In William’s Wake

WM above Audlem
Whiskey Mac above Audlem – I would prefer to lose the ‘e’, but it came with the boat. One day …

Here I am on the Shropshire Union Canal at Audlem, Cheshire.  Sometime in the late 1830’s my fourth great grandfather William Evans, a boatman, travelled this way with his family.  Some of the places along the way would be recognisable to him now.William was born in 1797 at Kinnerton, Cheshire, probably the child of agricultural labourers.  In 1818 William married Priscilla Mousdale at Dodleston, Cheshire, and four children would be baptised there between 1819 and 1827.  Then, in 1833, daughter Frances was baptised at St John the Baptist, Chester.  I infer that by this time William had become a boatman.  Certainly, by the time third great grandfather Edward Evans arrived in 1836, William was a boatman, abode Canal Bank, Chester.  This was somewhere near the Steam Mill.  Whether they were based there or just travelling up and down the cut, I have no idea, though I think there may be extant records that would add to my knowledge.

The Shropshire Union Canal opened in about 1835.  So what landmarks would my ancestors recognise now?  Well there are quite a few.

Hack Green

I digress:  at Hack Green was something sinister that I could not have known about in my childhood or youth, and I suspect my parents knew nothing about it either.  It is a bunker for continuing government of the UK in the event of a thermonuclear strike by the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) (Russia).  I found it quite interesting.  £9.25?  Not sure, but I spent about an hour and a half looking around.  It all seems so old fashioned given the complex tasks that the technology and staff were expected to cope with.  And to think my cousin could have been among our retaliatory strike force piloting a Vulcan bomber.  Obviously, this was not around when William and family passed by! But they did negotiate the locks.

At Hack Green Locks there is a stable that once held horses for the fly boats.  Fly boats were given priority so they could carry perishable goods faster than boats carrying (say) coal, steel or woven products.

The Shroppie Fly

The Shroppie Fly public house is a well-known watering hole on the cut, but was a warehouse in William’s day (it only opened as a pub in 1975).  Anyway, being a Primitive Methodist he would have been more interested in the Methodist Church.  I went for a beer and it was okay, but the Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (one of my favourites)  was off.  I settled for Doom Bar.  Online there is some criticism, which I think reflect a short period of troubles, but I found the service was what I would hope for and others, including those who had meals, seemed happy with the service and food.  Outside is this board:  transcription below.

the shoppie fly board
Beside the entrance to The Shroppie Fly


The shroppie Fly Public house started life as a warehouse for general goods servicing Audlem around 1835 closely coinciding with the opening of the canal. During the First World War the building served as warehousing for the neighbouring Kingbur Mill. However, by the mid 1970s The Shroppie Fly had changed into its unique incarnation, as seen today. Outside, on the wharf, stood an old corrugated-iron shed which was demolished and replaced by the handspme crane from the nearby railway station as a feature. This station was opened in 1863 and serviced the community well, surviving two world wars until finally succumbing to closure one hundred years later.

The Shroppie Fly is name to be conjured with, for those not of the canal fraternity. However, a waterways enthusiast will know it is the name of the fasted boats once seen upon the system. Due to their speed they carried perishable goods and were considered the ‘express’ service of the waterway. The ran non-stop, whether it be day or night, manned by crews of four men and using horses that were changed regularly. Given the priority of the canal, with the exception of passenger packets, they were able to collect and deliver urgent and perishable goods. They came into being in the 1770s on the Bridgewater and Trent & Mersey Canals but they earned their fame on the Shropshire Union where there was an extensive service up and down its length. Run by the ‘Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company’ for the ‘London & North Western Railway Company’ this service took on the railways and competed hadsomely until the First World War,

Audlem itself is considerably older that the canals of England, it was mentioned in the Domesday Bool as Aldelime so there was a collection of dwellings in the area in 1086. In 1295 it had grown large enough for Edward I to grant it a charter to hold a market and a large church had been founded, St James’ Church. Unfortunately, it did not escape the Black Death, this was visited upon its citizens in 1348 but the community was large enough to continue. Over the centuries houses and farms were added and enough travle took place was built to ford the River Weaver in 1621. Nor did the Civil War bypass the village, Moss Hall Fields saw a skirmish in 1644. It was long after this that a Free Grammar School was opened for the local children. By 1745 there was enough traffic and travelling to warrant a hotel to be built. The Shropshire Union Canal, opened in 1835, bringing commercial interests to the areas as did the railway. The last quarter of he 19th century saw the advances of the Industrial Revolution reach the village, the Audlem Gas Company installed gas lighting in the street lasting for 58 years before the electric version was installed. At the turn of the [21st] century the village had its own fire brigade owning a horse-drawn fire fighting appliance. the motorised version arriving just 27 years later. The village had withstood the vagaries of British life for around 1000 years but it still stands proudly on the Shropshire Union Canal as a beautiful village cared for by its local community.

Audlem Locks

Getting through Audlem entails negotiating fifteen locks.  From Hack Green I did the first three before taking on water, which I need to do at least one per week.  “Never pass a water point” is a boater’s mantra.  I managed to get to the water point outside the pub quite professionally – it’s like a layby with square ends and I had to reverse in, a bit like parking your car in a tight space on street (but try parking your house!).  One outlet was cross-threaded, so I had to hold my hose onto the tap while some kind folk waited to see when the tank was full – when it overflowed.

I can manage locks solo reasonably well, but is it nice to have some help.  The last mooring point by the pub had been taken, so it was another lock solo before mooring about 200 yards away.

Some clever engineer designed and, presumably, oversaw the construction of these locks, so why are the ladders on the wrong side?!  Fortunately, these locks are not deep, so I could step off the boat to operate the paddles and gates.

Having spent one night in Audlem I went into the village to visit the butcher, unusually named Oxtail & Trotter.  Their thick pork sausages are delicious.  I will be back before I move on.

oxtail and trotter
Traditional sausages from Oxtail & Trotter.

I then moved on up the flight of locks to moor in a great spot just above lock 3.  I was following another boat up, so had to empty each lock before entering.  No boats came down until about lock 6, when things got easier.  I did three locks solo and two with some help.  After that other crews did all the work.  Boaters generally seem very helpful, and, anyway, it’s quicker that way.  It was a hard day in blazing sunshine, so I was glad to find moorings after bridge 76.  Between starting and stopping the engine four hours elapsed.  Later, I walked back to the Shroppie Fly to catch up on the World Cup:  it took just twenty minutes!

I assume these two features would be familiar to William and his crew.

I will post some more images of Audlem.  It is a nice little village, though something of an old-fashioned bottle-neck where the A525 and A529 pass through.  I am surprised I did not visit in my cycling days.

I blogged about the Evans family some time ago.




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