Divi-divi. So what's that got to do with waterways?

Divi-divi [latin name Caesalpinia coriaria] a tree or large shrub native to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America: tannins are extracted from the seed pods and used in leather production.

A panoramic view of the National Waterways Museum National Waterways Museum

So what's that got to do with waterways?

Well, if you had been involved in the commercial carrying trade in the early 1900s, Divi-divi (presumably the tannin was known by this name too) is one of the commodities that you might have been transporting by canal boat, or train. I know this because it is one of the multitude of strange and wonderful goods and commodities classified in a book of tolls and carrying charges for canals and railways held in the John Heap Memorial Collection in the Archives.

The John Heap Memorial Collection is held in many boxes, each containing a list of contents typed on foolscap paper. My current task is to go through each box to check the contents against the list, then check on the digital archive to see if a copy of the book or document is already held in the Archives.

Checking the archives

I have to confess that I know little of John Heap, other than that he was a leading figure in the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and a past president. I've checked about two-thirds of the boxes so far but it seems to me that they fall into two categories - (1) documents and books that were relevant to his work with the IWA and, (2) documents and books that were collected because of his interest in, and enthusiasm for, the history of canals and waterways and all things related.

The items that relate to his personal interest are the most fascinating to handle and are wide ranging - from Acts of Parliament of the 1700s granting approval for a canal to be built, to non-fiction books about different rivers and canals - and, of course, the aforementioned book of tolls and carrying charges.

One can't help but take a peek inside some of these books and it is very easy to become engrossed in the content rather than the job in hand. It was whilst having a browse of the tolls and charges that my eye fell upon Divi-divi so, being curious, I researched it when I got home.

Caught my attention

And herein lies the problem (if you can call it a problem) - your attention is caught by something and you just have to find out more.

Two other examples, and worlds apart, are a book about the River Thames by Hilaire Belloc, and the canals and waterways of France and Belgium published by the Quartermaster's Department at the War Office in 1915.

My knowledge of Hilaire Belloc relates purely to his "Cautionary Tales for Children" and I was surprised to find that he was a prolific author of serious works of fiction and non-fiction.

In respect of the canals and waterways of France and Belgium, the date is significant in respect of World War 1.  This volume contains an alphabetical list of every canal, river, and port on the waterways and information invaluable for their navigation.  I made another Google search on this and I discovered that hospital barges, administered by the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, were used in France and Belgium to evacuate casualties.

I suppose what these little voyages of discovery have really brought home to me is how the Archives are valuable to not only those researching the waterways, but to researchers working on other topics where the waterways may have played some minor part, and how digitising the catalogue will make them more accessible.  I wonder what other curiosities the John Heap Memorial Collection holds for me, and where will it take me next!


Archive Volunteer


Last date edited: 29 January 2016

About this blog

The Waterways Archive

The Canal & River Trust archive based at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port tells the story of our canals and rivers and is a world class resource for study of Britain’s industrial past and researching family history. 

The archive holds over 100,000 papers, drawings, photographs, plans and books relating to the waterways – a vital part of our national cultural heritage. This blog will keep you up to date on the new digital collection, research findings and projects together with general goings on in the archive.

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