Memoirs of a Tring Canal Boat Builder
When I was about 15 years old I worked in an office which I hated it, so I left.  Then I had no job at all.  One day I was walking down the towpath kicking at the stones, when one of these flew up and hit a man on the shin!  This man turned out to be old Mr. Bushell - he was very cross with me and started to tell me off.  He asked me where I worked and when I told him that I had no job, he suggested that I should go and work for him, so that is how I became involved in canals and boat building.
Advertisement for Bushells Boat Builders showing 'Progress' on the canal.
I worked for Charlie and Joe Bushell, the brothers, whom we called by their first names, but the old man we had to call the Boss because he liked that.  He had been the boss, and so we had to fuss round him a bit and keep him happy.  On the whole they were pretty good to us.  There was no such thing as strikes or trouble of that sort, we just did our work which we were paid to do, and didn’t expect anything else.  But they were good to us in many ways - they gave us blocks of wood for the fire and things like that.

All In a Day’s Work

A typical day at Bushell’s Boatyard would start at 6 am, and in the winter it was very dark then.  We would go home to breakfast at 8 am, to a blazing fire, bacon and eggs, etc., and then we were reluctant to go back to work again, as we had to work in the snow and the ice with no protection whatever.  We liked to get into the blacksmith’s shop, it was hard work but we were warm in there because of the blacksmith’s fire.  Mostly though we were out in the open and it might be snowing or hailing and all we could do was work very hard to keep warm!  Essentially building boats was an outdoor job, and the comfort of the workers was not a consideration in those days.

When the building of a boat was started it was built on a platform (the stocks), and we would have to move these big elm bottoms about, 3 inches (7.6 cm) thick and over 7 feet (2 metres) long.  They were laid so that the ends hung over longer than necessary and they were cut to shape afterwards.  Carrying this wood around kept us warm, but it still was not very nice with rain and snow dripping down one’s neck, and it was impossible to do the work in gloves.

Dinner time was 12 until 1.00 pm.  Although we had so much timber to move about, there was very little machinery to help us.  We did have a bob-truck which was just two big cartwheels and an axle and a long beam of wood with a chain on the end of it.  We hooked the chain around a piece of timber, pulled down on the long shaft to lift it clear of the ground, and then ran with it!

The darker side of being a boat builder

The worst time was in the winter when it got dark at about 4 pm (there was no British Summer Time then).  Then we used to have some nasty jobs to do - we had to straighten bent nails for use again (they were very expensive then).  The problem was that we had to work two hours in darkness.  One thing we did was to make pointed pegs to fill the holes left in the boats where the plates had been removed.  We did this work inside by candlelight and by the light of flare-lamps.  These were made of a round container, with a point running down from it and a burner on the end.  We used to heat the end of the burner in the blacksmith’s forge and then turn the oil on and it used to flare up because it was coming down to a hot burner.  We used to stick candles between three nails driven through a piece of wood about the size of a book.

Another job we had to do on these dark evenings was to clean out the gas engine which drove the circular saw and the bandsaw.  We just used to creep about with the candles doing all the boring jobs and it was very miserable.  Sometimes we would go and do work in the boss’s house, anything just to kill the time.  We had to work until 12 noon on Saturdays, and we weren’t paid for any holidays at all, not even Christmas day.  I earned two pence (old money) more an hour than the other chaps because I painted castles and flowers on the boats.  When I left I was earning 1s 9d (8½p) per hour (our rises came in ha’pennies, never more, and sometimes I have even known of a farthing rise).  So when I was married and left there I was earning about £3 a week, and that was for about 65 hours.


Metal plates were put on the fore (front) ends of the boats to protect them from knocks and, in the winter, ice.  These plates were about as thick as a piece of cardboard, about 2 feet (60 cm) long and about 15 inches (38 cm) wide, and they were put on starting at the end nearest the stern (back), and then overlapping so that when they rubbed along they were not torn off.  This meant nailing one edge, and then nailing through two where they overlapped.  Underneath, to make it watertight we used to put ‘chalico’.  This was a mixture of horse manure and tar boiled for hours in a large cauldron like a witch’s cauldron.  We spread it all over the part of the boat that was going to be covered with plates and then on top of that we put a sheet of felt.  When we nailed the plates on, as we hit the nails with the hammer this chalico would squirt out all over our faces and then we had to wash in paraffin.

