Why are canal boats and traditional canal-ware so colourful? When did the custom of painting working boats in bright colours begin and why? This week we explore our attraction to bright colours and what Tom Rolt describes as the ‘working boaters’ inborn gypsy love of colours.’
25th April, Monday
"Heavy grey clouds, ragged and torn
Two women sit cross-legged on their cabin roof.
A blackbird scissor the sky
above forest green conifers.
A hint of Earl-Grey tea.
Two dandelions fierce in their growling yellows.
There is something freeing about
dark skies like these.
The water shivers in the skittering breeze."
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In this episode I cite:
Julian Dutton (2021) Water Gypsies published by History Press.
Jim Batty (2019) Narrowboat Life: Discover life afloat on the inland waterways published by Adlard Coles/Bloomsbury.
L.T.C. Rolt (1944) Narrow Boat, first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode
John Hassel (1819) Tour of the Grand Junction. London: Printed for J. Hassell.
John Hollingshead (1860) Odd Journeys In and out of London. London: Goombridge and Sons.
Sue Wilkes (2011) Tracing you Canal Ancestors, published by Pen and Sword Family History.
E. Temple Thurston (1911) The Flower of Gloster, published by William Norgate.
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
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I was going to call it my most favourite of narrowboat vlogs, but actually, it is my most favourite vlog, full stop - and that is the Mindful Narrowboat vlog created by Vanessa and Zephyr, with the able assistance of the shadowy deus ex-machina figure of Mr Mindful lurking somewhere off camera.
Over the last couple of weeks, Vanessa has been talking about giving the paintwork of her narrowboat, Alice Grace, a good lick of paint and spring spruce-up.
Narrowboats, today, are generally made out of steel - cabin and hull. Therefore, a good covering of paint is essential for keeping rust and corrosion at bay.
The Erica could do with a complete respray, actually. Her paintwork is a little tired and looking rather tatty in places. But this year, we will continue with the yearly ritual of healing the spots, blister, scrapes and scratches with a little pot of Symphony's ‘Forest Green narrowboat paint’. It's like the proverbial painting of the Forth Bridge, never-ending. But it is also a good way of keeping connected with the boat as a physical thing, staying rooted and close to her, getting to know every crook and crevice.
Actually, Vanessa's main task, isn't so much about retouching the bodywork, but creating picture of a daisy to replace the old picture, for the Alice Grace's stern side panels. The stern side panels traditionally sported the company name and boat name in beautifully flowing coloured script. In cases where the boat was privately owned by the boatman himself, a large number 1 would also be emblazoned. Alongside, her usual content of wildlife, cruising and art, Vanessa is recording her progress in designing the most magnificent image of a daisy head. (Link below in the programme notes) In doings so, Vanessa is simply and instinctively flowing with the tides of tradition of bringing the warmth and vibrancy of colour to the canals and waterways which has been so much part of all those generations who have preceded her, joining those who have lived and worked on the inland waterways before her.
This association between narrowboats and paintwork is a long-standing one. Julian Dutton in his fascinating book, Water Gypsies, a social history of those who have lived aboard on Britain's inland waters, is certainly not the first - or last - to liken the colours in which boats are painted with fairground attractions.
Describing the houseboat communities tied up on the Thames at Chelsea Reach, he observes, "Fairground pinks, flame, violet with gold curlicues, rich purples, curved splashes of flamboyant rose - an echo of the exotic boat-painting tradition from centuries gone by."
There is something special about a newly painted boat in traditional colours, often attended by gleaming brass work. Gaily painted lozenges or diamonds decorating the cratchboards and bows, swan-necks banded in reds and whites and greens and yellows, and golds, the flash of stylised roses and castles ornamenting the temptingly ajar stern doors, and, of course, the lavishly flamboyant decorated Buckby Cans and jugs that line the cabin roof. That is without mentioning the, ornamentation of the names, usually on the sides at the stern, or the more recent practice of roof and bow g comprising colourful containers of flowers. It accounts for the little groups of figures, leaning on fences or bridge parapets, watching these colourful spectacles pass beneath them. Colour catches the eye and can attract the attention, particularly colour that in some way is unexpected and out of the ordinary. It can transport the observer away to different, hazy, worlds, as smoothly and as easily as the steady beat of the Lister or Gardner engine eases the snub-nosed prow through the slow greeny-brown waters.
