Canal, Cruises and Contentment by Austin E Neal

What a great title!

This is an early canal cruising book; published in 1921 and featuring cruises along the Ellesmere and Oxford Canals just before the First World War. The author lived near Derby and cruised the canals in his motor boats Hectic and Hectic Too. The book is from an age when motor boating was in its infancy. He is clearly enthusiastic (as the title suggests) about his pastime and keen to pass on his enthusiasm and knowledge others. The books contains chapters describing his two boats and their engine (note singular), the operation of locks, how to plan a cruise and the costs of operating a boat. He even has a chapter on washing up which some might find strange, but more of that later. Neal took along a camera when boating so the book has twelve high quality illustrations.

The book opens with a great passage describing the author's joy of canal boating:

"DITCH-CRAWLING" is what certain of my friends call it, mainly those who, living on, or near, the coast of this island, "go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters"

That these men "see the works of the Lord" I gladly admit; but the purpose of this little book is to point out, with all humility, that health, contentment, adventure (oft with a spice of danger), humour, faith, hope and charity, all in full measure, are to be found by he that possesseth a motor-boat and permission to travel "through, by, or over" the inland waterways of Merrie England.

As you can see he doesn’t hold back. You can also see that the term “ditch crawler” has a long history (over a century!).

Neal spends a chapter describing his boats, the first was a converted ships lifeboat the second built to his specification in 1914 was 26 ft long with a 6 ft 6 inch beam. The beam was specified so the boat could pass through 7 ft locks and use “bumpers” (fenders) to protect the wooden hull; the draught was around 1 ft 6 inch because many of the canals were shallow. The engine he used was, in my view, a bit special. It was 1906 two-cylinder De Dion Bouton petrol engine rated at 12 HP and manufactured in 1906 for use in car. It had a form of magneto ignition augmented with a contact breaker. Neal moved the engine from Hector (1913) to Hector Too (1914). I searched the web and found an illustration that appears to fit Neal’s description. The engine had raw water cooling and a wet exhaust. Starting was by a handle and there was no electrical system on the boat.

De Dion 1906 Petrol Engine

The shadow of the Great War hangs over the book since the author wrote it shortly after the armistice and it is about cruises made just before hostilities began. Neal occasionally makes references to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC). At one stage describes flying over the Caen Flight on the Kennet & Avon. It appears that Neal was a 2nd Lieutenant in the RFC and his marriage in 1916 was recorded in Flight Magazine. He obviously kept a meticulous log, which formed the basis of the book, because he regularly reports details of his mileages and fuel use. 

One chapter, called “Under Way”, appears to describe an ideal day’s cruising on the Ellesmere (now Llangollen) Canal but it contains a curious description of double locks. It is possible that Neal was using artistic licence or possibly he was confused and recalled Hillmorton Locks on his Oxford Cruise. When cruising Neal usually had a male friend along for crew. The perfect day he describes includes cruising to Colmere. Along the canal they overtake several horse-drawn working boats.

So why a chapter on washing-up? The author states the obvious view (from what he describes as the fair sex) “just like a man to write a chapter about a job I can do in ten minutes”. He justifies the detail by explaining that the boat does not have an unlimited supply of hot water and has no sink. Neal appears to use canal water for cold water and heats it on a Primus Stove; two were kept on board. Neal washed plates and dishes in canal water followed a wipe with newspapers and perhaps some Vim. I realised when reading the chapter that we take stainless steel cutlery for granted. Knife polishing was an issue for Neal until he discovered “Lightning Knife Cleaner” which presumable is some form of abrasive cleaner that could remove corrosion. He also spends some time describing why fluted crockery is not a good idea since the fluting retains dirt. Although devoting a chapter to washing up was probably over the top, I can see, given the absence of facilities on his boats, why it was a particularly focus. A far cry from modern canal boats with all their facilities.

Neal eschewed newspapers (except for washing-up) while boating, so on August 4th 1914 he was unaware of world events and was enjoying boating on the Ashby Canal. That evening he got to just beyond Hawkesbury Junction. By the following afternoon he had reached Braunston and visited the village for supplies. Asking for a pound of butter he was greeted with “I might let you have half because I don’t know when will get more”. At was then that he discovered that the country was at war with Germany and. supplies of food suddenly had become very difficult because of panic buying. Crucially for his boating, petrol also became quite difficult to obtain because of government restrictions. Neal was told that it was required by the RFC. 

Neal passed through Foxton in 1914 on his way back home to Derby from Oxford

Neal ends his book by returning to his home near Derby from his 1914 Oxford Cruise with typical analysis of his log books. “380 miles, 189 locks, 40 gallons petrol and 9 ½ miles per gallon”. This was followed by another tribute to the charms of boating.

A charming evocative book from a century ago when life on the waterways and our country were very different. Although the book is quirky it is also has historical interest. Once I started reading it I just couldn't put it down. Copies are not particularly cheap, I paid over £30 for my copy, but it was printed on good quality paper with good binding and my copy is in excellent condition.