On top of the plates were guards, average 12 feet (3.5 metres) long, and they came round on the top edge of the boat and then the next one not quite so far, and the next one not so far as that, and they were nailed with huge spikes and they were ‘rubbing guards’.  At the stem (front) of the boat, there was a huge piece of wood for the planks to go into, and also a ‘stem bar’ which was a big length of iron that was ‘splayed out’ at the end.  This was done by heating it until it was white hot and then splayed with a big sledge hammer until it looked like a pancake.  This was nailed on to the top of the deck over and down the stem post and under the boat where it was splayed out again.  This bar graduated from about ½ inch (12 mm) thickness to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) where it took all the blows.

Not All Work and No Play

The men I worked with were all big strong men, and to relieve the boredom, or to compensate for the bad weather conditions, we amused ourselves by having contests to see who could pick up the heaviest piece of wood or something like that.  I was not very big, but like my father also, I had very strong arms, and could lift two 56 lb (25.4 kg) weights that we used to weigh the corn, right over my head.  During the summertime, seldom a day passed without someone going into the canal - pushed in I mean, not falling!  To get from the dockyard to the mill there was an obstruction (a chimney), and to get round there was a narrow ledge, one brick wide, but there was an iron rail to hold on to and swing round the chimney. We would catch hold of this iron bar and swing round onto the other side with no trouble at all.  However, one day one old chap slipped and he was hanging down on the bar with his feet just above the water. Of course, we did not help him (you did not do things like that), so we went and rapped his fingers until he fell into the canal! He swam across the canal to the towpath and went home; we didn’t see him again all day!

At the yard we kept an old punt which we used to go round the boats when we were working on them.  Well, there was this old hunchback chap at the yard (who taught me an awful lot about boats as he was a lovely workman) and he had to write the name on the end of a boat, so he had to go out on this punt to do it.  He didn’t like going in the punt.  He untied the punt to go round to the other side of the boat he was painting and it started to drift away.  He was hanging onto the boat with his hands and his feet were in the punt, which was getting further and further away.  He was shouting for help and although he was very old and a bit crippled, we still waited a little to see a bit of fiun.  We caught him just before he fell in.  He never went in the punt again!

They seemed to rely on me to do some things which other people wouldn’t do.  When we launched a boat - sideways down into the canal - it was held in the first place with chains round some big posts and it was on two big baulks of timber with a railway line down the top of each one so that it could slide down into the water when the chains were released.  If the chains were released and the boat went ‘chains and all’ into the water, the chains had to be recovered - so they said “Harry, go round the other side and lift those chains ofl”.  Well, the boat was there, waiting ready to go with nothing holding it.  Of course, I went round the other side, unhooked both chains and just as I was about to walk away the boat started to move.  I was on the canal side so I just grabbed the top of the boat and went down in the water with it.  It creates a terrific splash when 72 feet (22 metres) of boat hits the water sideways - in fact it had dug the towpath away where we launched these boats, as the water washed over the towpath and into the field behind.  My mates never expected to see me again, but I clung to the boat - it was just fun!

Overhaul Time

Although there was usually one boat on the stocks, we did have boats which came to be recaulked and repaired. We used to make sure the boats were waterproofed by caulking the gaps between the planks and where they were joined lengthwise. To do this we used ‘oakum’. The oakum was like a girl’s plait as it came off the ball and we could hammer it in the gaps and then coat the whole thing with pitch which we would make by boiling tar, We had an ordinary mop and a bucketful of pitch, and
we would give the boat a couple of coats and it would dry all hard and glossy.

The boat people stayed in a ‘change boat’ (one kept at the yard specially for this purpose). When the boat arrived at the yard for recaulking with the family aboard, the cabin would be absolutely alive with bed bugs which were nasty things - they looked like ladybirds. When the boat family moved into the change boat we closed all the apertures up in the cabin with wet sacks, then we put a tin full of brimstone in the stove, this sent off choking yellow poisonous fumes when it was burning. We used to set it alight by heating a lump of iron in the blacksmith’s fire and then lifting the wet sack on the hatch and dropped the hot iron into the tin of brimstone and then quickly dropping the wet sack back over the hatch. After a day and a night the cabin was swept out and a shovelful of dead bugs, mice and other creatures was disposed of. The boat people were really very, very clean, although people did not think so, but when they picked up a cargo there were more bugs in the cargo, so they did not stay free of them for long after stoving.

