Working boats of our waterways

Ice breakers, tunnel tugs that pulled up to 20 boats at a time and silt ‘spoons’: the history of canal maintenance boats is certainly a curious one

Tug Boat


Ever since there’s been industrial traffic on the waterways, there’s been a fleet of maintenance and support boats in operation. Over time, many of these boats have been superseded, either by upgrades to the waterways or technical advances, but there are still a number of service boats in operation supporting the people who live, work and holiday along our canals and rivers.

Tunnel tugs

Tunnel TugAs the canal network expanded and engineering skills advanced, longer tunnels allowed canals to take more direct and faster routes. But how could one possibly propel working boats, which were usually horse drawn, through these tunnels? Initially, human power was utilised through a technique known as ‘legging’, but the advent of steam in the 1860s led to the invention of tug boats.

Tunnel tugs were employed to tow trains of boats through tunnels, with each craft having two crew – an engineman and a steerer – and some tugs are able to pull up to 20 boats at a time. The boats’ steam engines were eventually replaced by diesel motors, but by the mid-20th century, horse drawn boats were so few and far between that tunnel tugs became redundant and most of them were retired.

One tunnel, the Dudley Canal Tunnel, still employs tugs as engines are not allowed in the low tunnel. If your boat is deemed suitable you can also try legging through the tunnel but you must book passage with the Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust. The finest example of an operating tunnel tug is the Worcester, one of five tugs built to operate on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at the turn of the 20th century, which can now be seen at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port.


IcebreakerIce spelled disaster for canals, with traffic grinding to a halt and factories left without valuable supplies. Therefore, a different (tougher) kind of boat was designed: an icebreaker. While only in operation for a few days per year, its specialised design made it an essential part of canal life. Towed by teams of horses, the heavily plated and iron clad bow would ride up on the ice. A team of between 8 and 20 men would hold onto a central rail and rock the boat side to side, the sway of the boat creating a wave that broke the ice ahead.

The challenges posed by harsh weather during the Big Freeze of 1963 was said to be the final nail in the coffin after rail and road had already started to take over canal freight. However, many of these boats, including some wooden examples, have been preserved to this day having seen very few days’ work during their life. Marbury was one of the boats we brought out of the canal at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port last October. It’s not actually on public display but is currently being conserved in the museum’s dry store. The store is occasionally open for interested visitors. However you can catch a glimpse of Wappenshall at the same museum. There’s also the Middlewich at the Ironbridge Museum, and the North Star at the Black Country Living Museum.


DredgerFighting silt build up in the waterways is a constant battle and has been since canals were first built. One solution is to dredge the waterways, essentially scooping up the sediment from the bottom of the canal and removing it to allow boat traffic to continue to navigate and for flora and fauna to flourish. Early dredgers acted like a ‘spoon’ – a group of men would manually operate a scoop on a long-pivoted handle, loading the silt into hopper boats that carried the mud to a disposal site. By 1900, however, these were replaced by steam operated devices varying from grab cranes to chain bucket operations.

Modern techniques involve boat or shore mounted excavators, or a technique known as ‘hydro-dynamic dredging’ where the silt is agitated and re-suspended in the water and dispersed downstream by the water flow or tide. Keep your eye out for these modern dredgers as you travel the waterways or, if you want to see some historic examples, the National Waterways Museum, Gloucester has an impressive steam bucket dredger on show. You can also see Perseverance, a steam powered grab dredger, at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.

Tug boats

Tug BoatAs well as tunnel tugs, general tug boats were employed all around the waterways, especially around the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN). The network constitutes 100 miles of canal, so when diesel engines became a reliable option at the turn of the 20th century, transporting boats by tug became a very efficient means of movement. These boats, known as BCN tugs, would haul a train of Joey boats – engineless craft without accommodation, as journeys could be made in a single day – from mines to factories.

Today, tugs are still used for a range of maintenance operations, from pulling ploughs through water to dredge silt to the Bantam style tugs that push flat bottomed barges and hoppers around the waterways. Many original BCN tugs have been converted to modern leisure boats, so keep an eye out as you travel the waterways. Some of the original Bantam tugs can also be spotted in the water, but there are several in museums including the London Canal Museum, the National Waterways Museum and the Yorkshire Waterways Museum.

Joe Rampley