The history of our canals in ten artefacts: part one

From the forerunner of narrowboat design to delicate handicrafts: Collections Assistant Zofia Kufeldt introduces us to three finds that provide a unique glimpse of our canal history.

The starvationer

The Canal & River Trust has over 12,000 items in its collections, but only around 10% of them are on public display. Zofia invites us behind the scenes at the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, which is sandwiched between the Shropshire Union and Manchester Ship Canal, to tell the stories of three artefacts that provide a unique glimpse of life and work on the waterways.

A handmade gift
The first find is a delicate crochet mat made by Rose Skinner in 1969 for her friend Lorna Thomas. Rose and her husband Joe were well-known personalities on the canals and, along with Lorna, they were early members of the Coventry Canal Society, which saved hundreds of miles of the waterway from dereliction. “Many boat women took pride in the crochet work that adorned their cabins, for it served both a functional and decorative purpose,” Zofia tells us. “It’s lovely to have a handmade object like this in the collection that was such a personal gift from one friend to another.”

A flash of colour
The Isabella Salt Chest is a lidded wooden box hand-painted in the traditional ‘Roses & Castles’ style familiar to narrowboat dwellers in the 19th century. The chest, which Zofia believes was used for storing clothes, belonged to a boat woman named Isabella Salt, whose name is inscribed along the front of the lid. Isabella was born in Northamptonshire in 1845 and married George Salt from Staffordshire before moving onto a narrowboat where they spent much of their married life on the Trent & Mersey Canal. Their surname was very suited to their profession as they delivered cargo for Salt Union Ltd – a cartel of salt manufacturers with works in England and Northern Ireland. “The boats of the Salt Union Limited were plainly decorated on the outside,” says Zofia, “so this chest would have brought some welcome colour in the cabin as well as some useful storage space for Isabella and her many children on board.”

The forerunner of narrowboats
The third item on our list is a rare surviving example of an early narrow canal craft called the Starvationer, so named for the boat’s exposed ribbed sides. This incredibly preserved relic was used in the Duke of Bridgewater’s underground canals to transport coal straight from the coal face onto the Bridgewater Canal. The Duke of Bridgewater, fed up with his coal mines being flooded and looking for an efficient way of carrying coal, built the Bridgewater Canal in 1761. Zofia tells us about the importance of this craft in the museum’s collection: “The Starvationer is one of the earliest boats built specifically for canals, and there are references to them in writing dating back as early as 1765. The design of the craft influenced engineer James Brindley’s narrow canals and is considered the forerunner of the narrowboat still widely in use today.”

The crochet mat is kept safely stored in the museum’s archives to preserve its delicate craftwork, but the painted chest and the Starvationer are on public display for all to enjoy. The rest of the museum’s collection boasts an impressive way of canal craft, working models and colourful exhibits that trace the social and industrial history of our 250-year canal heritage. You can read more about the on our website.

Film: Colin Nicholls, Illustration: Joe Rampley