I lately took
to my natural enemy the water (but in its placidest
condition), and, scorning to leave the country in
which I was born and in which I hope to die, I
glided for days and nights upon the silent byways
of our inland canals; giving myself up without reserve
to the unrestrained companionship of bargemen;
accommodating my vast bulk to the confined
space afforded by the crowded cabin of a Grand
Junction Canal Company's fly-boat.
Having obtained the very readily accorded consent, advice, and assistance of the chairman of that Company, with the active and valuable co-operation of its obliging manager; one excessively wet evening in the month of August of the present year, I placed myself in a cab by the side of a friend and a large meat-pie, who were to attend me on the journey, and drove direct to the Company's offices in the City Road. There was a pleasing novelty in the earliest commencement of the voyage. Ordinary tourists start from wharves near the Custom House, or Saint Katherine's Docks; old-fashioned inn-yards, or White Horse Cellars; large and noisy railway stations; and some from their own stables, with a dog-cart and a fast-trotting mare. I was an extraordinary tourist, and my point of starting was a basin. The cabman who was hired for the occasion seemed to be greatly astonished at the direction of his drive. He knew I meant travelling by the portmanteau, the hamper, and the carpet-bag; and many as were the travellers whom he had driven in his time to meet conveyances, he had never been ordered before to a barge-wharf by the side of a basin, since he first bad the pleasure of wearing a badge.
Goods, bales, boxes, casks, and cases were the uniform rule at the Company's station, and passengers a startling and once in half-a-century exception. As we entered the large gas-lighted, roof-covered yard, amongst a group of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, and Lancashire bargemen, dressed in their short fustian trousers, heavy boots, red plush jackets, waistcoats with pearl buttons and fustian sleeves, and gay silk handkerchiefs slung loosely round their necks, we were looked upon as unwarrantable intruders, until received and conducted to our bounding bark by the attentive manager. We threaded our way between waggons, horses, cranes, bales, and men, until we stood before the black pool of water that ran up from the basin under the Company's buildings. Here upon its inky bosom was the long thin form of the fly-boat Stourport, commanded by Captain Randle, in which it had been arranged we should make our journey on the canals as far as Birmingham, or even beyond that town if we felt so disposed. The captain and his crew, consisting of two men and a youth, were prepared for our arrival, and we found a good allowance of straw in the hold, and a very light cargo of goods on board-thanks to the vigilant care of the manager. It was past midnight when we took our places in the straw - my travelling friend, whom I shall call Cuddy, myself, the slender luggage, and the great meat-pie-and were poled out of the Company's wharf into the broad basin by two of Captain Randle's boatmen, while the captain steered and the third member of the crew went overland with the horse to meet the Stourport on the- towing path of the Regent's Canal, at the further side of the Islington tunnel.
It will, perhaps, be proper at this point to describe our craft, not that she appeared anything but a shapeless mass by the slender light of a cloudy night (the rain had ceased), but our position and prospects will be rendered clearer by anticipating the knowledge that we gained in the morning.
The Stourport may be taken as a fair specimen of the fly-boats which are now employed in the carrying trade upon the canals that intersect England in every direction, joining each other; and covering a length of nearly two thousand five hundred miles. For the conveyance of heavy goods that do not require a rapid transit, these boats still maintain, and are always likely to maintain, their position, unaffected by railway competition; and it has been demonstrated that with the application of equal forces, canal carriage will move at the rate of two and a-half miles an hour - (the average speed of the fly-boats) - a weight nearly four times as great as railway carriage, and more than three times as great as turnpike-road carriage. These fly-boats belong to various individuals, firms, and companies scattered throughout the country; the largest owners being my worthy hosts, the Grand Junction Canal Company, who, in addition to being extensive canal proprietors, are also active carriers.
The length of the Stourport from stem to stern is about twenty yards; its breadth eight feet; and its depth nearly five feet. At intervals, along the centre of the hold, are upright poles and wedges, rising to a height of full five feet above the side edge of the boat; being a little higher in the middle than near the stem and stern. Along the tops of these poles are laid several planks which join each other, forming a slightly bent bow over the whole length of the hold. This framework is covered with a thick black tarpaulin passed over the horizontal planks, fastened tightly near the edges of the boat, and kept down by ropes, running across at intervals, like hoops, from one end to the other. An open space is left near the centre of the hold, through which the boatmen descend and ascend when any goods require landing. Here it was, under cover of this gipsy-like tent, that our ample bed of straw was spread.
