The ballads of the barges

There’s more to old waterway songs than meets the ear. Delve into the stories behind these towpath ditties.

The Cruise of the Calibar


The ballads of the Canal Age are important artefacts, which give us an unexpected insight into the time they were written. These ballads were not only a way of celebrating the lifestyles of those who worked on the canals, they were also composed as promotional tools designed to drum up support for new routes and the many improvements that would accompany them. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of ballads and see what they have to say about canal life at that time.

Pamphlets in praise of the Canal Age

Written pamphlets were often used to bring attention to new canal projects, soliciting interest and potential investors. Poems and ballads were sometimes created for the same purpose, eulogising the opportunities that would follow the construction of a canal. One of the earliest of this type of ballad was ‘Inland Navigation’. First published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1766, the lyrics are quick to praise the economic benefits of this new form of transport.

While ballads such as ‘Inland Navigation’ celebrated canals in general, other songs were written to praise individual routes. ‘Song, On Obtaining The Birmingham and Worcester Canal’ welcomed the positive changes that would be brought to the area by a new canal, as you can see from the lyrics:

“In Europe’s grand Toy-Shop how pleasing it will be
Well freighted with trows, and the barges to see
The country ’twill charm, and new life give to trade
When the seat of the Arts shall a sea-port be made.”

Singing for joy at the opening of the Croydon Canal

As well as lauding the passing of relevant Bills and commencement of work on the canals, songs were composed as part of official opening ceremonies. Again, this was a form of promotion aimed at generating excitement and customers. One such song was sung by a proprietor during the opening of the Croydon Canal in 1809 and is full of triumph and delight:

“All hail this grand day when with gay colours flying
The barges are seen on the current to glide
When with fond emulation all parties are vying
To make our Canal of Old England the pride.”

The working life of the navvies

Ballads written during the Canal Age, sometimes appropriated from army and navy songs, also help provide an insight into the navvy lifestyle. These songs would have been passed down through the generations and feature details of the working life, often highlighting the navvies’ strength and drinking prowess. ‘The Bold Navigator’ is a fine example, which gives a clue into why the navvies weren’t always popular:

“When that it does begin for to rain
We’ll gather up our barrows and all gang in
For it’s into a whiskey shop we go
We don’t give a damn whether we work or no.”

For a modern take on the same subject, have a listen to ‘Navigator’ by the Pogues.

“The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts,
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.”

Brawls and broadsides

Other ballads were concerned with specific events. ‘The Navigator’s New Victory; Or The Tailors Done Over’ detailed a race between a navigator and various men in the town of Chester. A fight between Scott (a fly boatman) and Gransby (a boxer), inspired a pair of songs, ‘Sam Scott was A Fly Boatman’ and ‘The Famous Battle Between Scott and Gransby’. Ballads such as these would have been written on broadsides and distributed in the local area.

Perhaps the most important of all of these ballads is ‘The Tommy Note’, which provides a unique account of the system whereby workers were paid with notes that could only be spent in their employer’s tuck shop. The song also references women and children living on barges, helping to date it to the 19th century and leaves us in no doubt as to how the boat people viewed those who paid in this way:

‘Wishing the tiller down his throat
It would be a means to choak him.’

Nothing like a down to earth, honest sing-song to kick back against your boss!