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The Canal People by Richard Tann-Watson

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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.

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