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15 October 2014
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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 8]

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Jean Peters
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 May 2005

3rd Trip in our own boats

I met them at the docks and we went up to Bulls Bridge where the weather was still cold and wet. I went collecting firewood one night in the repair sheds. I was suddenly startled to hear echoing voices from a boat lying on the stocks' still and dark and high above me, and to realise there was a family living up there. Those sheds are the most fascinating places. The main workshop is a long corrugated iron shed that rattles in no uncertain manner on windy days.-It is open on the third side to the water and always lying high above the ground on stocks -that give onto a runway down to the water are two boats. They are being repaired or built. One doesn’t realise how long one's boats are when one is steering them. Thank heaven for perspective. Seen like this they seem a terrifying length and very black against the light. Below the timbers and props that keep them in position are a jumble of little shops. The blacksmith, who always has a roaring fire going. The head carpenter's shop tucked under the bows of the second boat, a series of welding cylinders, people sawing and tarring immense blocks of wood. Lying along the walls of the shed are more shops. Another carpenter's workshop, an exciting place filled with wood shavings, smelling very fresh, an overhead skylight giving an odd very cool light. The blacksmith with his enormous, roaring forge and an everlasting clanging as people made chains, shackles and steel bands. In the paint shop were' elums' and tillers lying about half painted. The general atmosphere was one of intense bustle, everything dark against the light, roaring fires--clanging and banging-- the high-pitched whittling of saws--dull crashes, thuds and shouting. A smell of ~wood, tar, welding and water, it’s intoxicating. Beyond the main sheds is the oiling up depot where George and Frank reign supreme. Here in another corrugated shed are all the fenders ropes, shafts and lamps. Everything made or painted by hand. Here everyone comes to be oiled by George, who has all the 'cut' gossip at his fingertips and is definitely a' key man’. Here one leaves one's shafts, water cans and other portable boat goods before going on leave, and here one comes when in trouble, for advice. Beyond that again is the dock, 'where the new boats are painted/also under a shed; and beyond that is the lay by. Where in long lines the pairs of boats lie waiting for their orders to come over the loud speaker. Boats 212, steerer wanted at the office please'. And away they go London Derbyshire, Birmingham, or Coventry. Here in a strange converted boat-on dry land the boaters children go to school for the two or three days they may be 'In', and then away they go for two or three weeks. The children can steer a boat from childhood up, standing on little painted stools when they can't see over the cabin top. Many of the adults have no idea how to read or write. Their lives are wrapt up in the Cut, in boats. Many of the young ones long to get away. But off the water their skills are useless and their fitness for any other decent job practically non-existent. Its a difficult business because its a pretty true saying that once someone leaves the Cut when they are a child they will never want to come back and you cannot make a landlubber into a ' boater it has to be in the blood to stick it for life.
So unless people are left uneducated in every way it seems you will have no boaters and the Cut, its beauty, and its strange fascination will vanish from English country life; which would be a sad thing. It's so easy for the outsider to be thrilled and so hard to understand its harshness unless you have been on it. There is the unrelenting weather and the smallness of your living accommodation--children--families growing up in space that could only be a good sized linen cupboard in a big house. The lack of medical attention- the difficulty of keeping clean and we all had the experience of civilisation behind us to help us. The children that die or are drowned -the women who die in childbirth from lack of attention. The work that must go on if you are to eat, whether you are in child or not. The women who grow old at twenty-five-- worn and care ridden. The men who are maimed by boats but who cannot earn their living any other way)' the lack of education. The fears and suspicions and primitive jealousies and their hatred of their own ignorance. It’s lovely and graceful and as hard as hay. To hard for the educated to live for life so why should others be condemned. And yet is it condemnation to give them the earth and its beauty, something which people in cities spend half their time longing for.

The winter of 1944/45 was severe. I can’t remember when the Cut first started to ice up. All I can remember is the anxiety we developed as the days went by, that we should not be frozen in at some lonely tie away from a warm spot and some of the amenities of life! The skies grew darker and the hills and fields whiter. Everything became much more slippery and dangerous — although I don’t remember this worrying us. What was worrying was the locks filled with chunks of ice which had to be shafted out to get the boats in and the frozen slopes in the morning. The only way to get them malleable enough to wind them up on clock was to pour kettles of hot water over them. The G.U.C.C. organised ice cutters. Little boats with a bar down the centre of a savage left steel knife in front. Six men (lockkeepers etc) were then stationed three on each side of the bar. The boat charged the ice and the lockkeepers rocked the boat so that the knife had most cutting power. They came out to rescue lost boats and lead them back to a “good tie”. This was vital because overnight your boats could become immovable and if a family with children was involved this was no joke. I remember falling into the icy cut. I had dropped a handkerchief given to me by my mother and ran down the lock steps to retrieve it and on into the water with an almighty splash. I clearly remember thinking “I’m too young to die” and sticking out to the snow covered bank where bless them Kay and Miranda hauled me out saying all those thick clothes was a nightmare!