At the extreme head of the boat, beyond this timber and tarpaulin structure, is a heart-shaped platform, large enough to stand upon; and, like the boat generally, strongly constructed, to be defended from the constant concussions against the lockgates, and the constant wear and tear caused by friction against the lock-walls. At the stern of the boat is the smallest conceivable cabin, in which the four men - captain and crew - contrive to sleep, to live, and to cook. It runs up shelvingly from the sides of the boat to nearly the height of the tarpaulin's back-bone; and is covered with a flat deck; making it like a box. As you stand up in the little cabin doorway - which runs in a short distance, leaving part of this deck on each side of you - you can place your elbows comfortably on the top, or drop a coal down into the cabin-fire through the chimney, which rises to the height of two feet, close to the left; side of your nose. Between the cabin-door, and the small, raised, fan-shaped platform, upon which stand the steersman and the tiller, there is a little passage, across the boat, so narrow that it looks like a plank ribbon. This completes the size and outline of the Stourport, Captain Randle, which, in every important respect, is a model of its sister fly-boats. Seen at some little distance, from a bridge, as they glide slowly and silently along the waters, these boats look very like the pictures of attenuated hippopotami floating down the African rivers.
We glide and bump, and bump and glide away from the lofty, hollow buildings of the Company, amidst the sound of echoing men's voices, and the splashing of poles in the water; slowly past the wharves, and factories, and tile and whitening stores that line the sides of the basin; plenty of time being allowed for observation, as our pace is very slow-as it will be all through the journey; for we have gone at one bound a century back in the history of conveyance, and must be satisfied with an uniform and almost imperceptible rate of from two to two and a-half miles an hour. Our progress is the result of the poling of the two boatmen who stand on the top of the tarpaulin structure; upon the ridge of the boards which continually oscillate over the water. Here - with a pole several yards long, and of the thickness of a child's arm, with a hook and spike at the end, which is planted in the bed of the canal, and with the other end fixed under the arm - the boatman leans over the water, at a very dangerous angle, and impels the Stourport with its precious cargo, by a strong muscular walking-pressure of the feet upon the tarpaulin's back-bone.
About one o'clock in the morning we reached the Islington tunnel, and here we are enlightened as to another process of barge propulsion, called legging. A couple of strong thick boards, very like in shape to tailors' sleeve-boards, but twice the size, are hooked on to places formed on each side of the barge, near the head, from which they project like two raised oars. On these two narrow, insecure platforms, these two venturesome boatmen lie on their backs, holding on by grasping the board underneath, and with their legs, up to the waist, hanging over the water. A lantern, placed at the head of the barge, serves to light the operation, which consists in moving the Stourport through the black tunnel, by a measured side-step against the slimy, glistening walls j the right foot is first planted in a half-slanting direction, and the left foot is constantly brought over with a sweep to take the vacated place, until the right can recover its footing; like the operation known as "hands over" by young ladies who play upon the piano in a showy and gymnastic manner. The Stourport, steered by its commander, Captain Randle, walks through the tunnel in the dead of the night, by the aid of its four stout legs, and its four heavily hobnailed boots, that make a full echoing sound upon the walls like the measured clapping of hands, but disturb not the sleeping inmates of houses and kitchens under which they pass; many of whom, perhaps, are utterly ignorant of the black and barge-loaded Styx that flows beneath them.
We emerge from the tunnel, at last, and tackle to our horse. Our progress is then slow and steady, between the silent houses of Camden Town; past the anything but silent railway carrying establishment of the Messrs. Pickford; round the outskirts of the Regent's Park; under the overhanging trees of the Zoological Gardens; and through Saint John's Wood, to the termination of the Regent's Canal, and the commencement of the Grand J unction Canal, near the Harrow Road, at Paddington., About this time my friend and companion, Cuddy, who is remarkable for an appetite that requires satisfying at the most extraordinary times and seasons, could be restrained no longer from attacking the great meat-pie. A large watchman's lantern was handed down the hold; and, by its rather dim light, at exactly two A.M., the frugal meal began. The picture formed was of a mixed character; the pie, a bottle, and the grouping being suggestive of Teniers, ,while the lantern-light, and its effects, were decidedly Rembrandtish. The picture struck the astonished gaze of a Paddington lock-keeper, who had been man and boy at that lock for five and twenty years, and who had never seen anything like it in the hold of a fly-barge - always devoted to bales, boxes, and casks - during the whole course of his long experience. He gazed in silence, and went away while the lock was filling with water, only to return and to indulge in another gaze. No-one connected with the boat volunteered to enlighten him as to the cause of the very unusual spectacle; and, after a time, which the junction of the two locks allowed him for rumination, he came up to the side of the boat, close to the opening in the tarpaulin, and delivered himself of a few words to myself and Cuddy. It may be that he had been solacing the solitude of his hut with something of a comforting nature, and had issued with an over-developed sense of dignity and authority. It may be that his temper was a little soured by seeing the bottle, and receiving no invitation from the eccentric passengers and owners to partake of its contents. Anyway, his tone was thick, and his meaning unfriendly.
"I don't know who you are, an' I don't know who you may be," he began; "you may be all right, and you may not; but I'm here to do my duty."
Cuddy explained to him the very confined limits of that duty, which consisted in opening and shutting the lock-gates, and seeing that no one threw dead dogs or cats in the water, to obstruct the channel. This remark had an irritating effect.
