The Canal System of England by H Gordon Thompson

A slim volume with an imposing sub title - The Growth and Present Conditions With Particular Reference to the Cheap Carriage of Goods. I suppose you have already guessed that it is not a modern volume with such a title. It smacks of Victorian ideals but it is Edwardian (just) having been written in 1902. As you might imagine from the subtitle it is not a "page-turner" and tends towards dryness but it holds some fascinating gems for the canal historian.

There is little readily available information on the author and this appears to be his only book, it is clearly a book that was not written for general consumption and it had a purpose; the improvement in the maintenance of canals (and river navigations although this isn't in the title). Why?: a clue is in the subtitle - "the economy stupid".

This is essentially an economics text with an academic pedigree. The author was a Cobden Medallist and Prizeman at the Victoria University and the book was published at the request of his medal sponsors - the Cobden Club. "Cobden" refers to the great free trade philanthropist and politician Richard Cobden who lived in Manchester. The Victoria University is nowadays known as the University of Manchester.

The title Victoria University still survives formally for the university and as recently as 2004 an Act of Parliament included that title and reference to a Cobden Chair in Economics. Indeed at one time the university's predecessor, Owens College was  housed in the former house of Richard Cobden in Quay Street.

It is revealing that Gordon Thompson made a dedication in the book; he conveys "the writer's sincere respect", to Sir John T Brunner who was Liberal MP for Northwich and  founder of Brunner Mond Company which became, many years later after mergers, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Brunner at the turn of the twentieth century was much involved with navigation on the River Weaver.

From that pedigree one might expect a book that has at its core free trade and you would be right. It also adopts an almost evangelical approach to the subject. Although its literary style is nowhere near the same, the attitude of the writer to his subject is similar to that adopted by Robert Aickmann nearly 50 years later. He is frustrated at the condition of English Canals as he finds them and thinks that this is intolerable, particularly when compared with our European neighbours who had modernised their systems for the benefit of trade (free trade). This isn't a balanced academic approach to the subject. He firmly sets his case out for canals not being owned by railways and uses all the data at his disposal to make his case.

Because the book was written when the Manchester Ship Canal was still a new navigation (completed only eight years before the book was written) that navigation shines out as an example of how goods can be cheaply transported by water for the benefit of all, although the writer does admit that ship canals are somewhat different from other navigations. Gordon Thompson does point out, amusingly, that had the original lock free (i.e. tidal) proposal been built connecting Manchester to the sea then the depth of the canal at Manchester would be such that "only the top of a ship's masts would be level with the ground". He also, naturally given the book's dedication, good words to say about the River Weaver stating that it was "one of the most up-to-date of English Canals". It had just been extensively updated and linked to the Manchester Ship Canal.

The book begins with the usual review of the history of canals, including the development of locks, but it rapidly moves on to their present condition and the growth of the railways. The meat of the book is where are the chapters discussing Structural Condition (or size), Changes in Level, Haulage, Administration and the Costs of Freight. These chapters are packed full of facts and figures, as one would expect of an economics tome. Some, for example the average distance between locks (1 lock every 1.37 miles), are relevant today but others are of more historical interest (cost of back-pumping - 1000 gallons pumped 100 ft costs £1). In common with academic publications of the time, it contains no illustrations, but it has a copious index and column annotations to help the reader navigate to sections of interest.

The chapter on haulage is packed with facts and figures including a discussion on the cost of steam tugs and steam carrying boats. There is also a short section on "oil or compressed gas" engines  - the shape of things to come, but the most unusual feature is the discussion of electric haulage via electric locomotives. Gordon Thompson reports on some experiments carried out by Siemens and Halske on the Finnow canal in Germany. His description, in the absence of diagrams, is quite difficult to follow but below is a diagram from what I presume is the relevant US Patent. At that time Siemens and Halske were working on electric trams, and even early trolley buses, so it would appear to be a natural progression for the company to look at other areas where electric power transmission could be used for transport.

