It's not all black and white

Back in the 1950s black and white were like Britain’s national colours. All kinds of things – humbugs (the sweets that is), railway stations, lighthouses, road signs, canal structures – were painted black and white.

On the inland waterways Eric de Mare’s haunting photographs and the more prosaic Waterway Environment Handbook, which was produced by BWB in the 1970s seemed to reinforce this ‘tradition’ of covering lock gates, metal bridges, handrails and bollards in black and white.

But how much of a tradition actually is it? Because if you look carefully at de Mare’s photographs, quite a few things are not painted at all and not everything that was is black and white.

In the 1980s I recall inspecting cast iron bridges that appeared never to have been painted, or else were some other colour; I found grey, and peeling dark green in some places. And if you look at the parapet railings on Chirk Aqueduct today you will find no sign of paint; just bare, weather-hardened cast iron. The railings on Pontcysyllte are painted however.

A trawl through historic photographs in the Waterways Archive reveals much inconsistency, especially the further back in time you go. There is little evidence that lock gates were usually painted (and indeed we have examples now that, with the exception of balance beam ends) have not seen a lick of paint. Lock gates on the same canal could be unpainted at one time, grey in a later period and black and white later still.

It is very difficult to say what is authentic and what is not, but there is an interesting debate to be had. Anything that aids visitor safety, like handrail and bollard tops and beam ends might be expected to be highlighted; but what about other things? Modern paints have, until recently, been potentially very damaging to historic structures. And why do we paint lock gates (but not all of them) now, when they may never have been painted in the past? One thing is clear – the answer is not simply black and white.

Last date edited: 27 June 2014

About this blog

Nigel Crowe

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.

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