Boats of the Canal

Boats of the Canal

Boats of the Canal

The 250 years history of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal has seen major changes in methods of propulsion.  Apart from the stretches of ‘legging’ boats through the tunnels, the only option originally was horse power.  Boats at the time were universally wooden in construction.  As means of propulsion developed other options became available – steam and diesel – and with the added power that these provided a shift towards steel construction.  But none of these changes were introduced smoothly, nor were they universally welcomed.

Steam and diesel allowed continuous cruising precluding the necessity to change horses every fifteen to twenty miles; but the space required for an engine together with its supply of fuel encroached considerably on the carrying capacity.

{Steam in particular was very demanding in its spatial requirement for stored coal}.

Something of a compromise was to be found in the use of ‘dumb barges’ – unpowered boats being towed by a powered boat – though these necessitated considerable skills in manoeuvring.   And with the material that boats have been constructed in, boaters to this day will frequently eulogise about the better handling capability of a wooden boat.

The most recent evolution has of course been the emergence of leisure craft. Initially, these were relatively short craft of plastic or fibre glass construction; but over the years these have been replaced by ‘traditional’ narrow boats, a tradition which is in fact relatively recent on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.  But one tradition which has been longer-standing is the distinctive artwork of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, known as ‘Brightwork’.

This is a very localised variant from the Castles and Roses artwork of other canals.

Boat Dimensions for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

The dimensions of boats on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal are governed by the size of the locks which vary along the canal.

The official 1888 canal returns give 61 feet as the maximum length for locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Dowley Gap had the shortest chamber, at 64 feet 4 inches, probably measured between the quoins, where lock gates pivot against the lock wall, so not that much use in giving a true usable length. Although 61 feet is still often quoted, an 1898 specification for a typical boat gives a length of 61 feet 6 inches measured over the stem and stern posts, and the iron and steel boats sometimes quote 62 feet 6 inches. It is really impossible to be definitive to 6 inches, and we would always advise 61 feet as a guaranteed length, though it is possible for a longer narrow boat to use the locks diagonally.

However, when thinking of building or buying a boat, always remember the Calder & Hebble Navigation, whose locks in 1888 were quoted at 57 feet 6 inches long with a width of 14 feet 1 inch, making them smaller than those on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Elland Low was quoted as having the shortest length between quoins, at 60 feet 7 inches.

When it comes to length on canals, there is only one way to tell and that is to try it, as most old boatmen would advise.

Air draft is variable, as it depends on the shape of the bridge. A stone arch bridge may have sufficient headroom in the centre, but insufficient at the sides, while modern flat bridges may be lower than arched bridges, but offer better headroom over the whole channel. For arch bridges, Leigh Bridge is one of the lowest, with that at Shipley being one of the lowest flat bridges. Note that this bridge tapers downwards to one side. A clear height of 7 feet 10 inches is sometimes quoted, but slightly higher boats may be able to pass if they have narrow cabins. Care should always be taken by boats approaching the quoted headroom as canal levels can also rise and fall.

Eshton Rd. Br. 1910

Short Boats & Propulsion

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was intended to be used by Yorkshire Keels since it joined the Aire & Calder Navigation; but the traders on the canal created a type of boat with keel affinities which became a Short Boat – that is short enough to fit the canal’s 62 feet (18.9 meters) locks between Leeds and Wigan.

The locks between Wigan and Liverpool could hold a 72 foot (21.9 metres) boat so a variant the Long Boat appeared. A Short Boat could carry up to 50 tons of coal, a Long Boat up to 75 tons. Both Long and Short Boats were the same beam – 14 foot 2 inches wide (4.35 metres) and were built on barge or keel like lines with round bilges, all the planking running longitudinally and held in shape by frames and floors.

Although open, the decks fore and aft were linked by narrow side decks, with the accommodation below deck. The square sterns were common in both Long and Short Boats, until more recent times; although round sterns were used for the canal company’s fly boats and Yorkshire boats.

Bows were bluff, with a stem bar flanked by guards.  These included a top one or rubbing iron which ran the full length of the hull.

Many horse-hauled Leeds & Liverpool Canal boats were worked by families, the family in the larger aft cabin and a mate maybe living in the forward cabin. On the aft deck was a little wooden kennel shaped ventilator. A five-gallon water barrel laid on its side in chocks was also on the stern deck, emptied by a dipper, together with a “proven” or provender (food or fodder) tub.

