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Canal People

Who were the people who lived and worked on the Canals?

Origins of the English Canal Boatmen

Navigation and trade by boat pre-dated the canals. Rivers had been improved and made navigable and were links between cities and the coast. The River Douglas carried boats from the Irish Sea and River Ribble inland to Wigan. It would seem natural to assume that the same men that sailed on the rivers brought their boats up the canal that replaced it. At the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines miners manned the boats which took coal from underground and onto the canal.  Elsewhere carters and farmers living in areas the canal passed through found work on the canal, sometimes seasonally.  Sometimes the navies who helped build the canals took jobs working on them after their completion.

Most of the boat owners were wealthy capitalists such as mine owners or the shareholders of the canal companies. In 1795 less than 4% of boatmen owned their own boats.  The boatmen that carried coal didn’t see much of the wealth they helped create.

Fly Boats

In 1760 there were 1,398¼ miles of canal in the country by 1840 there were 4003 miles. During this expansion in the canal network there was a change in the type of boats and boatmen on the canals.

While the canals were being built Liverpool was expanding its docks and trading with the Americas and West Indies.  As exports from Britain increased worldwide it became more important for merchants to get their goods to the port quickly.  If the cargo missed the ship it would have to be kept in expensive warehouses until the next opportunity. As winter approached insurance increased for goods going overseas. Prices rose by the week.

The need for speed brought the boatmen into conflict with other canal workers: toll men, bridge and lock keepers. For boatmen every minute counted. They opened the paddles on locks to flush their boats out and close the gates. They wanted to travel at night or on Sundays (Sunday trading was banned in 1770) when locks were closed. The lock keepers and toll men on the other hand were paid to maintain the canal and enforce the rules. Lock keepers were charged with saving water and preventing damage to the locks.

In the 1790’s Fly Boats first started to carry goods and people on the system. The Fly Boat was the express boat; it traveled on through the night and got priority at locks and bridges. Fly boats had three or four crew members who worked in shifts.  There was great pressure on all boatmen to carry their loads as quickly as possible; the Fly Boats had strict schedules to keep. Captains could be fined if they didn’t have a good reason for being late. This pressure often led to arguments and violence when rights of way were disputed.  Sunday Trading laws were relaxed and by 1832 boats could work 7 days a week.

Bad Reputation

As the network expanded and the trade increased there were more boats and more men working on the system. With more men coming to work in relatively low waged work with long hours standards of employee were often low.  It was common to find men and boys hanging around looking for casual work at canal basins, locks or other places boats gathered. Boys who had run away from home or the law often went to the towpath to find a job.  The lack of police and the transient nature of the work attracted those who were on the run.
Boatmen gained an increasingly worse reputation throughout the Canal Age. In 1818 they were described as a “vile set of rogues”. Religious missionaries took an interest in the lives of canal people. In 1829 they were shocked by the “dark benighted state” boatmen lived in, their “careless and dissolute practices” and “decided wickedness”. It was not just religious zealots that had a bad opinion of boatmen.  In 1832 a clerk with John Whitehouse canal carriers said boatmen were “very bad, I do not know that there is any class of men in this country that is so bad”.  A warehouse worker said the canal people were “very demoralized, they have neither fear of God nor of man.”  Sir George Chetwynd, of the Trent and Mersey Canal Company in 1839 said “They are extremely illiterate, uninstructed and depraved” which suggested something of the life the boatmen had. His claim they were “the most degraded class of society” sounds very harsh. 


The 1839 report of the Constabulary Force Commissioners and the select committee on Sunday Trading in 1841 both looked at the lives of the canal boat people. Stealing and poaching from land alongside the canal was common. Boatmen milked cows in the dead of night, cut grass and clover for their horses, and stole chickens and eggs.
But it wasn’t just the outside world they stole from. Boatmen saw nothing wrong with taking coal from their own cargoes or from unattended coal boats they passed. Pilfering was common and boatmen got skilled at removing goods in such a way that its disappearance wouldn’t be noticed until much later when the crates reached their destination. The Commissioner of Police in Liverpool said it could take months for such crimes to be reported back. Stolen goods were fenced through canal side beer houses. In one exceptional case £600 of silk was stolen by boatmen in 1838, the culprits were caught and transported.


Boatmen had a reputation for being hard violent men (and women). In July 1822 there was a riot at the City Basin on the Regents Canal. 70-80 boatmen rioted over low wages offered for transporting 800 soldiers to Liverpool. The rioters seized control of the basin, pushed horses and men into the canal and fought with constables.  The most shocking case was the rape and murder of Christina Collins in June 1839. While traveling on a fly boat from Liverpool to London she was killed by the crew and dumped in the water.  Her murderers went to the gallows and the case caused great public outcry.


