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England Occupations Inland Waterways (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Inland Waterways[edit | edit source]

The term inland waterway includes rivers, lakes and the extensive system of canals developed across the British Isles. Transport and pleasure services have been provided on all types of waterways employing many kinds of sailors on everything from tiny Welsh coracles to ferryboats to large steamships on Scottish lochs. This section will deal in particular with canal boatmen, watermen, bargemen, and lightermen. Packetboats that carried the mail and passengers are dealt with in the section on the Post Office.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

A barge is a flat-bottomed freight boat not less than 11 feet wide, with or without sails, used on canals and rivers and manned by a bargeman. Before steam and diesel power arrived barges operating in estuaries were dependent on sails, but those on canals relied on horses hauling from the towpath. Those with engines could be called tugs and these would haul several dumb barges without engines.

A lighter is a kind of cargo barge, usually flat-bottomed, for unloading and loading (lightening) ships not brought to wharf, and for transporting goods in harbour. They were manned by lightermen.

A waterman was a person who navigated a boat carrying fare-paying passengers. These boats were a type of rowing boat sometimes with sails. Over the years watermen acquired additional skills such as local pilotage, mooring vessels at berths, jetties, buoys, and in the docks, and acting as helmsman aboard large foreign vessels. A wherryman rowed passengers in a light shallow boat called a wherry.

Narrowboats are a special kind of flat-bottomed freight boat not more than 7 feet wide and 70 feet long manned by narrowboatmen. Horses, donkeys and mules were the motive power until steam arrived in the late 19th century and diesel engines became common in the mid 20th century. The later ones were of two types - motor boats, and butties without engines that were towed by the motor boats; such a pair were called joshers, canal slang for pals. Narrowboats were designed specifically for the canal system with its narrow gauge intended to save water, its locks and bridges. Early forms were called packet boats or monkey boats, and in the west of England they were known as long boats. A special type called the shortboat was used on the Leeds and Liverpool canal that had locks 10 feet shorter than the rest of the system. The shortboats had a distinctive decoration of scrolls and decorative lettering quite different from the flower patterns used on narrowboats. Boats working round the clock carrying perishable goods were manned by men only, not families, and were termed fly boats (Maurin 1996).

Barges and other inland waterway craft were registered by the Clerk of the Peace from 1795-1871 and records exist in the port books and canal boat registers (Richardson).

Records of Watermen and Lightermen[edit | edit source]

There were originally two groups of boats plying the River Thames in London, the watermen and wherrymen created a company in 1555 to regulate the trade from Windsor to Gravesend (Cottrell). The Thames lightermen were formerly members of the Woodmongers Company but joined the watermen in 1700 to form one of the oldest City Guilds. Cottrell has indexed the 70,000 River Thames Watermen and Lightermen Apprenticeship Bindings 1692-1908 and the index can be purchased from him and is also available on fiches FHL fiche 6085610(21); the index of 1,500 over-aged (over-20) boys articled from 1865-1926 is on FHL fiche 6105603(1). The originals are part of the comprehensive records of the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company on 91 films starting at FHL film 1067020. In 1908 the new Port of London Authority greatly curtailed the Company’s activities but they still apprentice boys and girls and administer charities and almshouses. The Fire Insurance Index is also of interest because most of the firemen were recruited from Thames watermen. Family experiences as watermen and lightermen are recounted by Tatnall (Watermen and Lightermen. Cockney Ancestor (East of London GHS) #91 page 15-17) and Cottrell.

