History under the hammer

A mission for canal boatmen in west London is up for auction next week. Chris Partridge delves into its past
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The Independent Online

Canal boatmen lived a cruelly hard life at the turn of the 20th century. They brought up their families in the tiny cabins of their horse-drawn narrowboats, cut off by their nomadic lifestyle from the schools, hospitals and even religion taken for granted by ordinary householders. It did not even pay well - the railways had already creamed off their most profitable trade, leaving them to heave coal and other low-value but back-breaking cargo.

Canal boatmen lived a cruelly hard life at the turn of the 20th century. They brought up their families in the tiny cabins of their horse-drawn narrowboats, cut off by their nomadic lifestyle from the schools, hospitals and even religion taken for granted by ordinary householders. It did not even pay well - the railways had already creamed off their most profitable trade, leaving them to heave coal and other low-value but back-breaking cargo.

For many water families, the Boatmen's Institute on the Grand Union Canal's west London terminus at Brentford was a beacon, where the children could be left for weeks at a time to get the rudiments of an education as the parents took loads to Birmingham and back. The place even had lying-in rooms where women could give birth in relative dignity. For one old boatman, it was "the happiest, blessedest place in Brentford".

The institute was built in 1904 by the local architect Nowell Parr for the London City Mission, which had many much larger premises to bring the word to sailors in the East End. The building is utterly charming, in a redbrick Queen Anne style, with white, rough-cast upper floors and wide, flat buttresses. For 50 years the institute dished out tea and comfort to the canal community, but it became redundant as canal traffic faded away.

In the late Seventies it was sold and converted into a private home. Luckily, the buyer, a former RAF officer who used the place as his London base, was gentle with it. A small extension was built at the back, with a door opening directly on to a three-foot drop to the canal - presumably with the idea of enabling people to step out directly on to the deck of a boat.

Inside, little was changed except to install lots of bookcases. Some nice Arts and Crafts-style fireplaces survive, as well as a rather characteristic partition with double doors dividing the huge main hall (34ft by 24ft with an 18ft headroom). Upstairs, there are five bedrooms and a bathroom, plus a small studio in the attic. "You could move in and live there," says auctioneer Chris Coleman-Smith, who is putting the place under the hammer next Monday. "We had one person who wants to use the hall for musical evenings with string quartets, but most people will want to do Grand Designs on it."

The institute's position is unique and it appeals strongly to many types of people whose only common characteristic is a mild eccentricity. It faces on to the Butts, the lovely and unexpected Georgian area of an otherwise-dowdy Brentford. This explains its appeal to string-quartet types.

At the back, its direct frontage on the River Brent (now an arm of the Grand Union Canal) means it would suit a boating fan. A permanent mooring may also be available from British Waterways on land next door. And it may also appeal to fans of "sci-fantasy" author Robert Rankin, the creator of The Brentford Trilogy (now a pentalogy). The Boatmen's Institute appears in the opening book, The Antipope, as the Seamen's Mission, a charity devoted to giving board to indigent sailors but run by a man who has managed to prevent any indigent sailors from actually staying there for decades until a tramp with mysterious powers forces his way in and takes up residence. Soon, builders are transforming it into a replica of the Vatican, and the world is under threat from supernatural forces...

Even if the new owners of the institute have never read the books, they will soon know all about them - Rankin fans run regular geek tours around the area. The institute tends to be the next stop after the Bricklayers' Arms (the Flying Swan in the books).

Interest in the institute will also be stimulated by the extraordinary transformation Brentford is undergoing. Swanky flats are rising round the old canal docks, and the town is rapidly becoming a property hot spot. Bijou restaurants and bars are appearing. The old canal boatmen would never recognise the place now.

The institute's saviour died a couple of years ago, and now his family is selling it. "We are selling by auction because several sales have fallen through at the last moment and it can't be left any longer," saysPatricia Sheehan, his daughter. "It is falling into disrepair - it looks much as it did when my mother and I first walked through the doors. Selling it by auction means the sale is complete as soon as the hammer comes down," she adds.

The Boatmen's Institute is one of the properties to be auctioned on 17 May at the Royal Garden Hotel, London W8. For a catalogue ring FPDSavills (020-7824 9091)

A fuller history of the Boatmen's Institute by Gillian Clegg will be appearing in the new issue of the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society's Journal No.13, published at the end of the month

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