A Horse’s Life

The yard that I worked for was taken over from a yard that had all wide boats and they used to take all the hay and corn up to Paddington because at Paddington there was a big fleet of horses in stables and then they used to bring the manure from the stables back again - and that was all they did.  Anybody who took a boat up could leave their horse up there, have another one to bring the boat back and then pick their horse up the next time they went there, refreshed and well fed and looked after.  Unfortunately barge horses did get injured sometimes.  At each lock the towpath goes down at a sharp angle because the level of the canal drops, and when the horse was pulling the boat with a boatline, straining to get it out of the lock (once a barge was moving it was easy), the line very often snapped, and because the horse was pulling with all its might it ended up in the canal.  If you look at the side of the main canal, every so often you will see some shallow steps, about a yard wide, going down the side of the towpath into the water and these were put there specifically to get the horses out of the canal when they fell in.  These steps were built against each lock, as it was accepted that the horses fell in and however good the line was, it gradually got chafed in use and eventually broke.

The barge-horses used to have a food tin, like a nosebag, with a strap, and this tin would be painted like the barges with roses and other typical barge patterns, and the horse would feed as it was pulling the barge.  Along the traces on the horse’s harness, they would thread small knobs, like cotton reels, and each one was painted a different colour - everything they owned had to be painted in some way.  In the summer the horses had what looked like mittens put over their ears to keep the flies off.

One day I went down to fetch a boat with a horse that belonged to the miller next door (William Mead) and he sent one of his men with me.  This man was not familiar with horses or boats.  The boat was at the bottom of a very steep bank, about 5 or 6 feet (2 metres) deep, and I hooked the boatline on the boat and then on the horse.  I told this man to stand on the canalside of the horse and keep its head over towards the hedge.  I then got in the boat ready to steer it.  Well, this horse wasn’t used to boats and it pulled the slack line up that laid on the path and then, of course, it suddenly went tight.  The man was on the hedge side of the horse because he was frightened and when the horse felt the sudden tug of the line it threw its back feet round and went ‘wallop’ down the steep bank into the water on its back.  It was a beautiful, very big horse, and I had to get in the canal, unharness it and walk it up the canal until I got to a place where it was low enough at the bank to get it out.  They put it in a stable lined with straw and made specially warm (called the hospital) because it was shivering with cold.  They gave it brandy and bran mash, but it caught pneumonia, and it died the next day.  In those days a horse like that was worth about £400.

Boat building is not all plain sailing

We used to turn out narrowboats like sausages from a sausage machine!  There was a frame made of posts set in the ground, standing up about 20 inches (50 cm) from the ground and then there were big, hefty pieces of timber round it so that it was roughly the shape of the boat.  We laid elm planks, 3 inches (7 cm) thick and 15 inches (38 cm) wide, and more than the full width of the boat.  These elm bottoms were already cut and we got them from Easts at Berkhamsted but the planks that followed up came in the raw state with the bark round the edges, 14 inches (4.5 cm) thick, 14 inches (35.5 cm) wide and 30 feet (9 metres) long.  The details for making a boat are very complicated, but that was how we started off.

The narrow boat (or monkey boat) was the one that was mostly built and used, but we did build one boat which was twice the width of the normal boat, and it was called the Progress.  The designers said that it was the boat to beat all boats and they were going to have big fleets of them.  It was 14 feet (4.2 metres) wide instead of 7 feet (2.1 metres) and it had special decking over it with hatches and a big beam right down the centre of the boat, above the height of the boat, and tarpaulins laid over, so that it was like a ship really.  After we had built it, it was taken to a place called Hatton to open a new flight of locks.  The Duke of Kent was at Hatton and we had to go there and put seats out with the names of all the important people who were going down in the boat and lay a red carpet and make all the preparations.  We had a rehearsal and one of my bosses took the part of the Duke of Kent.  The next day was the real thing with champagne and everything, but we weren’t there that day so we did not have any champagne.  Unfortunately, the people who designed Progress did not take into account the fact that two boats of her size could not pass anywhere on the canal, so more like her were never built, and she ended her days as a mud boat on the River Thames.