"Sir," he resumed, addressing himself particularly to-Cuddy, who maddened him by drinking out of the bottle, "I don't know who you are, an' I don't know who you may be, but I know my duty; if I didn't, I hadn't ought to be here."
Something called him away at this point, for a. moment; but he returned immediately to the attack.
"I see a party in the barge," he resumed, "and how do I know who they are?"
"How, indeed?" replied Cuddy.
"Very well; I know my duty. I don't know who you may be--"
Our barge had, by this time, cleared the locks, and the argumentative, but language-limited lockkeeper was left behind upon a brickwork promontory, struggling with his frozen eloquence, and with many conflicting emotions. He probably thought that Captain Randle was harbouring visitors without the knowledge of the Company; or that a secret mission of observance, a surveying expedition, or a pleasure-party of eccentric directors was boating on the canal; and, while he was anxious to assert his official existence, and to show himself in the eyes of the great unknown as a. highly vigilant and meritorious officer, he was mad with curiosity to know the meaning of the unusual group in the hold of the Stourport; and careful not to say anything that might be offensive to the ears of probable authority, travelling in disguise. No one had the charity to enlighten his ignorance, and he was left to pass the short remainder of the night, tossing uneasily upon his couch under the heavy load of a deep, dark mystery.
Before we leave the Regent's Canal, and join the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal, to proceed in the direction of Uxbridge, we are received in the gauging-house of the Grand Junction Company, and the weight of luggage which we carry on board is measured by a barometer, which is dipped in the canal close to the sides of the vessel, fore and aft, and the results entered in a book, from which we are rated. This necessary examination is made in the interest of canal proprietors at every junction where a barge passes from one property to another. The Grand Junction Company charge tolls to their own barges, the same as to others, the accounts of the carrying trade, and the canal trade, being kept distinct. This ordeal concluded, we are fairly launched upon the inland canals, and our regular round of canal life begins. In front of us is our butty-barge (butty being a Staffordshire term for foreman), destined to be our companion through the journey, and undertake the duty of sending a man in advance with a key, to get the water prepared in the locks. This is done by the driver of the horse, and is no inconsiderable task, when we know that there are nearly a hundred locks upon the Grand Junction property. The barges of all the large proprietors travel in tandem-pairs and the task of lock-opening falls to the lot of the foremost barge. Each boat has a captain and three men, who work in lengths, or distances, of from six to ten miles; one man steering while the other drives, and attends to the locks; the other two sleeping or resting until their turns come to work the boat. The captain is responsible to the Company for the barge and the goods; and he receives a certain fixed payment in pounds sterling for the voyage. The crew of three men is employed, paid, and fed by the captain. The victualling of the vessel consists in shipping a sack of potatoes, a quantity of inferior tea, and about fifty pounds of meat at the beginning of the voyage; while large loaves of bread, weighing upwards of eight pounds, are got at certain places on the line of canal. If our pace is slow, it has the advantage of being incessant; for night or day we never stop, but keep on the even tenor of two and a-half miles an hour, except when, for about two minutes, we are delayed at each lock.
By degrees the novelty of our situation subsides a little, and we settle down for a few hours upon our straw bed. Cuddy is restless; and, having the weight of much historical information concerning canals upon his mind, which he has hastily crammed from cyclopaedias, and such books, in anticipation of our journey, he suddenly finds it necessary that he should communicate to me an account of early Chinese, Assyrian, and Roman claims to the introduction and improvement of this very useful, agreeable, and economical mode of conveyance. Finding that I do not feel a proper and intelligent interest in the early origin and struggles of canals; that I do not care how the Chinese dug them; what the Egyptians thought of them, or what the early Greeks called them; knowing that I am familiar with every step in the noble history of the energetic, single-minded Duke of Bridgewater, and his worthy engineer and companion, Brindley, and all they did for canal extension in England, - Cuddy (who is not a bore, or he would not have been invited to join me on this voyage) changes his ground. Leaving me to wallow in the ignorance which I seem to covet, he appeals with more chance of success to the weakest point about me - my imagination. As a basis of operation, he explains in a popular manner the nature and construction of canal-locks. He tells me how our frail bark, the Stourport, will be admitted into a deep, narrow, oblong, brick well; and how, as soon as we are in the dreadful trap, two massive iron-bound timber gates will close behind us in such a manner that the more the pressure is increased from behind, the tighter will they bind themselves together. Then he draws a fearfully vivid picture of the two gates in front of us - a single, slender barrier, that alone opposes the advance of an ocean - a hundred thousand tons of water forty feet above our heads, fretting to be at us, like a bear looking down from his pole upon the tender children outside his pit. Cuddy candidly admits that this barrier is secured by powerful and well-tried machinery; but qualifies the admission by his description of the persons who are supposed to regulate the action of this machinery. He puts it to me, whether I ought to feel secure in resting where I am, while a feeble old man from the lock-house totters out of his bed in the dead of night, with a glimmering lantern in one hand, and the fatal lock-key in the other, groping his way to the awful barrier; or while the overworked, drowsy, and perhaps headstrong boy, who travels along the towing-path with the horse, rushes at the fearful flood-gates to play with the deluge. What can I expect, but to be dashed backward and forward in a savage maelstrom; or hurled, like a straw, with trees, haystacks, cows, and farmhouses, over the distant meadows?
