My mother’s family had a history of life on the canals. It was a hard life of extreme poverty and I have many stories that have been passed down of my immediate family, as well as the extended family that traveled up and down the country.
The Express & Star newspaper in Wolverhampton ran an article on the family in 2012.
The cargoes they carried were food, such as wheat and if they were lucky, chocolate and coal.
The items I chose to represent this story are; coal, metal (copper) and grain.
The two bargees they lived and worked were called Apollo Duck and Spade. The boats still exist today, as leisure boats.
Apollo Duck today.
Interior of Apollo Duck.
Spade was one of the oldest boats mooring at Cosgrove in 2013.
Spade around 1927.
The family left the canals and settled in a Back to Back house in Broad Street, Wolverhampton around 1937/8. Most of the children are still alive in 2017.
18,000 families were estimated to be working the canals in 1800’s, 3000 of these were women. These families often came from farming communities who diversified in order to earn money. The whole family were involved with even small children working alongside adults. It was an extremely hard life. Families worked for 17 hours a day. The winters were freezing and the summers boiling in the narrow, cramped and overcrowded boats. Due to the traveling lifestyle, they were uneducated and illiterate.
The community of these “Bargees” was very strong, much like the gypsy communities of today. They had their own cultures. The boats were decorated, inside and out with roses and castles paintings. Interiors decked out with lace and rag rugs.
Bargees had a bad reputation. People were suspicious of the boat workers who rarely left the towpath. They were branded as criminals and scruffy, violent people. Some tags warranted as many did drink. They were scruffy and indeed due to the work and living conditions, they were often dirty. They also earned the violent reputation as fights often broke out between them, especially at locks.
Because of the stigma attached to Bargees children were told to forget their backgrounds if they left the canals for dry land.