Chimneys fore and aft were up to 6 foot high (1.83 metres) but were detachable to clear bridges. The centre sheeting rail or middle plank was higher than the other two.

Joining the head ledges or end coamings were side coamings to which the side cloths or covers were fixed with battens and wedges. Iron boats were introduced in the late nineteenth century and steel between the wars for motor boats. The last horse drawn boat, a Long Boat named Parbold was built in 1936 in steel and was in operation until 1960.

Horses were the first form of propulsion for boats on the canal.

Parbold horse-boat of Ainscough's nr Appley lock - 1960

Boatmen who owned their own boat usually owned their own horses.  As a valuable resource horses were generally well-treated.  “Woe betides any bargee who ill-treated his horse, he was sent to ‘Coventry’.”  Prosecution for ill-treatment happened, but was an infrequent occurrence.  Owner boatmen often had a stable attached to their house.  Over night stabling was available at pubs and wharfs and at strategic locations such as Burscough where the Liverpool Road crosses the Canal.  The Packet Horse Hotel in Burscough sports an historical plaque recounting the history of the hotel and the ‘packet boats’ which carried passengers from Liverpool.  “The boats … were usually drawn by two horses, both of which were ridden, and one of the riders would blow a bugle to give notice to waiting passengers”.

Company horses were also well looked after.  The Walls Collection contains a list of 19 horses bought by the Canal Company between January 1916 and the end of December 1920.  {Horses were numbered in the same way as were the boats.} Copy of Table showing Horses and Service is available here ……

JRThornton steamer

Steam tugs introduced in 1871 were a success so the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Company decided on the building of steam fly boats and in 1880 four were ordered for the company’s carrying fleet. Engines and boilers were designed to be as compact as possible but took up to 10 tons of cargo space leaving the boats to carry 30 tons. Steamers generally worked fly, towing two or three dumb barges. The four-crew lived in the forward cabin. Many steamers were wooden short boats for fly traffic and the canal company itself had the largest number, but they and others had long ones too.

Steamers remained on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal until the early 1950s, one of the last operators being James Gore & Sons of Bingley.

Darwen nr Silsden - 1971.10 R

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal Company experimented with a motor in an ex-steamer before the First World War. The boats were given a rounded stern to improve propeller flow, to keep the propeller immersed. A water ballast tank was fitted aft on the steel motor boats. Motor boats had a bigger cargo capacity than steamers, over 50 tons, so it was usual for them to work singly, although they could tow. Towing was common in the coal trade, where hauls were often short and limited to one level.

Because accommodation was now moved forward family boating died out on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the motors ran with two men, or even one.

During the 1930s the newly formed Canal Transport Ltd embarked on a boat building programme, ordering steel boats from W.J. Yarwood, Isaac Pimblott and John Harker. They were named after rivers and later Lancashire towns. Wooden general cargo boats had been named after planets or Yorkshire towns. More craft followed, ending in 1952-53 with high tensile steel boats built by Harland & Wolff of North Woolwich.

The Society is updating the catalogue and will be published here as soon as practical. Notification about this will appear in the Newsfeed.

George - Waterways Museum

Boat Decoration

The distinctive form of boat decoration on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is termed ‘Brightwork’.

Brightwork - Boat Sterns

Leeds & Liverpool Short Boats developed an elaborate and unusual style of decorative paintwork, quite distinct from that of other canal craft consisting of “geometric patterns, intricate borders and edgings, scrollwork, and colourful scenes or floral decoration”.  Panels of strong colour with contrasting borders carried intricate painted scrollwork and deeply shaded lettering; the guard irons at bow and stern were painted with repeat patterns of stripes, triangles and little fleur-de-lis. Pictures appeared as well but not as constrained in subject matter as the 'castle' convention of the Midland’s narrowboats. Cottages, sailing ships, vases of flowers, horses, windmills - anything that appealed to popular taste could be incorporated within the strong visual framework of the painted panelling, with each corner filled in as a quadrant. Most of all however, it was the insistent painted scrollwork that gave the Short Boats their special regional character.

The traditions of this boat painting derived from pre-existing forms of boat decoration from both Lancashire and Yorkshire and were less ‘romantic’ in nature than the Midlands with the designs being handed down from generation to generation, with each boatyard having its own recognisable style within the boundaries of the tradition.

Here are a few examples of canal boat decoration. These samples are much reduced in size and have non-traditional colours.

Samples of Scroles etc

In 2004 the Society, through the efforts of Mike Clarke, produced a short leaflet "Boat Decoration on the Leeds &

Liverpool Canal" covering  L&LC traditional painting and is available here….

