Canal companies featured horse-drawn boats on their official seals and emblems, John Constable painted them and archive collections contain many photographs of Shires, mules and donkeys. These days a horse-drawn boat is a rare sight, but the remains of this centuries-old source of power are scattered across the Trust’s network.
If you look carefully enough, starting with the towpath (which speaks for itself), it becomes clear how much historic infrastructure was designed with horses in mind. Bridges had rope guards or rollers to ease straining ropes. Some were specialised turnover bridges with leading and trailing edge parapets that allowed ropes to slide up and over as the horse crossed the water. Others are split bridges, with a gap between their decks to allow a rope to pass through. Locks had strapping posts and starting pins to control towed boats and some canals, like the Regent’s, had ramps leading down into canal to help horses that got dragged in out of the water.
Horses needed a lot of looking after and canal-side stables still survive in places, some with their interiors and stalls little altered. Others have been converted into shops or cafes or for residential use. Many stables were canal company owned and located at docks, wharfs, and maintenance yards. Other stables belonged to private business; Pickfords and Fellows, Morton & Clayton built their own. There are fine examples on the Shropshire Union, the Leeds & Liverpool and the Dudley Canal. Historic archives for the Oxford Canal record ‘Stables for 4 horses with a boathouse over’ at Rugby Wharf and ‘Stables with large store room over’ at Clifton Wharf.
The development of powered craft from the mid 19th Century onwards saw a slow decline in commercial horse drawn boats, with the last ones dwindling away, for the most part, in the 1960s. But if you are lucky enough to see a horse pulling a boat these days (possibly at an event organised by the Horseboating Society) it really does bring waterways heritage alive.
As national heritage manager, Nigel’s role is to lead the Canal & River Trust’s team of regional heritage advisers in England and Wales. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in the conservation, archaeology and interpretation of historic buildings and places. He is a member of the editorial board of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. He has written numerous articles concerning heritage conservation and is the author of several longer published works, including the English Heritage Book of Canals.See more blogs from Nigel Crowe