Canal history

The Shamrock iced up on the Rochdale Canal. ©The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways TrustThe Shamrock iced up on the Rochdale Canal. ©The Waterways Trust Archive (Ellesmere Port) / The Waterways Trust

Life on the canal

Although working on a boat meant long hours of hard physical work in all weathers, there were some compensating advantages; the boatman was not forced to work at the pace of a machine and to a limited extent was ‘his own master’. Pay was low, but better than an agricultural labourer or unskilled mill hand. The boatman could also live aboard, in cabins fore and aft, and there is no doubt that many did, at least for part of the time. It seems unlikely however, that the system of ‘family boating’ so common on the narrow canals further south was in such wide use on the Rochdale canal. Much of the trade on the canal was short-haul, so the boatman would only be away from his home base for a night or two at a time. Photographs do sometimes show women on the boats, but often they appear to be visiting rather than working aboard. Further, children are very rarely seen on photographs of boats on the Rochdale Canal. The inference from this lack of children visible on the boat is that the family was not actually living aboard.

Conversely, the cabins were more spacious than the cabin of a narrowboat, so would more easily lend itself to family living. Canal boat cabins were effectively uncontrolled by any regulations until the passing of the “Act to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Canal Boats Used as Dwellings” on 14th August 1877. This Act was promoted by the social reformer, George Smith, of Coalville.

Payment to the boatmen was always at least specified in terms of a sum of money. However, until the passing of the Truck Act in 1831, there was a notorious system of payment called ‘truck’ or ‘tommy’ whereby the workman was paid with tokens or tommy-notes which were only exchangeable for goods at the company-owned shops. There is little documentary evidence that this applied widely to boatmen [see song reference ] but it was extensively used during canal construction. There are many theories for the use of this system, but these three are most likely. Firstly it obviated the shortage of small coin during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Instead the company would issue its own coinage, such as the Bridgewater token or Manchester ha’penny. Secondly, the tommy-note would bind the man more closely to the master as he could not leave without losing pay. Finally, it allowed an unscrupulous contractor by giving poor quality goods and short measure, thus making an extra profit.

Many other jobs were necessary to keep the canal working on a day-to-day basis: lock-keepers who supervised traffic through the locks; lengthsmen, who walked their ‘length’ doing minor repairs; reservoir keepers; toll clerks; labourers; wharfingers; warehousemen; ostlers and stable lads; clerks and office staff. In addition to these there were the craftsmen working in the company’s workshops; the carpenters, the blacksmiths and tinsmiths, masons and many other trades. Everything for the canal would be made in the workshops. For example, lock gates and lock bridges; most items of ironwork, except for castings such as paddlegear, made by James Garside of Halifax. Lastly, the canal managers, directors and shareholders all had important roles to play.

Over the years there have been a number of deaths associated with the canal; boatmen were not immune from accident and many other people have fallen in by accident or design. One enduring mystery however is exactly why the vicar of Hebden Bridge drowned in the canal on the night of 8th August 1861.

Mishaps did happen in the canal. However, it is important to realise that considering the number of people working on and walking by the canal it was relatively safe. Of course it remains so, and is actually much safer in the present day. Any serious accident today is sufficiently rare that it would appear in the national news media.

Manchester Times, Wednesday April 24th, 1850:
“A fatal accident took place on Friday evening last about half past 9 o’clock at the lock contiguous to the bridge over the Rochdale Canal and situated near the Todmorden Wharf. It appears a respectable man 23 years of age named ELI SUTCLIFFE, who was in the employ of Ashton & Co., Mechanics etc. Salford, left their establishment where he and others in the same employ had some stimulating drink which rather affected him; he took the canal bank on his way home, and when he arrived at the higher lock gate, he would, notwithstanding the kindest remonstrances of his friends, persist in making an attempt to cross the canal by walking on the lock door, which he used to practice daily on his way home. The attempt this time proved fatal; he slipped off and fell into the lock, which was nearly filled with water. Every effort to save him proved of no avail. Sergeant Heap found the body after an hour’s laborious search. It was immediately removed to Mr Blomley’s Golden Lion Inn. The deceased was an excellent swimmer, and it is supposed he must have been stunned by the fall. He has left a young wife, to whom he was but lately married. On Saturday last an inquest was held before MR G. Dyson and a respectable jury, Mr John Lacy, foreman. The jury returned a verdict of accidentally drowned.”

The unfortunate man must have been very unsteady, as in those days the locks all had handrails fitted to the top gates. These helped the boatmen to cross the gates in relative safety and make working the lock more efficient.