Historic barges salvaged after decades in water

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The Independent Online
IN ITS 19th-century heyday, it was the workhorse of Britain's canal network, but a barge of a kind archaeologists had feared lost was handled with immeasurable delicacy in a pounds 20,000 operation to salvage it yesterday.

Archaeologists at the York Trust, which advised those preserving Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, were consulted before the timbers of the world's only surviving "canal flat", Onward, was lifted from a Shropshire Union Canal wharf in Chester. A wooden cradle was built beneath it before cranes hoisted up its bow.

This type of canal boat had not seen the light of day for 50 years. Flats were built in the 1800s to transport corn, linen and pig iron. They carried an astonishing 70 tonnes of freight along the narrow waterways.

Onward's length also made it adaptable to work the tidal Dee and Mersey rivers but, in the Fifties, it was abandoned, buried along with other flats and narrow-boats as a cost-effective way of filling the Tower Wharf Basin at Chester.

A British Waterways engineer stumbled upon the boats while developing a scheme to regenerate Chester's canalside, and archaeologists have subsequently excavated the timbers over the last year.

Two Mersey river flats, Herbert and John, which are almost as rare, followed Onward out of the water, yesterday. Herbert was badly damaged at Eastham at the junction of the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey in 1902, while John sank in the Mersey in 1989.

The three boats were immediately transported to the boat museum run by a British Waterways' trust at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. "We are particularly interested in finding out more about the flats' ability to carry enormous loads in very shallow inland waters," said Martin Cook, who has led the salvage effort.