Very true, indeed, Cuddy, very true, indeed - but do not, for mercy's sake--be so--shocking- Ly--graph-ic. Sleep came at last. A fitful, feverish sleep. A very inferior balm, and nothing like great Nature's second course.
It had lasted, perhaps, an hour, when it was abruptly broken by a violent bump, which caused the devoted Stourport to tremble from stem to stern. Cuddy awoke, and sat Upright; while I started instantly upon my legs. Everything was pitch-black. Not a gleam of light was visible. The rushing, hissing, sound of bursting waters was all I heard. I realized our position in a moment; we had settled down in the bed of a lock, and the canal-flood had already closed over our heads. I flew to the spot where there had been an opening in the tarpaulin before we went to sleep, and tore it open. The moon was shining dimly in the sky, for it was now near daybreak. Our bark was certainly in the bed of a lock, rising gradually to the upper level close to the brick wall. The water was pouring in at the lock-gates; and the bump that had aroused us was the result of a more than usually violent concussion of the head of the boat against the 'upper gate timbers. The pitchblack darkness of the hold was caused by the fatherly tenderness of the boatman on duty; who, finding we were sleeping under the open tarpaulin, with a heavy dew coming down upon our unprotected heads, had drawn the rough and humble curtain without disturbing us, and had innocently added to the horrors of our nightmare.
"Cuddy," I said to my friend and companion., with something of severity in my tone, "let us have no more of these graphic descriptions, just upon the eve of slumber."
STAGE THE SECOND.
FURTHER sleep that night or morning, sound or
unsound, on board the Stourport was impossible.
We had experienced the effect of passing through
our first night-lock; and, while comparing notes,
we passed through a second, and then a third, until
we decided that a bargeman's life was one continual
Cuddy was aloft at half-past four, A.M standing
outside the opening in the tarpaulin upon the edge
of the boat, holding on to the side ropes, examining
the slow moving panorama of country, exchanging
salutations with Captain Randle at the
tiller, chirping popular airs from the "Barber of
Seville," and glancing ravenously down at the great
meat-pie. I arose, took my place at the opening
on the other side, and found the morning fresh and
cloudy; though giving promise of a fine day. Captain Randle's son was standing upon the narrow
roof of the little cabin, beginning his toilet for the
day, by combing his hair, that had been turned to
a straw colour by much exposure to the air and sun.
He was a light-eyed, full-blooded, red-cheeked,
good-tempered, clean-looking young man of twenty-three. Presently he dipped a mop into the canal;
drawing it carefully round the edges of a pair of
remarkably heavy boots, that had never known
brush or blacking in this world, and never would.
A bargeman's boot looks more as if it had been
turned out of a blacksmith's forge, than a shoemaker's
stall. It differs from a navvy's boot in
being very loose. The navvy's boot is a laced-up
article binding itself very close round the ankles - so
close, in fact, that it seems a marvel how such
powerful and gigantic bodies can be supported upon
such frail props, without causing them to snap short
off like pieces of tobacco-pipe. The bargeman's
boot is an easy, full-sized blucher; with upper
leather as thick as a moderate slice of bread and
butter, and with soles like those worn by short
performers who personate giants upon the stage.
There is none of that finish, none of that rounding
off, none of that dandy coarseness about them,
which distinguishes the shooting-boots displayed
for show in Regent Street windows, or which
gentlemen drag after them when they go upon the
moors. Rude, uncultivated strength is the main
feature of the bargeman's boot. The sole absolutely
bristles with a plantation of gooseberry-headed
hobnails; the toe and heel heavily strengthened
with massive bandages of iron. Twelve shillings a
pair is paid to makers, who reside upon the canal
banks, for these boots, and they must be dirt-cheap
if only to sell for old metal. The bargeman's
stocking is another peculiar manufacture, worsted
in material, bright, clear blue in colour, ribbed and
knitted by village hands. It is twice the thickness
of domestic worsted; serving perhaps as a shield
to protect the foot from the attacks of the heavy
boot. In other respects, the bargeman dresses
chiefly in fustian. His trousers are always loose,
short, .and Dutch-built, and his jacket is a red or
brown plush waistcoat with fustian sleeves. He
wears a cap, a sailor's leather hat, or a brown hair
structure, with a cloth top and a bright peak.
