Boudica, Boudicca or Boadicea; was her last battle near the Grand Union?

Granny Buttons, when reporting on the recently revised location for the Battle of Bosworth Field which lies near the Ashby Canal mentioned that many canal boaters moor up to visit Mancetter near Atherstone as the reputed site of the famous last battle of Queen Boudica. The exact location is, of course unknown, but as Wikipedia notes, most modern historians favour sites along the roman road of Watling Street and call it the Battle of Watling Street. Some place it in the West Midlands, but other sources place it further south.

As residents of a Northamptonshire village lying alongside Watling Street, we were particularly interested when the Dan & Peter Snow Battlefield TV documentary a year or two ago put the battle's location near to Towcester, Northants.

So why not moor up on the Grand Union near Grafton Regis and walk through picturesque Alderton to Cuttle Mill where the site really is?

As the Iceni site says, "The Roman army and its leader Suetonius returning from Angelsey and the famous battle for the Isle of Mona, selected a place advantageous to them and waited for the Iceni to come to them. It is debatable exactly where this battle took place, although it would seem, from research done, that the most likely place is near Towcester, in a place on Watling Street Northamptonshire, known as Cuttle Mill. Here is somewhere that is perfectly described by Tacitus in his writings. Suetonius chose a position with dense woodland behind him and a narrow defile in front (defile – narrow passage between mountains). Although outnumbered by the Iceni by ten to one, the choice of battleground gave Suetonius a distinct advantage."

Encyclopaedia Britannica (Ninth Edition, 1875-1889)

In the days before the internet the first source for reference material was the encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the standard. I was introduced to the delights of the late Victorian versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica when I was at university studying chemical engineering in the late 1960s. A chapter on capillarity, or capillary action, was used by a lecturer as one of his standard texts because in his view nothing else described the subject quite so well. From my first sight of a copy of this text I was hooked.

What is amazing about the 9th edition, published in 1875-1889, is that here is a set of books that attempted not only to be inclusive but also to use the finest contributors. The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of Art and Science at the end of the nineteenth century. The physicists James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Lord Rayleigh (my particular scientific hero) and the biologist TH Huxley contributed articles. None of them flinched at all from going into the sort of detail that is usually reserved for text books. William Morris contributed an article on mural decoration; William Rossetti contributed on Shelley and Algernon Swinburne on Keats. There was even a contribution from Robert Louis Stevenson. No wonder that the Ninth Edition is regarded as the most scholarly edition of Britannica.

Quite a few years ago, for a significant birthday, I received a full set of ninth edition volumes as a present from Maggie. She purchased it from a second-hand book store in Derbyshire. The twenty four volumes, plus an index, are weighty and cover nearly six foot of bookshelf space but they are my pride and joy. I often browse them.

Some of the 24 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition

So what about canals? Surely these volumes must include reference to what in the 1880s was an important transport system and written by an an eminent contributor. Well there is a 15-page section on canals and the contributor comes with a fine pedigree. The contributor is David Stevenson from a famous engineering family; he was the son of Robert Stevenson and nephew of Robert Louis. Although primarily a lighthouse engineer, Wikipedia lists 28 he built mostly in Scotland, and had recently written Canal and River Engineering. There is an extract from the canal article on the web.

The article itself has an interesting emphasis. Stevenson makes a point of describing the difference between Boat or Barge canals and Ship Canals and it is the latter that he describes in most detail. This is hardly surprising given that in the 1880s most canal developments concerned ship canals and the emphasis of Britannica was to describe the state of the art. Stevenson does as well as anyone comprehensively and succinctly covering the history of canals throughout the world and draws on Samuel Smiles Lives of the Engineers to describe the contribution made by Bridley and Telford to British Canals. When the ninth edition was published the Suez Canal had been built but the Panama Canal had not. The article describes in some detail the proposed routes for the Panama.

Part of an illustration of "Ship" Canals from the Ninth Edition

Given the article was written by a Scottish civil engineer and the encyclopaedia was published in Edinburgh, many of the contemporary examples are from Scotland including the Caledonian, Forth and Clyde, and Union canals. The article includes a lovely cross sectional drawing of how a towpath should be constructed with adequate drainage. There are also numerous cross-sections of canals; obviously a big issue for civil engineers. For barge and boat canals he defines some interesting dimensions. The least breadth of at the bottom of canal should be twice the width of the boat, the least cross-sectional area should be six times the area of the boat cross-section, and the depth of water should be 1ft 6ins greater that the boat draught.