Brightwork - Mike Clarke

In 2009 Mike Clarke and Sam Yates produced ‘Brightwork – Traditional Paintwork on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal’ providing a comprehensive overview of the distinctive style of decoration found on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Copies of the book are available through the Society

5 boats at Eanam Wharf

Boatmen on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

The lifeblood of the Canal and its Boats were the Boatmen and their families.


A normal crew on a Leeds & Liverpool Short Boat comprised a captain and a mate; on a family boat the captain’s wife or children could act as a mate although earnings were usually good enough to employ a mate. He would live in the bow cabin but often ate in the stern with the captain and his family.

If they were on board young children were allowed on the stern deck where they were often tethered so they could not fall into the canal.

The horse would be fed regularly - about every couple of hours - but the boat did not stop for this. The only rest the horse had was at the locks where she (as horses were often mares or geldings) would be given a good feed while the locks were worked. Fly boats, which were worked round the clock, were operated by three men, two of which were always awake. All three would work the boats through flights of locks but on long pounds a set distance was allowed for each man to get some rest. They would catch up on their sleep when the boat stopped, if they were not needed for unloading. When steam boats were introduced crews were increased to four, with two men resting at a time, with the third man looking after the engine and boiler.

We don’t know where boatmen came from originally, but we know families worked on the canal for generations. Trade often determined where boatmen lived and up until the 1870s many lived in communities such as those around Hapton and Altham, carrying coal from local collieries. As these collieries became less productive the boatmen moved away finding work elsewhere. In industrial areas (e.g. Hapton) it was unusual for more than two members of a family to be employed boating. The father often took his eldest son with him, while the other children worked in local textile factories. Boatmen employed carrying coal lived in small communities near to the mines, and as coal tended to be fairly short distances, they were able to sleep at home regularly – but this was not the case for those employed in the merchandise trade.

West Lancashire had provided boatmen ever since the canal first opened. By the 1870s Burscough had become the centre for those employed in the merchandise trade, gaining importance after the canal company developed its own fleet in the 1870s. A proven depot was established there in 1888. Houses, often including stabling, were built for the boatmen alongside the canal. Shops selling the many things a boatmen needed serviced these communities. Beer houses also opened, but there were quite a few teetotal boatmen. A mission was established in a hay loft by a Mr Henderson of the Liverpool & Wigan Canal Boatmen’s Mission and in 1905 a new corrugated iron building called St. Andrew’s Mission was built in New Lane. It is the last Boatmen’s Mission still used as a place of worship.

Boatwomen’s clothes aprons, shawls and bonnets were fairly typical of the time but those of the boatmen were more distinctive. Trousers were of dark blue corduroy, held up by a leather belt, with a collarless union (fabric made of two or more different yarns, such as cotton and linen) shirt above. Over the top of this was a gansey (heavy jumper) knitted from dark blue wool and oiled to make it waterproof. Intricate patterns were knitted from halfway up the chest with the rest plain. The boatmen’s wives used to knit ganseys while their husbands were away sitting outside their terraced houses and there was much competition as to who could produce the best pattern.

The boatmen would be away from home for a week or more and their wives would pack food for them in a woven wicker basket. There was much skill involved in this, since those items at the bottom of the basket had to remain fresh for several days but it meant that the boatmen only needed to stop for bread and milk. Any cooking was done on the open stove in the boat cabin but meals were often ‘quick’ so as not to interrupt their work. When the men were away from home, the wives would collect their husband’s wages and on a Friday afternoon at Burscough there would be a queue of women waiting to be paid.

Boatmen did not have much time for recreation except during enforced stoppages for a drought or frost. However for a few years after 1897 Mr W. Reynolds, the canal company’s horse superintendent organised the Burscough Bridge Cattle Show with competitions for the best canal horse and many boats lined the event.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were over a thousand boats working on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The canal was alive with activity, boats passing each other, loading and unloading and industry buzzing along its banks.

Boat Families Website

The Boatfamilies website was started in 2010 by a few members of the Ormskirk and District Family History Society after they realised that they were all researching the same group of boatmen's families based around Burscough. By collating all their research in one database it became easier to share information and develop the many inter-related families.

The main tree started with 3,000 names, but as marital connections were found to boatmen's families in Yorkshire, Cheshire and beyond this grew by 4,000 a year and currently stands at almost 50,000 individuals, all connected by the many inter-marriages.

The website has been administered by Keith Jenkins since its inception.