Captain Randle, who is still steering the Stourport,
is a short man, between fifty and sixty years
of age, with brown hands, a brown, honest-looking
face, scanty light hair, small twinkling eyes, and a
round lump of a nose. He looks fresh and clean,
although he is yet unwashed, and has been up nearly all the night. Fifty years of his life have been
spent upon the canals of his native land; and fifty
years of a boatman's life means fifty years of
boat. His land-home is in Stoke, in Staffordshire;
and, although his chief line of route is now from
London to Birmingham, and from Birmingham to
Manchester, he does not leave his boat-home to pay
it a visit above three times a-year. When he
arrives at his destination he unships one load of
goods, and takes in another, to return, without
stopping, along the same road he came. Every
tree, every bridge, every lock or house on the line
of march is familiar to him as his own hands, and
his reflections are not disturbed by the dangerous
and troublesome gifts of reading and writing. His
son, the straw-haired young man, has been taught
to steer through a printed book; but the old man
constantly laments the fact that he is not "a scollard." Like many wiser and greater men, Captain
Randle has a. strong tendency to overrate that
which he does not possess; and he fully believes
that, grant him but the mysterious and to him unknown arts of reading and writing, and there would
have been nothing to prevent him, when he was a
younger man, from becoming the Lord Mayor of
The other boatman, who is sleeping in the cabin, and the youth who is driving the horse, are hearty creatures, with cheerful dispositions, large appetites, and little else to distinguish them.
After making a. rough toilet with a bowl of water, a piece of yellow soap, and a coarse towel, we manage, with some dexterity, much exertion, and a little danger of falling overboard, to reach the small deck of the little cabin. This limited platform is the breakfast-table, dinner-table, teatable, and sitting-room of the bargemen and their visitors during the summer months. If size is sometimes a luxury, smallness is sometimes a convenience; and as we take our breakfasts upon this poop--as Captain Randle calls it, in ambitious nautical phrase - we seem to have everything within our reach, and to be in the midst of everything. The captain stands in the doorway of the little cabin, with the upper half of his body visible above the deck, and the lower half roasting in close contact with the cabin fire. He makes tea in a large tin teapot standing on the poop, which holds two quarts; and it is no trouble for him to stoop down and bring up the steaming kettle from the cabin stove. We sit on the edge of the deck, with our feet dangling over the water; and, while I am patiently waiting for the brewing of the refreshing beverage, Cuddy is preparing for a ferocious attack upon the once great, but now rapidly-diminishing, meat-pie. The whole crew is assembled upon the deck and the tiller platform, the horse being left to tow the boat unled, with his head deeply buried in a small tin milking-can full of provender - a novel kind of nose-bag specially provided for barge-towing horses, that they may move, and eat, and breathe, at one and the same time. The tea, a weak and curiously-flavoured drink, is served out in basins without saucers, and, above all, without milk, this luxury being unknown in the victualling department of an ordinary fly-boat. It is sweetened with light-coloured moist sugar, ladled out of a drawer in the cabin, and is stirred with some of the rudest spoons ever made. The knives and forks are worthy of their companions the spoons, and they must have come from Sheffield when that distinguished town was first struggling with the earliest rudiments of its staple manufacture. The knife that Cuddy holds in his right hand, wherewith to demolish the pie, is a slice of iron, not unlike a Dutch razor in shape, and about half the size of a stage scimitar. It is stuck or wedged into a dark square wooden handle, that is indebted for any polish and smoothness it possesses to half a century's use, and the friction of Captain Randle's hard and bronzed hands. The fork has two prongs, one shorter than the other, and both black with the action of many years' grease and rust. The handle is much chipped and very discoloured, looking like a very dirty piece of dark yellow soap. These appearances must be taken as representing inherent defects in the cutlery, and not a want of cleanliness on the part of Captain Randle and his crew.
The boat, considering its limited space, and its four inhabitants (now swelled to six), is a model of tidiness; and in the intervals of sleep, or the pauses of work, the youth with the straw-coloured hair is always dusting everything about him with a short hair-broom. He takes a pride in the cabin department of the Stourport, as anyone can easily see, even if the father did not constantly draw their attention to the fact; and if any brass knob could not have been kept bright; if the full-sized teapot would not have done for a. looking-glass; or, if anyone by spilling oil, or dropping any other filthy fluid, had soiled the virgin purity of that spotless poop or deck, the young boatman with the straw-hair must have knocked somebody down or broken his heart.
