Archive for May 2017 - The Erewash Museum Tue, 23 May 2017 02:03:09 +0100 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb The Canal People by Richard Tann-Watson With the summer fast approaching, people are taking to the canals once more, either to use the towpaths for various activities, or even hiring a boat and taking a holiday on the canals. And then, of course, you can’t forget the people who live on the canal all year round. Many people see this as the idyllic life style. A house which can go anywhere (as long as there’s a navigable body of water) seems like a good idea, and can be a lot of fun. However, that was far from the case for the people who first lived on the canals, the “Canal people” as they were known.

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For many of these people, the boats and barges weren’t nice, cosy, comfortable places to live. It was a cramped, crowded, harsh environment, living in the same space they worked. For most people today, there are one or two people living in a single boat, and they have the entire boat to themselves. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there would be an entire family living in just a cabin, with the majority of the boat given over to storage for the goods being transported (often coal, particularly in mining areas such as the Erewash). And a family could include two parents, with up to four children, so there wouldn’t have been much room at all.

As well as somewhere to sleep, cook, and eat, the cabin also provided storage for the gear used to take care of animals, in particular the horses which all canal people owned. The horse was a necessity for those trying to transport goods down a canal, as they needed some way of moving the boat. For most of the time the canals were operational, there was no engine. The steam engine was invented in the early 19th century, but the mechanisms needed were too big, bulky, and heavy to fit onto a canal boat. So they used horses to tow the boat. That is the reason why towpath’s exist, as well as where their name comes from. Towpath: literally the path used (by the horses) to tow the boats.

Because they were constantly on the move, the canal people didn’t make many friends amongst the normal people, who actively avoided them, seeing them the same way the saw gypsies and other travellers. However, there are examples of the two societies working together. According to the BBC, there was an outbreak of cholera around Braunstone, in Nottinghamshire, amongst the canal people, spread by dirty canal water. Records indicate there were 70 cases, and 19 deaths, just in the one town. However, several houses were converted into temporary hospitals for the canal people, with both they and the residents of Braunstone working together.

Another problem with not staying in one place was schooling. With so many children on the boats, there were many who missed out on the education they needed. After it became a legal requirement that every child needed to go school, this became a big issue. In fact, to get around this, it seems that many children of the canal turned up to school in the morning, to get the attendance mark, then went back to the boat and they carried on their journeys to deliver their cargo.

So next time you go out on the canal, whether it be on a pleasure jaunt or not, take a moment to remember and pay your respects to the families who used to live and work on the canals. The families who kept the canals operating. The working families who are the reasons the canals existed in the first place. For without them, and the hard conditions they lived in, the canals would not have been a viable enterprise, and we would have missed out on a large amount of our modern relaxation. So thank the society of the canal people. Even though our ancestors avoided them, we owe them a lot.

Read more]]> (musadmin) At The Museum Tue, 09 May 2017 14:21:55 +0100
May day by Richard Tann-Watson So soon after Easter this year, this weekend was another long weekend, the May Day bank holiday. For many of us, it’s just another day off, and a much-welcome break. However most people never ask why we celebrate 1st May. It isn’t a big religious holiday like most of the others, and it doesn’t seem to be a particularly significant date in the modern calendar. However, it was very important in the past. Whilst, these days, we don’t consider summer to start until 21st June, the old first day of summer was May Day.


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Because of this, there were many celebrations and ceremonies which took place at this time of year, many of which still exist today. In some places, wells are dressed out in flowers, although most of the Derbyshire well dressings today take place later in the year, closer to what used to be known as Midsummer (as in the title of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream) around 21st June. No-one really knows the purpose of well dressings, although it is believed to come from a Pagan tradition of making sacrifices to the water Gods to ensure a continued supply throughout the next year.

One tradition which is still observed on May Day is that of dancing the sun up. Before sunrise on 1st May (regardless of whether or not the bank holiday falls on that date or not), Morris sides all across country climb to high places and dance until the sun comes up. This is for two reasons. The first is captured in the traditional song which someone from the side I dance with always sings as the sun comes up: Hal an tow. The chorus contains the lines:

‘We were up

Long before the day-o

To welcome in the summer

To welcome in the May-o’.

The dances aren’t just to welcome in the summer, though. Traditionally, they have a much more important reason: if the Morris dancers don’t dance the sun up on 1st May, the sun won’t come up, and there won’t be any summer! Even though almost no-one believes this today, the tradition still continues (and, for as long as I’ve been dancing, there has always been at least some sun shining, even on the wettest May Days, so it obviously works).

Sadly, the number of sides who are able to maintain this tradition is on the decline. There are fewer people willing to dance the Morris, and as the members get older, they are less willing and able to dance, and with fewer dancers, it gets harder for the Morris sides to survive. However, despite the lack of a full side, there are still people who are trying to keep the tradition alive in Packington, in North West Leicestershire, just a few miles from the Erewash. Every year Packington Morris Men have welcomed the summer at the top of Breedon Hill. This weekend, the only difference will be that the dancing will be done by members of different sides, rather than entirely Packington men. And so the tradition survives. At least for a while longer.

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Read more]]> (musadmin) At The Museum Tue, 02 May 2017 12:16:01 +0100