View Full Version : bargemen

04-02-2008, 5:45 PM
Searching for Thomas Gray [a waterman, born 1824] I have now found out that his father [John Gray born 1792] was a "bargeman" on the Chesterfield & Trent Canal. Thomas Gray was born at Drakeholes [Notts]. Could anyone tell me would John Gray & his family have lived on board his barge or would he possibly have had a land base ? Drakeholes is a very small hamlet but there appears to be two identical "hovels", now derelict & covered in ivy from the time when John Gray was a bargeman adjacent to the mouth of the tunnel at Drakeholes. Could a bargeman & his family have lived in one of these? They are extremely small [single story] but I cannot imagine what other use they might have had. Three children of John Gray were baptised [on different dates] at the nearest parish church at Everton over an 11 year period.

Alan Welsford
04-02-2008, 8:38 PM
Could anyone tell me would John Gray & his family have lived on board his barge or would he possibly have had a land base ?
Hi there, I don't know much about the Chesterfield canal in particular, but do have a fair background knowledge on canals in general.

So far as I can see, much of that canal is classed as what's called "narrow", which means it can only be traversed by the traditional canal "narrow boat", which is only 7 feet across, (but around 70 feet long). It does have wider locks in its lower reaches that could be navigated by a wider boat, but their limit of navigation appears to be around Retford, and they certainly could not continue to Chesterfield. (Strictly on canals only the wider beamed boats are known as barges, and the name should not be applied to the narrower 7 foot beam boats).

My understanding, for narrow boats at least, is that for the period between the building of the canals and the coming of the railways, working on the boats was a relatively well paid occupation. The income was enough that families could rent canalside properties, and only the man of the house got involved in working the boats.

The canals revolutionised life - the price of coal in some towns is supposed to have halved, after it could be got there by water. However their heyday was very short once the railways were built. You can take 5 days or more to get 25 tons of coal from the midlands to the south by water, or you can do it in a few hours, with a long train with 10 or more tons in each wagon.

At this point the wages for working on canals were cut drastically, and this is the time men were forced to give up land based accommodation, and move their families into those little box cabins on the back of the boat, (these are typically no more than 9 feet long, and considerably narrower internally than the 7 foot width of the boat).

So from around the 1840s, (depending on area), we got the situation of whole families aboard, and if you look at boatman's families in censuses, (and I don't think they were captured that often), then the children are born at whatever place they happened to be tied up when the mother gave birth.

Often a family would work a pair of boats together, giving them two 9 foot by 7 foot cabins instead of one, (and the double income for tonnage carried). Don't ask me how they fitted them all in, all I know is that right up until the 1960s, there were some big families in just two boats.

Frankly it made no economic sense to carry on commercial traffic in narrow boats, which could never carry more than around 25 tons. The fact that it did so up until the 1960s, under the auspices of the then nationalised British Waterways, was mostly to do with funny accounting.

It is possible, on the waterway you have listed, which leads into the Trent, that some of the barge (wide beam) traffic was more short-haul, and maybe people didn't stay on the boats at night. As I say it's not one of the canals I know.