It was well for us that the deck was kept clean, for our bread and butter had to rest upon it, with. out the usual domestic conveniences of plates. New as we were to our situation, we managed pretty well, although we occasionally suffered from a giddiness caused by the gliding motion of the boat, and a strong desire to drop over into the water. The hundred locks, which were destined to break our sleep, were also destined to disturb the even course of our meals. Every time we reached a gate - sometimes once - in fifty yards-it was necessary to give up all considerations of eating and drinking, and to poise the basins of tea carefully in our hands, to prepare for the inevitable series of bumps and avoid a total spill. Curious as was the flavour, and mild as was the stimulus conveyed by this tea, it was the favourite and only drink, night and day - except water - not only of our own sturdy boatmen, but of all other sturdy boatmen, as far as my observation went. Beer and spirits were little used, and a pipe seemed to be a rare indulgence. Melancholy pictures of drunken brawls, improper language, constant fights, danger to life and property, hordes of licensed ruffians beyond the pale of law and order, which my cheerful friends had drawn the moment they heard of my intention to make an unprotected barge journey, all proved false before the experience of a few hours, and shamefully false before the further experience of a few days. We were inmates of a new home and friends of a new family, whose members were honest, industrious, simple, and natural - too independent to stoop to the meanness of masquerading in adopted habits and manners, with a view of misleading the judgment of their guests.
As the morning developed, the promise of a fine day was fulfilled; and, passing through a brickkiln-looking country near Brentford, we proceeded in a zigzag direction towards Uxbridge and Rickmansworth. The further we went, the more did our long-cherished notions of the dry, utilitarian character of canals disappear, to give place to a feeling of admiration for the picturesque beauty of the country, and the artificial river, lying and running unheeded so near the metropolis. Now we were floating on a low level, deeply embowered in trees, which, in some places, nearly closed over our heads; now we were on a high level, commanding a view of woods and meadows, stretching away for miles; now we came to long avenues of stately trees, the valued heirlooms of ancient families and the growth of centuries; now we came to smoothly-shaven lawns, to parks, and gardens running down to the water's edge; now we came to long armies of tall, spear-shaped reeds, half rising from the water, and bowing with slow dignity and reverence as we passed by; now we came to distant red-bricked mansions, playing at bo-peep amongst lofty trees; then, as the graceful windings of our river carried us further into the bosom of the parks, we saw them for a few minutes standing boldly out upon the brow of a hill, and then we lost them at another turn in the stream; now we came to little side brooks, which broke musically over small sparkling waterfaIls, gliding into our silent by-way, which carried them gently away; now we came to old rope-worn bridges that stood out against a lofty background of rustling poplars, whose tops were only familiar to the cloud-loving sky-larks; now we came to other bridges, the arches of which seemed half full of shady water, and closed in with banks of shrubs and flowers, through which it would be cruel to force a passage; and now we passed little Ophelia-loved pools, overhung with willows, tinted with weeds, and silent as roadside graves.
Reclining here and there upon the rich grass banks, or standing solitary, or in groups of three or four, upon the towing path, were patient anglers, all having the stamp of dwellers in the closest portions of the metropolis. They were common men to look at-unshaven, unwashed; with ragged clothes and with dirty shirts. The railway had brought them in an hour, and for a few pence, from Whitechapel or Bethnal Green; and whatever they may have been in their own lives, and their own homes, they could scarcely fail to gain a little improvement from the short communion with the country, to which they had been led by the allurement of their favourite sport. One man, who fished by himself, was a middle-aged Jew, bearing every appearance of days passed in some yellow back-parlour, behind a store of mouldy second-hand furniture up an Aldgate court.
Our horses are as docile, intelligent, and well-behaved as the trained steeds of the circus; and, for many miles, they are left to go on unled, chewing their provender in their milking-can nose-bags. When they are free from this encumbrance, and they stop too long at a broken part of the bank to drink out of the canal, they are urged on by a shouting of their names and a cracking of the short whip by the steersman thirty yards behind them. At bridges, where the towing-path does not pass under the arch, the mere unhooking of the rope is sufficient, and the horse, freed from the weight of the barge, walks quickly up the incline, over the bridge, and down to the path, even when, as is frequently the case, it changes to the other side of the canal. There he patiently waits until his burden floats through, and the rope is again hooked on.
The Grand Junction Canal, passing in a zigzag direction through parts of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, to Braunstont in Northamptonshire, is about forty-three feet in surface breadth, upwards of ninety miles in length, and, with one or two falls, is on a gradual rise from Paddington, where it ends in a branch, to Braunston, where it begins in a guaging-house. The locks are expensive structures, costing, when double, two thousand pounds a-piece; and many of them are so close together, that they form a series of steps in a waterfall staircase. These lock-stations furnish nearly the only examples of land-life that we come in close contact with; for the general course of canals is to avoid, where it is possible, passing through the large towns and villages, and wind round the extreme ends, and distant outskirts of such places. Many of the lock-houses are very pretty. All of them are neat and clean. In some of the most important lock-houses, the keeper is seated in a little counting-house amongst his books and papers; in some of the smaller ones, rude accounts are kept in mysterious chalk signs upon the doorway or the walls. This is a favourite mode of recording business in broad open barges, engaged in carrying bricks, or other cargoes requiring to be reckoned by numbers; which numbers appear, not in numerals, but in broad chalk lines, marked on the sides of the hold. At all the lock-houses, coy little gardens peep out, and many of them are profusely decorated with flowers both inside and outside. One cottage on the canal bank, connected with the canal traffic, is such Or complete nosegay, that the word Office, and the City arms painted over its doorway, are scarcely visible for roses.
