A truly meticulous account

FIVE main well-researched subjects are featured in this year’s edition of the Boat Museum Society’s Waterways Journal.

Harry Arnold

My immediate favourite is the meticulously detailed story of pleasure boating pioneer Holt Abbott, designer and operator of what were revolutionary custom-built canal cruisers in the 1950s.  For two reasons: Firstly, I think not enough has been written to record this period and secondly that I knew Holt, as a fellow hire operator, quite well.

Angela Clark (Holt’s daughter) and David Brown (an owner of one of Holt’s boats) have gone to endless trouble to record the history of his work and his company, Stourport-based Canal Pleasure Craft Ltd. Holt was basically a clever engineer who applied his knowledge to design and build a cruiser that deviated from the traditional narrowboat format and employed the fairly new material of marine plywood.

Holt was a true gentleman who you suspected (although not true) didn’t like to get involved in the day-to-day workings of the industry.  He had an equally gentlemanly right-hand man Ashley Moulden, who when you visited was always referred to as ‘my man Ashley’. Little-known nowadays was that they were the major manufacturer of quality lock windlasses for the hire industry.  A truly meticulous account and – with respect to the Journal – one that the national magazines missed out on.

One would expect that recent developments at the National Waterways Museum and the research into their past history would be featured. The Patent Slip and its associated buildings is one of these areas that Hannah Holmes has been working on and studying in detail, as it has been opened up to visitors. She covers the history from when Ellesmere Port docks were enlarged and developed through the 1830s and 1840s followed by the major changes required when the Manchester Ship Canal was built.

The advent of steam-powered vessels on the waterways is always a popular period among enthusiasts and their history of use on the River Weaver – another one which my ancestors worked on – from 1863 until their demise is well documented by regular contributor Terry Kavanagh. Some of the personal stories of life aboard the various craft on the river bring his account to life, although maybe not for the squeamish. Such as the engineer aboard the Ariel being found ‘lying quite dead under a crank in the engine room’.

Although I also know this river well, I must admit the twists and turns of the River Dee’s history of navigation improvements on its course from Chester to the sea, between 1836 and 1854 is of lesser interest. David Parry’s research is however meticulous and it is just the sort of good work that this BMS publication should address and publish. Apart from local trade, it was too little too late though as the heyday of Dee and Chester as a major international port had already passed across the Wirral to the River Mersey.

Finally, in a shorter piece – also mentioning the Dee – Peter Sandbach updates his previous article on John Wilkinson with evidence that this Staffordshire industrialist shipped iron ore from Cumbria, first via Chester, then into Runcorn. Apparently, some was carried in his own iron narrowboats. Again, expertly edited by Cath Turpin, this year’s Journal contains a wealth of illustrations, including previously unpublished photographs, many more in colour this time.  As always, a fascinating view of canal and river history.

Waterways Journal No.19, edited by Cath Turpin, softback, £7.99, is available from the shop at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port and other waterway outlets.  Or by mail order, at £9.99 via the Boat Museum Society's website, www.boatmuseumsociety.org.uk/publications for this and past volumes.