At the yard we also built other boats.  We built a big tug during the war, which could pull as many as ten 100-ton barges behind it.  It was called Bess and it was so huge that we did not build it on a frame, but on the ground.  It was 72 feet (22 metres) long and 14 feet (4.2 metres) wide.  We had to build a half-section of it first, from fore to aft (lengthways), full size!  We built it with what we called ‘harpings’ which were much like outsize plaster laths (thin strips of wood), exactly as the finished boat would be, and this was then used to take measurements from as guides in building the actual boat.  This was because although narrow boats could be produced with ease as so many were made, something as unusual and large as this posed more of a problem.  When it was launched all the schoolchildren had half a day’s holiday to watch the launch and it just wallowed down in the mud at the bottom of the canal and all the schoolchildren hung on to a rope and helped to pull it out of the mud again.  As there were no engines or boilers in it at this stage the nose of the tug stuck up in the air, so sand was put in the nose to weight it down, and it was such a big boat that it took 20 tons of sand.  They had to bring the nose down to get the tug under the bridge to get it down onto the main canal.  It was towed along by horses and when they got to Winkwell they had to take the strips of wood ofi the sides and take the Swing Bridge off as well, to get the thing through.  Later, though, the engine and boiler were taken out and it was converted to diesel.

We also made Rothchild’s fishing punts - dozens of them.  They were just a flat boat and across the middle was a tank, and they used to put the fish they caught in this tank.  In the sides of this tank were holes so that the water from the reservoir filled the tank.  They used to catch perch, roach, pike and so on.  I used to go down with my old boss and row him round to catch pike, etc.  He used to trail his line behind the boat and every time he caught a fish I used to have to get on my bike and bring it up home to show to the rest of the chaps.

From Horse Power to the Engine

One day a boatman came to the yard with a butty boat and he wanted it altered into a motor boat.  We had to build another cabin on it for the engine and a chap came over from Holland to put the engine in.  I helped him to do it as he only had one arm.  I must explain that these engines went round at 300 rpm and they had a long lever that went right back to the steering compartment.  When you wanted to reverse the engine and propeller and stop the boat you slowed the engine down to its minimum revolutions and then pulled the lever and let it go.  Then hopefully the engine itself (not a gearbox) went round the other way.  Well, this Dutch engineer had been shown how to do this on shore, but had no proper lesson on the canal.  Well, he took this boat off with the new engine and when he got down to the bottom of the arm the main canal crossed it at right angles, with a concrete wall the other side.  He pulled the lever, but forgot to slow the engine first, so nothing happened at all and the boat shot straight across the main canal and hit a boat made of iron which was going along the main canal.  The impact dented the side of this boat right in so that it touched the other side, but if it had not been there he would have smashed right into the concrete wall and completely demolished his boat.  As it was we had to build another fore-end on it!  The boat people messed about with their engines, and they always had bits to spare when they had finished, but the engines always seemed to go - they were sturdy old engines.

There were steam engines first, they were lovely old engines - very quiet.  Then there were ‘semi-diesels’ which had to be pre-heated.  They had a bulb on them and this had to be heated up with a blow-lamp to start with and then it kept going with its own heat - they were very crude old things.  Then there were the more modem diesel engines and these started just like a car.

For many years there was a Crossley gas engine at Bushell’s yard and that drove all the machines (a bandsaw for cutting round comers and a circular saw).  It had a long belt to drive the circular saw which went through a hole in the side of the building that the engine was in and then went 30 feet (10.5 metres) down to the circular saw.  Most people used to put the belt on when the engine was stationary but that made the engine hard to turn to start, so I used to throw the belt on when the engine was running.  One day a ragged piece of the belt caught in my jumper and it took me through the hole: I was knocked and bruised, but not badly hurt.  Later electric motors were fitted individually to each machine and I used to do all the electrical work, this would have been in about 1920.  We had this big hand drill and everyone else was frightened of it, so I used to use it as I was used to electrical work.  One day I was on the top of a cabin on a boat drilling a hole through it and the drill caught in a nail or something like that - swung round - and threw me right off the top of the cabin into the water!  The drill broke off like a carrot!

