Up until the social reformer George Smith published his ground-breaking work Our Canal Population on the living conditions of bargees, the majority of published works dealt with the mechanics, construction and running of canals in the U.K. The canal people, as in many Victorian industrial settings, were tools to facilitate the advancement of industry. By the time Smith first published his work in 1875, the canals were losing out to the railways in all respects. Canal work was hard, with poor returns. The full title of his work was: Our Canal Population : the sad condition of women and children, with remedy etc. He followed this work with Canal Adventures by Moonlight being a further account of the people and families he met.
Unsurprisingly, the social changes he looked for were delayed and diluted by the rich and powerful of the day, who would have to meet the costs of reform. However, the itinerant nature of these families caught the imagination of the writers of children’s books. A steady flow of moralistic tales were produced and sold. However, the cost of these books meant that the target market was the educated classes. Invariably the plots revolved around the man being violent, dishevelled, and often the evils of drink were not left out of the story. The women and children suffered through undernourishment, disease and beatings. Death would be a common theme as would converting the miscreants to good Christians. Maybe, a wealthy female benefactor (or child of) would appear in the story to ‘save’ a child from the horrors of the barges. Over There, a Story of Canal Life by F C Fanshawe was an early story typical of the time. The cover sums the story up and the title “Over There” refers to the afterlife.
Other titles include: The Boatman’s Daughter (little Nelly helped by Sir George and Lady Melville); The Water Waifs (Babs gets saved by a devout Christian doctor); Old Lock Farm (fine illustrations of canal life and a moral on every other page); Tom the Boater (death, violence, gin, and a kindly doctor): Water Gipsies (title referring to the common description of canal families and a plot with a death on the first few pages); Rob Rat (the final pages deal with the pleasure of lying in the old churchyard).
By the end of The First World War, children’s fictional writing about canals and canal life had declined. Prior to this time, the waterways had seen a small amount of leisure traffic and a few guides existed to advise those willing to venture onto the canals and rivers. George Westall published his guide Inland Cruising on the Rivers and Canals of England and Wales in 1908. This volume included maps, charts, toll advice and itineraries but the recommended mode of transport was the small motor boat. During the war, it now seems strange that in 1916, P Bonthron published My Holidays on Inland Waterways 2,000 Miles Cruising by Motor-Boat and Pleasure Skiff Round the Canals and Rivers of Great Britain. Clearly a popular work, it was reprinted in 1917 and again in 1919. After the war, there was an increasing interest in spending leisure time on the canals, and books appeared like Herbert Smith’s Through The Kennet and Avon Canal by Motor Boat (1929).
In contrast, two important works from the Second World War are Emma Smith’s Maidens’ Trip and Susan Woolfitt’s Idle Women. Maidens’ Trip is an autobiographical work describes the life of three 18 year old girls working canal boats between London and Birmingham. First published in 1948, it was republished in several forms, including being abridged as a children’s book. As a result the styles of the covers are quite varied. Idle women is also about Women’s voluntary work on the canals, written in 1947.
Children’s fictional work relating to Canals saw a significant increase after The Second World War. In 1948, saw the publication of Susan Woolfitt’s Escape to Adventure: two children escape from the police and hide on a canal boat. The owner takes them on an adventure along the canals of England. This is a far cry from the Victorian moral stories. A more sedate story is The Cruise of The Maiden Castle also published in 1948, where children have a holiday cruise…with adventures. The Bodley Head edition is beautifully illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe. Bruce Carter took a more historical approach with Gunpowder Tunnel published in 1955: the story is based on the building of the Sapperton Tunnel in 1789.
By the 1960’s there were many children’s books published which were based on the canals, often by well-known authors and for different age groups. For example, Helen Cresswell wrote The Barge Children for younger readers, well-illustrated by Lynette Hemmant; Beatrice Lawrence wrote Curlew on The Cut; Hilden Boden released The Canal House and Denys Watkins-Pitchford (B.B.) wrote the now scarce Wandering Wind.
For older readers, the plots could be quite dark. Ghost in the Water by Edward Chitham published in 1973, is set close to the canals of the Black Country and deals with two children investigating an apparent suicide that had happened in 1860. John Toft wrote The Bargees in 1969 but set the story in the 1920’s and is essentially a tragedy which is hinted at in the stylised cover by John Holder. Still Waters by Margaret Cornish is a selection of short stories set on and around canals.
Other titles (and maps) relating to canals and the inland waterways are available. Please email for details of books and maps which are in stock. firstname.lastname@example.org