History of Canals[edit | edit source]

The navigability of major rivers had been improved during the late 17th and early 18th century to parallel the needs of the industrial revolution, since transport of heavy, bulky goods of low value was far cheaper by water than by road. Some of these local schemes had involved digging cuts and this was taken a step further by the construction of artificial canals to link the new industrial districts to rivers and their markets. The first important British canal was built in 1761 to connect the depths of the Worsley, Lancs coal mines to the city of Manchester. A passenger service also developed and further canals linking rivers provided access all the way to Bristol, still a major port at this time. Technological progress enabled canals to pass through the Pennine Hills by means of deep tunnels and flights of locks, and to negotiate deep valleys by means of aqueducts and huge embankments. The Caledonian Canal provided a link from the Atlantic to the North Sea right across Scotland via a series of lochs (lakes). Specific canal ports such as Ellesmere Port, Goole, Runcorn and Stourbridge grew rapidly (Hey); the collecting port in London was known as City Basin. Eighty years of canal building is summarized by Richardson in his list of opening dates for 116 main canals. In 1660 there were about 700 miles of navigable rivers in England but by 1830 with the construction of over 2,000 miles of canals the navigable inland waterways had increased to over 4,000 miles.

The whole system of transportation of people and goods was revolutionized by canals. Then from the 1820s came the railways, which eventually engineered the canals’ demise. After more than a century of railway ascendancy came cars for the masses and motorways. This serves as a reminder that it is unwise to depend on a modern road map to try to work out how our ancestors got from A to B or, when working backwards you find them in B, where A could have been located. The smart family historian studies the water, rail and road routes available to those ancestors at the time (Litton).

Life and Records of Canal Boatmen[edit | edit source]

Before the competition from the railways commenced in the 1840s men worked the boats on a day basis and rested ashore at night. After this they found it necessary to make longer trips and many more took their families with them, which saved on housing expenses and provided a crew for the boat. Many families who owned or worked on barges lived on them permanently and travelled regular routes. Some tended to return to certain churches to record family details, but many christened children at the next village along the canal or river they happened to be on at the time. The importance of ports and coastal or riverside villages is equivalent to the market town for finding missing marriages, christenings and burials, and more so for canal people; maps of canal routes are available, for example from county archives. Happily the 1851 census returns, and particularly the union indexes to them, assist in finding birthplaces of many who were born and lived during the heyday of the canals from 1760-1820.

Records for many of the inland waterways are with railway company records at the Public Record Office since these companies owned a number of canal, dock and shipping companies and were nationalized in 1947 (Bevan). Leaflet D83 shows what the TNA has, and detailed advice on locations and piece numbers mainly within the BT (Board of Trade), MT (Ministry of Transport) and RAIL classes can be found in Hawkings’ Railway Ancestors: A Guide to Staff Records.

Relevant indexes include:

  • ŸThe Railway and Canal Historical Society has an index of 200,000 references from various records.
  • ŸCanal and River Boatmen and Allied Trades by John Roberts.
  • ŸCanal Boat People of Wolverhampton, N. Staffs, S. Cheshire and Chester by Wolverhampton Archives.

Trade directories give details of passenger and parcel service by water, an example is found below:

Water Transport from Congleton 1834
An extract from Pigot’s Commercial Directory for Cheshire


To LONDON, Pickford and Co. every day (Monday excepted); Kenworthy and Co every Sun, Tues, Thur and Sat.

To HUDDERSFIELD, Kenworthy and Co. every Sunday, Monday, Wed and Fri.

To MACCLESFIELD and MANCHESTER, Pickford and Co. and Swanwick and Co daily.

For descriptive commentary on life on the canals see Maurin (Old Occupations: Canal Life. Family Tree Magazine Vol 12 #11, page 3-5). Peter L Smith gives further information on canal barges and narrowboats, as well as canal construction, and he lists 20 relevant museums. Enthusiasts have recently formed the Waterways Trust that will be putting historical material on the net. Doing a keyword search on the FamilySearch Catalog for canal boatmen or inland waterways produces a number of interesting items. The Shire books Canal Architecture, Canal Barges and Narrow Boats, and Canals in Britain by Smith, Canal Arts and Crafts by Lansdell, London’s Canals by Pratt, and Canals and Waterways by Ware provide good background information and illustrations.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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