It is interesting that he describes in detail water supply for canals and he repeats the some calculations of Fulton on the amount of water lost by boats going uphill and downhill in “standard” locks. He reports that side ponds could be used but delay traffic and are not in general use. He also describes inclined planes including those used in the USA, the Great Western Canal in England, and the Monkland canal in Scotland.

Another interesting section is on canal propulsion. Stevenson describes steam towing by tug on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal in 1860. He also describes the hydrodynamic experiments with high-speed canal towing carried out by J Scott Russell. It is this work that discovered the soliton or solitary wave. It was thought at the time that boats could be use this wave to save energy (horse supplied of course).

Aside from the canal article there are also articles on Brindley and Telford, and an excellent article on Aqueducts that has a superb illustration that includes the Chirk and Pontcysyllte aqueducts.

Aqueducts in the Ninth Edition

If you see a set of old Britannica sitting on a shelf in a second book store, have a browse through the canals section, particularly if it is the ninth or eleventh edition, you might be surprised. And if like me, you are interested in Victorian science and engineering, why not ask the price? Because they are reference books Britannica do appear to command the prices that some other books of the this vintage do. Although extracts from some articles in the ninth and eleventh are available on-line, there's nothing like the real thing!

Rob Rat by Mark Guy Pearse

I suppose I became aware of the existence of this book related to canals more by its iconic illustrations than by its text; the engravings in Rob Rat are sometimes used to illustrate canal carrying in the 1880s.

Rob Rat was written as a Sunday text immediately following the Canal Boat Act of 1878 and in the wake of the famous lectures and books by the social reformer George Smith of Coalville. I looked for an edition a few years ago on ebay and obtained a copy where the Rob Rat story was bound into a volume along with two others by the same author (John Tregonoweth and The Old Miller).

The story is of the barge(!) Water Rat, Rob the boy hero who is thrown off the boat by his drunken violent father Old Rat, his sister Lizer who falls ill with typhoid, and the family’s bull terrier Fly who is used for fighting and betting. It tells the tale of how the abandoned Rob, and Lizer are rescued by the kindly and religious Noah who operates a boat called, unsurprisingly, The Ark. As pointed out by Gill Foster in her Railway & Canal Historical Society article, these Sunday books were designed to influence adults although they are seen as juvenile fiction. They promulgated the Victorian themes of morality, temperance, and keeping the Sabbath. In the 1970s we obtain a somewhat similar book rather intriguingly titled The Sunday Pleasure Book!

Note the design of the tiller. Artistic Licence?

These books were often given as Sunday School Prizes. The inscription on the flyleaf of my copy shows it was given by the Wesleyan Sunday School in Polperro to Horace Oliver in December 1893. They presumably chose to give him this particular book because the first story, John Tregonoweth, which as the name suggests is set in Cornwall; Mark Guy Pearse was a Cornishman.

Working a lock in the snow

Gill Foster's article describes well the social and historical context of these books. As she points out, the chapter in Rob Rat titled The Writer Buttonholes his Reader is definitely not for children. It goes into details of the conditions of the canal people and their lack of morality, it hints at incest, and describes drunken women stripping to fight. It is full of missionary zeal and as a result accuracy comes second to propagating the messages of godliness, cleanliness and sobriety. Most of my ancestors in the nineteenth century were, like George Smith, Primitive Methodists, including a Minister. I can imagine most of them enthusiastically accepting this message.

Note the unusual water container on the roof of the nearest boat and the sheeting on the one in the background

Aside from the "propaganda" message a few areas caught my attention. Firstly, the setting for the start of the story is Pickards wharf – surely Pickfords who until 1840 were major canal carriers. Secondly, the fictional Town Council of Crakleton was criticised for not improving the condition of the canal passing through its town despite receiving an adverse report – is this Christleton on the Shropshire Union?

I wonder if such signs were once normal on the towpath

However, the theme that most held my attention was that link between dirty water, disease, and canals. The Rev. Pearse describes in colourful language conditions inside canal boat cabins. Vermin creeping up the sides, stinking mud oozing into cabin bottoms and being heated by stoves to make a horrible stench. Even cargoes were described as being of filth, manure and refuse carrying small-pox and deadly fevers between towns. No mention of carrying coal and wheat or other more "useful" cargoes. I have no doubt that canals in the 1880s were insanitary, and little was known of the vectors of disease, but it is interesting that even during the period when canal carrying was still an important economic method of transporting goods that they were seen as being unhealthy and the canal people a social problem. Little wonder that in the 1950s and 60s filling-in disused and underutilised canals was the norm. Popular public opinion can take a long time to change.

Donkeys working as a pair and horses in single harness