If we think of canal boats in English literature, the first to spring to mind is probably the barge from The Wind in the Willows, with its formidable proprietor who has a run-in with Toad. The book describes her as “A big stout woman, wearing a linen sun-bonnet, one brawny arm laid along the tiller,” and her personality leaps off the page as vividly as her appearance: she is independent-minded and very fond of a good joke. In contrast, the canal on which she travels is something of a cipher. Based on context, it must be part of the Thames and Severn Canal (already becoming disused in 1908 when the book was written, and pretty well closed within the next twenty years), but the author Kenneth Grahame makes a point of noting that the anxious Toad, who is lost and on the run from the law, can’t divine either the origin or the destination of this waterway.
As far as its literary treatment goes, canal life itself seems to have been shrouded in similar mystery from its earliest years. Though it has an itinerancy and —for the outside world—strangeness shared with travelling groups, such as circus performers or Romany, and though the romance of water ought to make it additionally alluring, many decades apparently went by in which canal life flourished without leaving traces in fiction or memoir. Even more surprisingly, it seems to have attracted little attention from writers of historical fiction.
To be clear, in the last half-century there has been no shortage of writing about canal-boating, whether as a way of life or as a leisure activity. A cursory internet search yields a plethora of guidebooks, memoirs, romance novels and even, I’m delighted to report, cookbooks. But these cover the merest slice of a long and venerable canal history. It was very long ago, in 1761, when the Bridgewater Canal first opened, starting the Golden Age of canal-building that would be closely tied to England’s Industrial Revolution. The canals’ ascendency lasted until the 1840s, when railways began to transport an ever-increasing share of freight. The average canal route was often no more than twenty miles, and the way of life for people working on the canals followed the whole range of possible variation, from itinerant to settled. Boat operators might live aboard with their families, or they might have a house which was inhabited either in the off-season or year-round. Though the population is hard to define, there may have been close to 20,000 people living on canals in England in the mid-nineteenth century. (Historical information about canals in this review is drawn from the 1991 PhD. thesis by Wendy Freer, Canal Boat People, 1840–1970, available from the University of Nottingham website).
This bustling, waterborne life had to wait more than a century to appear on the page during the late Victorian flowering of children’s literature. Life in the Cut (1888), Old Lock Farm (1888), and The Boatman’s Daughter (1896), are just a few of literally dozens of novels on the theme. However, portrayals of canal-boat life during this era were almost uniformly ugly. As a rule, the novels were produced by tract-publishing organizations such as the London Wesleyan Conference, and authors drew more or less directly from the writings of a single famous reformer named George Smith, who had spent decades attempting to stamp out the vices which he believed were rampant among canal boat families: child labour, overcrowding, disease, drunkenness, working on the Sabbath, and premarital cohabitation. A representative plot from this period is Rob Rat: A Story of Barge Life (1878), in which a young boy, abandoned by his dissolute barge-dwelling parents, is adopted by a kindly old man who teaches him about the Christian faith.
Reading tastes changed with the advent of the twentieth century, and so too did canals. From an economic perspective, the First World War brought rising prices, labour shortages, and unfavourable government policies which proved the canals’ death blow, so that much of the infrastructure became unusable. At the same time, the slow travel speed (enforced to prevent damage to the banks by the boats’ wakes) was transmuted into a positive quality, turning these waterways into routes of privileged and leisurely travel. One of the first canal memoirs was The Flower of Gloster, by E. Temple Thurston, written in 1911. The bargee whom he hires as his driver could not be more different from the drunken louts described by the tract-writers. Thurston (himself a journalist, and the son of a brewery manager) describes his driver as one of “nature’s gentlemen,” possessing a simple, wholesome philosophy that is a foil for the superficial London life that Thurston wants to escape.
Though the canals in Thurston’s memoir are full of natural beauty, they also have an empty quality to them: while he describes the passing boats and their occupants picturesquely, the sense of a sincere effort to enter into their lives is missing. Of course, by 1911 canals were viewed as being emptier in a quite literal sense—even, possibly, emptier than they really were. In fact, though canals carried fewer goods than railroads in relative terms, the absolute tonnage of cargo transported by canal did not begin to decrease sharply until after the War, and many boat operators were still finding work. For Thurston, however, a fading canal life is part of the picture that he is painting of overall rural decline and the industrialisation of the Midlands—a curious irony, because of course canals came into existence to serve the needs of industrialisation, and their history cannot be disentangled from that process.
Narrowboat, by L.T.C. Rolt, published in 1943, not only continues in the same tradition as The Flower of Gloster but also covers the same geographic routes — so much so that to read the books back-to-back produces a very odd effect. Of the two, Rolt’s memoir is the more engaging, without the feeling of misanthropy that I got from The Flower of Gloster. Rolt makes no bones about his thesis, that urbanisation and high-speed travel have broken our sacred trust with the land. On the other hand, he sketches boatmen, innkeepers, pottery workers, and even steel factory operatives with an easy kindness. His memoir marks another important moment for canals, for a few years after its publication Rolt became co-founder of the influential Inland Waterways Association (IWA), an organisation that would work to preserve the canal infrastructure. More and more, canal life was defined by leisure rather than economic activities.
What neither the religious tracts nor the nostalgic memoirs show readers is a portrait of canal life thriving in its economic prime. This isn’t necessarily odd; there are many stories that have found little audience outside of historical scholarship. Only when we step back and take a global perspective do we see that this omission is far from inevitable. In the same time period when English authors were denouncing canal-boats as nests of iniquity, French author Alphonse Daudet was writing La Belle-Nivernaise (1886) about an orphan adopted by a hard-working and kindly barge family, and in the twentieth century, while English memoirists saw canals as a way back to a slower, pre-industrial way of life, American authors like Walter D. Edmonds were creating a genre of Canal Romances that glorified the role of canal workers in the colonial expansion of the United States. Clearly, canals are able to function as a kind of flexible symbol for whatever a country’s main preoccupation happens to be: moral hygiene, rural decline, or nation-building.
For England, canals have stayed a kind of elder step-child of the Industrial Revolution, ambiguously old and not-old at the same time. Positioned early on as a failing competitor to the railroads, they lost whatever glossy sheen of progress they might have had, but they certainly haven’t lost their grip on the human imagination. As landscapes continue to change (for good or ill), inland waterways’ great fluidity of meaning ensures that there will always be more stories of canal life to be written.--Mary Thaler