Evans the Boat

I thought that Evans would be the most difficult line to trace, as this is among the most frequent Welsh names. The boatman angle was going to make life more difficult. They moved about, sometimes as nomadic as Gypsies, and their children were baptised all over the place, but, at least, usually near to a canal. To some degree I was luckier than most, because, although it appears the earlier boatmen in Andrew’s Kindred lived on the water, later generations would live on land and have a fixed abode.

When Dad turned seventy we took a canal boat holiday. We hired a narrowboat, the sort one sees on the canal today, but this was a luxurious far cry from the existence of working boatmen trying to compete with the fast-developing railways. We knew that, but had no idea that we were travelling some waterways that our ancestors used to earn a crust. When I walked past, and even photographed, the canalside Steam Mill building in Chester, I had no idea that my third great grandfather was baptised just round the corner. At that time I had not even begun to think about family history research.

Dad on his 70th birthday in 1996, from a print that has seen better days – no digital camera back then.

The most interesting aspect of Edward Evans’ baptism was not the fact of place and time (Primitive Methodist Church, Steam Mill Street, Chester, on 25 May 1836), but the parts of the record showing the abode “canal bank” and father’s occupation as “boatman”. Did this mean the family lived aboard?

I was aware from various sources that to compete with growing rail transport and the need for canal-borne transporters to reduce costs, which for many meant not affording to rent houses. So they lived on board, sharing a tiny cabin, typically 10 feet (or as little as 7 feet) by 6 feet 6 inches and 4 feet 6 inches high (approximately 3 x 2 x 1.5 metres) – there is a good description here http://www.gloucesterdocks.me.uk/museum/background/narrowboatlife.htm. The Evans would bring up 5 children in such conditions. For Chester the situation was particularly desperate as the growing port of Liverpool and industry on Merseyside took trade away from what had for a long time been the busiest port on England’s west coast.

Edward’s family had moved before the 1841 census to Wombourne, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire and Worcestersire Canal. There they were recorded at Giggetty, today a winding lane that crosses the canal at bridge No. 44, Giggetty Bridge. At “Giggatty” the census records a cluster of 5 households whose head was a boatman and 1 waterman nearby. There were 5 more boatman households at Ounsdale a little way to the north. It seems likely that these households lived onboard. They were still at Giggetty in 1851, but Edward and his brothers were not with them. I have not been able to find Edward in the 1851 census, but from what I have read there is a good chance that he was missed, perhaps because he was working another boat.

At that time the Evans family consisted of William, 40, boatman, Priscilla, 34, and 4 children aged 15 to 3 years. The youngest, Priscilla, was born at Chester, registered (I think) 1838 Apr Great Boughton 19 37, but I have not been able to find a baptism online – looks like a trip to Chester archives.

Living on board brought many hazards for young Edward and the family generally. These included risk of drowning or serious injury, from living in an industrial working environment, illness from contaminated water or a generally poor environment (though cabins were mostly kept fastidiously clean), poor diet as parents struggled to make ends meet, little or no schooling and social stigma as boat families tended to be seen as outsiders and, like Gypsies and navvies, were considered untrustworthy and prone to crime and drunkenness.

When Edward married in 1858 he did not sign his own name, simply making his own mark. It is not necessarily the case that he was unable, as some were unwilling, lacking the confidence to use an unfamiliar pen under the watchful eye of the vicar or minister and the witnesses, but it seems highly likely that he was illiterate. His bride, Susannah Hyde, and both witnesses also made their mark. Both were resident at Dudley. Susannah’s father John was a labourer and Edward’s father William a forgeman.

In 1861 Edward and Susannah were at Blackley, Wombourne where Edward was a boatman. There was still a cluster of boatmen at Giggetty, but Edward’s neighbours in the Blackley area were mainly involved in the cottage industry of making iron nails. Also their 3 year old daughter Hannah was shown as “scholar”, which seems a shade young, though other 3 and 4 year olds were listed as scholars. If it is true, it suggests a fixed abode, so maybe Edward was doing well enough to rent on land.

In 1871 Edward, still a boatman, and his wife and 6 children were at number 30 Park Street, in the Blakenhall area of Wolverhampton, about a mile from the nearest canal, so he must have had the means to rent accommodation on land.

The 1870s seem to have brought mixed fortune. Son Edward was born 1872 at Wombourne and daughter Francis was born 8 Aug 1878 at Ounsdale, Wombourne; back on the water? By 1881, however, they were resident at Bridgnorth Road, Tettenhall at a substantial house that stands today, though is no longer residential – see Mystery number one: Nan (part 2). I suspect they did not occupy the whole building, but, apperently, they could afford some considerable rent through several family members bringing in money. Edward and his son William were boatmen. Daughters Harriet (housemaid), Jane (domestic servant) and Amey (Annie) (laundress) were all employed, with 3 of the 4 younder children at school. They also had some stables, which probably supplemented their income.

Edward died in the spring of 1890. There is no entry in the Probate Calendar by which his wealth could be measured. By 1891 Susannah and 4 children, including Harriet, still in service, and 18 year old Edward, boatman, had moved to Henwood Lane, Tettenhall. There were also 2 boarders named Challenor, general labourers. Susannah was “living on her own means”, but it is hard to judge the balance between anything left by Edward senior and income from boarders and children.

The sort of boat that Edward would have been familiar with, though this is diesel-powered.  The cabin gives some idea of the space available to a family living on board.

In 1901 something strange occured. There, at Canal Bridge Compton, was Susannah, head, with Edwin Owen, son, single, 24, canal boatman, born Wombourne. But who was he? I can find no other mention, no birth, no baptism, nothing in the press.

By 1911 the family was still at 3 Compton Bridge, Compton, where they had been in 1881. No economic status is recorded for Susannah. Daughters Harriet Jane and Mary Ann were charwomen, though against Harriet it says “private houses”, and William Challoner was still boarding. They had 7 rooms, so that may have been the whole building.

There is something unusual about the entry: it is “signed” Harriet Jane Evans (who was not the head of household) with her mark “X”, which was witnessed by M N Richards, the enumerator. It seems life on the water had deprived Susannah and Harriet of the basic literacy that most people had by then.

In researching this I found an interesting website about canal boat families – http://www.spellweaver-online.co.uk/90285/info.php?p=1.

Coal boats at Anglesey Wharf, near Brownhills, then in Staffordshire.

I doubt that Edward visited this spot, but coal laden boats must have been an everyday sight for him.

2 thoughts on “Evans the Boat

  1. I found this to be a very interesting post. My wife’s family had some boatman on the Erie Canal in New York State for a while, but the useful life on the canal was short lived. Time keeps moving forward and things change. Also it seems to me taking a vacation on a canal would be something I would enjoy.


  2. Thankyou for your reply. A tour on the canals is quite relaxing as the boats are limited to walking pace (on narrow canals). At first trying to steer a 70 foot boat (s0me are much shorter) from the rear seems daunting, but we were given some excellent tuition: first a model of how to operate lock gates and then onboard guidance on how to maintain the engine (basically checking the oil level, but we happened to have a mechanic in our party) and how to steer and turn the boat around. This lasted about 30-40 minutes and then we could go and exlpore. There were some tricky moments, but, on the whole, it was a relaxing break and, anyway, the odd crisis adds to the memory. Because the canals were so important in times gone by there were lots of inns and public houses to cater to canal users and many of these still cater to recreational canal traffic.


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