Bulbourne Yard

The Bulbourne yard was the maintenance yard for the length of the canal from near Rugby to Bulls Bridge at Brentford, which was a long stretch.  They used to make lock gates, the ironwork for the lock gates and did all general maintenance on the canal itself.  When the lock gates were made (they weighed about 3 tons each), they were dropped into deep, narrow tanks full of creosote which would then soak right through the wood.  That is why lock gates never rot.  The huge piece of wood, usually oak, that went on top of the gate and overhung the towpath for about 15 feet (4.5 metres) was called the balance.  If the water on the top side of the gate was only one inch deeper than in the lock, then the gate could not be opened.  The boat people found a way of hooking their boatline on to the gate, then to the mast of the boat and then back to the gate, in such a way that when the horse started off the rope went through this sort of pulley system and opened the gates.  The boss of the Bulbourne Works lived in a house by the yard with a lovely garden.  One of their blacksmiths (his name was Buckingham), made a lily out of iron; it was a real work of art is it is difficult to beat iron out as thin as a lily leaf.  There was no welding then, so joining the tiny stems together just by heating the metal and then beating them together when they were white hot without breaking them off, really took some doing.  This lily still stands outside the house at Bulbourne now, and it was made about 40 years ago.  There were two or three blacksmiths at Bulbourne as there is a lot of ironwork in a lock.

Castles & Roses

Another job done from Bulbourne was the repairing of paddles, which lift up to let the water in and out of the locks, or into the side locks.  These were wound with a windlass which the boat people would stick through their broad belts (worn by both men and women), when they walked along ahead of the boats to get the lock ready.  When we built the boats, we had to fit the inside with all the furniture as well, and this would all be painted with the traditional castles and roses.  The boat people would not have accepted pictures of anything else, they always insisted on the traditional castles and roses.  I learned by watching the older men do these pictures and copying what they did, and then I took it over and did that sort of thing and the sign writing on the boats.

I did quite a lot of work in the Bulbourne yard, including painting names on boats - names like Three Brothers, The Roger, and Golden Spray, which was the loveliest boat we ever built. We built it for Tooveys of Kings Langley, Com Merchants, and it was built and painted as well as any boat could be. I painted the name ‘T.W. Toovey, Kings Langley’, all in gold leaf The Golden Spray was not a narrow boat, however, it was 14 feet (4.26 metres) wide instead of 7 feet (2.13 metres) wide. There were two boats, the Golden Spray and the Langley, and they were the pride of the canal. I don’t know what happened to them - I suppose they either fell to pieces or became mud boats on the river (that was where a lot of boats ended up).
The board for’ard of the cabin proudly proclaims the Langley to be a product of Bushell Brother’s,
Tring Dockyard, where she is pictured.  Bushell’s received a repeat order in 1922, which resulted in the ‘Golden Spray’. Both were wide boats (11ft beam).
The cabin top we used to grain and down the centre we would paint a strip about 12 inches (30 cm) wide with diamonds - always the same colours - blue, yellow, green, white and red, repeated all the way along. Inside the cabin the whole idea was to ‘grain’ it. Everything had a coat of ochre colour, then you add raw sienna very thin and then after a moment or two you would mark graining on with a comb. The panels which were not grained had pictures on. In fact I have even painted traditional patterns on cabin floors!

Boat Life

Some of the boat people kept cats and dogs. Between the fore cabin and the living cabin at the rear of the boat, there was the ‘stowage’ where the cargo was put.  In one comer would be the dog’s kennel, boarded round so that the cargo could not fall on it, and when the boat was empty the dog would have the run of the stowage, all the way along the boat.  In the wet weather cloths would be put over planks, hanging down over the side of the boat, to keep the cargo dry, and it was really cosy in there.  When the boat was travelling, sometimes the dog would get off the boat and run along to the next lock and wait for the boat to come along again.  Sometimes the dog would sit on the cabin top, but if it did, they would put a cord or a leather strap round its collar to stop it if it fell down the side - instead of going into the canal it hung down the side on its strap until they could pull it back again.  They kept the dogs as pets mainly, although a dog might catch an occasional rat!

Inside the boats there was no sanitation, except maybe a chamber pot which would be emptied straight over the side anyway!  For washing they had a bowl (metal and traditionally painted), which would hold about 1½ gallons (7 litres) and this would be used for everything else as well, such as peeling the potatoes!  When this was not in use it would be hung up in the cabin, so the bottom of it was decorated as well and the inside of it was plain white.