From the US Patent (1900) by Siemens and Halske

Gordon Thompson also reports on another form of electric haulage, the Thwaite-Cawley where

"In this system an aerial railway is provided at an elevation of 9 ft. or 10 ft. above the towing path, supported by cast-iron or wooden posts placed at 30 ft. intervals. Along this elevated track run a number of four-wheeled electric motors, with two of the wheels on the upper and two on the lower surface of the rail, the axles being proportioned so as to regulate the pressure of the wheels upon the track. The tow-rope is attached to a link at the back of each motor.
Two rails are provided forming an "up " and a " down " line, so that when two barges are passing in opposite directions the one connected with the motor on the upper rail steers wide and its tow-rope passing clear over the first, no stoppage is necessary."

He also reports that electric haulage experiments were carried out on the River Lee using the system of  M Leond Gerard (sic). Leon Gerard, from Belgium, published on electric traction for canals and was later (1907) granted a US Patent for a device to make this possible.

From US Patent (1906) by Leon Gerard

If, over a century on, I could criticise the approach of the author, it is his lack of appreciation of the topography of England. Wide canals with standard large lock designs are suitable for the wide landscapes of the East of England (Aire & Calder) and the lowlands of the North West (Weaver and Manchester Ship Canal), but to contemplate such developments even in 1900 for canals crossing the Pennines and  reaching the heartlands of the Midlands was wishful thinking. These developments might have made a difference to the life of what at one time was called the "commercial canals". Imagine goods in the mid-twentieth century moving to Leeds from Goole and surrounding areas under electric power.

My nice quality first edition was not cheap for a small format book with only 73 pages (£16), but the quality of the binding and paper are first rate and the content was fascinating - a long review for a short book! In the style adopted at the time, I should have subtitled this review "Book Review including the Author's short Discourse on the History of Electric Traction for Canals"

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all the best for 
Christmas and the New Year! 

Steve & Maggie

Malcolm Saville and Canals

Mick Vedmore of Old Waterways Books kindly wrote to me to point out that in addition to "Painted Box", Malcolm Saville did  write two more children's books that he set on canals..He wrote 'Two Fair Plaits' in 1948 set in the Regents Canal and finally in 1956 'Young Johnnie Bimbo' set on the Grand Union Canal.

I will have to look out for them.

The Riddle of The Painted Box by Malcolm Saville

I grew up in the early 1950s in a small town in Lancashire. One of my prize possessions as a lad was a wooden pencil box with a sliding lid and a pivoting top that gave access to a lower layer. My most valued possessions were always stored in the bottom layer along with my rubber (eraser for US readers). Your pencil box was kept either in your school bag, or your school desk, but you always took care of it because loosing it could make life difficult.

When  I searched the internet a few months ago for old canal books I noted a children's novel with canal connections called The Riddle of the Painted Box that was set in the 1940s. It was outside my normal range of books, I normally go for non-fiction, but it looked interesting. From the description I had no idea what the "painted box" was.

Michael and Mary examine the Painted Box

The box of the title turned out to be a wooden pencil box decorated in traditional Rose and Castle style. It was the  prize possession of the daughter of a boating family who in the book ply their trade along the Grand Union. The box features in a tale of crime and intrigue with the heroes being two children of a family "on the bank" who live not far from Brentford. The author is Malcolm Saville who wrote many children's books, this being the second in a series of adventures featuring Michael and Mary Bishop who lost their father in the war and live with their mother in Laburnum Road. The book is charmingly illustrated by Lunt Roberts who was a talented cartoonist - the drawings add a lot to its qualities.

What impressed me about the novel was Saville's attention to detail. Even though this is a book for children, there is no lack of technical detail concerning working boats and canals. The author manages to evoke the period and the setting wonderfully well. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it despite being nearly sixty years older than the target audience! Published only three years after Rolt's Narrow Boat, in 1947, the story is very evocative of that time of austerity and the economic difficulties that followed WWII. As the author states in the foreward, although some canals at that time were no longer used, some such as the Grand Union Canal were very busy indeed.

Examples of the The Riddle of the Painted Box are available on the internet for a range of prices varying from just over £6 for a "reading copy" like mine to over £60 for an "excellent" copy complete with the illustrated colour dust jacket. My copy is a first edition from 1947 so it is as old as me!

