"Hauling by horses is still the system most used on the general body of the inland waterways, and in it must be including hauling by mules, which is rare, and by pairs of donkeys, or, as they are termed, 'animals.'"
So begins the section on Haulage in the 1904 Bradshaw's Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales.
On talking about towing along river banks, it goes on to complain about the use of stiles rather than farm gates along the Bedford Level"
". . . some of them as high as 2ft 7in, over which horses towing have to jump, giving themselves frequently nasty knocks in so doing."
This Bradshaw's publication, of which I have written before, is not of the Michael Portillo type, having no descriptions of local scenery or architecture, but I love it. This is not a history book, but a historical document, a snapshot in time and all the more vivid for it. As a handbook mainly for commercial canal fleet operators it contains nigh on 500 pages of detailed information on boats, locks, tunnels, distances, depth of canal and much else, all frozen in time in 1904. What use it was to the actual boatmen is a matter for speculation, but as they knew the canal like the back of their hand and a lot of them couldn't read anyway, I don't suppose they valued it much. Whilst I have no inside knowledge, it seems highly probable that that is where the brilliant Nick Atty started compiling his data for the number one canal website Canalplan, the clue being that it gives distances in miles and furlongs as Canalplan does..
Interestingly, the book makes no mention (that I can find) of diesel or semi diesel engines, except to say "Oil engines have been tried but have never passed much beyond the experimental stage." So the section on mechanical propulsion focuses on steamers although in a somewhat derogatory fashion.
"The ordinary 'narrow' or 'monkey' boat with a capacity of about 30 tons . . . is quite small enough already without further deduction on account of engine room space".
It's the window on how things looked to people at the time that I like in addition to the little details, such as:
"A lock of water may cost anything from nothing upwards. . . a lock of water pumped from the Artesian Well to the Tring summit of the Canal cost £1 4s 8d and a lock from the Cowroast Well 13s 7d. "
On the Birmingham canals where the locks are of the narrow type, the cost of water per lock was 2s 4d.
More sections describe bridges, tunnels, aqueducts and tides, before going on to set out the design, dimensions and carrying capacities of the many different types of boats in use, from sailing wherries to monkey boats. And then we get into the main meat of the book which gives descriptions of every navigable waterway in the country, -Proprietors, distance table, locks and their dimensions, towing path, types of vessels in use and tidal information where appropriate. What I like is that although this information is well over a hundred years old, the bulk of it is still accurate for today. There are a couple of things that sadly don't translate so well, one being the listing of quite a number of waterways that have since been lost, and the information on maximum draught. I doubt whether a boat with a draught of 4ft would make it down the Slough Arm today, but that's the depth Bradshaw quotes.
Here's a bit hat caught my eye:
"The ordinary traffic through both Braunston and Blisworth tunnels is worked by the Canal Company's tugs. Gunpowder boats have to 'leg' through."
I bet they did! Gunpowder and boilers don't sit well together. I even wonder at the thought of sparks from the legger's hobnails against the bricks. And there would have been quite a few gunpowder boats through Blisworth en-route to the Royal Ordnance depot at Weedon. The entry of Blisworth goes on to give the Company Steamer daily timetable showing 8 steamer tug passages in each direction each day starting from alternate ends every hour from 5am to 8pm. I suppose the gunpowder boats might slot in between or go outside of steamer hours.
And so it all goes on. Fascinating stuff and even useful today. Had I been able to consult it before towing a masted tender under Ludham Bridge on the River Ant many years ago, we might not have broken the mast and lost our damage deposit. While you can't go boating yet, it would make a super browse to fill in the time. You could even plan your cruises with it. It exists in a modern "exact facsimile" copy easily available today. Amazon sells it for approx £12 (other suppliers are available).