Waterway genealogy

Family history writer Sue Wilkes shares her tips on how to find your canal ancestors by following the waterways of Britain.

James Lowe Lock Keeper, Little Whittenham, Oxford; 1904, Henry Taunt

Was one of your ancestors a canal boatman? Or maybe they worked as a lock-keeper, boat-builder, stone mason or canal navvy. Whatever your link to the canals, you’ll have great fun discovering more – but watch out, tracing your family tree can be addictive!

Genealogy (family history) is a popular hobby, thanks to TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? It’s easy to get started. One way to get things going is to ask older family members or friends to give you names, addresses or birth dates for earlier generations. Free family tree charts or templates are available online or you can just sketch out your tree on paper.

Use the information given on birth, marriage or death certificates to work back in time methodically from the present day. For example, your parents’ marriage certificate will give the bride’s and groom’s father’s name and occupation. Copies of birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered from local register offices (https://www.gov.uk/register-offices) or from the General Register Office.

Alternatively, parish registers record baptisms, marriages and burials. When looking for parish registers for boat families, think of the waterways they travelled along as their home ‘parish’. All Saints’ Church at Braunston was popular for boaters’ weddings in Northamptonshire. It was known as the Boaters’ Cathedral and many boaters were buried there too. Tipton and Deritend were also favourite stopping places in the midlands. Parish registers are held by local record offices, or at the original church if still in use.

Census records also offer a fascinating window into the past. Population censuses were taken every ten years and the ‘schedules’ for 1841–1911 are available for you to look at. They show each person’s location, age, and place of origin. Sometimes canal boats were ‘missed’ by census officials but often canal families had a house on land, so some family members may have been at home while others were away working the boat.

There’s plenty of information available online now. The big genealogy suppliers like Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist offers digitised images of parish registers and census schedules (each firm has different record sets, however). These suppliers often offer a free trial period so you can see if it works for you. Otherwise, local libraries usually offer free access to a genealogy supplier via their library computers.

How to use Specialist Canal Records

Look up canal company records
Canal companies employed boatmen, engineers, clerks, toll clerks, blacksmiths, navvies and many other types of workers. Many of these professions may be mentioned in minute books, wage books, staff ledgers, pension books and rent rolls so canal company records are often a good place to start.

The National Archives hold the largest collection of canal company records, including firms like the Birmingham Canal Navigation Co. and Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Co. You can use the Discovery catalogue to find canal company records: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk Some British Waterways Board collections are also held at local record offices.

Visit the Waterways Archive
The Waterways Archive at Ellesmere Port holds many hundreds of documents and historic photos of canal boats and workers. You can visit the archive in person, or explore its collections online: http://collections.canalrivertrust.org.uk/home

Look up health registers
Health registers can be helpful records too. Following the Canal Boats Acts of 1877 and 1884, local authorities kept registers of canal boats. Sanitary inspectors checked the boats regularly to ensure they were clean and not overcrowded. These records include owners’ addresses; the inspectors’ journals noted how many adults and children were on each boat. These health registers can usually be found at local record offices, sometimes catalogued as ‘registers of canal boats and barges’. The Waterways Archive holds some of these registers, and databases of registers for some regions. Some registers have been put online (see ‘How to find online resources’).

Read newspapers and magazines
Magazines such as Narrowboat regularly feature articles and photos of canal carriers such as Fellows, Morton and Clayton, and families on the historic working boats. Local reference libraries and record offices should have copies of historical trade directories – useful for tracing boat-builders and carriers. Old newspapers (also available from libraries) may have family notices, or reports of accidents on the canals.

How to find online resources
Once you’ve figured out the location of your ancestors, then these online archives, registers and mailing lists should help you on your way…

Cheshire Archives
Database of owners, masters and crewmen of ships registered in Port of Runcorn 1863–1913: bit.ly/1Ph7l4E

Leigh Canal Boat Registers 1878–1934: bit.ly/1RluI3A

Free Rootsweb Genealogy Mailing List (Canal People):

Gloucestershire Genealogical Database:

Wigan Canal Boat Registers 1878–1951: bit.ly/1Odfebs

Wolverhampton Boat Families (Holt’s Index):

Other useful resources

General Register Office
You can order birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales from 1 July 1837 onwards. Write to: General Register Office Certificate Services Section, General Register Office, PO Box 2, Southport, PR8 2JD; or visit www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/default.asp; email: certificate.services@gro.gsi.gov.uk; tel: 0300 123 1837

Waterways Archive, Ellesmere Port
Look up company records, staff records, library, photographic collection and more. Research service available. Open Mon–Wed 10.00am – 4pm; booking advisable.

The Waterways Archive (Ellesmere Port), South Pier Road, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, CH65 4FW; http://collections.canalrivertrust.org.uk/home; email: archives@canalrivertrust.org.uk; tel: 0151 373 4378

The National Archives
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU; www.nationalarchives.gov.uk; email contact form: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/form; tel: 0208 876 3444

Explore the past
See waterways history brought to life at one of these museums or historic sites of interest…

National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port
See historic boats, search through the waterways archives and explore traditional clothing and decorative canal ware: South Pier Road, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, CH65 4FW: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/museums-and-attractions/national-waterways-museum; tel: 0151 355 5017

The Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne
Unearth the stories of Britain’s canals through the stories of engineers, navvies, lock keepers and boat families: 3 Bridge Rd, Stoke Bruerne, Towcester, NN12 7SE; https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/museums-and-attractions/the-canal-museum; tel: 01604 862229

Anderton Boat Lift, Cheshire
Explore the Victorian history of canal engineers and life on the waterways – while marvelling at this incredible feat of engineering: Lift Lane, Anderton, Northwich, Cheshire, CW9 6FW; https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/museums-and-attractions/anderton-boat-lift; tel: 01606 786777

Foxton Inclined Plane Trust (The Boilerhouse)
Explore the stories surrounding Foxton Locks and look up archive photographs: The Boiler House, Middle Lock, Gumley Road, Foxton, Leicestershire, LE16 7RA; www.fipt.org.uk/#!boilerhouse/ciqt; tel: 0116 2792 657

Yorkshire Waterways Museum
Delve into your Yorkshire family history at this fascinating museum, along with gallery and reference library; book to access the archive collections: Dutch River Side, Goole, DN14 5TB; www.waterwaysmuseum.org.uk; tel: 01405 768730

Top five family history websites
If you’re ready to get started, these specialist websites should help you on your way…

Ancestry: www.ancestry.co.uk

FamilySearch (free): https://familysearch.org

Findmypast: www.findmypast.co.uk

The Genealogist: www.thegenealogist.co.uk

Society of Genealogists: www.sog.org.uk