First edition wrapper. Click to enlarge (File size=32KB)

For those interested in canal books for children the excellent Old Waterways Books web site has numerous pages dedicated to this genre. There is also a site dedicated to the work of Malcolm  Saville. It appears that Painted Box was his only canal-related book and he wrote it at Westend Farm, Wheathampsted just outside Harpenden.

New Cratch Cover

One of our first major purchases for Albert, when we bought her in late 2003, was a new cratch cover. The old cover looked OK but soon the zips and stitching soon started failing. We chose a new cover from Wilson's because they had made a tonneau  and some hatch covers for our previous boat and we had been happy with their work. It did us proud lasting ten years but recently some of the stitching had begun to fail.
Albert's new cratch cover

Because we had had a small cover repair carried out by Tim Garland (who is very much local to us), I chose Tim to quote for the new cover. I knew there was a family connection between Tim and Gardland Sails in Bristol, and I had always suspected that the original had been from Garland's in Bristol. When Tim visited Yardley Gobion Wharf and looked at Albert's fittings (which were retained by Wilsons) he confirmed that the original was more than likely from Garland Sails in Bristol, probably by his dad. He noted that his dad liked to use quite a few fittings to hold the cover down since he came from a sail-making background!

I have to say that fitting a cover is a skilled craft. Getting the pattern correct is obviously very skillful but even the final fitting is not that straightforward particularly in cold weather like today - there was an icy wind and a layer of ice in the marina. It involved accurately locating the stud fittings and punching them into the cloth and drilling an tapping the hull fittings.

Tim Garland making the cratch cover pattern

The new cover was measured up in November and today Tim fitted it. We are delighted with its matt finish and clean style and we look forward to it giving good service - the other two lasted around ten years each.


Falkirk Wheel

We spent the last weekend in Scotland, around Edinburgh. On Saturday, whilst our daughter and son-in-law attended a wedding at Dalhousie Castle, Maggie and I entertained our two-year old grandson Hugh.

Falkirk Wheel
With Hugh keen on anything mechanical we just had to visit the Falkirk Wheel. Although I had visited back in 2007, Maggie had not and was keen to see this "Wonder of the Waterways". It was certainly well worth the visit and Hugh was delighted with the experience.

We got there just after 1:00 PM and found that the only trip up the lift was due to depart from the basin at 2:00 PM. This meant a rapid lunch, which is not always easy with a two-year old, but we managed it with a few minutes to spare. I had found out from my last visit that a trip up (and down) the lift is a must.

Hugh & Maggie aboard Archimedes

Taking it all in

The boat trip was in the purpose built boat Archimedes which is  68 ' long and 12' 6 " in the beam. The boat is fully equipped and highly maneuverable. It has plenty of video screens giving details of the construction of the original canal and the lift. The skipper for the day Phil, who has a background in operating community boats in London, gave a witty and informative commentary.

Getting the caisson aligned
Waiting for the gates to open

I was able to take video of a boat being lowered down the lift. With the short days this was just before dusk and after most of the day's visitors had left.

Boat being lowered down the Falkirk Wheel

The boat trip included a passage through (and back) the 180 m long Roughcastle Tunnel. Hugh was not at all bothered by the dark and enjoyed the experience. One day we will have to take Hugh through Blisworth.

Hugh watching progress through the Roughcastle Tunnel

Roughcastle Tunnel

The view from the lift just before you are lowered into the basin can be really good. Although it was misty the impression of height was still great. What should impress boaters, apart from the engineering and design excellence, is the speed of descent/ ascent. It takes around four and a half minutes to cover the 24 m height change, all accomplished with 1.5 kW h (or the energy required to boil 8 kettles - as is often quoted).    

Looking into the caisson for a descent

From the top of the lift I noticed that the canal to the north was closed. It appears that Network Rail are carrying out electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh line and the tunnel under the Forth & Clyde Canal is being rebuilt. The canal is due to reopen next March.

Rebuilding the Carmuirs Railway Tunnel under the Forth & Clyde Canal

We can see why the Falkirk Wheel is Scotland's second most popular visitor attraction after Edinburgh Castle with 400,000 visiting each year.