Rivulet 2: Bargees, barges and boatmen

Rivulet 2. Second in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

Part of the disappearing way of life on the waterways, that I talked about yesterday, was its terminology, which we started to learn.

Bargees were the men who drove narrowboats along canals. (It’s narrowboats on canals because they have to be narrow.)

Barges were the bigger boats that went along the wider rivers. But the men who who drove barges were called boatmen.

You mustn’t call boatmen bargees, they get offended.

All clear?

Boatman or bargee, it was often a hard life. One old guy in a pub in Stoke told us about his Granddad the bargee. As a kid, the guy used to go on a Saturday to help his Granddad. He’d ride the horses to the farrier to be shod. The horses walked so far they needed new horseshoes every week.

The Granddad transported loads of paper up the Trent and Mersey canal. At one point there was a tunnel over a mile long. There was no towpath through the tunnel, for the horses to walk along, so his Grandma would walk them around, while his Granddad ‘legged’ the barge through the tunnel. This meant lying on his back on top of the boat, pushing it along with his legs against the roof of the tunnel. For a mile.

We mentioned this story to Les Reid of Newark Heritage Barge (Les is an absolute mine of information about the history of shipping on the Trent) and he laughed a dismissive laugh. Pushing a narrowboat for a mile was nothing, he implied.

He told us about one apprentice boatman whose master used to make him pull a barge all the way down the Foss Dyke from Torksey to Lincoln. That’s trudging along the towpath with a rope around his middle, pulling a barge single-handed for 11 miles. Most people would have a horse do that, but this guy saved money by getting the lad to do it.

A photograph of an old black and white photo from an information board. Picture shows a rather fierce-looking couple, between them stands a horse, the man is holding it's bridle. Beside the woman, sitting on the ground, is a dog. Behind them is a narrowboat. The caption below it reads, 'A boatman and his family on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley, c1890-1900. Horses were used to draw the narrowboats, and couldtransport up to one hundred times more weight on water than on land. Image courtesy of Staffordhsire Arts and Museum Service.

This photo is from a canal-side info panel and shows a bargee, his wife and their narrowboat. The writer obviously didn’t talk to Les Reid about terminology…

The boatmen would live aboard the barge, with their whole family. The wife and the kids would all have jobs to do, and they’d all live and sleep in the small cabin at the end of the boat. It could get pretty crowded, so the older kids might get farmed off on other boatmen who didn’t have families, as apprentices. Sometimes they’d be treated kindly and like part of the family. Sometimes, as with the lad who was made to push a barge from Torksey to Lincoln, they were treated pretty harshly.

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