Digging in the archives

My parents always said to me ‘when you go to university, do what you enjoy, not what you think will guarantee you a job’. So I chose to study history – cue the usual ‘but what on earth can you do with a history degree?’ It turns out more than I’d initially anticipated; this week I certainly put my research skills to good use for our Window on the World project…

As a history enthusiast (this sounds more sophisticated than ‘nerd’!) with a relentless thirst for uncovering old stories and new knowledge, I couldn’t wait to start my ‘research adventures’ further afield, in various archives across the North West.

With Mossdale being a rare surviving Mersey flat, it seemed logical to begin with a visit to the Merseyside Maritime Museum archive. Mike Stammers, author of Mersey Flats and Flatmen, (AKA my ‘Companion to Mossdale’) was the first head of the Museum. A journey to Wigan Archive was also on the cards, with it being the birthplace of George and the home of her official records…

Journey across the Mersey

At the Maritime, I viewed some intriguing documents and photographs from days gone by, including notepads crammed full of boat drawings and dimensions, envelopes containing pocked-sized photos and negatives of various canals and vessels, and a huge timeworn book of Runcorn boat registers. The pages were enormous, filled with elegant ink scrawls of boat names and pencilled scribbles of notes about the boats - I felt slightly anxious handling it! Yet, still no sign of anything to do with Mossdale in particular.

Nevertheless, I didn’t return empty-handed. I managed to gain a wealth of information and primary evidence related to Mersey flats in general. I took full advantage of the Archive’s comprehensive library to conduct thorough secondary literature research and gained a real insight into life on the boats of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, using several of Mike Clarke’s books.


Road trip up to Wigan

Wigan Archives Service was equally as accommodating to my specific areas of research; it was well worth the 50-minute drive! The Archivist brought out two large volumes of boat registers. After cautiously ploughing through the sepia-toned pages, I felt a surge of delight when I stumbled upon George’s record, written in 1910. It was quite exciting to see it in front of me, after spending weeks of sifting through an endless pile of books, documents and online archives to locate snippets of George’s past.

I spent the rest of the afternoon scanning through hundreds of photographs in the hope of finding a find – and that I did! Amongst the countless images of Wigan Pier, the canal basin and various vessels, I came across a rather curious photograph of what appears to be our very own George, taken in Worsley in the summer of 1942. However, rather than carrying coal, George was practically overflowing with men, women and children, beaming in delight aboard the boat.


I hadn’t yet come across evidence that George was ever used for anything other than coal transportation along the North West’s waterways. Surely this had to be our George? Her records reveal that she was owned by the Wigan Coal Corporation in 1942 – which is likely to be the full inscription painted on her intricately decorated stern in this photo.

My head was bursting with questions about my finding – why are there so many children on board? Was George used for school outings or public daytrips during the summertime? Who is the man at the front wearing the coat and flat cap? Were the women on the deck teachers? I was eager to get back to the museum and dive in to some thorough research into this enchanting photograph. Hopefully I’ll have some more interesting info to share with you soon about the formerly ‘hidden history’ of our beloved Leeds & Liverpool short boat - stay tuned!

Big thanks to staff and volunteers at Wigan Archives and Merseyside Maritime Museum for all their help during my visits.

Last date edited: 27 August 2013

About this blog

National Waterways Museum

The National Waterways Museum is home to the most comprehensive collection of artefacts that tell the story of Britain’s canals and navigable rivers over the last 300 years. With sites at Ellesmere Port and Gloucester, the museum holds over 12,000 historic objects and 68 historic boats and is designated by the Arts Council England as of national importance. The National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port is also home to the Waterways Archive including over 100,000 papers, drawings photographs, plans and books relating to the waterways – a vital part of our national cultural heritage.


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