A pub for all sorts

Delve into the stories behind historic watering holes built for leggers, horsemen, dockers, boaters and navvies


Today, there are hundreds of pubs located beside canals, but there used to be many more. In 1974’s Waterside Pubs, Ronald Russell estimates that during the canal era’s heyday on “some busy stretches of canal, there could be between five and ten pubs in a single mile”. Many opened after 1830, when an amendment to the 1828 Licensing Act abolished beer duty in a bid to wean the population off gin. Cheap beer houses became a common sight, particularly around canals, which in 1830 employed around 100,000 men. Canalside pubs were essential for boaters who spent most of their lives on the move. This was where they could get hot food, catch up on news and leave messages for boaters yet to pass.

In 1875, these pubs were described as “public houses of the lowest kind” by George Smith, who campaigned to improve living conditions for boaters. Many boaters drank a concoction called “a fourpenny” – it cost fourpence a quart – which was said by Smith to taste of “saltpetre, vinegar, treacle and mint”. There is now a pub called The Old Fourpenny Shop Hotel in Warwick, which claims to take its name from the fact that when the Grand Union was being built nearby, the pub charged only four pence for coffee and rum, whereas other inns asked for sixpence.

Although you can’t always tell from the outside, canalside pubs were built for different purposes. Some were located around tunnels, to refresh leggers and boaters waiting for their turn. Hopwood House in Alvechurch near the West Hill tunnel on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal had sleeping quarters for leggers, who kipped on hard wooden benches. There were also stables, a bakery and bedrooms for boaters. The same canal once had a pub called the Plymouth Arms that was said to have closed after drunken leggers drowned in the nearby tunnel.

For similar reasons, there were numerous pubs around locks, such as the Bottle & Glass Inn, which was originally built on the Stourbridge Canal at Brockmoor but was moved brick by brick to Dudley in 1979 to form part of the Black Country Living Museum. Pubs built above tunnels or where canals met major roads often had stables for changing horses.

A great many canalside inns, such as the Globe at Leighton Buzzard on the Grand Union, started life as farmhouses, which owners opportunistically turned into pubs and stables when the canals come through. They were originally built to serve the navvies – who were sometimes so troublesome, the canal companies catered for them with travelling beer tents – and then the boaters that followed. These pubs also served engineers and surveyors during construction, and often doubled as chandleries and general stores, selling vital equipment to boaters. The Cape Of Good Hope in Warwick was once also a general store, Thrupp’s Boat Inn on the Oxford Canal was a farmhouse turned shop and pub, while the Red Lion overlooking the lock in Fenny Stratford was listed in 1871 as both pub and grocer. The Vine at Kinver on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal started life as a bottle shop for passing boaters – it didn’t get a license until 1951.

Strangely, some towpath pubs predate the waterways, such as the Anchor Inn in Salterforth. When the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was built it caused the road level to rise, so a new floor was built on top of the old two-storey pub. The former ground floor pub became a cellar, the old first-floor bedrooms became the Canal Tavern and the new floor had bedrooms. Publicans were nothing if not canny.

Other pubs were located around wharves, such as the Navigation Inn at Bugsworth Basin, which was built as pub, shop and stables and was once owned by Pat Phoenix from Coronation Street. Some served the packet boats – fast-travelling boats for mail or passengers – or fly boats, which were express boats that didn’t stop at night, with crew working in shifts. The Old Packet House, originally named the Bridge Inn, on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Burscough, was built for passengers who might leave the canal to travel by road or visit the nearby race course. Many pubs had stables, sometimes for up to 100 horses.

Tracking down the origin of waterside pubs can be tricky as myth and legend often take over. The Leggers Inn at the Dewsbury end of the Calder & Hebble Navigation, for instance, is actually a recent arrival, occupying what was once the hayloft of the stables for canal horses. The Tunnel House Inn in Cirencester is a similar historical cocktail – it was originally a barracks for the navvies who were constructing the Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal. Once work was completed, the building was turned into a pub.

On the other side of the tunnel is The Daneway Inn. This was originally three houses built for the engineers overseeing the navvies; following completion, one was named the Bricklayers Arms in honour of the men who built the tunnel, and the other two became lodgings for leggers. A more recent conversion was the Willeymoor Lock Tavern in Whitchurch by the Llangollen Canal, which was formerly a lock keepers cottage.

The Boat in Stoke Bruerne was once three cottages, one of which served as the village beerhouse. When the canal arrived, it was quickly re-named. It had stables and a hut for the men who legged the boats through the Blisworth Tunnel. A writer visited the pub in 1858 and declared it a “melancholy canalside tavern” serving “thin and sour ale”, but it has since became a part of canal history, the location of numerous anecdotes related to boaters. Many Victorian writers looked down on the canal workers and the pubs they frequented. A Birmingham newspaper in 1875 published an account of a visit to one canal pub, with its low ceilinged taproom and drunken boaters belting out songs. He describes the place as a “nasty, suspicious den”, but I think it sounds rather fun.

As our waterways have been restored, pubs have started to trade more confidently on their canalside locations. Many now take their name from the canal – the Navigation, The Boat, the Anchor. While not all of them were originally built as pubs, most have been intimately tied to the canal, either as warehouses, water mills, stables or cottages. Although the main use of our canals has shifted from industry to leisure, the swinging pub sign is just as welcome as it ever was.

Alan Baker