Campaigners would speak out against the terrible lives of the boat children. It was a dangerous life for children born and raised on canals. There was the obvious danger of drowning, being kicked by horses, crushed by bridges and locks, burnt by stoves and scalded by pans and kettles. Children were said to be worked too hard, beaten and thrashed. They were treated like slaves and even bought and sold.  On July 31st 1875 8 year old Elizabeth Lowkes was killed after a particularly harsh beating by the couple on whose boat she had been sent to work. A similar case in 1877 caught the public’s attention and cause outrage.

It wasn’t just people who were badly treated, so were the horses, mules and donkeys. In 1783 a boat horse was described as being “the skeleton of a horse, covered with skin”. In 1841 it was said that very few animals were “treated more cruelly than the Boat Horse”.  Horses could be worked 14 hours a day, starved, beaten until raw or pushed into the canal. And boatmen didn’t take criticism well, in one case two police officers were assaulted and pushed into the canal to beg for their lives when they challenged boatmen about their cruel treatment of their horse.


One of the main causes of this bad behaviour was drink. Boatmen often had long periods in which they were waiting for loads or for locks. It is ironic that the Sunday Trading laws designed to save souls meant working men were idle and turned to drinking, gambling and fighting to occupy their time.

A fair representation?

It is clear that people living on the canals got some very harsh criticism, but was it fair?  The main reports about the lives of the boatmen were based n evidence given by the canal owners but not the canal workers, the temperance campaigners but not the men and women in the beer houses.  The reports, committees and speakers were biased. They had a cause they were promoting. Often the reality was exaggerated; evidence was unreliable and designed to prove a point.

Pilfering and stealing were common, but serious theft was rare. Petty theft did have an aggregate cost, but boatmen were no worse than warehouse workers or dock workers.  Many employers said their boatmen were honest workers. They could be trusted with sums of money and were reliable when it came to repaying debts.

Boatmen were hard men, and often got physical to get their way and make progress. Many canal side pubs have histories of fearsome pub fights.

Various laws regarding alcohol meant at some points in history most of the population of Britain was drunk. The Beer Shop Act saw large numbers of beer houses open along the canals. While boatmen may have got bad press, the rest of the population was far from being tea-total.

Children started work early as many working class children did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their lives were tough but they were said to be more grown up than their peers on the bank. They had little education but were self reliant, practical and ready to work. Children around 12 years old were often lent to other boats to help with working or looking after younger children. They usual went to other members of their own family. This helped reduce over crowding.

Boatmen on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal faced punishment or losing their jobs if they were cruel to their horses. While there were good and bad among the boatmen it is said the Leeds Liverpool Canal boatmen treated their horses well.

Living Standards

Standard of living depended on the type of boat, the way a boat worked and who owned it. Living standards changed through time.

As a rule the value of the cargo dictated the prestige and earnings of the boatmen. High value goods meant higher wages; low value bulk goods meant lower wages, manure being the lowest value cargo.

The fly boats were often male only crews, with 3 or 4 men living and working on board. It was said that the boats with all-male crews were cleaner and of a higher standard than those with women on board. Often married captains would have a house where his wife and family lived. The eldest son or a brother would go to work as first mate with the captain while the rest of the family either were at school or had jobs in local industry. With their husbands away it was the wives who collected the wages. There was a queue of women at the depot at Burscough Bridge on pay day. Some captains took their wives with them as part of the crew. Entire families with as many as seven young children could be on board a working boat. For some the boat was the sole residence of the family. Laws and regulations were brought in to combat overcrowding and improper habitation on canal boats.

As railways became more important they took trade from the canals, most notably passengers and merchandise.  Throughout the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s railways replaced the fly boats for the fast transport of people and goods.  Captains of fly boats swapped to become masters of slow boats. This would have meant a cut in wages but they were still relatively well paid.  The railways not only took trade but also offered alternative work to the boatmen. Boatmen who had grown up on the canals were more likely to stay on the canals.

In the 1870s and 1880’s there was an improvement in wages for boatmen. Prices fell so workers could buy more. Wages for boatmen were comparable with labourers away from the canal.  The all male crews carried higher value goods and therefore received higher wages. The masters of family boats however didn’t have to pay wages to crew which would have balanced out their lower earnings. There was competition between the family boats and the all male crews.  Better paid jobs outside the canal world were taking men away from the boats. The unmarried crews with no dependents would be more likely to leave the canal to take work elsewhere than the family crews.

