It was peopled by a small number of frequently intermarried families, most of them born afloat, seldom affluent but content with their way of life. The canal folk were a group unlike any other; there were few of them and they were of necessity often competitive, but generally cohesive, and fascinating not least for the characters who emerged as typical.
Rose Whitlock was one such. Her working life ended in 1970 but she and her husband lived on in their own boat for six years until arthritis drove them ashore and, sadly, out of sight of the cut. She once said that outsiders might think their life rough and tough, but "We think that it was marvellous; you'd get up each day and never see the same trees."
She was born Rose Ward - ashore, as it happened - near Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in 1917. Her father, an owner-boatman from an Oxford and Grand Junction family, was away in the Army, and her mother was helping out in the local boatyard. On demobilisation, her father worked on the Grand Union Canal, employed by a firm carrying sand for London building to Brentford Dock and returning with sundry cargoes accumulated there.
The family's first boat, White City, was horse-drawn, and crewed by Rose's parents until by the age of nine she was as competent as they at steering. Her formal schooling was minimal, but this never seemed to handicap her.
When the White City was accidentally damaged, they contrived to buy a pair of boats of their own, one towing the other, and the pair breasted up alongside one another when necessary. The status of a Number One - the owner and captain of such a pair - was considerable, especially as self-employed operators. Their staple cargoes were coal and sand, along with whatever general cargo required transport.
Gradually, the diesel engine overtook the horse. There were spasmodic efforts to maximise the benefits of integrating the canals with road haulage and rail freight carriers, but competition flourished over co-operation. The railways were reduced to four, the number of canal companies was reduced, and the survivors were enlarged by defensive amalgamations. Individual owners found that it was increasingly necessary to subcontract their boats to these surviving companies, which was what the Wards did, to Samuel Barlow Coal Co, a leading contractor.
In December 1937 Rose's father died, aged only 44; he nominated her as his successor, though she was not quite half his age. She was already a particularly skilled helmsman and she was assiduous in learning about the engines and other disciplines such as knotting and splicing.
Within two years her all-female crew - mother, younger sister Lucy and an orphaned niece, Laura, set a record. They loaded 54 tons of coal at Longford, near Coventry, for London, where they unloaded it by hand, returning for a second load within a week. This was a round trip of 208 miles, involving 186 locks, most of which they had to work themselves. That voyage was good-going by any standard, and especially because they unloaded their cargo by hand to earn more money.
Mobilisation affected Rose again in the Second World War. She had become engaged to Bill Whitlock, whose father's farm supplied fodder for the surviving boat horses and who became a lengthman on the canal; the great freeze of 1938-39 brought them together when she was stranded outside the yard where he was working.
Soon after they were married he was called up to fight in the war, and Rose resumed her command. For the rest of the war there was a modest revival of canal trade; loads which required regular deliveries of one commodity, such as coal for a power station, increased and the narrow boats came into their own again, easing the strain on the railways, albeit in riskier circumstances.
Canals showed up at night, reflecting the moon - or a searchlight - and bombs caused many breaches. Crime increased; the black market offered new risks - some crews were threatened physically and financially for their precious cargoes. But Rose was back at work within a month of her daughter's birth, the cot in her cabin, and when her sister Lucy married - a boatman of course - Rose ran her two boats with her mother and Laura. Bill came back from the war in 1946; in 1947 they had a son.
But in that year the canals were nationalised, and subordinated further to the railways, while the new motorways increased the competition from road hauliers.
The self-employed crews had to rely increasingly on the larger contractors for work. The hard winter of 1962, which dragged on for three months, demonstrated the weakness of waterways, as they froze, and the danger of power stations' relying on them for fuel. For working seven days a week the family earned just pounds 15. The Whitlocks were one of three families who worked the last fleet of six paired narrow-boats carrying cargoes.
Journeys took longer because of the backlog of maintenance of the waterways network, trade continued to decline and in 1970 the Whitlocks found themselves redundant. Their work and their whole way of life vanished. They found local work ashore, but were adamant about living on board for as long as they could manage.
A. B. Sainsbury
Rose Ward, boatman: born Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire 29 May 1917; married 1939 Bill Whitlock (one son, one daughter); died Braunston, Northamptonshire 17 May 1999.Reuse content