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The charity making life better by water

Still working after all these years

The golden age of canals is alive and well in the West Midlands, thanks to a dedicated group of Canal & River Trust volunteers. The team at the Heritage Working Boats Group in Birmingham have made restoring and maintaining a fleet of working narrowboats and butty boats their life’s work. And every summer, they showcase all four boats and their unique history at various festivals and events across the region.

We caught up with volunteers, Joan, Heather, Chris, Gordon, Peter and Terry to learn more about what they do, the boats they look after, and the people who lived and worked on Birmingham's canals.

A group of people in a line

The Heritage Working Boats Group began life under the stewardship of British Waterways at the turn of the millennium. Thanks to a grant from the National Lottery, the corporation was able to restore ten working narrowboats, and while most would remain static in the Waterways museums, a handful were deemed navigable.

Terry, who joined the team in 2006, takes up the story: “Once the boats were restored, they needed people to take them out on the water and attract visitors to the canals; the group was set up to facilitate that.”

The volunteers generously gave their time to pilot and maintain the craft and quickly bonded over their shared love of boats. Today, the team oversee four working vessels, Scorpio, Swift, Leo and Nansen, all lovingly restored and maintained at Icknield Wharf, near Birmingham.

The team carry out vital maintenance work on the fleet over the winter months, but when the weather gets warmer, they take the boats out on the water, attending festivals and events throughout the Midlands. “The idea is to meet the local community,” Joan tells us, “getting people onto the boats and showing them how the working families actually lived.”

Steering a boat on the canal

Britain's second city was built on the sweat and toil of the men, women and children that worked the canals, and each boat tells a story. The pride of the fleet, Swift, is no exception. Built by Yarwoods in 1933 for Manchester chemical firm, Cowburn & Cowpar, it was one of eight motors all named after birds beginning with the letter ‘S', including Swan, Swift and Skylark.

In its heyday, Swift would have been operated by a single family, who worked, ate and slept aboard. “That's generally what happened,” Terry explains. “The company would build a fleet and then look for a family to live and work on it; the boat effectively became the family home.”

It was a hard life on board a working narrowboat, and even the children had to pitch in. As Joan tells us: “There was only ever one salary paid to the father, but the whole family was expected to work, including the children once they were above the age of about six.”

Swift was decommissioned and sold off in the mid-1950s, as the age of the working boat gradually petered out. Years later, it was picked up by the group and carefully restored, and today serves as a vivid reminder of a bygone era.

A yellow boat moored at the side of the canal

Over the years, Swift and its sister ships have played host to famous faces from King Charles to the rock band, Black Sabbath. They carried the Olympic torch along Birmingham's canals in 2012 and took pride of place in a flotilla to celebrate last year's Commonwealth Games. Throughout the summer they also offer boat tours and short trips from Birmingham's Roundhouse.

The team's real passion has always been sharing their love of narrowboats with the public, bringing the history of our canals to life through stories, boat tours and trips. “You get a real mix,” says Joan, “lots of families and children, people who were born and brought up on boats, and others who've never set foot on a boat before in their life.”

Heather tells a wonderful story about one of the many boat tours they run for local primary schools through our charity's explorers programme: “We were showing the children the tiny cabin where the family lived; how the kitchen table folded down, where the parents slept and the drawer that pulls out to make a cot for the baby. And one small child put their hand up with a question…'What about the tooth fairy?' he said. ‘Where do they live?' Of course, me and all the teachers just fell about.”

Two men in a boat yard

The Heritage Working Boats Group is always looking for fresh faces to help them maintain the fleet and educate and engage the public at local events. As Terry can attest, you don't need to be a boater to apply: “I had no boating knowledge whatsoever,” he says. “It's great that you can take people from completely different backgrounds with different skills and there's still something for them to do. For example, we've got people in the group who maybe aren't the greatest boat steerers, but love going out and talking to people.”

Chris agrees that the group offers something for everyone: “I think all of us would say that the sense of achievement that comes from protecting this heritage and sharing it with the public adds something to all our lives. And then there's the pleasure that comes from just spending time outside on the water, it's so good for your wellbeing.”

Last Edited: 16 December 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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