There was a shortage of boatmen in the 1870s and 80’s. In 1886 wages for family boatmen were higher than labourers; and these traditional boating families were reluctant to leave the canals and the lives they knew.  In Liverpool in 1884 10% of boats were the permanent dwelling for boating families. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was different to the narrow canals. The bigger boats of the Leeds and Liverpool had two cabins and were not overcrowded, with no indecent occupancy. The pay was higher and the boatmen were hard working decent people.  

Most boats on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal were owned by collieries. In Burnley none of the 51 boats were owned by the captains who steered them, whereas Bank Hall colliery owned 29 boats. In Wigan only 3 of the 167 registered boats were owner-steered while 61 were owned by the Wigan Coal and Iron Company.  It was a similar situation in Chester where none of the 326 boats were owner-steered.  Boatmen on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal had a plentiful supply of coal as this was the main cargo, while on other canals fuel for cabin stoves could be hard to come by.

Boatmen working for a company were better off than those who worked for themselves. Owner-steered boats, or “Number Ones”, were far more at risk financially. If a horse died or broke a leg or was ill the boatman was out of work. Owner-steered boats were usually older boats in poor condition. If there was a bad frost and the canal closed self-employed boatmen earned no money. For the company men it wasn’t such bad news. They could get advances on their wages and, as happened for Leeds Liverpool Canal Company boatmen during a bad frost in 1895, they would get half pay when unable to work.

In the 1890s and 1900’s more people were leaving the canals. As the tonnage carried by boat dropped the living standard dropped. It was hard for captains to find hands for wages that could compete with the family boats.  While railways took more business from canals, canals had some advantages. A lot of industry and collieries were situated on the canal and it was still easier to load from canal barges than use railways. In Liverpool land was sold to the railways and the canal basin was modernized and new warehouses were built in Pall Mall.

In the 1920’s canal companies abandoned carrying and sold their boats. This meant a rise in the number of owner-steered boats. In Wigan there was an increase in the number of ex-Leeds Liverpool Canal Company boats registered to Number Ones.


Canal Culture


In the 1930s when racial classification was the fashion and people were looking back to an idealized pre-industrial age some writers described boatmen as romantic water gypsies. The canal boatmen had a lot in common with gypsies but they had come from a diverse background. 


Canal boatmen and their families were, by the nature of their work, travelers. For many the canal workers were the only community they were a part of.  The boatmen of Burscough married within their own boating community, often within their own families. It was the custom for first names to be passed on through generations. It was sometimes the case that a girl would not have to change her surname when she married.  Boatmen were isolated from the rest of working society. The non-boating communities eyed them with suspicion. People who were here today and gone tomorrow shouldn’t be trusted.

By the 1880’s many boatmen had a house they returned to. They worked with their eldest son or a brother but the rest of the family would work in local industry. This meant they were not as isolated from the wider community as the boatmen who lived with their families onboard their boats.
There was competition between boatmen and rivalry between companies but boatmen often helped each other without the expectation of thanks. They were protective of each other against outsiders.

Boats often had a dog onboard. This could be a guard dog but also the lurcher types were used for poaching.


Traveling and working on Sundays meant boatmen did not attend church. They were said to live in sin and have their own non-Christian marriage ceremonies.


Due to the poor education standards among the boatmen most were illiterate. They relied on inn keepers to read letters for them. Many boatmen were unable to write or spell their own names. On marriage certificates boatmen often signed with an “X”. In Liverpool their names were often spelt incorrectly due to the boatman’s Lancashire accent and lack of literacy.


Boatmen had their own art. They decorated their boats and belongings in distinctive ways. Often it was possible to tell which company they worked for or which region they were from by the style of painting.


Boatmen and women had distinctive dress. The men wore waistcoats and clogs. The women wore bonnets.


Boatmen didn’t have the rhyming slang of other cultures but they did have plenty of technical terms for boating. Mispronunciations of words especially place names were common. Canal boatmen and women were known for their prolific use of swearing.

As a group boatmen were victimized by the public.  Like many modern day traveling groups they were seen as illiterate untrustworthy criminals. They were an easy target for stone throwing youths. In cases where boatmen could catch the culprits the respectable community often sided with the stone-throwers assuming the boatmen had deserved or provoked it.  There were requests for the sides of bridges in Liverpool to be raised to stop the locals throwing missiles at passing boats.  Boating children were bullied when they attended school. They were called names and stood out from the other children as different.

While some portrayed the canals as a pre-industrial ideal the reality was that the canals were for much of their working life the arteries of the industrial revolution and the boatmen a key part of the industrial process.

This page was last updated on 10-Oct-2015
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