Of course, not all boats sport the rainbow of bright colours of the old working boats. For instance, here on the Erica our colour scheme is an understated forest green and cream name board and lining. In fact, the more modern narrowboat designs would look distinctly odd in the old traditional colours. Nevertheless, the waterways are still filled with numerous examples of shining glossy paintwork (and some - I would dare to suggest perhaps a little more authentic in their slightly duller and grimy clothes. My childhood memories of liveried company boats were almost universally coloured in a patina of grime and hard work. They were WORKING boats after all!
But as Jim Batty observes in his book Narrowboat Life, "There is nothing more joyful to the eye than traditional narrowboat coachwork and signwriting." He goes on to argue that, "a good painter (he includes signwriters here), in effect places the crown on a truly great boat."
It is a job requiring the skills of a craftsman or woman and they were much in demand, and still are.
That doyen of canal writers and enthusiasts, LTC or Tom Rolt, writing in the final years of commercial working boaters, provides, in his book, Narrow Boat, a fascinatingly detailed account of the painting of a working boat at Tooley's Yard in Banbury in the late 1930s.
No one really knows when - or even why - it started - this practice of painting a boat in peacock, fairground colours. But it certainly goes back a long, long time. Characteristically, Hassell in one of our earliest reportage accounts of working boats in 1819 makes no mention of it in his record of his tour of the Grand Junction canal - but then he hardly mentions boats at all. Dazzled by the white heat of technology, his eyes are elsewhere. But writing 40 years later with the canals entering their decline, John Hollingshead's descriptions assume an antiquity to them suggesting that this has been a longstanding and well recognised tradition. He refers to boats whose colours are now faded and tarnished, and concedes that even the flyboat, the Stourport, that he was to embark for his journey from London to Braunston to be:
"Rather faded in its decorations, and is not the 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."
Hollingshead, in his rather paternalistic way, goes on to explain:
"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, 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."
He goes on to describe the Stourport's coachwork:
"The two sides of the cabin, seen from the bank and from 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 seaboard school of art."
However, what catches Hollingshead's eye, are the water containers - there were usually two (one for drinking water, the other for washing and other duties (the latter generally taken directly from the canal).
"If the Stourport cannot match many of its companions in the freshness of its cabin's decorations, it can eclipse every other barge upon the canal in the brilliancy of a new two-gallon watercan, shipped from a backside 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 proprietor, Thomas Randle, running round the centre upon a background of blinding yellow."
Crossing one of the London bridges, while planning his bicycle expedition to welcome the first waves of Spring as it lapped up the west country in 1913, Edward Thomas makes this brief and passing comment that whilst London still felt held tightly in winter's grip, there were signs that heralded Spring’s return. Looking down he observed: "down below upon the sparkling waters many birds were alighting, or were already seated like wondrous blossoms upon the bulwarks of a barge painted in parrot colours red and green."
In fact, so deeply engrained is this practice within our cultural vocabulary and popular consciousness, the 1945 Ealing film set on the canals was simply titled Painted Boats. The studio clearly thinking that such a title was sufficient enough to inform the prospective viewer about the subject - tellingly, for the US audience, this title was dropped in favour of The Girl on the Canal.
When this tradition began, and, perhaps the more interesting question about why it began remains something of a mystery. Sue Wilkes' indispensable Tracing your Canal Ancestors says this -
“There have been many different theories on how the custom of painting canal boats with bright colours and patterns originated, but no one really has a definitive answer."
Many writers have been quick to make links to painted boats and the stylistic colours and paintwork found within the gypsy communities. The intricate colour schemes jeweling the old horse-drawn Romany vardos and bender wagons.
Arguably the loudest voice supporting this connection comes from Ernest Temple-Thurston's The Flower of Gloster the rather sentimentalised account of his journey from Oxford through to Inglesham. (which, like Hassell and Hollingshead we featured as one of last year's Summer Readings episodes).
Tom Rolt, also takes up this theme in the Narrow Boat, describing the working boaters' "inborn gypsy love of colour and polished metal" which "finds expression in the gaily painted cabins of their boats and in the wealth of glittering brass ornaments that adorn them."
He goes on to note:
"These gay, vividly contrasting colours have become as naturally part of the canal scene as the bright plumage of the kingfisher, because they are the product of an artistic instinct which is entirely unself-conscious."
