a crew member, often a child. Narrowboats were chiefly designed for carrying cargo, though there were some packet boats, carrying passengers, letters, and parcels.
Boatmen’s families originally lived ashore, but in the 1830s as canals started to feel competition from the new railways, families started to take up home afloat. This was partly because they could no longer afford rents, partly to provide extra hands to work the boats harder, faster and further, and partly to keep families together.
The rear portion of the boat became the cosy “boatman’s cabin”, familiar from picture postcards and museums, famous for its space-saving ingenuity and for its interior made attractive by a warm stove, a steaming kettle, gleaming brass, fancy lace, painted housewares, and decorated plates. Such descriptions though rarely consider the actual comfort and day-to-day living conditions of a large family working an extremely hard and long day, and sleeping in the one tiny cabin. Nonetheless it was impossible for such mobile families to send their children to school, and most boat people remained illiterate and ostracised by those living ‘on the bank’.
In the late 19th century there was estimated around 18,000 families working and living on canal boats.
The transportation of goods was very much a family affair, with even the children growing up on the boats learning to help. As soon as the children were old enough they were expected to help out, there was no room for passengers on these trips and everyone had to pull their weight. Children soon learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses, playing an active part in working life. The work was hard and tough with some days lasting a gruelling 17 hours because the boat was paid on completion of a trip so the quicker the trip could be completed the sooner the boat was paid.
Many early boaters couldn’t read or write due to a lack of education – when Joseph Owen was married in 1851, he could sign his name (quite surprisingly) but neither his wife nor the two witnesses could and signed the certificate with their mark, an “x”.
The families’ place of work was also their home and with a lack of space, overcrowding, poor hygiene and limited conditions being just a few of the issues families faced every day on the boat. Life could be tough for all on-board. The boats cabin could be freezing in winter and boiling in the summer making their living accommodation anything but ideal.
The boating families made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life but this wasn’t necessarily any advantage. The Victorians grew suspicious of the boaters who rarely left the towpath and branded them; drinkers, criminals, scruffy and violent people – not unlike how the traveller communities today are viewed. Some of these labels were warranted as they did drink and their appearance wasn’t the cleanest due to the work and living conditions they were subjected too. Fights would sometimes break out, giving them the reputation of being violent people.
The story of Joseph Owen, my great-great-great grandfather serving five years in Pentonville for assault is perhaps an example of this… where there’s smoke, there’s fire and all that!