They were also very proud of their china which they would use to decorate the cabin.  These plates were made of real bone china and they looked just like lace, with holes right through them.  The ‘old’ boat people - the women - wore lace hats, and the lace trailed down their backs - well, it was crochet, they did it themselves.

Then there were gangplanks: along the length of the boat were about four beams which went across the boat (thwartwise we called it), and dropped into slots on the inside of the boat.  They had stands dropped through these slots in the beam and they had diamonds and fancy patterns painted on as well.  Over the top of those from the deckboard at the fore end (the boat people called it a ‘cratch’), this gangplank, about 11 inches (28 cm) wide and about 1½ inches (4 cm) thick, came from a slot in the cratch, cut so that it fitted round the mast, (which was also decorated with diamonds), and then along from stand to stand until it curved down to the cabin top and ended up on the cabin block (a block about 10 inches (25 cm) deep and about 12 inches (30 cm) wide and 3 inches (7.5 cm) thick which stood on the end of the cabin).  This block had castles and landscapes painted on it, facing the position of the cabin.

Along the side of the boat were waterproof cloths, held down with a strip all the way round the side of the boat.  This strip of wood is called the gunwale.  These sidecloths were about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and we used to oil them to keep them supple.  They had cords on one side and rings on the other.  The cord went over the top of the gangplank and down through the cloth on the other side so the sidecloths were pulled up, over the side of the boat for 2 feet (60 cm), tight over the top of the gangplanks.  Over the top of these were the topcloths.  They went on the gangplanks and dropped down over the sidecloths making the whole thing perfectly watertight.  This was particularly necessary with coal and wheat as they were liable to spontaneous combustion if they got wet.

Ovaltine Boats

The Ovaltine Company had six pairs of boats - six motor boats and six butty boats.  They travelled in pairs and it would take a week for one pair to reach the collieries in the north as their average speed was not more than four miles an hour.  As there were six pairs of boats, the coal was delivered more or less continuously to the Ovaltine factory as the boats plied back and forth.  The Ovaltine were very proud of their boats and put no limit on money spent on the decoration of the boats so long as they looked nicer than other people’s.

They also chose their boat people for cleanliness and nice manners, as the boats acted as an advertisement for the company.  I used to put 16 bunches of flowers and 14 castles on a pair of Ovaltine boats, and diamonds galore, plus practically anything that the boat people asked for.  I also used to write ‘Ovaltine’ in letters about 10 inches (25 cm) high along the cabin side, exactly as it is written on the Ovaltine tin.  It was written in orange on dark blue.  Underneath it had ‘A Wander & Co Ltd, Manufacturing Chemists, Kings Langley’.

Tugs Take Over From Legs

At Blisworth Tunnel, which is a mile and a quarter long, they used to ‘leg’ the boats through, but then we built the tugs.  There used to be perhaps half a dozen boats or pairs of boats at one end of the tunnel.  The horses and crew would go over the top and just one man would stay on the boat.  The tugs, Pilot and Hasty were the names of two of them, were built so that they were only 2 or 3 inches (7.5 cm) narrower than the tunnel itself so that they could not possibly go off course.  They would hook about half-a-dozen of the boats behind and the tug driver would get his engine revving at the right speed and then step off it and let it go on through the tunnel with no one at all on board.  At the other end his mate would be ready waiting to step on to the tug and bring it to a halt when it appeared.

World War II

During the war I saw hundreds of ‘dumb’ boats - these had no accommodation at all, not even a cabin.  They were used in the war effort for carrying vital supplies, and we used to caulk them and coat them with tar.

The biggest boat we built, (apart from the tug), was called the Tiny, and the first load it had was a load of 12 inches (30 cm) naval shells, all stacked up like milk chums!  Also during the war we converted the float from a seaplane into a boat and put an engine in it!  We did all sorts of jobs like that during the war.

The Wheels Take Over

As the boats became used less we started building lorries, first as a side-line, but it grew in importance.  We also painted them and put the advertisements on them.  Finally, Bushell’s Boatyard closed down simply because the two bosses had reached retiring age, in about 1952.