While the Stourport is working slowly through the foaming, eddying locks, and we are reclining upon its poop, or sitting astride of its tarpaulin's back-bone, we are objects of interest and curiosity to the lock-keepers, who salute us with "Good morning," or remarks about the day, while their wives and daughters peep slyly at the two unusual strangers from behind the thin shelter of their cottage curtains. . . . . . . Man cannot be fed upon scenery and the outpourings of character, and in due course we find it necessary to take another meal. Dinner it ought to be called, according to the rotation in which it comes; but the meat-pie having been devoured (chiefly by Cuddy), and the fifty pounds of beef taken in at London, and all boiled off at once to insure its keeping fresh, not being to our taste, we are obliged to put up with a substantial tear-Cuddy officiating in the cabin as boiler of eggs and preparer of coffee. I go down to witness this interesting operation, paying my first visit to the small cabin, and gaining an opportunity of examining its fittings and dimensions. The kettle has boiled for some time, so the fire is low, and the heat is what the boatmen call moderate-like an oven about an hour after the bakings have been withdrawn. There can be no doubt that the cabin of the Stourport is the smallest place of its kind in the whole world; yet one half of it is divided off for the bed, which rests under a wooden arch at the end of the cabin, immediately opposite the doorway. This bed, with close packing, accommodates two men during their short turns-in for sleep, who lie under a piece of rope, a whip, a scrubbing-brush, an old umbrella, and a saw, all hooked on to the low roof. The bed rests in a perfect nest of cupboards, large and small, the doors of which are fitted with hooks that hold caps, brushes, and various small and necessary articles. The bed and clothes are very clean, and the painted decorations round the edge of the arch and on the doors were once gaudy, but are now faded. From the foot of the steps, running up to the arch, on the right-hand side of the cabin as you enter, is a low seat, large enough for two persons, and, of course, constructed with a lid to form a box. Opposite this seat, also close to the arch, is a piece of furniture not unlike a compressed old-fashioned book-case. The upper part consists of crowded shelves placed in a gothic-arched framework, which is closed with a. door whose hinges are at the bottom, and which fastens at the top with a. spring. When this door is closed, it displays upon its surface a small round looking-glass, in which a boatman may shave, or comb his hair; and, when it is opened, it turns down upon its hinges, standing out, self-supported, at right angles, and forming the only table of the cabin. Close against the doorway of the cabin comes the stove, a. substantial structure, with a low grate, a deep blower, a. round fender and a narrow funnel passing upwards through the low roof. Against the wall, near this stove, is a small oil.lamp; and over the cabin seat are more cupboards and shelves. Swinging from the roof is a water-can, which strikes your head when you stand upright; and near your feet is a tub, into which it is almost impossible to prevent stepping. The ship's papers are strapped on to the ceiling, and every inch of space is carefully economized. Everything is scrupulously neat and clean, and wherever a piece of metal is visible, that metal is sure to shine. The Stourport is rather faded in its decorations, and is not a gay specimen of the fly-barge in all its glory of cabin paint and varnish; but still enough remains to show what it was in its younger days, and what it will be again when it gets a week in dock for repairs at Birmingham. The boatman lavishes all his taste, all his rude, uncultivated love for the fine arts, upon the external and internal ornaments of his floating home. His chosen colours are red, yellow, and blue: all so bright that, when newly laid on and appearing under the rays of a mid-day sun, they are too much for the unprotected eye of the unaccustomed stranger. The two sides of the cabin, seen from the bank and the towing-path, present a couple of landscapes, in which there is a lake, a castle, a sailing-boat, and a range of mountains, painted after the style of the great teaboard school of art. If the Stourport cannot match many of its companions in the freshness of its cabin decorations, it can eclipse every other barge upon the canal in the brilliancy of a new two-gallon water-can, shipped from a bankside painter's yard, at an early period of the journey. It displayed no fewer than six dazzling and fanciful composition landscapes, several gaudy wreaths of flowers, and the name of its proud proprietor, Thomas Randle, running round the centre upon a background of blinding yellow.
Small as the Stourport cabin is for four fullgrown boatmen (leaving out its two present visitors), cabins just as small, and furnished in most respects in the same manner, are made to accommodate large families that spring up amongst the river population.