The Coal Mine

I ought to explain that we three girls work a pair of boats on the Grand Union Canal, one meets a great many interesting and charming people. During an evening spent in a local pub at Coventry we made friends with Ike, a miner, and who quite unexpectedly asked us if we would like to meet him at 10.15 pm at the Pit Head the following night and go down their mine with the night shift. It was a warm, still summer evening and after sunset we left our boats and following a sandy lane made our way through slag heaps, railway lines and wasteland towards the Pit Head. It seemed deserted enough, a jumble of tin sheds, more grey slag heaps and railway lines and odd trucks, all dominated by the tall winch wheels of the lift shafts. Very dark against an evening sky of pure green and gold. God, it was lovely. When we arrived, after climbing through barbed wire and up a shingle slope, we found Ike talking to the night shift, they stared and on being told by Bill the foreman that we were going down the Pit, blinked and had a good look! They were a grand crowd, all youngish, but skilled miners, there are no Bevan boys at this Pit and about the finest people I've ever been privileged to meet. There is a very odd air of stillness and quiet about a Pit Head. The men talked and laughed, but quietly, even the colouring is subdued, the grey earth, piles of rusty metal, and dark sheds. One is oddly conscious of the fact that under ones feet the ground is alive and that on those men working below all the industry at the top depends. I hope I may never have to witness a Pit disaster, because I feel that feeling of tension, the inability to contact the men below is always there and in the case of real trouble it must be unbearable. The first batch of the night shift, four men climbed into a queer contraption like a bucket, were swung into the air by the winch, the trap beneath them opened and they were swung swiftly into the hot darkness of an apparently bottomless shaft. We watched with awe and were then whisked away to another lift shaft, a newer one this with a cage. We were given helmets and pit lamps, and climbed into the cage not without a few misgivings about our tummies. However Ike was kind and lowered us slowly down the 335 yards till we reached ground level. Bill the foreman then took us up to see the "Coal Face". As one steps out of the lift the air itself seems heavy and oppressively silent, a long road cut through the coal runs in both directions into impenetrable darkness. We, after resting a moment, started off after Bill, bending almost double and following his swinging arc of lamplight, the only sounds breaking the darkness, the dull thud of ones feet and an occasional trickle of coal, we climbed up steeply and eventually reached the ‘face or working’. Here Bill told us how the mine itself was an old one and had been worked before by the ‘Old Men’, nobody knew who they were, but they had used much of the good coal. God knows what conditions were like when the ‘Old Men’ did have the mine without any of the simple advantages there are now. These are little enough too. He showed us how surveyors found were the new roads were to be cut in the coal, from the surface and then by means of compasses etc checked their results below, leaving seemingly casual little bits of white string dangling from the girders to warn the miners where to cut the new road. He also told us that for a seven hour shift the miners are paid 30 /--, during the shift they get 10 -11 tons of coal. Now coal is three or tour pounds a ton. Considering they work all night in incredibly uncomfortable and dangerous conditions, sleep half the day, have miserably small homes often with only two rooms for a family, never seeing the stars or much of the sun or being free of the country, it seems all very wrong to me. To blame the miners for making a fuss during a war, the only time they can do so without being chucked out because the market is filled with others without work seems incredibly short sighted. Even more so as they do it purely to make their lives, what would, to us be only bearable. A little later a few flickering lights appeared in the distance, the night shift labouring up the road pushing the trucks they were to fill during the night. After talking a while, there was nothing for it but for us to try and see if we could use a pick and shovel. Amidst much encouragement we were told we could take what we got. I have a very small lump. Then they showed us how we really should do it and I wished to God I could paint. They were naked to the waist, the pit lamps giving a very small orange glow and everything, faces and bodies in dark shadow or hard relief silence but for their heavy breathing and the dull thuds of the pickaxes and the heat even greater here, away from the shaft. We left them shortly after to their seven hours, and were taken back by Bill to the surface where we met the last of the gang to go down, waiting for us. ‘Did we like their mine’ they asked eagerly and with pride 'Did we carry their coal on our boats and what were our boats like etc. It was impossible to say as we wished that we felt very small and incredibly honoured. Everything in comparison sounded meaningless. We watched them climb into the cage once more and swing above the pit trap, once again it was open and they were away down the lift shaft. The trap slammed shut for the next seven hours and I think it was the most final thing I have ever felt. We thanked Ike and stumbled across the silent pit head feeling numb and incredibly near to tears. The summer evening had darkened to a midnight blue sky with a moon of wonderful clarity. We were very silent as we came down to our boats lying with many others asleep and still. Surely before we set the houses of others in order, there are many things in our own that need attention.

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