I have always had an interest in canal boats and boatmen. It probably derives from a childhood spent living near the Trent and Mersey canal in the 1960s when barges were still being used to transport materials such as clay, coal and flint to factories and potbanks but it was an industry in decline
One hundred years ago the industry was still thriving although inroads were being made into it by the railways. In the 1861 national census taken to ascertain the population of the country we receive a glimpse into the self contained lives of the people who manned the craft. In Foxt by the Caldon Canal 16 boats were moored up on the March night the census was taken. The occupants would have lived in cramped conditions as the boats were about 10 feet long and 7 foot wide with only a tiny cabin as a living space.
One family the Tobeys had 6 people, four of them teenage girls. Matilda Tolley a 1 year old was the youngest person and Joseph Greenhall of Worcester aged 62 the oldest. All the adults were illiterate marking the register with a cross. The boat people were not locally born, most were from the Black Country. They were carrying ironstone for smelting in the foundries of Staffordshire. It would have been a filthy business and the wives of the boatmen would have been hard pressed to keep the boats and their possessions clean, fresh water was always at a premium. The women and the children like 7 year old John Parret or Elizabeth Firkins aged 6 were expected to work. One job that was important was to look after the horse that would pull the barge. The children would often walk the horse which was usually looked after and kept in canal side stables. Consequently the education of bargee children was neglected as families moved around.
Canal people were also called “Water gypsies” lived isolated lives. They did not mix with the general population and married other boat people. I am sure that the Stokes, Ward and Wond families of Brierley Hill would have been related to each other.
Boatmen had a fearsome reputation for drunkenness and lawlessness . One newspaper of 1839 describes them as a “ wretchedly debased part of the population”. This charge arose out of a murder that took place in June 1839 in Staffordshire when 37 year old Christina Collins was raped and murdered by two boat men James Owen and George Thomas. She was a passenger on a barge between Liverpool and London where her husband had moved to find work. They attacked and drowned her at Brindley Bank. The following year the two men were found guilty and hanged at Stafford. (The story was used by Colin Dexter the creator of Inspector Morse in “The Wench is dead”.
The outrage that resulted in the trial and conviction of Owen and Thomas focused on the immorality of the lives of the boatmen heightened by the lack of religion as some would believed. During the Victorian period clergymen sought to bring God to the lives of the “ water gypsies”. One clergymen in Foxt in the early 20th century attempted to address the lack of education of the children of the bargees by opening a school.