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