Life on Pelsall's Narrow Boats and The Big Freeze of 1947

Friars Bridge, Pelsall

As the snow forced us to a standstill in December this year it reminded me of an article I published in Pelsall Times Issue 29 March 2004.  Following a winter warmer feature in the previous issue, I was contacted by Mr Reg Moore who had personal experience of working on narrow boats and was able to give readers a fascinating insight into what it was like.

Reg began his unofficial working life on the narrow boats at the tender age of 4 years old.  He was quick to learn and soon able to steer a boat.

As a child, Reg lived in Shakespeare Crescent in Walsall, which runs directly at the side of the canal.  Although now demolished, Reg lived at 120 Shakespeare Crescent, which was situated on the bend of the canal.

Working the narrow boats was in the family, both Reg's father and his grandfather worked on the boats, so for Reg it was a natural progression.

Although having experienced working life on the narrow boats since the age of 4, Reg did not officially begin working on the boats until he was 15.

Working on the boats paid good money, he recalled that his first wage in 1955 was £7.50 per week which was a rather princely sum compared to some of his friends who were only picking up £2.50 a week.

Reg worked on what were known as 'Day Boats', which were not lived in.  He worked on a narrow boat called the Silver Jubilee with his Uncle Bill, Uncle Mia, Uncle Fred, Uncle Ron and cousins Brian, David, Lesley and Philip.

In this area, no women worked on the boats.

All working boats were 72ft long, and were always spotlessly clean. There was always food on the go with a hot stove and a boiling kettle.  Reg recalled that one of the boatmen, Ernie Thomas was well known for cooking bacon on a shovel over a fire bucket.

Despite being working boats, there was all the comforts of home.

As for the boats getting about, whether to use a horse or not depended on the journey.  Boats tended to use horses on journeys where there would be numerous locks.

There were 21 locks to Wolverhampton.

With no or fewer locks, boats would use their engines.

The horse that used to pull the Silver Jubilee was called Jean.

Reg stressed that horses were always well cared for and usually served for 13 or 14 years.  However on the odd occasion mistreatment of horses did happen.

Reg recalled that on one occasion his Grandfather jumped off his narrow boat to save a horse which was being beaten; Reg said that his Grandfather was very fond of all types of animals and would not tolerate cruelty.

Buildings just past Friars Bridge

Horses were a great asset to canal boats and most became incredibly intuitive.

Reg recalled how an event at Peter Keay's Boat Builders had a good example of this.

Once a horse had pulled a boat down to Pratts Bridge which used to be the basin, the driver of the boat only had to clip the horse and he would go straight back home.

On one occasion when his Grandfather was working a boat at night, he found his boat going ahead of his horse. 

Immediately he knew that something was wrong. 

Within moments, his boat had landed on the bottom of the canal.  

The canal had collapsed.

Reflecting on working on the boats, Reg recalled that folk always helped eachother; it was a good working community.  Work could be hard and hours long, but there was always plenty of work to go around.

Working the boats meant travelling far and wide.  The Silver Jubilee travelled around and outside the West Midlands.  From Franks Coal Yard in Walsall, the boat would regularly travel to the Bellis and Morton Steam factory in Birmingham.

One hundred tons of coal could be transported to this factory weekly.

Journey's were also made to Cadbury's in Birmingham where they would partake in some 'crump' (off cuts of chocolate before cocoa had been added) whilst there.

Depending on the work the journey could take up to 28 hours.

Working the canal was a very important job, so important infact that when Reg's father was issued with his call up papers during the war, he was made exempt because his services were required to transport ammunitions from Kynox in Birmingham where the ammunition shells were made.

Nearer to home, Elkington's also made bombs and shells during the war.

The importance of British canals was identified and well noted during the war, and as a result, many canals and bridges were targeted.

Goscote Bridge and nearby shops and houses were bombed because of this.

Elkington's in April 2010 prior to its demolition

Working on the narrow boats required skill, not only just working the boat but also the locks which all boat men had to do.

Additional skills were not as easy to learn.

One of the more difficult skills to learn was that of 'stemming' boats.

Reg explained that stemming boats involved being able to steer two boats which were held together by rope.  Reg was one of a few to be able to do this and was often requested to take boats in this way to Birmingham.

Despite being well travelled and well experienced in his field, equipment did on occasion let him down.

In 1960 Reg took a wooden boat up to the Grove Pit.  He had to collect 10 tonnes of peas (small coal) after it had been loaded and Reg had started back, the boat promptly sunk.  A week later with the use of pumps and another boat, Reg retrieved the sunken and now empty boat and stemmed it back to Grove Pit. 

The above photograph of Grove Pit buildings was taken by Mr Alec Bailey in 1962 shortly before demolition

Reg recalled that in 1947 the big freeze descended on the Midlands rendering even the most effective boats powerless to do anything. Vast numbers of boats became stranded, locked in thick ice laden with huge quantities of  coal and other goods.The big freeze on 1947 lasted for three long months forcing suppliers to find alternative ways of delivering their goods. As a result of the freeze many badly damaged boats had to be sunk.

In 1963, yet another big freeze hit the Midlands, this time lasting for two months.  Again boats were frozen solid.  Reg recalled how the snow was up to the windows.  He saw men desperately trying to free their boats using their fire buckets and anything else to hand in these desperate times.

Following the rapid decline of the industry, Reg stopped working on the narrowboats in 1961, although had there been strength in the industry, Reg would have remained working on the boats. 'It was a good life', he recalled.

Today many home boats and working boats have been lovingly restored and many are now used as holiday homes.

For the untrained eye it would be impossible to know about their past use, however Reg stated that a simple way to distinguish between them is that old tugs were riveted together whereas home boats were welded.

Canal boats in 2017 - The Fingerpost Pub can be seen in the background