The Grand Junction Canal Company do not allow any of their barges to be turned into what are called family-boats; but amongst the small proprietors there is no such restriction; while the slowboats, or boats that only travel during the day, resting at night, because towed without a change of horses, belong, in most cases, to the men who conduct them, and who, of course, are free to act as they think proper. The way this freedom is exercised is shown by the pictures of family-barges, and their internal economy, which pass us at every turn. There is the boatman, and his wife, a stout, sunburnt woman, and children, varying in number from two to ten, and in ages from three weeks to twelve years. The youngest of these helpless little ones, dirty, ragged, and stunted in growth, are confined in the close recesses of the cabin (the tarpaulin-covered part of the boat is inaccessible to children), stuck round the bed, like images upon a shelf; sitting upon the cabin-seat; standing in pans and tubs; rolling helplessly upon the floor, within a few inches of a fierce fire and a steaming kettle; leaning over the edge of the boat in the little passage between the cabin-doorway and the tiller-platform, with their bodies nearly in the water; lying upon the poop, with no barrier to protect them from being shaken into the canal; fretful for want of room, air, and amusement; always beneath the feet of the mother, and being cuffed and scolded for that which they cannot avoid; sickly, even under their sunburnt skins; waiting wearily for the time when their little limbs will be strong enough to trot along the towing-path; or dropping suddenly over the gaudy sides of the boat, quietly into the open, hungry arms of death. When these helpless creatures reach five or six years of age, they are intrusted with a whip, and made useful to their thoughtless parents, by night and day, as drivers of the horse that tows the boat. There are little tender girls, in heavy boots, slouched sun-bonnets, and dusty clothes, running on either side of the rope, or under the horse's legs; tugging at the harness; maddening the animal with all a child's impatience; and imitating the coarseness and violence of a boatman's voice and gesture, with all a child's exaggeration and power of mimicry. Not a week passes but what one of these canal-childreu is drowned in the silent byway upon which they were were born; and, painful as the incident is, it is too common to excite observation. . . . . . . . The boatmen were preparing for the passage of the Blisworth tunnel (nearly two miles in length), an underground journey of an hour's duration. The horses were unhooked, and while standing in a group upon the towing-path, one of the child-drivers, a girl about six years of age, got in between them with a whip, driving them, like a young Amazon, right and left; utterly disregarding the frantic yells of a dozen boatmen, and nearly half a dozen family-boatmen's wives. At the mouth the tunnel were a number of leggers, waiting to be employed; their charge being one shilling to leg the boat through. We engaged one of these labourers for our boat to divide the duty with one of our boatmen; while the youth went overland with the horse. A lantern was put at the head of the boat; the narrow boards, like tailors' sleeve-boards, were hooked on like projecting oars near the head; the two legging men took their places upon these slender platforms, lying upon their backs; and, with their feet placed horizontally against the wall, they proceeded to shove us with measured tread through the long, dark tunnel.
The place felt delightfully cool, going in out of the full glare of a fierce noon-day sun; and this effect was increased by the dripping of water from the roof; and the noise caused by springs which broke in at various parts of the tunnel. The cooking on board the boats went on as usual, and our space being confined, and our air limited, we were regaled with several flavours springing from meat, amongst which the smell of hashed mutton certainly predominated. To beguile the tedium of the slow, dark journey - to amuse the leggers, whose work is fearfully hard, and acts upon the breath after the first quarter of a mile, and above all to avail themselves of the atmospheric effects of the tunnel, the boatmen at the tillers nearly all sing, and our vocalist was the captain's straw-haired son.
If any observer will take the trouble to examine the character of the songs that obtain the greatest popularity amongst men and women engaged in heavy and laborious employments, he will find that the ruling favourite is the plaintive ballad. Comic songs are hardly known. The main secret of the wide popularity of the ballad lies in the fact, that it generally contains a story, and is written in a measure that fits easily into a slow, drawling, breathtaking tune which all the lower orders know; and which, as far as I can find, has never been written or printed upon paper; but has been handed down from father or mother to son and daughter, from generation to generation, from the remotest times. 'The plots of these ballad stories are generally based upon the passion of love; love of the most hopeless and melancholy kind; and the suicide of the heroine, by drowning in a river, is a poetical occurrence as common as jealousy.
There may have been a dozen of these ballards chanted in the Blisworth tunnel at the same time; the wail of our straw-haired singer rising above the rest. They came upon our ears, mixed with the splashing of water, in drowsy cadences, and at long intervals, like the moaning of a maniac chained to a wall. The effect upon the mind was, in this dark passage, to create a wholesome belief in the existence of large masses of misery, and the utter nothingness of the things of the upper world.
We were apprised of the approach of another barge, by the strange figure of a boatman, who stood at the head with a light. It was necessary to leave off legging, for the boats to pass each other, and the leggers waited until the last moment when a concussion seemed inevitable, and then sprang instantaneously, with singular dexterity, on to the sides of their boats, pulling their narrow platforms up immediately after them. The action of the light in front of our boat produced a very fantastic shadow of our recumbent boatman-legger upon the side wall of the tunnel. As his two legs stuck out horizontally from the edge of the legging-board, treading, one over the other, against the wall, they threw a shadow of two arms, which seemed to be held by a thin old man-another shadow of the same substance - bent nearly double at the stomach, who worked them over and over, as if turning two great mangle-handles with both hands at the same time.
John Hollingshead, Odd Journeys In and Out of London, 1860