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Unlocking canals’ secret history

A new book by actor and historian Julian Dutton chronicles a way of life on water

20 May, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

The Heather Bell at Tipton

A THIRST to rediscover a rural idyll, spurred on by the damage caused by the industrial age, has attracted many people to explore living on canals in recent decades – but in author Julian Dutton’s new book, Water Gypsies: a History of Life on Britain’s Rivers and Canals, we discover such lifestyle choices are thousands of years old.

Julian, an actor and writer, grew up on a houseboat in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, which he describes as a “little pocket of 1950s Bohemia, this ensemble of actors, artist and boozers”. He returned to visit his childhood home half a century later – and it was the spur to write a comprehensive and enchanting social history of houseboat living.

“The economic story of canals and how they fuelled the matrix of an industrial and imperial Britain has been told,” he writes.

“The focus of this book is to fix a lens on the reality of day-to-day living on these growing arteries, that from the mid-18th century onwards expanded the population of live-aboards to almost unimaginable proportions.”

His own berth as a child had begun life as a working wharf near Battersea Bridge.

As well as a boat yard, the area had a rich cultural heritage, he adds, with JM Turner living nearby.

“A heritage such as this led to many spots on the waterways like Chelsea Reach becoming live-aboard villages in the post-war era,” he writes.

Lonf Buckby on the Grand Union Canal

Houseboats there evolved from the 1930s as each new owner made their mark. And by the 1950s, the Bohemian reputation had been cast – Julian quotes a passage from Hancock’s Half Hour, where Hancock has invited his new friends back to Railway Cuttings. He describes life aboard as “during the day, we pursue our various artistic sidelines. Some of us make pots and jugs, and then there is Adelaide – she is very good on the raffia mats. Then there’s Percy and his Welsh bedspreads. Some of us paint, sculpt, and the rest of us lie in bed, thinking…”

But before living on a canal boat was a lifestyle choice, or an economic one due to house prices, Julian takes the reader through the ancient history of Britain’s rivers and canals to the modern day – and describes the lives of those who navigate them.

The importance of navigational water – which was the prompt for houseboat living – has such longevity to be almost beyond comprehension. Julian writes the boat is “a far, far more ancient invention than the wheeled cart”.

“The very existence of any inland settlements, let alone towns or villages, lay far into the future, and would owe their birth and growth solely to the waterways that ran through their locality,” he adds.

“From the very beginnings it was the inland waterways that dictated the entire geography of human settlement and activity in the ensuing centuries.”

Julian Dutton as a child at Chelsea Reach in the early 1960s

Trade drove the use of rivers in Roman times, with it the growth of people living aboard their boats.

Not only did Roman troops need huge amounts and a varied range of food to fuel them, Roman settlers liked their luxury: Julian illustrates how this not only led to an increase in agricultural production, but imports: “all these comestibles had to be transported – some were imported, but most needed to be carried from other parts of Britain”.

And despite the Romans’ engineering skill that gave the country its first proper roads, transporting things by water was much cheaper. The ox, mule and donkey were the key engines on land, all “slow and hungry”, and waterborne travel was noted by Roman writers as more significant.

The Romans built the first canals – and that means “the economic and expansion in Roman Britain is the backdrop to the rise of river trade and once established, these itinerant, almost vagabond dwellers on the water, became a permanent part of the British landscape.”

After the Romans and until 1750, Julian describes how the waterways became something of a puzzled mess, a precursor to the ownership model of Network Rail – industry grew along rivers, to the extent that the Domesday Book mentions 10,000 water mills. Such growth was done ad hoc and individually, and it is argued it made rivers less navigable. Mill ponds and fishing weirs got in the way of boats with cargoes to deliver.

Julian Dutton

The canal age started in 1750, writes Julian, and ended in around 1900.

“Between 1780 and 1850, 500,000 people had moved from living on land to living on a boat,” he states, a sign of how important canals were to the Industrial Revolution and yet another example of its migratory impact.

Above all, Julian’s book chronicles a way of life whose longevity and importance has been overlooked, or considered a quaint, modern alternative way of life.

“From the trading vessel where a sailor or merchant may live for weeks aboard his craft,” Julian writes, “to the generations of canal bargees plying their narrow boats along the industrial arteries of the nation until the railway – and later road haulage – signalled their decline, to the post-war baby-boomers of the 1950s seeking a different lifestyle to that of mainstream orthodox society, and contemporary families searching for a more economic form of home owning when house prices are challenging a whole new generation, the story of houseboat dwelling is a rich and varied one containing as many twists and turns as the river ways they have chosen to make their home.”

  • Water Gypsies: A History of Life on Britain’s Rivers and Canals. By Julian Dutton. The History Press, £14.99

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