Rolt goes on to speculate on the origins behind imagery of stylised roses and castles (that look so East European) that traditional adorn stern door panels and canal-ware (like Buckby cans):
"Who first established this convention of tall stuccoed towers and wide-eaved red roofs (on the castle designs)? Perhaps it was some old wandering Romany who exchanged his caravan for a narrow boat when the canals were young and adorned his new home with his memories of fairy-tale castles in the Carpathians."
It is easy to find apparent connections between the two communities; working boaters and gypsies. Both use gay and vividly stylised colour to decorate their homes, both share nomadic (or in the case of a number of boaters semi-nomadic) lifestyles, both are viewed with intense suspicion and hostility by the settled populations within whom they live on the margins, whilst, at the same time, both, also, evoke a sense of romanticism about their ways of life within that some population. In fact, when I was working with Traveller Education, children from boater's families were included within the remit of our responsibility, alongside, gypsy-traveller, fairground and circus children.
However, personally, I am unconvinced. The custom of coloured horse drawn wagons significantly pre-dates the canals and I think it is very unlikely that boaters would simply try to emulate or appropriate a custom that was already firmly associated with such a pariah group that were viewed with so much distrust and hostility. Furthermore, the two communities were in many ways closed groups, operating separately from the rest of the world and, apart from commerce resolutely kept a distance from it. Hollingshead was shocked by how little interaction there was between canal workers and the wider public, even to the extent of the existence of specialised shops and even villages dedicated to servicing their needs. These were too very private and closed subcultures that protected their identities guardedly. There would have been little interest from either community to seek to be identified with the other.
I think Rolt is much closer to the point in his earlier comment about this being "the product of an artistic instinct which is entirely unself-conscious." Traveller life was (and is) physically and mentally tough. So too were the lives of the working boaters. Often both groups lived at the edges of society in literal terms. As Romantic as the picture of a little Romany family sit around a campfire under a night sky of summer stars, this was often far from the realities of freezing mud, rutted roads and lanes, lack of water, hunger, cold and rain. Increasingly driven to the waste lands, the derelict lands, the land that nobody wants, the places nobody wants to be. So too, the grinding hard-work of working-boaters - often going right through the night, taking them through the grit and grime of industrial heartlands. Heavy smogs, the smell of slick, rotting wood, the rasp of soaking rope, gritty with gravel and mud, and the burn of raw winds on wet hands. There is very little place for pride and an expression of beauty or colour in these places. Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that both find ways to bring colour and life to their harsh worlds, to bring flashes of beauty to lift the spirit and, as Jim Batty says 'bring joy to the eye'!
It's that impulse again - creating beauty in the ugly realities of life. Bringing colour to the places where colour is needed. And in this where daily we are faced with cruel brutalities and the pettinesses of evil, that impulse grows stronger and stronger - paint carnival colours on the drabness of the world into which we have been thrown and make it glow and flame with beauty. Beer and circuses to keep the mob compliant? 'Don't Look Up.' Maybe, but we'll take the cynical scraps thrown our way and make the skies sing with stars. Yes, we are capable of the most horrific of things and create such ugliness, but in that ugliness the impulse for creativity to bring beauty back into a world we instinctively experience as beautiful wells up. For we know the truth that, deep down, no matter what our cultures tell us, that we are not brutish creatures hardwired for petty selfishnesses and addicted to vandalism and destruction.
The truth is that we are drawn to beauty and find our home in it, and it is with our different ideas of beauty with which we naturally identify. It is our human and natural response to entropy. And when we find ourselves in the imperfect, the drear, the ugly, we bring beauty back into it, because we know that that is our habitat, our true home. Painted boats furrowing through coal dust scummed industrial waterways, painted vardos standing on muddy waste ground in thin November rains. They are part of our blood stream. In so many, many, different ways we are all artists conjuring in our own individual ways beauty and colour into our worlds. A window box adrift on the grey cliff of a tower block wall, a photograph shared on Facebook, a kid with a spray can in her pocket and fire in her eyes, a poem no one will ever read or hear, sometimes it's just a stupid joke to lessen the tension or a smile of kindness that someone needs, or a meal created from the heart Which is why a daisy symbol of Spring and the guardian of day light, lovingly painted on the stern panel of a narrowboat is always so much more than just a pretty picture. Acts of creation and beauty. When the world is grim, we cannot help ourselves to bring a bit of light, and beauty into it - to paraphrase the great poet: we live our lives trailing clouds of beauty and colour. We cannot help it - it's what our souls leak.